‘The world shrinks, and perceptions of God expand’ was the main finding from research conducted into what happens when Christians experience positive cross-cultural encounter.
From 2014 to 2016 I was engaged on a fascinating piece of research asking questions about Diocesan Companion Links. These are the relationships, some as long as 40 years, which dioceses have with different parts of the Anglican Communion and wider ecumenical links. Questions about the nature of Companion Links relationships were paramount. What sort of relationships were they? What were the challenges and joys faced in these relationships? How were they developing into the future?
I took a case study approach to this research. Three Church of England dioceses agreed to be part of the project. They were the diocese of Bath and Wells in its relationship with the five dioceses of the Anglican Church of Zambia, the Diocese of Chelmsford and their relationship with the five dioceses of the Mount Kenya East region and the diocese of Liverpool and the diocese of Virginia in the Episcopal Church of the USA.
These three case studies provided a rich picture of following Christ in different contexts with access to vastly different resources but who were similar in worshipping and following Christ through the Anglican tradition.
I travelled to all the dioceses involved in England, Africa and the USA. I asked two simple questions – what is your experience of the link and where do you see it developing in the future? Meetings and interviews took place in churches, schools, under the mango tree and over many shared meals.
The conclusions fell into two categories – discipleship and friendship. It became clear that positive cross-cultural encounters were a source of growth and transformation for many involved in links.
Discipleship seems to be the theme of the moment. Everyone in the churches, it seems, is talking about discipleship. However, I haven’t heard a lot about the contribution of cross-cultural encounters to ongoing discipleship. What became clear early in the research was that positive cross-cultural encounter can encourage and inspire discipleship.
Here’s a story. A tragic and sudden death of a parish link co-ordinator in Bath and Wells Diocese shocked everyone. Catherine was loved in her parish and by the parish in Eastern Zambia where she had visited several times. The parishioners in Eastern Zambia were unable to attend the funeral but at the same time as the funeral was taking place in the UK the church in Zambia came together to give thanks for Catherine’s life and commit her to God. The effect of this in both places was a stronger personal link between very different places and an inspiration to follow and witness to Christ more faithfully.
A further example was found in the link between Liverpool and Virginia dioceses. A clergyman from Liverpool witnessed work with refugees in Virginia and was inspired to begin a similar work. Young people from Liverpool said that their Youth Pilgrimage helped them to talk about their faith at home. It was clear that whether experiences were between north to north contexts or north to south contexts the effects were similar.
Friendship was the major way in which links described their relationships across cultures. Friendship is an important way of expressing our common belonging in the Body of Christ through practical expressions such as visits and gift-giving. It became apparent that while the English partners were good at giving we were less happy about receiving from less materially affluent partners. There is learning to be done that recognises the wide variety of forms of gifts and that giving and receiving of gifts gives dignity to all.
The Melanesian Mission is an important expression of these principles. Encouraging discipleship and friendship is at the heart of being a mission agency.
A full copy of the research report can be accessed at; www.churchofengland.org/more/church-resources/world-mission
Janice Price, World Mission Adviser, The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.