Message delivered at Annual Convention 2019 by The Rt. Rev’d Mark Van Koevering.
Thank you, Bishop Bauerschmidt, for inviting me to speak to this august body today, it is a great joy and privilege to be with you. I bring you greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, from your brothers and sisters in Lexington.
I’m here with my wife, the Rev Canon Dr Helen Van Koevering, I just call her Helen. We are children of the Anglican Communion: we did our theological training in England, we were ordained in Wales, I was consecrated a bishop in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, and now we find ourselves serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington.
Our lives have been intricately intertwined with the people and church of Mozambique, a former Portuguese Colony. We arrived in the late 1980s in the middle of a civil war. We met and were married in Maputo and went north to work in the Diocese of Niassa in 1992. Niassa is one of 27 dioceses that eventually came out of the University Missions to Central Africa, as a result of the Oxford Movement, an Anglo-Catholic tradition of the church.
Mozambique was the 3rd poorest country in the world at this time. 1 in 3 children died before the age of 5, mal-nutrition was rampant and illiteracy for women was over 70%. It was also, surprisingly, the least evangelized country in Sub-Saharan Africa with less than 40% of the population Christian, ½ of whom belonged to the somewhat syncretistic Zionist Churches.
The ruling party FRELIMO had waged a campaign against religion from 1979-1982 as they increasingly gained support from the USSR block of nations. During this time, Mozambique was one of the key front-lines states in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa which came to an end in 1994.
There were two Anglican dioceses: Niassa and Lebombo, which are part of the Province of Southern Africa with the Archbishop of Cape Town as our Primate. For me, it’s important to say that I was born in America but formed in Africa – and this has had an enormous impact on my perspective.
In the 12 years that I served as bishop and Helen as Canon for Congregational Development, I confirmed:
- 19,000 people
- Saw 40,000 new members join the church
- Celebrated the beginning of 250 new congregations, and
- Oversaw a holistic community development program that served 500,000 people annually.
I don’t say this to boast, “except to boast in the Lord”, for it is entirely by God’s grace – a movement of the spirit. But I tell you these things because we are witnesses who have “seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and understood in our hearts” something of the abundant mystery of God’s overwhelming goodness in Mozambique; Now that I am here, I ache to see more of the same.
The theme, for this year’s convention, comes from Romans 12:2: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. And you will recall, that Romans was written by Paul shortly before his last trip to Jerusalem, but before he had organized a visit to Rome. In other words, he writes to a Church that did not know him personally.
The style resembles an essay, a kind of missionary reflection on salvation. And he spends the first 11 chapters retelling how the great story of God’s saving love fulfilled the promises given to the patriarchs and prophets of Israel from the very beginning.
When we arrive at chapter 12, Paul begins to instruct us on how we are to respond to God’s saving work as Christians; a response based not on the Law of Moses, but on the principle of love by which the community learns to overcome evil with good. We read:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d] Romans 12:1-2
Paul is telling each of us to take our ordinary life and place it before God as an offering of service. But he warns us to be careful not to fall into step with our own culture without even thinking about it. Instead, we are to fix our attention on God, who will change us from the inside out, so that we will recognize what he wants from us and we will be ready to respond.
Good stuff. But as I thought about these verses, I became intrigued not so much by our theme, but with Paul’s warning: do not be conformed to this world. It seems that Paul is saying that our ability to understand and do God’s will, can only happen when we avoid falling in step with the ways of the world.
The world represents the culture within which we live: the beliefs, customs, and social norms of a society. They are the matters of everyday existence shared by the people with whom we interact; And We learn our culture through imitation.
We are very good copycats. From infancy to adulthood we mimic others and over time this gives us a sense of self – a self reflecting back what we have learned.
When I went to Mozambique, I had to learn Portuguese.
- Anyone who has attempted to learn another language as an adult knows how humiliating this can be
- You have to become like a child again
- communicate with a few words and many gestures
- gradually I grew in sophistication by mimicking words, gestures and inflections
- The language was given to me by others
In South Africa, there is a saying for this kind of relationship, Umbuntu. It means that “I am because you are”. Each of us, even though we are individual persons, exist in relationship to others. And although this norm is more tightly held in African cultures, it exists everywhere.
