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Backpacking Across the Anglican Communion

The Rev. Jesse Zink, an Episcopal priest who grew up in the United States, traveled to far-flung and often remote dioceses and parishes of the Anglican Communion on five of the world’s seven continents. Zink documents his journey in a book called Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity. Zink discussed his book with Trinity News editor Jim Melchiorre.

JM: What motivated you to make this journey?

JZ: One of my core motivations is this idea of incarnation. It’s the first act, really, of Jesus Christ’s ministry. Jesus showed up. And I had this real sense when I traveled that that was the first thing that I wanted to do as well, that the first thing was to be with people, to listen to them, to learn from them, and to see where our journey was going together.


JM: You explain that you began this journey in search of unity in the Anglican Communion. Did you have an idea of what unity would look like?

JZ: I knew what it wouldn’t look like. I knew that there was a difference between unity and unanimity. If you look at the history of the church, there’s never been a time when everybody’s been able to get together and write down what we agree on. I mean, that was just as true of the Council of Nicaea as it is of anything in the Anglican Communion today. But I did have this sense that unity was something that was really significant.


JM: When traveling in Africa, were you surprised how often the issue of homosexuality came up, especially the ordination of partnered LGBTQ priests as bishops?

JZ: Issues like homosexuality are impossible to avoid. What I was repeatedly surprised at was a real openness to at least talk about this issue in a holy way. I cannot tell you the number of times somebody would bring up these issues with me, not in a spirit of wanting to condemn me or to judge me, but simply to say, “Listen, we hear this about your church in the U.S. Can you explain this to us because we have a hard time understanding it.” When we move past then headlines, and come to be in relationship with other Anglicans around the world, the kind and the quality of the conversation that we have is much different.


JM: You write that the view of many Anglicans in Africa toward the issue of homosexuality is based in culture. You also write about the times when you publicly challenged that view.

JZ: It is important at various times to say, “Actually, no, I think that’s wrong. I think that the position that you’re taking on this issue is incorrect.” My response is to articulate the truth about how I feel—and in my conversations with Anglicans around the world, I was always truthful about both what I believed and how I felt—and [allow them] to do the same thing in return.


JM: During your travels to Ecuador, a man tells you that he doesn’t speak much when he meets Americans because Americans are so busy talking, all he can do is listen.

JZ: I think one of the greatest challenges in the Anglican Communion is having people speak for themselves. When people speak for themselves, especially people who may not speak English as a first language, who may not have access to Internet, it really challenges the listening skills of someone like you or me. So in order for more people to speak for themselves, a lot of us are going to have to become better listeners.


JM: Your book is more than just a reporter’s documentation of a series of trips, there’s also the sense of a personal journey of growth.

JZ: This book is, in part, about my vocation as someone who can speak to Christians from a variety of different cultural backgrounds. The book comes out of this deep sense of joy that I have at the relationships that I’ve formed with sisters and brothers in Christ around the world.  But it also comes from this deep sense of frustration, in that I sense in a very real way that the discourse in the Anglican Communion does not reflect the reality of the church as it is actually lived.


JM: What do think about the future of the Anglican Communion?

JZ: I think the Anglican Communion needs to have a future, because God has joined us in relationship for a reason. Our global relationships are broken. And I think that the reason the Anglican Communion needs to continue to exist is that it has this potential to provide this counterexample of reconciled diversity, of unity, of healthy and productive relationship, to be the truly countercultural example to the world that God is always calling God’s church to be.

Photo: Jesse Zink with Bishop Abraham Nhial on a pastoral visit to the contested Abyei region of Sudan/South Sudan, six weeks after the area was overrun by armed militias and tens of thousands were displaced.

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