hank you, Dr. Poon, for the graciousness of your invitation into a reflection on our deeper life in communion. Thank you, too, for the gift of the poems by Wang Weifan and Xie Fuya, which bespeak of a hope and a challenge (and all hopefulness is inherently a kind of challenge to our present life) that we – and I especially – must be opened to receive.
What most struck me in your discussion here is the call to allow the “Martyr Church” to trace the framework of our common reform as a Communion. This is very helpful, and very powerful, and the suggestion perhaps takes us beyond some of the contrasts between what each of us has been saying, and perhaps sometimes also misunderstanding. Each of us, for instance, welcomes the recent Kigali Communiqué, though perhaps within slightly different frames of reference. These differences are worth exploring, but they can also lead us away from more central responsibilities. For the issue, as you rightly point out, should not be simply the dynamics of some exchange of positions of power between portions of the Communion (e.g. from the West to the Global South), however carefully and faithfully pursued (right “processes”, confessional integrity, etc.). Rather, it should engage a whole new manner of being the Church that takes into realized account the lives of her members, whose histories have been shaped by the uses and abuses of power in ways that probably deform the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus, but that also, when they are met in faith and love, unveil the light of Christ Himself.
Without a doubt, the reality of the Martyr Church is far more tangible and visible outside of the West than within it (although I would hardly wish to deny that reality in the Western Church even today, for there are many more Christians whose lives have been expended for their Lord, even now upon these shores, than one might suppose). Still, on a recent visit to Burundi, where over 20 years ago I lived and worked over a period time, I was constantly brought up short by the witness unto death of well-known Christians, like Roman Catholic Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna, as well as of unsung martyrs in the service of Christ like Sr. Irenée Gakobwa and Mlle. Concessa Ndacikiriwe traveling with him, or the Anglican Archdeacon Joel Beheda of Makamba, and countless others, some not visibly connected to the Church, yet whose courage and self-giving on behalf of their people bespoke of Jesus’ prayer for the world, even as they placed themselves at the mercilessness of political brutality. Brought up short, because I was confronted, over and over, by a calling of which, I know, I am unworthy, and for which I do so little to prepare my flock.
In the West, in the midst of extraordinary material and political blessing, martyrdom seems a fantastical construct. We usually turn it into a figure, one that points to all kinds of other, often quite small, challenges. So, for instance, we are quick to see any conflict or opposition that involves our faith as “persecution”, or the imposition (sometimes self-imposition) of ecclesial discomfort as “oppression” and so on. In the current conflict within The Episcopal Church, these kinds of figures come up frequently and, in my view, mostly misleadingly. To compare our struggles among Anglicans here in the United States with those of our forbears in Smithfield, or the northern forests of America, or among many of our brethren in places elsewhere in the world today, let alone to toss about vocabulary that appropriates the experience of the great confessors of the faith, confronted by the overwhelming realities of brutality and even genocide in some cases, is to engage in a sorrowful confusion of moral categories.
But the very reality of this calling to martyrdom in a place like Burundi is also born of a history in which the Church has also, in many ways, been complicit. And this, frankly, is true of most places in which the martyrs have proliferated (we can think of Russia and North America in another century). Martyrs witness not only to the power of God and the love of God in Christ Jesus, but also, if in a roundabout way, to the failures sometimes of their own brethren or even their own selves, whose previous witness has created situations of conflict and/or disdain for the faith. There is a strange way in which martyrs often bear the “sins of the fathers” upon them, but in an open and transparent fashion, as images of their Savior in His life within Israel. So, the Martyr Church is also always a church that is holding itself to account, and being brought low in the face of God, even as God lifts her up. This is the direction of reflection – and action – that I would hope we could all together move within our Communion, and for her sake.
If, for instance, we were to take seriously the discussion of the Martyr Church in the last South-to-South Encounter in Cairo – in Abp. Drexel Gomez’s presentation on the “Church is Holy” (Global South Anglican site ) – we would be confronted ourselves, as a Communion and across boundaries, with a set of challenges that must touch us all, if each in different ways. And what a renewing challenge it would be, were we to take it up together! Could we not move in this direction? As Abp. Gomez indicates, such a direction is dynamic and truly “missionary”. We cannot all be martyrs in the fullest sense of this word, but we can give ourselves in such a way as to form a church and churches that are open to such a calling when it is given by God in this or that moment; we can be “readied”, which is a work that surely we must find a way to help each other in pursuing.
