This year marks half a century of serving God’s mission in Latin America for Bishop Nick Drayson, who has recently been elected Primate of the Anglican Church of South America. We asked him to reflect on his learning and hopes that one era is ending…
50 years ago, you set off following a call to serve God “full-time in Latin America”. You stand here now, about to return to Argentina as the Primate, or leader of the Anglican church in that region. How does that feel?
Well, when I boarded the Greyhound bus in New York, as a skinny 18 year-old heading for Mexico, little did I imagine that I would be where I am now, which is a great challenge and privilege. Of the last 50 years, I have physically spent about half of that time in Latin America, mainly in Argentina, but with frequent visits to almost every country in the region. For a couple of longish spells, I worked in Europe (Spain and UK) but always with Latin America very much in the back, if not the front, of my mind.
Looking back on such a variety of experiences, what has it been like, and what have you learnt?
I think I could sum up the whole time in two ways: enjoyment and endurance. I have always really found a sense of joy in the variety of cultures and languages in Latin America. My first assignment in Argentina was to help with the translation of the New Testament into Chorote, a language spoken on and near the river Pilcomayo. It is wonderful to grapple with the relationship between very different worldviews as described in the Scriptures and in an indigenous language in the semi-arid tropical Chaco forest.
It goes without saying that there is great soccer, food and drink, music, literature and scenery to enjoy, not to mention the inspiring friendship of the people. I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to God for calling me to serve here, but also to the people for giving me so much.
I learnt so much about discipleship from the inductive Bible studies held on the university campus, from the response to revolutionary ferment in the cities, from the solidarity with the rights of Amerindian peoples to the land, and from the church planters and evangelists who ministered boldly in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It has been a formative privilege to work alongside both missionaries and nationals in the formation of local leadership, and developing appropriate strategies for different contexts in which to live out the gospel.
But together with enjoyment, there has always been a sense of endurance. Extremes of weather, both hot and cold, mud, dust, endless journeys, usually with complications! Much of the beauty is accompanied by a sense of harshness. Seemingly endless meetings, and complicated relationships. In many ways the key quality of the successful missionary is keeping going!
Presumably it has not all been pleasant. What have been the biggest challenges?
I could talk about corruption and creativity. Involvement for many years with Amerindian communities has shown me the senseless hostility that so often exists between ethnic groups. While the gospel brought peace and dignity to the often down-trodden poor, it has also spawned resistance to the oppression and injustice. And these are widespread and cruel, particularly affecting the Amerindians. Corruption also affects many other parts of society, causing great hardship, and often spectacular levels of violence, such as those caused by the drug cartels, or by a series of dictatorships. One of the most infamous of these caused the forced disappearance of thousands of people, and was only overthrown in the wake of the tragic Malvinas conflict.
So, cruelty and unfairness are often very close to the surface. But at the same time, people’s readiness to improvise and cope is legendary, and this has often been the case with church communities. The Catholic church in some countries has completely reinvented itself, producing Base Ecclesial Communities, and a preferential option for the poor, whilst Pentecostal congregations large and small have proliferated, producing some very dynamic leaders. Both of these have been players in social change.
And as you return, after this extended time under lockdown in UK, what are your hopes for the future of the church in the region?
I would like to say farewell to dependence and division. The Anglican church is still very small. Despite significant growth and inventiveness over the years, it has also struggled to produce, train and keep good national leaders. Some of this is due to models of support and leadership which have been difficult to sustain and pass on. There is also rivalry, and unhelpful theologies and ideologies in some of the stronger denominations, which are bound to influence our people.
I would like to see a new generation of transparent, humble and God-fearing men and women, who will build on our wonderful heritage, and discover and develop appropriate ways of doing leadership, training and administration for the new sort of Latin America that is emerging from this pandemic.
You recently said you would like to be the “last English bishop”…
Yes. Since Waite Stirling was appointed 150 years ago as the first Anglican bishop (for the whole of South America) the region known as the Southern Cone has had a series of more than 20 excellent missionary bishops, nearly all British. In recent years a few national bishops have been appointed, some of whom have not continued in their ministry. Today there are many more nationals than missionaries, and I would love to be the last of a line, so that the Latin American church is led by Latin Americans – and of course Amerindians.