Indeed, culture is pervasive, like background music. We are surrounded by it and it influences every aspect of our lives, what we say and how we think. The power of culture goes deep as well as wide. Because it is flexible and adaptable, it is very effective at shaping us into like-minded people.
I suspect that “Like-minded” is not how most Americans would describe themselves. And as Christians, we would like to think that we are set apart from the rest of society. Yes, we live in an American culture, but we are distinct, aren’t we?
The polls suggest not. Gallop, Pew and Barna all say the same. Their studies conclude that the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change. These surveys show that Christians are just as likely to embrace the current lifestyle as the average citizen, and our social and political views differ only slightly from the norm. There are just as many divorces, just as many racist attitudes, just as much domestic violence, the same willingness to be consumers . . . and on and on it goes. Perhaps, St Paul got it wrong. Maybe, there is another way.
Historically, Christian traditions have chosen different ways to relate to the dominate culture. Some have isolated themselves and attempted to avoid any influences from the prevailing culture. Others have a taken a more pick and mix method, while keeping a suspicious distance. But I see no support for this approach in Paul’s writing or in his life, or, more importantly, that of Jesus himself.
Christian traditions like our own, have chosen the path of cultural relevance rather than non-conformance. This strategy seeks to make us more approachable to the wider culture, to eliminate any barriers, and sincerely declare that “all are welcome”. But as GK Chesterton noted many years ago, “If you marry the spirit of the times you will soon become a widower”. Seeking to be relevant has not increased our numbers, deepened the faith of believers nor promoted our ability to influence the wider culture for the greater good. And, it brings with it a great risk.
Our focus on relevance, I would argue, has made us increasingly less clear about the distinctive gospel message. Chesterton offers us an approach in line with St Paul’s warning. He says, “If you seek and find and communicate “the permanent things,” you are permanently relevant.” Remaining true and focused on the Gospel message we will speak to the heart of the matter. I do believe that Bishop Curry’s emphasis on walking in the way of love as part of the Jesus movement is a significant and important step back to seek the permanent things – but more of that later.
More significantly, complying with our culture in order to be relevant lacks integrity because it ignores the reality of sinful human nature.
Rene Girard, the French literary critic and theologian, was interested in the causes of conflict and violence and the role of imitation in human behavior. “Our desires”, he wrote, “are not our own; we want what others want”. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence.
He argues that “human conflict was not caused by our differences, but rather by our sameness. Individuals and societies offload blame and culpability onto an outsider, a scapegoat, whose elimination reconciles antagonists and restores unity”.
Girard shows us that this process of fear, hunkering down with our own, and excluding the other is a mechanism that permeates all social realities from Maputo to Memphis.
Then Jesus comes crashing into the world. He invites us to imitate a very different pattern that is both weird and wonderful. The key feature is his own life. He offers us life without death; he does not require a heroic sacrifice on our part; he makes no demands until he has created something for us first and then asks us only to follow him. The need for a rival to blame is removed, and this creates a completely new way of human belonging; one not based on fear and violence.
This is grace upon grace. It is our salvation.
In Christ, God has done something for us that no one can ever repay. On the cross, Christ has taken on the scapegoat’s role and revealed the true violent nature of all human culture.
We are invited to step out of the shadow of fear, turn away from the world, and follow this historical, real and relevant Jesus. Imitating Jesus begins to break down the protective shell we have built around our individual ‘selves’ and our collective tribe.
These barriers keep us impervious to God’s will. But the dismantling of them is costly and painful. The old self must be stripped away, and we are inwardly changed so that we can understand our reality in a completely new way: one that is holy and acceptable. Transformation is a life-long learned process of imitating the “One who sets us free”.
Martin Luther King Jr wrote, “Many Christians are thermometers that register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society”. 
Like St Paul, King challenges us to resist the carefree acceptance of the world and to join with God in his great missionary effort to put things right again. Paul says that when we do this, we will see what is good and acceptable and perfect.
These final characteristics of God remind me of an ancient call to look for the true, the good and the beautiful. “Truth, goodness, and beauty, says CS Lewis, are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need”.
