I’m writing this piece some four weeks into a stay in the Diocese of Peru. It’s my first lengthy opportunity to spend time in a part of the Anglican Communion in the global south.
Part of coming here has been not only to see what a sister diocese is doing but also to gain some perspective on my own ministry and priorities, and to see the life of the Church of England from a different viewpoint. The reflections are obviously my own, and equally obviously carry all the naivety that goes with only a month’s exposure.
Being Anglican in this country that is neither English speaking nor a former part of the British Empire is about having a faith that has both the liveliness of some of the more recent Pentecostal missions (usually imported from North America) and the sacramental underpinning and liturgy of Catholicism. There is evidence that this wasn’t always the case. At some points in the past British missionaries have used South America as a place to export both very partial styles of churchmanship that were marginal positions at home and their personal disgruntlement with British Anglicanism too. Mercifully this is no longer prevalent.
To what feels now a very healthy mixture is added a real imperative to work among the poor in both the expanding metropolitan areas and the remote, highly underdeveloped, rural regions. A generation ago, in the time of Gustavo Guttierez, there was much impressive work done by the Roman Catholic Church in taking up the concerns of the marginalised in the urban “pueblos jovenes” or shanties. Sadly, this seems to have been lost through the consistent policy of the previous pope in imposing conservative bishops on the dioceses. Several of the Anglican clergy are themselves former RC priests.
After very difficult times in the period of the Shining Path guerrilla movement Peru has enjoyed more settled years of late. There is evidence all around of the economy growing. The Lima shanties that Henri Nouwen described twenty years ago are now graced by solid houses and tarmac roads. Further out onto the slopes of the mountains new developments of basic shacks repeat what he then described, but the evidence is of communities over time becoming established and gradually edging from grinding poverty to relative poverty. The pattern is similar elsewhere in the country.
This mixture of civil stability and growth is providing a solid foundation on which the church can expand. What a small body such as the Anglican diocese, with no more than a dozen or so churches and a handful of missions in development, can achieve is necessarily limited, but it is being done with real passion in schools, churches, children’s homes, medical clinics, employment training projects and canteens. New church missions are being planted in the most recent and poorest areas, whilst in more established ones existing work is being expanded. Priests and lay workers are being trained in the diocese, and a new seminary to open shortly in Lima (there is already a part time one in Arequipa) will at last allow potential clergy to be trained in a fully Anglican environment. Parish mission teams come from North America and beyond. They experience a week or so in the life of the church here, and help with the practical work of the missions. In many cases when they return home they continue to offer support to the ongoing work.
The church here knows how important it is to be a member of a wider communion. A very significant proportion of time and energy goes into welcoming visitors from other parts of the world. As a small and relatively recently established church it knows how much it benefits from being part of a communion that has many millions of adherents across the globe, and from the insights and experiences of Anglicanism that they bring. I’m sure that many Anglicans here are scarcely aware of what they have to offer in return, not least as a church that is discovering and delighting in an identity and pattern of mission that many of us elsewhere simply take for granted. Moreover, if being deeply, loyally Anglican mattered less then decisions taken by provinces in the global north could be more easily shrugged off.
To be human is to prioritise. There are only so many battles that can be fought at once and only so many areas in which the church can deepen its life. The priorities hare are pretty hard to argue with. They are to build the church, especially in the poorer areas, through good liturgy, lively worship, social action and Christian teaching. And to build it in ways that are coherent with indigenous culture and sustainable into the long term; avoiding overdependence on the particular gifts and preferences of the small number of overseas personnel that might be working here at any particular time. In Peru at least, the increasing role of women as sole providers for their families, and the presence of a small number of women deacons, suggests that the ground is being prepared for future debate about gender inequalities in the church and beyond. However any idea that the church here either could or should get itself into a position to open up a wider debate on sexuality issues is pretty far fetched.
Earlier this week I stood overlooking the Colca Canyon as a Peruvian Anglican priest pointed out the remote villages, with neither electricity nor roads, on the opposite side. It takes him several days to complete a circuit of them on foot. It took the pair of us six hours and one breakdown on a rickety bus to even reach this point. It took as long with two breakdowns to get back again. It’s a long way geographically from a diocese in Central England where I can be in any of 280 church buildings in less than an hour from home. And some of the pressing issues may seem very different too. But what I am experiencing here is both prayerfully thoughtful and essentially Anglican.