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Anglicans reminded to recommit themselves

Anglicans were reminded that they are being called upon to take the lead in deepening the means of spiritual and moral enrichment in the lives of people, and to place their gifts and resources in the service of a transformed life within their communities by Reverend Robert Thompson, retired bishop of Kingston, in the Diocese of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands. The urgent and important imperative he said must consist of their commitment to demonstrate in multiple and creative ways that the will of God is to bring life to all, and to bring it in all of its fullness in every aspect of the society, said Thompson during his recent commemorative lecture to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the episcopal ordination of the Most Rev’d. Drexel Wellington Gomez.

“That is the commitment that shaped the ministry and work of our beloved Archbishop Gomez,” said Thompson. “Ours is the task to re-commit ourselves to finding a theological model that is open to the full participation of everyone within the interpretive process of hearing what God is saying through scripture in these our Caribbean lands. When Christian mission becomes open to such a witness through the movement of the spirit of Christ, all are transformed and enriched.”

Thompson was invited to deliver the lecture by the Diocese of The Bahamas & the Turks and Caicos Islands to commemorate and celebrate the anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Archbishop Gomez.

He said Gomez is easily numbered among the “audacious Anglicans” whose love for Christ and the church inspired generations of faithful disciples.

Gomez served two dioceses as diocesan bishops – Barbados and The Bahamas, and the Turks & Caicos Islands, and as archbishop of the West Indies. Although holding strongly to the inherited Anglican tradition and its spiritual disciplines, Thompson said Gomez was equally committed to leading the church beyond its colonial past. And that he represented the best of Caribbean scholarship and used every opportunity, be it in the public square, in the pulpit or among his colleague bishops, to promote and defend a theological synthesis that was as spiritually uplifting as it was liberating for the people.

Thompson said he celebrated with joy with Gomez, whose ministry as priest and bishop enriched the witness of the Church in the Province of the West Indies (CWPI), and left a legacy on which they will do well to build on.

The retired bishop said the challenge for the present and future generations of Caribbean Anglicans is to devise a theological language that best articulates the aspirations of the broad masses of the people who, today, remain untouched by the Anglican church. And that, in addition, they generally believe that organized religion is not geared toward their highest, noblest, and most productive well-being but they nevertheless need the spiritual and moral insight the church has to offer.

“Christianity, as with all religions, can help to maintain the status quo or transform it. Those with vested interest will always be happy with a theological narrative that offers nothing more than a health-and-wealth and pie-in-the-sky by-and-by diet on a Sunday morning. On the other hand, Christianity can also turn the world upside down. That is to say, it can lead us to precisely where Jesus remains, uncomfortable places where we are often unwilling to go.

“Anglicans in this unsettling time might be tempted to just rearrange the status quo. Archbishop Gomez would find this less than audacious. He would rather that all Anglicans looked at the foundational tenets of their faith with new eyes, to discern how best we can communicate the gospel in the multicultural and multifaith Caribbean.”

Thompson said there has been much discussion on the identity, integrity, and authority of Anglicanism in recent decades. And that Gomez, himself, has been at the forefront of some of those discussions, tasked, as he was, by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Rowan Williams to help create an Anglican covenant that would provide a framework for the member churches of the Communion to walk together despite differences.

Notwithstanding the doubters regarding the value of an Anglican covenant, Thompson said it did help the Communion to reflect upon itself and its difficulties, if not to resolve them.

“A covenant will inevitably bring with it structures and processes and resistance from some. Any attempt to define Anglicanism will inevitably force us to wrestle with the concept of ‘diversity’. This is largely expected among the 70 million Anglicans within the worldwide Anglican Communion governed by some 40 autonomous provinces, although there is no readily discernible consensus about what constitutes Anglican identity. Nevertheless, Anglicans still hold to the Book of Common Prayer and affirm the instruments of unity, namely the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Anglican Consultative Council, The Lambeth Meetings of Bishops and the Primates’ Meetings.”

He suggested four priorities for a renewed commitment to Anglicanism’s further witness of the CWPI. He said their theological institutions, namely Codrington College and United Theological College, must be prepared to engage in serious dialogue with social scientists and professionals in other disciplines. He said the gospel by itself cannot liberate systems of injustice that have been eroding the moral and social fabric of society for decades.

“For that to happen, Christian men and women will have to engage the gospel in dialogue with other partners,” said Thompson.

He said Christians must be encouraged to read the Bible with a critical eye for justice, and that it means paying attention to social scientists and commentators who can help them ask the deep questions that occupy the mind and hearts of people.

