A backpacker’s guide to the Anglican Communion

Zink searches for unity in the Anglican Communion

“Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity.” Jesse A. Zink. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014. 198 pp.

“Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity.” Jesse A. Zink. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014. 198 pp.

If Dr. Who can call time “a bunch of wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff,” then the Anglican Communion is a wibbly-wobbly-churchy-whirchy thing. And of late, we’ve been more wibbly-wobbly than churchy-whirchy. Widespread communication via the Internet has made us more aware of each other, but in a way that brings our differences into sharp contrast. The Internet also lends itself more to doctrinal debates than deep understanding. It has been easy to pull away from each other, into neatly defined camps. We “see” each other, but we don’t meet. We talk, but we don’t learn.

Jesse Zink did his level best to overcome this before and during his seminary years by taking every opportunity to travel throughout the Anglican Communion. This book is his report on the efforts. Zink shares what he learned through visits to 13 dioceses in the Anglican Communion, along with reflections on his home diocese in Massachusetts. He went with the challenges of the Anglican Communion – primarily over questions of sexuality and biblical interpretation – in his mind, and with a willingness to take those conversations head-on in his encounters around the Communion. Given the challenges of globalization, the differences of each place in the Anglican Communion, and the impasses we seem to face, he asks, “Why not let each [province] go its own way? What is to be gained by claiming each belongs to the other?”

Zink’s travels in the Communion were not comprehensive. The primary focus is Africa. (Nine out of 14 chapters are on dioceses in Africa, with six – nearly half  – on Sudan and Nigeria.) He also visits Canada, England, Ecuador and China. I wish the scope were a little broader, we miss out not hearing from, say, Mexico, New Zealand or Southeast Asia. However, while not comprehensive, the book does help us understand many of our brothers and sisters across the Communion, their hopes, fears, struggles and joys, in the best way – through stories of their lives.

Each chapter is a mini story, and Zink is a great storyteller. His writing is clear, engaging and accessible, and you are drawn into the lives of the people he met – from huge, wealthy, almost-mega-churches in Nigeria to a tiny church in the Andes of Ecuador and a diocesan cathedral in Sudan made of cinder block with three plastic chairs, total, in the nave.

Zink was unafraid to answer hard questions and take on hard issues in his visits. He is grilled all over Africa about the stance of the Episcopal Church in regard to homosexuality. In fact, it gets a bit tiresome to read the same conversation over and over: A question is asked, generally, “How the heck can you tolerate homosexuality in any way?”; to which Zink responds theologically and faithfully; then the questioner refuses to change or even much open his or her mind. In that regard, it becomes pretty clear that ideological or dogmatic debates are not really going to be a way to answer the question of whether we can or even should bother to stay together as a communion.

What does come out very clearly from Zink’s travelogue is the importance of understanding the various contexts in which Anglicans live and pray, and showing how they respond to those contexts. The book is an excellent means, especially for Anglicans from the wealthy part of the world, to understand the very difficult economic and social contexts of global Anglicanism – especially in Africa. We learn about the challenges posed by Pentecostalism, along with the way poverty and war shapes the issues that a church finds important. This book would be excellent in a study group on global Anglicanism. Indeed, each chapter can stand alone, and the book could be used in a variety of Christian education contexts.

What also becomes clear is the power of personal contact and care – the power of meeting, listening and working together. Zink points out the many ways we could partner with our brother and sister churches – in economic development, in educating clergy, in sharing resources – and how this work helps transcend differences and focus our work on what Jesus calls us to do. Zink also makes clear that respectful contact builds bridges, even if differences remain.

The last chapter is Zink’s moving, eloquent and theologically grounded plea for Anglican unity. He doesn’t have a lot of optimism, and I’d have to agree that our track record of late hasn’t been good. Nonetheless, his case for finding a way to be together and do God’s work in spite of differences of opinion is desperately needed, and I agree with his assessment that Anglicans, of all people, should be able to do this. And in this plea he makes the case that “instead of concentrating on orthodoxy, we might start pursuing ‘orthopathos,’ or ‘right feeling,’ and sharing the joy of relationship more broadly.”

Many of our differences of opinion probably can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be ignored or overcome. They are part of who we are, grounded in our contexts, in some cases in some contexts maybe even necessary. Nonetheless, the world desperately needs us to find a way to be together, and the mutual feelings of joy in serving Christ that are so easily found when we gather with each other – at a seminary conference, hauling food to the interior of Sudan, or worshipping in a packed church – are perhaps the best places to start. For those of us who cannot travel as Zink has traveled, this book gives us a bridge, a taste and idea of the potential we have for connection and joy. I hope it inspires more work on orthopathos, as our struggles with orthodoxy have not, and will not, bring us closer.


(The Rev. Matt Seddon is vicar of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, West Valley City, Utah.)

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