This book review first appeared in the June issue of the Anglican Journal.
You won’t find much in the way of backpacking stories in Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity. Nor will you encounter the “had my passport stolen in…” or “lost my insides after that meal in…” stories, which one usually finds in the accounts of world travellers. In fact, no backpack ever appears, making the title something of a misnomer. But what you will find in the book are the impressions, insights, learnings and questions of Jesse Zink, a young Anglican seminarian/priest from the United States as he meets and engages with other Anglicans, mainly in Africa, but also in China, Ecuador and North America.
For Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike who have become inured to the seemingly endless debates and strife-mostly recently focused on sexuality-between various members of the leadership of the Anglican Communion, Zink’s anecdotes offer the reader a series of refreshing glimpses into a church that is vital and growing in some places but faces tremendous social, political and developmental challenges in others.
In the South Sudanese diocese of Aweil, for example, Zink accompanies a young priest and the local bishop as they deliver relief supplies to the priest’s impoverished, war-ravaged community. “I never learned anything about disaster relief in seminary. Did you?” Jesse asks the priest, who shakes his head. “It might actually be something useful,” says Jesse. The priest smiles briefly and turns back to his work.
It is such stories, found throughout the book, that captured this reader’s imagination-for their descriptions of the pivitol role that the church and people of faith play in meeting basic human needs and addressing injustice, and for affirming the faith and commitment of individuals and communities at the local level. But this anecdote-and others like it that speak to the urgency of the situation facing the local church in so many places-raise for Zink and for this reader questions about the role of the almost entirely male (as Zink points out) leadership of the Anglican Communion, which at times appears to be fiddling while the Romes of today’s world (South Sudan, Syria and other crisis points) burn.
The book is not an exhaustive examination of the Anglican Communion throughout the world, and it suffers from a lack of women’s voices. Early on, Zink acknowledges that, as a man, in some places he was not able to have some of the conversations he would have liked to have had with women, who form the backbone of the church at the local level.
Zink is also unable to offer fresh insights or a way forward for the sexuality debate. Many of his conversations on the issue are with fellow seminarians-people (again, mostly men) who one would hope could offer thoughtful perspectives and new understandings. Instead, Zink repeatedly concludes the well-worn debates by affirming what could be described as little more than “We’re the same but different and that’s okay.”
In spite of these shortcomings, the book is an accessible account of one Anglican’s efforts to understand “unity, not uniformity”-and to explore what faithful witness looks like in a number of parts of the Anglican Communion.
SUZANNE RUMSEY is the public engagement program co-ordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. An Anglican layperson, she backpacked around the world 30 years ago, meeting other Christians and people of many other faiths.