“The well-being of a country involves not just the development of its physical infrastructure but the measure by which the society is able to guarantee some reasonable standard of living for its members. Theology must assist the ordinary reader of scripture to interrogate the important social issues of the day and, in the name of justice, speak the truth to power.”

Thompson said new ways of reading the Bible must develop.

“Reading the Bible in a manner that gives life to the text and correspondingly allows the readers to find their own life-story in the text must be the aim of every Christian. New and liberating stories for our lives can indeed emerge from the Bible once we are prepared to place ourselves within the text and ask questions such as ‘Who speaks for whom?’ ‘Who is given voice and who is silenced?’ One cannot successfully answer those questions unless you pay attention to the social setting or context in which we live out our faith. The collective memory of the local culture, as well as one’s social experience in our everyday life, unavoidably poses those questions to the text.”

Caribbean theology he said can draw on the experience of Latin American and Southern African Christians who have long developed the technique of reading the Bible from the perspective of the poor.

Also requiring urgent attention, he said, must be addressing the distorted image that Caribbean people have of themselves.

“Like all colonized people, Caribbean people have had to struggle with an image of the self that is mirrored by the approval or disapproval of the colonizer. Such false consciousness frequently produces in oppressed peoples a vehement self-loathing for failing to live up to an ideology’s norms and ideals, for failing to achieve. It is for this reason why liberation theology places an emphasis on the marginalized and non-person as the interlocutor of theology.

“Those of us who are part of the ‘mainstream’ of the society and occupy leadership in our congregations must take seriously the idea of privilege when considering a theology that is in solidarity with the struggles of the poor. It is not sufficient to know what is wrong with the social order; we must know the extent to which we benefit from having things remain as they are. Until Anglican theologians are willing to claim our own social location, we will never be able to acknowledge our own complicity with a system that makes one group benefit to the disadvantage of others. Making that acknowledgement would be a major first step in working towards a theological hermeneutic that would be socially transforming for Caribbean society.”

Another area of priority for Anglicanism’s further witness of the CPWI, he said, must be a willingness to embrace one’s context as the medium through which the gospel is communicated and received.

“The fact is, because the one sharing the message is often from a different ‘place’ and likely does not share the same goals as the listener, different conclusions are drawn from the communicative event.

“In Bible study, the critical question is not what the text says but what it means to the reader. As a result, local people are constructing their own theologies. On the other hand, the one sharing the story is preoccupied with the integrity of the message while the hearer has a preoccupation with identity, context, and what is taking place in his or her life at the moment. If Caribbean theology is to affirm context, then it must be willing to embrace dialogue with and within culture and context as the basic methodological stance. If we believe that God continues God’s work outside the visible church, then Caribbean theology cannot ignore what Idris Hamid calls the many ‘non-church’ ways in which the reality of God is communicated, experienced, and expressed in our culture. These non-church ways make up who and what we are as Caribbean people.”

Thompson said despite the perception by many, that Anglican identity remains a mirror of the colonial enterprise; and despite there having been moments when the Anglican church kept itself aloof from the Caribbean cultural zone within which it functions – it nevertheless possesses the gifts that must complete the unfinished task of devising a missiology free from the hegemonic categories that have informed the way they read scripture and live out the gospel.

He said Caribbean people are assured of the presence and engagement of the Anglican church in their lives. And that educational institutions continue to be a key means of serving the people in the region.

“This is because the gifted presence of the church in the West Indies is far from passive; Caribbean Anglicans recognize the relationship between their presence, the presence of others and the real presence of Christ lay bare in the eucharist. Such engagement, he said, is a public sign of the church’s commitment to the well-being of the world and to the discovery of the kingdom in the midst of the places where they are present.

“Anglicans can’t help but be engaged within the life of the community, because built within Anglican self-understanding are the theological tools necessary to promote the kind of transformation that is urgently needed in our region for which I have been advocating,” said Thompson.

“Anglicans embrace a spirituality that is rooted in the incarnation and, therefore, can neither be world-denying, nor can it be reduced to some private relationship with God. It calls us to be transformed into the life of the divine, so that, in turn, the life of the world might itself be transformed. To engage one’s social context theologically, along with its culture and all the ambiguities that go along with it, means to become the place where God’s story of the world and our culture’s evolving story encounter each other. It is never a very safe nor a very comfortable place to be. But we need to remember that the key to every theological interpretation is Jesus Christ, and it is the very uncomfortable and unsafe places within his own culture that engaged his transforming presence.”