AS A Jamaican Anglican working for a UK-based mission agency, I have to reflect frequently on how the Anglican Church can best engage with 21st-century realities.
For my home diocese, things have changed much in the church landscape in the past century. At the dawn of the 20th century, Jamaica was a British colony, and the Church of England in Jamaica, as it then styled itself, held sway over most aspects of Jamaican life.
The top posts in the government, the military, and the judiciary were mostly held by Anglicans, and the views of the Bishop of Jamaica on social issues were given great weight. Anglican clergy were influential in their communities. Much of the world map produced by British sources was pink, indicating the dominance of both the British Empire and Anglicanism.
The map today looks very different, but the perception that the Anglican Church still thinks it runs everything has not died out. I think back to a recent meeting at St Cyprian’s, August Town, Jamaica, organised by the Anglican Togetherness Group (ATG), an association of churches seeking to deepen their ministry and mission in the area. ATG had invited members of different interest groups living and working within the environs of August Town to give their perspectives on what the community needed.
This was, apparently, a novel idea. August Town, a working-class township on the edge of the capital of Jamaica, Kingston, and within walking distance of two large universities, is visited by every sort of governmental, non-governmental, community-based, and faith-based organisation. Although beset by a history of poverty and gang violence, it is justifiably proud of its record of community-based activism.
It was soon evident that the agencies and individuals represented in St Cyprian’s Hall were not accustomed to conversing with each other. Even government agencies were unaware of what their fellow public servants were doing, and the churches and community organisations had no idea that they were doing similar things. Plenty of good work was being done, but a misapplication of Jesus’s command to “not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” had led to duplication, wastage, and suspicion.
Members of the community were very clear: they did not need another programme. They needed the programmes already in the area to work together, and the people actually living there to be at the centre of the planning. Everyone went away with new enthusiasm for collaboration and joint initiatives.
In the months that followed, the ATG trained young community assistants to consult people and agencies in August Town, and to design a way forward. A follow-up consultation was held roughly a year later. Community people were there, but, this time, the agency representatives were from higher up the command chain, and had the power to make strong recommendations.
Again, there was great enthusiasm for working together — but even greater resistance. “Collaborative meetings cost money.” “Nobody wants to fund meetings.” “Not sexy enough,” the group heard. “This sort of thing is not in our strategic plan,” was one response. “This would mean that a church could dare to summon a government agency to a meeting. Does the Anglican Church still think it runs everything?” was another.
Although the decline of the Empire and Anglican influence has led to a great deal of lamentation, perhaps it is a very good thing, after all. In communities such as August Town, and in countries such as Jamaica, the Anglican Church has had to rethink its “effortless superiority”. It has had to learn to consult others as an equal partner — and, sometimes, even as the poor relation. It now has the potential, if it chooses, to identify more authentically with Jesus’s walk among the marginalised.
As part of Jesus’s movement, the Anglican Church can offer its experience of working in the corridors of power, and collaborate with communities to challenge and transform the world.
The Revd Dr Evie Vernon is a theological adviser to USPG.