I am writing these notes while attending a meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion.
One thing I don’t need to bring to this meeting is a prayer book. We pray together a great deal, but we use the prayer book of the local church, in this case the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. There are services every morning and evening, so I don’t need a book from which to say morning and evening prayers privately as I often do.
But I took my Book of Common Prayer anyway.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1976, I took that Prayer Book to the first worldwide meeting I had ever attended, the Anglican Consultative Council in Trinidad. Part way through the meeting I became conscious of what an extraordinary grace I had been given to meet such remarkable people from every corner of the globe and to hear the stories of their circumstances, in many cases so different from the privileged life I lead in Canada.
It occurred to me that I should commemorate the occasion in some way, so I decided to ask everyone present to sign my Prayer Book.
The Bishop of Singapore, as he signed my book, said, “One day this will be a very valuable book; unfortunately what will make it valuable will be the death of the signators”.
Many of the names in my book are still alive – Desmond Tutu was there, not yet a bishop – while others such as Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury and president of that council, have died.
But the truth of the bishop’s words came home to me within a year after the meeting when the Primate of Uganda, Archbishop Janai Luwum, was murdered by Idi Amin.
A statue of Archbishop Luwum is among the 10 figures placed in the niches over the west door of Westminster Abbey to commemorate the Christian martyrs of the 20th century.
Twenty-five years ago the province of Uganda included the present provinces of Rwanda, Burundi and Congo, places where our church has had a special relationship because of our capacity to communicate in French. I have often acted, as I have done at one point in this meeting, as a translator for the Primate of Congo, Patrice Njojo, who has no English.
When we greeted each other at the beginning of the meeting, Archbishop Njojo said to me that he was now in exile in Uganda because of the civil strife in his part of the country.
Once again I was brought face to face with what I take completely for granted, namely that I live in a country that has never know a civil war and has not had hostile troops on its own territory for almost 200 years. Few countries in the world have been so blessed.
I think of that as I listen to another African primate speaking of the thousands dead and the countries utterly destabilized in his province.
But what is most striking in the midst of it all is that the first, often the only, request that these people make is that I pray for them.
Disaster pushes people of real faith towards God, not away from God as might seem natural or logical to so many.
The names placed in my book so many years ago have living counterparts beside me still, and I name together in my prayers two friends, a martyr of the last century and an exile of this century.
Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.