These days, what goes for the truth is up for debate. We have become suspicious of any attempt to claim exclusive truth because we fear that it will undermine our freedom of choice or offend.
Scripture tells us that the truth of the Gospel is not an abstract set of principles, a moral code or spiritual techniques, but a person. The truth of God is revealed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who participates in a trinitarian dance that reveals an endless movement of unconditional love.
Rowan Williams says, “truth makes love possible; love makes truth bearable”.
If we do not clearly proclaim and live the Gospel truth, love cannot be the way. If we want to be genuine participants in the Jesus Movement, the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be declared. Without it, there is no possibility to live in the way of love.
Truth is both good and beautiful.
I remember my first trip up the lakeshore of Niassa to visit rural communities. I was a brand, spanking new baby bishop, and the entire family joined me in a wooden rowboat that was made for 8 and carried 20. We motored up the lakeshore for 12 hours, and then started to work our way down the lake, village by village.
We would celebrate a 3-4-hour confirmation mass, chat with the congregation, eat lunch and then travel to the next village to start the whole routine over again. Most trips lasted 3 weeks, and I would hold 20 confirmations masses.
In each village, I received mountains of requests to fix the problems folks were facing. These lists included lack of safe drinking water, roof sheets to cover churches, and the need for Bibles and Prayer books. The list was endless.
The trouble was, I had no money. The diocese bank account held less than $2,000 and I had no idea how I would pay the clergy at the end of the month (all clergy were paid from a central diocesan fund you see). After a couple of days, I was feeling very low and could not think of way to improve the situation; Helen then suggested that I change the conversation by asking a different question. So, at the next village, before they could start on their long list of requests, I asked the group to tell me one good thing about this place.
Stunned silence followed. Everyone looked down at their feet. Eventually, one timid young person, would stand and say: Well, we have a wonderful youth choir that animates our liturgies.
Alleluia. Tell me one more thing.
Another would stand and give witness to something good. The whole atmosphere began to change as we named the good that God was already doing in our midst; smiles broke out on over dubious lips, eyes began to twinkle with imagination, and hope was reborn. God is with us, and when we turn to Christ, we begin to see the good of God all around us. And, that is a beautiful place to begin.
My friends, our world hungers not for relevance but for transcendent beauty.
Helen loves to tell the story of how she and a group of extra-ordinary women built a church. And Not just any church, but place of prayer and worship that would sit 2,000 members.
With simple iron hoes, they cleared and leveled the land. They dug up the earth, mixed the heavy clay soil with water and formed blocks that were stacked into enormous kilns. They cut the firewood and burned the bricks – 10s of thousands of bricks formed by hand, baked in ovens, ready for use.
Everyone was invited to participate. Onlookers stopped to lend a hand. Townsfolks contributed donations. A construction company dropped off several tons of pebbles to be used for the concrete floor.
And slowly, the walls rose higher, brick, by hand made brick. Bamboo scaffolding dangled precariously, as roofers scampered across the cloudy sky.
Twenty years of prayer and waiting.
16 years of war and hardship.
Finally, the community was ready to enter their home-made-church that would be dedicated to Yohanna Abdallah – a Muslim convert who became the first Mozambican Anglican priest in 1891.
On the day of celebration, emotions ran high. Tears of joy fell to the ground as the orderly procession broke into a mad scramble to enter the new building.
One thousand, two thousand, maybe more, sang and danced and gave thanks to God as the first ever women were ordained on Mozambican soil.
I cannot describe the beauty of that moment, but I remember.
Do not be conformed to the world.
Be transformed by the renewal of your minds.
Make a difference in this world, not by seeking to be relevant, but by following the truth of Jesus.
Be the hope of the world, not by any claim of fame, but by naming the good that God is doing all around us.
And walk in the way of love, not by fear and violence, but in humility, living genuinely beautiful lives of service.
God is renewing All of creation as together we seek the true, the good, and the beautiful.
 Chesterton, GK internet
 Girard, Rene: Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 1961.
 Girard, Rene in Eminent Theorists by Julie Muller Mitchell; Stanford Magazine, March/April 2016.
 Lewis, C.S. in Discover C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (2008) by Peter Kreeft
 Williams, Rowan “A Ray of Darkness”, p.200, Cowley Publications