Episcopal Leadership in Uncertain Times

Amid signs of church decline and even greater signs of religious uncertainty, what steps can Episcopal leaders take? Whether you are a lay person or an ordained one, what can you call forth to guide you in an Episcopal way in such circumstances?

Awareness of the spiritual dynamism of the moment is crucial, as one of my colleagues has pointed out. Similarly reinvigoration of core leadership principles is a must. But how do we go forth as Episcopal leaders now? The answer is: we look to our historic tradition as Episcopalians and Anglicans for examples of leaders who also have faced unprecedented circumstances and uncertain times. Fortunately our history overflows with such figures and their examples prove timely.

He’s neither well known nor often cited, but he should be. For over thirty years Henry Callaway was a missionary of the Church of England to the Zulu tribe of South Africa. The last thirteen years of his tenure he was a bishop, from 1873 to 1886. He is recalled for initiative to translate scripture into the Zulu and for founding a theological college. The larger aspect of his achievement becomes clear when his work on liturgy is considered. Callaway thoughtfully adapted Anglican worship to the Zulu context. It is this effort that should instruct us.

Without dwelling on specifics here, what stands out is the way Callaway framed his task. Mission was not a one-way endeavor; he was not simply intent on conversion of the Zulu. Instead through liturgy Callaway sought touchstones – common values and forms of expression – where Zulu culture could resonate with historic Christian belief and practice. Anglicans, Callaway and other English missionaries believed, must embody the gifts of various cultures.

This has been Anglicanism’s genius: a belief that God’s imprint can be found in all circumstances, among all peoples. Mission entails focus on the best qualities of a people, seeing these as God-given, and then framing them in terms of Christ’s love for all. Mission cannot dismiss indigenous wisdom or earnest seeking after truth. Instead mission must encourage their movement toward a focus on incarnate, divine love.

We face a similar adaptive task today. As institutional religion’s influence and resonance with the culture have faded, spiritual energies have gained momentum. We must speak to the God-given imprint of those energies. We must learn to see ourselves apart from the institutional assumptions of the past. This naturally disorients us and drives home the reality of our new circumstances.

But if we can see this as a mission moment, in which God’s presence takes new form, then our ministries have fresh potential. Fortunately our tradition has a particular capacity to adapt, if we think imaginatively. Henry Callaway saw that every circumstance has basic, divine imprint and divine need. We can reframe our ministries along similar lines. Though it is not always attractive to say so, we can be quite proud of the Episcopal/ Anglican tradition we embody. It can serve us well in novel circumstances.

William L. Sachs
Chabraja Fellow

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