It is an odd word, ubuntu, even difficult to pronounce. It’s oddness, however, reveals more about our own perceptions and our need to continue to learn and grow, to overcome a propensity to lock down our souls.
What is the meaning and significance of ubuntu? It points to a quest of the human heart, to heal, to unify, to rediscover a larger whole that respects the dignity of every human being. It’s a rich, non-Western word that my friend and writer, Brian McLaren defines as, “one-another-ness,” “interconnectedness,” “joined-in-the-common-good-ness,” and “profound commitment to the well being of all,” (see “A New Kind of Christianity,” p. 233).
The quest for ubuntu, I want to say, resonates deeply with the quest and vision of Jesus that I read in the Gospels. And it is a timely quest as we consider the state of Christianity in the world today. One can look out on the horizon and surmise by observing the actions and words of some who claim to follow the way of Jesus that there are other “quests,” at work – quests for survival, security, and ego-centered power.
It’s been a very fragile couple of weeks within the Anglican Communion, indications that a quest for ubuntu may be on very thin ice indeed.
What has dominated the Anglican blogosphere lately is the story of the pressure placed on our Presiding Bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office to provide documentation of her ordination status and to refrain from wearing the symbols of her office (mitre) while visiting Southwark Cathedral in the Church of England. This was unexpectedly described as standard “policy” for our Primate following her numerous similar visits (and those of her predecessors) with no such requirements. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was calm and even courteous about the whole silly episode now dubbed “Mitergate” (see Ruth Gledhill’s article at the Times Online here). It’s difficult for me to believe that such a shift in policy represents the deeper hearts of those who have applied it in this case.
We all know that theological debates and provocative actions over the issues of human sexuality as well as issues of authority and provincial autonomy, have torn deeply into the fabric of our beloved Anglican Communion. I do not for one minute want to minimize the complexity of the issues, nor the importance of seeking common agreements by which we maintain mutual regard, consistency of practice, and common faith and order within our Communion. But I do wonder at times, if in our exhausting attempts to preserve our institutional structures, we are missing a critical opportunity to discover a new and more inclusive way of being the Church in the 21st Century.
We live in the movement from modernism to postmodernity (a term we will live with until we can look back and name what has really happened); it is a time of great uncertainty but also a time of great possibility. Anglican Christians today, and all Christians who have eyes to see, find themselves living in a border land, somewhere between what has been and what is yet to be. We face the delicate balancing act of holding on to the best parts of our traditions while seeking distance from those things that prevent us from being a positive and transformative voice in our culture today. The truth is that we need both to have integrity, and maybe that is what the quest for ubuntu is finally all about.
I pray we can find the courage to pursue that quest with less fear and more charity.