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Bringing in the Sheaves...
All Episcopalians belong to the Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society. Since its founding, the Society in its “foreign mission” has sought to help people in other nations to establish their own autonomous Church. Altogether, we have founded seven provinces or “national churches” of the thirty-eight churches of the Anglican Communion.
Today we have eleven dioceses outside the United States, plus the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. We are continuing to develop them in mind of that eventual autonomy. For instance, as our largest diocese, Haiti, splits into two, and then eventually into four, it will be eligible to become an autonomous province, the Church of Haiti. (Already it calls itself l'Église Épiscopale d’Haïti.) The Diocese of Honduras has experienced tremendous growth over the past twenty years, as has the Diocese of the Dominican Republic, among others.
Another is the Diocese of Taiwan, which the House of Bishops visited for its fall business meeting — the first major meeting hosted by the Diocese, ever. For over two years, the bishops had been planning and saving for this trip. Ostensibly to celebrate the 60th anniversary of our Mandarin-speaking diocese, it was also an occasion to express the Church’s support of this diocese, even more isolated than we are in Europe.
With 20 congregations, including two expatriate ones, the Diocese of Taiwan has an impressive ministry to its fellow Taiwanese, including magnificent kindergartens (I know schools: two of the parishes I served had schools) and innovative ministries to solitary elders, including non-Christians, among other activities. This is all in the context of a culture hostile to Christianity. Becoming a Christian often results in being shunned by one’s family, and we heard many stories about this from our fellow Episcopalians.
There is a lot to tell about Taiwan. The people are wonderfully hospitable, the land is stunningly beautiful, and it boasts the best Chinese food in the world. Our diocese there also shares the same situation as all Taiwanese, living in the shadow of mainland China. The diocese cannot join other, geographically closer provinces of the Anglican Communion because of the disapproval of China. So they remain tied to us, for now. Their churches celebrate heartfelt Mandarin liturgies in lovely, immaculate buildings; the clergy are well-trained and multi-lingual. With great patience Taiwanese Episcopalians are moving forward slowly but steadily. They have much to teach us (see here for reactions).
The Archbishops of Japan, the Philippines, and Korea came and shared their difficult lives, also in hostile cultures. The repentance and reconciliation of the Church of Japan (the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, or Holy Catholic Church of Japan) with the Anglican Church of Korea was especially moving to hear.
The equivalent of our Presiding Bishop in Pakistan, the Most Revd Samuel Robert Azariah, spoke powerfully and movingly of life in that country, where Christians like Asia Bibi (still imprisoned) continually face attack under the dreadful blasphemy laws. They are permanent second-class citizens. Very poignantly, he addressed us on the first anniversary of the bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed 172 and wounded 170.
We also heard reports on progress toward re-imagining the structures of the Episcopal Church and the task force on marriage, as well as other topics. These two, along with the election of a new Presiding Bishop, will be prominent aspects of General Convention next June in Salt Lake City, Utah.
When the Bishop of Taiwan, David Lai, welcomed us at the opening meeting, he said he was happy that all the bishops could finally experience what he has to put up with at our meetings: significant jet lag. I fist-pumped in approval, as I always have to deal with six to nine hours’ jet lag as well, but nowhere near as much as he does. (The other bishop to face this routinely is the Bishop of Hawai’i.)
More importantly, I expected that the bishops would also be moved to do what I have been intentionally doing for thirteen years now: telling the Church back in the States wonderful stories of our churches overseas. I have made a point to do this regularly, in print as well, in order to give encouragement back home. Your churches in Europe have wonderful ministries in difficult circumstances, and people who discover our way of being Christian are asking to become Episcopalians too — Italians, Poles, French, Germans, Belgians…
I heard the priest of one of the two expatriate congregations in Taiwan speaking of their ministry to people who are passing through, what I have called “preaching to a parade” for those of our congregations in Europe that are still predominantly serving expatriates. These are not only Americans, but also more widely, people for whom English is a second or third language. I got the idea to have a consultation between Taiwan and Europe on this topic, to compare and contrast, and to learn from each other.
But the most important aspect of this trip should be “cashing in” on the ministry in and among other peoples. The work of the Foreign side of the Missionary Society should bring home a great harvest, reinforcing the Domestic side. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori deserves a lot of credit for helping us all let go of “the national church” image in favor of “the international church.” But the results of the Foreign mission should be in the final analysis the validation of the Domestic.
In the Acts of the Apostles Jesus gives his disciples their
marching orders: “You shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea and
Samaria, and away to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Note that the mission begins
at home and spreads outward. The ultimate validation, as Luke weaves his
narrative, is Paul proclaiming the Kingdom of God with “confidence” in Rome (
As the bishops discovered in Taiwan, Episcopalians there are preaching the Word with confidence and faithfully celebrating the sacraments despite difficult circumstances. Lives of their fellow citizens are being transformed. Innovative, culturally-appropriate ministries abound.
This alone should give us stateside Episcopalians reasons to feel confident in our own situation. After all, the Foreign mission is really about the Domestic — and the future of our church will be worked out in our country. The work to “re-imagine” our church’s ways and means is in response to a significant decline in numbers and influence. Never mind that almost all American churches are in the same condition — we need to launch another fresh new chapter in our life in the United States that began with the first Convention in 1785. And that will require confidence in our way of being church — confidence that our overseas churches can help give us by encouraging stories and examples.
Your bishops are already talking about our deeply moving experiences in Taiwan. I expect that this witness to the achievements of remarkable Episcopalians will help lead to the realization that “if they can do it”, so can we.
And yes, we can, and God willing, we will.