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The Anglican Church in Burma: From colonial past to global future by Edward Jarvis

06 January 2023

William Jacob reads an account of Burma’s high-church minority

BURMA, or Myanmar, is a far-away land of which we hear occasional media reports of its brutally repressive military regime. This excellent book reminds us that, amid tyrannical repression and cruel persecution, the Church continues to minister among 130 ethnic and migrant groups, with about as many languages, belonging to all the world faiths.

This small Church offers insights from burgeoning Churches in the global South for struggling Churches in Europe, North America, and Australia. The story of the Anglican Church in Burma, not even mentioned in the index of the recent Oxford History of Anglicanism’s fifth volume, offers an aid to better understanding Anglicanism’s world role.

The eight chapters provide a background to Burma’s turbulent history: the arrival of Roman Catholic missionaries and those of the Society for Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), as well as Baptists, together with European colonial powers; the establishment of a Church initially ministering to expatriates, in the context of a roughly 90 per cent Buddhist population; the slow development of missionary work, mostly among minority and migrant groups; and the establishment of local leadership, with the ordination of Burmese clergy, and the Church’s survival amid the appalling atrocities of the Second World War.

The sadly botched achievement of independence in 1948 resulted in brutal repression of minority ethnic and religious groups (for example, the Rohingyas) by the nationalist militarist Buddhist majority, and the expulsion of Europeans in 1964, resulting in isolationism, except for the illicit trade in opium, rare metals, and precious stones to sustain Myanmar’s economy.

Dr Jarvis demonstrates how Anglicanism, as a minority denomination (the third largest Christian group, after Roman Catholics and Baptists) of a minority faith — although a majority faith among some ethnic minorities, despite its isolation — is a significant element in South-East Asian Christianity.

The Anglican model of being the Church is being endangered, however. This poor and beleaguered Church has kept faith with the tradition that it received from the first rather conservative high-church SPG missionaries, representing then mainstream Anglicanism, who brought the gospel to Burma.

ALAMYChristmas 2010 in Holy Cathedral, Yangon. The cathedral, by Robert Chisholm, was finished in 1894

Deprived of access to 20th- and 21st-century biblical and theological scholarship, they, along with the great majority of Anglican Churches in the global South, remain true to the teaching that they received from their founders. But they feel that their founders’ Churches have betrayed them, by reneging on “traditional” (i.e. mid-19th-century) biblical teaching.

The Burmese Church has focused scarce resources for mission on what it sees as the best means of witnessing to Christ in Burma, through education, in a country where education is a scarce commodity, and especially health care; for Myanmar has one of the world’s most under-resourced healthcare systems, and malaria, TB, and HIV are endemic.

In contrast, the European and North American Churches that sent missionaries together with colonists now face different challenges, such as the place of women in ordained ministry, same-sex relations, and radical scholarly biblical and theological inquiry. These are not currently issues for the growing Churches of the global South.

Jarvis very sensitively explores why the Church in the Province of Myanmar has aligned itself with GAFCON, which largely represents the churches of post-colonial nations, in which, of course, also there are diverse opinions. Those nations understandably regard with suspicion the former colonial powers, who still control so much of the world’s economies and resources.

The churches in the global North and the global South have adapted to differing cultural and political contexts to be able to witness to God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ. This, sadly, has led to misunderstandings and suspicions of false teaching. It has been forgotten that understandings and implications of the gospel have varied in different contexts.

The study of history enlightens us about past tensions between traditionalists and innovators. We might reflect on the post-colonial tensions between Anglo-Saxon Christians converted by traditionalist Irish missionaries and the new Roman missionaries’ customs. This excellent case study of Anglicanism in Burma illustrates why different Churches in different contexts have differing emphases in their teaching while holding the same gospel.

The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross, in London.


The Anglican Church in Burma: From colonial past to global future
Edward Jarvis
Pennsylvania State University Press £86.95
Church Times Bookshop £78.25

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