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New Plymouth to Canterbury, via Yangon

Archbishop Philip Richardson ponders Canterbury's challenges - through the prism of his fresh experience in Myanmar.
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Taonga News   |  11 Jan 2016  |

Archbishop Philip Richardson is in Canterbury, ready to play his part in the Primates’ Meeting which will set the future shape of the global Anglican Communion.

He comes to that meeting of top-flight Anglican leaders having had a reality check at another kind of Anglican gathering.

A paddyfield-level gathering, if you like – the third “Anglican Family gathering” of the Church of the Province of Myanmar, which is the poorest country in South-East Asia, and which is only now leaving 64 years of military dictatorship.

Several thousand Anglicans from across Myanmar gathered for the once-every-five year gathering, along with a sprinkling of other Anglican leaders, most of whom were from the Asia Pacific region.

Archbishop Philip says November’s landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has left the people he mingled with cautiously optimistic.

The military are still powerful and ever-present in Myanmar society, he says. “But there’s real hope among the people,” he says, “that they’ve gone so far down the road to democracy that those gains won’t be turned back.”

“There is also tremendous pride in what Aung San Suu Kyi has achieved,” he says, “and a conviction that her leadership will finally bring equitable development.”

Facing the future

But recognition, too, that there are serious impediments to development: the effects of land confiscations, for example, and the social upheavals caused by the movement of people driven from their traditional lands. Myanmar has more than 100 different ethnic groups, and during the military dictatorship years, the country was embroiled in a rumbling civil war.

In a country (population 51 million) where Buddhism is the state religion, where the military junta forced foreign missionaries to leave, where questions about religious freedom still remain – the Muslim Rohingya minority culture is oppressed – the Anglican church is a small, stable, ethnically diverse and welcoming presence.

“You get the sense,” says Archbishop Philip, “of a community that is in very good heart. There are significant numbers of vocations, a noticeable group of young leaders, and a growing number of women asking about the role of women in leadership in the Church...”

Myanmar women, he says, have been encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi’s steadfastness and electoral victory – and Archbishop Philip says they were particularly interested in the ordination of women and the way different ethnic groups relate to each other in New Zealand.

Archbishop Philip says he came away from the gathering impressed by the “grace, kindness and humour of the people” – and their keenness to end their isolation.

“Building these relationships is no short term endeavour,” he says. “But there is a real openness to the potential for relationships of mutual respect and interdependence.”

Making connections

Early in the morning after the gathering ended, local Bishop Saw John Wilme drove Archbishop Philip five hours north east to his Diocese of Toungoo.

Along the way they visited a small Karen community, which had been driven from its turangawaewae by civil war.

This community has just finished building a church, he says, which “represents a challenge to the forces that oppress, a refusal to be overcome, a determination that it will be better for their children.”

In the town of Toungoo itself, Archbishop Philip visited schools, diocesan staff and a Bible school, and talked with an American couple who have long supported the diocese.

“They told me about how militant Buddhists had torched Muslim homes and the local mosque, and how Bishop John and his wife Elizabeth had hidden a number of Muslims in the Bishop’s compound.

“The monks would drive past in trucks so they could peer over the compound walls, looking for the Muslims.

“To this day the Muslim community remember the refuge they were given by the Christian bishop and his wife.”

So yes, says Archbishop Philip – ahead of Canterbury, “our issues have been nicely placed in perspective.”

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