In a month’s time many will be preparing to travel to Austin, Texas, for the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. I will be flying in from England after celebrating a forty-year reunion with colleagues with whom I worked at Keston College. In the 1970s Keston College was the major resource through which information flowed about the conditions of Christians and their churches under communist rule. For three decades now, the Berlin Wall, that great symbol of the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism, faith and atheistic, dialectical materialism is no more. Members of the former Keston staff can travel freely into past communist countries. One colleague has been working on a multi-volume dictionary of the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union. Her new Russian co-workers are urgently seeking out and interviewing priests and religious leaders who were courageous people of faith in their time. They are trying to capture the life and conditions of those times before this generation passes. As part of our 45th wedding anniversary in 2020, Donna and I hope to return to Romania where we met and have a look at my own 500-plus page dossier in the Romanian secret police files. I was alerted to their existence by a Romanian researcher who tracked down my name from studying the Keston archives which are now stored for historical and research purposes at Baylor University, in its special department on Church and State issues.
What will we celebrate? I hope that it will be gratitude for the gift of call. The founder of Keston College, Michael Bourdeaux, was himself a student in Moscow in early 1960s. Kruschev was playing both sides of the political scene—keeping a strong arm on his own people while encouraging cultural exchange in return for economic benefits. One of the cultural elements was to invite post-graduate students to study in the Soviet Union. Michael was one of the first to go from Great Britain. He was in the process for the Anglican priesthood and so he naturally gravitated towards the Church. On a return visit a couple of years after his studies, he came across the initial evidence of a new purge of the Church under Kruschev. “Be our voice,” friends asked him. As a result, he dedicated his life to keeping the channels of communication open between Christians and other religious communities of the Soviet Union, receiving and translating the various “self-published” documents, or samizdat, through which brave people shined the truth on what the communist authorities were doing to suppress people of faith. That suspicion of the power of faith became justified on the part of the regimes of Eastern Europe when, in 1989, Christian people helped lead the waves which eventually saw their collapse.
“Fake news,” the communist authorities wrote about Keston’s work at the time. And the Romanian secret police certainly had some fanciful imaginings as to what they thought that I was up to during my time there. Donna, of course, came to a fullness of faith in a Baptist Church in Bucuresti, and was baptized. So we are eternally connected with the people of Romania who took the risk of catechizing a foreigner when we were a potential provocation for police interference. The last time we visited Romania was 1980. I was arrested, and after a relatively brief and mild interrogation, was formally deported. The accusation against me was that I had abused the hospitality of the Romanian government by writing untruths regarding their treatment of religious bodies. That was the accusation. History has shown where the truth lies.
So I hope, as we reunite, we will celebrate the call of God to share in a human struggle, that primarily was not braved by us but by faithful people who refused the aberration of a view of human dignity and identity, even if that view had the entire system of the state to promote it at the time.
All of this reminiscing causes me to wonder about the history we are making today. The Presiding Bishop has joined a number of fellow denominational leaders in composing Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis. The statement asserts six basic tenets through which we find the call of Jesus among us. The tenets are: That we re-affirm the oneness of the Body of Christ as reflected in the human race in all of its diversity and a repudiation of racism in all its forms; that we attest to the way that Jesus treated all genders with equal respect, and our rejection of misogyny is a patterning of His attitude; we are called as a priority to care for the hungry, homeless, those living in poverty; we affirm the central importance of truth-telling in our dealings with each other at every level of society; we acknowledge the predominance of servanthood as Jesus’ own leadership style and expectation of his followers; and finally we see how as the people of God we are connected in a global family which has serious implication for the international policies we support.
Why is it considered important to highlight these elements at this time? The introduction to Reclaiming Jesus states: “We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and integrity of faith are now at stake. It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us, ‘By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the love of Jesus. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
I am reminded that from time to time in recent history, the Church has had those within it whose prophetic voice had to be released. I think of the Barmen Declaration by pastors of the Confessing Church in the 1930s in Germany; and I reflect on the Christians facing oppression in the nations for which we at Keston College worked who refused to reduce human identity and value to an ideological caricature. I also think of Bishop Peni and his people’s daily upholding of peace and safety as a basic human right and whose nightly prayers for peace and protection in South Sudan have real faces behind them.
Will we be gathering in the future for a reunion of fellow strugglers for the Gospel who sought deep change in our society, fashioned by the outpouring of God’s love in Jesus and through the Spirit? Will we have seen walls of separation and inequality broken down, and reconciliation advanced and reparations of the breach restored? We will have that moment, and only because in the present we say “yes” to paying attention to what is going on around us, to embracing our baptismal covenant, and to finding when to declare “enough” to all disparagement and “welcome” to God’s restored image in all.
In the peace and love of Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Alan Scarfe, Bishop of Iowa