For instance, the paper begins its description of the Martyr Church’s missionary character in terms of “repentance” – “martyrdom has always been bound, not to an innate sense of triumph, but to the repentant heart that knows only the triumph of forgiveness in one’s own life”, one that is bound to the offering of forgiveness to one’s own enemies (a special mark of the martyr, as the Pope recently emphasized in speaking of a nun killed in Somalia). Our penitence is surely demanded in different ways by our different churches within the Communion – and you have noted some areas where it is called for among Americans and British Anglicans, for instance (although only some areas, among many others!). But how does this calling challenge churches in the Global South and the West together? How do we offer it and receive it together? Although there have been calls for “repentance” (or “regret”) in some of our councils with respect to particular disciplinary and theological elements of our ecclesial existence, they have been limited, unarticulated with respect to the heart, and often without frank and vulnerable engagement. How can we be examples and encouragers in this to one another?
The Martyr Church’s character of “dependence” (on God!) and “freedom” (from the self’s protecting actions), as the paper goes on to outline, are challenges that thrust themselves particularly starkly in the face of Western churches. Here, questions of money and resources, and the pernicious slaveries they produce, come home with a vengeance. But the challenges cut many ways even in the Communion, and it would be helpful if we could all expose these lines for and with one another more clearly and honestly. The simple possession or lack of material resources does not determine the freedom of the heart within the world or the heart’s trust upon God in any necessary way (cf. Ps. 62:9f.). And it is the formation in these matters that we all need help with, not simply mutual accusation or, even worse (though related), self-delusion as to our actual condition.
One could go on, and the paper deserves careful reflection and application. I note, however, the final aspect (among others left unmentioned) regarding the Martyr Church in mission, and that is “communion”. This is the element of the church that is “for” another, not only a self-sustained and self-oriented testimony. The martyr dies for God and for God’s truth, but the death in this case, is always offered “for the sake of” those who watch, for their healing, for their illumination, for their salvation (hence, the forgiveness always given to the executioner). For all the talk about “communion” and “interdependence” we have heard in the past few years, the contextual link between these realities and martyrdom has not really been broached. If, beyond the structural considerations that consume our meetings – who gets what bishop and what form of oversight and goes to what gathering—we were to see our communion in this light, it would surely take on a very different visage. Indeed, taken as the foundation of our thinking about communion, the “for-ness” of the Martyr Church would reorient many of our current controversies, not because they would remove the stumbling blocks that are truly in our midst, but because the way we looked at them and responded to them would inevitably be transfigured. How can we now set out on this new road?
The opening question you pose, Dr. Poon, regarding the word that Christians can give to their nations – you use the example of China – is rightly answered in terms of the Martyr Church you lift up. Thank you for making this so clear. Let us indeed seek to hear this calling in a way that can get beyond the current constraints of our limited life in communion, a way that goes “deeper”. As you offered the moving words of witnesses within China, along with the questions they pose us, I was reminded of the great 4th-century Christian poet Prudentius and of his many reflections upon the power of the Martyr Church. Here, a portion of a poem that underlines the way that the Martyr Church shares the Gospel and converts the nations through the baptism of blood that becomes a river of cleansing waters for those who stand watching. “He, of this place, is the Lord.”
On a spot where in Calahorra (Spain) where martyrs suffered, and where there is now a baptistry Let him who fain would mount to the lasting kingdom of heaven Come in his thirst to this font opening a luminous way. Once victorious martyrs to heights celestial ascended, Now from baptismal floods souls to heaven take flight. Here the Spirit eternally flowing down on these waters, As He once gave the palm, now gives remission of sin. Be it water or blood, the earth drinks in the heavenly shower, Ever bedewed by this stream, which is poured forth to her God. He of this place is the Lord from whose wounds Two fountains once issued. Water from one distilled and from the other blood. You will go hence, as to each is the grace, through the wounds of the Savior; One by the way of the sword, one by the water will rise. (trans. Sr. M. Clement Eagan)