By Alan Nichols
The Anglican Church in Australia has a new international agenda: working with the Asian Church in the Asian Century.
Like successive Australian governments, the church is focusing on Australia’s place in Asia. For the Church, the focus in the past month has been the Anglican Province of Myanmar (Burma).
The Most Rev. Stephen Than Myint Oo, Archbishop of Myanmar, recently paid his third visit to Australia focused on the launch of his biography, Dancing with Angels. The title comes from a vision Archbishop Stephen had two years ago of the angels Gabriel and Michael saying that God is with him as the church engages civil society in a country moving towards democracy.
Because most members of the Church in Myanmar are part of minority ethnic groups, they have been marginalized for decades — in some areas with open civil war that continues today in the state of Kachin.
In the last five years some peace agreements have been negotiated, and the military-dominated government has promised national democratic elections in November this year.
But the government has resisted changing an extraordinary clause in its constitution that discriminates against anyone married to a foreigner. This is designed specifically to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi, who was married to a U.K. academic. This clause also excludes her because her sons are British citizens.
Into this fragile pro-democracy environment steps Archbishop Stephen, who tells his story and explains his vision for the church’s future.
His plan for reconnecting with the community includes starting preschool centers in all 125 parishes throughout the country; 60 such centers now exist. It also includes new agriculture projects, improved maternal and child health, and opportunities for increasing income generation for everyone in the community, not just church members.
He promotes a Christian understanding of Buddhism, the majority, state-sanctioned religion in Myanmar.
Relations with the international Anglican Communion have been restricted within the country but are more open on the Thai border, where 150,000 refugees from Myanmar have been living for decades.
Inside the country, Anglican Board of Mission–Australia has kept in touch with the six dioceses in Myanmar by supporting small development initiatives. Anglican Overseas Aid has supported education and health projects with Anglican communities in the border camps. When the camps are finally closed, an active Anglican community of 20 churches will remain in Thai villages.
Much of this Australian initiative has originated in the dioceses of Sydney and Melbourne, and has been enhanced with the election of Philip Freier, Archbishop of Melbourne, as primate in 2014. He has since visited Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and South India. In July 2014 a Melbourne Ministry Conference on the theme of the Church in the Asian Century provided the opportunity for a number of Asian bishops and leaders to speak with more than 300 local clergy and lay readers.
Melbourne is one of the most multicultural and diverse cities in Australia. The Diocese of Melbourne supports 42 Sunday congregations worshiping in their home language. The largest groups are Karen from Myanmar, Chinese immigrants, and South Sudanese refugees.
“It is an exciting time to be living and ministering in the Diocese of Melbourne,” Archbishop Freier said. “Melbourne Anglicans have embraced a vision of reaching out to the linguistic and cultural diversity which is present in our diocese. Archbishop Stephen is a respected partner in this venture, and his visit to us has brought great blessing.”
“I [hope] that all peoples who live in this world regard themselves as children of this world and children of God,” Archbishop Than said. “In this sense we all are in one family. As one family we need one another. We need to join hands together, and face together all the challenges before us. The Church of the Province of Myanmar, a tiny Anglican Church in Asia, really welcomes and deeply appreciates the Anglican Church in Australia’s new international agenda of partnering with the Asian Church in the Asian Century.”
Archdeacon Alan Nichols is a priest of the Diocese of Melbourne, former consultant to the Anglican Consultative Council, and author of Dancing with Angels: The Life Story of Archbishop Stephen Than (Acorn Press, Melbourne).
Image: Archbishop Stephen Than walking to the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, 2014 • Photo courtesy Acorn Press