Rebirth of the church in Myanmar

Published January 1, 2002

THE FOREIGN missionaries have been gone for 35 years, expelled from Burma (Myanmar) in 1966 as part of a nationalistic sweep by the military government that plunged the country into decades of self-imposed isolation. But their legacy lingers.

Despite the justifiable pride Burma’s Christian denominations take in having re-established themselves, practically overnight, as indigenous, active and expanding churches, some nostalgia for the “time of the missionaries” refuses to die.

Older generations, especially those who actually remember pre-1966 days, “want to retain the traditions taught by the missionaries,” said Anglican archbishop Samuel San Si Htay of the Church of the Province of Myanmar.

When it comes to church practices as fundamental as forms of vestments and types of music, “we are still using the old style of service,” agreed Assistant Bishop Philip Aung Khin Thein of the Diocese of Mandalay, at 42 the province’s youngest bishop. “It’s not easy to change because we are fixed for so many years.”

But young people especially are ready for something new, he said.

“They want folk music during the service. They want to sing with guitars.”

In order to be sensitive to the feelings of older parishioners, said Aung Khin Thein, “we have to take time. Certainly we cannot change immediately, but we hope in the future to change.”

A newly adopted prayer book published in Burmese, but not yet translated into English, tries to merge and update the spirits of the 1662 and 1960 liturgies that had been in use before. The revised prayer book intentionally introduces threefold litanies reminiscent of Buddhist forms of blessing as a way to make the liturgy more accessible to potential Buddhist converts.

Specifically female imagery for God in the prayer book, however, has yet to be considered. And while the province long ago accepted the principle of female ordination, no women have yet been ordained as priests.

“We’ve accepted the ordination of women in principle, but not the practice,” said the Rev. Saw Maung Doe, principal of Holy Cross Theological College in Rangoon, the Anglican seminary.

In part the hurdle is local rather than specifically Christian culture.

Because of the premium placed on ethnic identity among the majority Burmans as well as the country’s numerous ethnic minorities, traditional models of male dominance can be hard to shake.

The province’s Anglo-Catholic roots, combined with the country’s long isolation, may also have much to do with it, suggested the Rev. Napoleon Aung Tun, a deacon and provincial coordinator of mission and evangelism. “A lot of people don’t understand. They think that Anglo-Catholicism is the only Anglican tradition. They don’t know there are many faces of Anglicanism.”

One Anglican church leader suggested that in some dioceses with parishes that might accept female priests, such as the Diocese of Yangon, there are enough male candidates to fill any open pulpits, and “so women do not need to be ordained.” In the dioceses with shortages of clergy, such as Hpa’an, which is heavily Karen, or Mandalay, which is mostly Burman, however, cultural norms present barriers, he said.

At Holy Cross, where women have been accepted as students since 1976, 18 women, or nearly a third of the 56 students, are preparing for various forms of non-ordained ministry. After their four years of study, women will have earned the same bachelor of theology degree as male students, but usually will pursue work in religious education, youth ministry, or Mothers’ Unions, will join staffs of provincial or diocesan offices, or teach in Bible colleges.

While other denominations, including the Baptist and Methodist, have ordained women, the number of female clergy throughout the country is still low.

Somewhat paradoxically, the principals of two of the most prominent seminaries in Rangoon, the English-language Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT) and the Burmese-language MICT, are both women.

Archbishop San Si Htay’s daughter, Snow, a student at Holy Cross, said that while she hoped there would be female priests in the future, she recognized the cultural barriers existing at the moment. Her own studies, she said, are prompted by a desire “to know more about theology,” and to “help my father’s ministry.”

Yet another male student asserted that women should be ordained now, underscoring that “we are in the same training” at Holy Cross. “I hope and believe that women will be ordained,” he said.

“We have to do something,” concluded San Si Htay. He recommended encouraging the development of the diaconate as a distinct order that would attract both men and women, to get the church accustomed to the idea of ordained women. “If we can do that, I think it won’t take long,” he said. “We have never known the styles of women priests here. We just know that mothers are very good at keeping house and raising children.”

But resistance to even those initial steps is likely, he added. “I don’t know the other bishops-there are some who may not like it,” he said. “Even the Mothers’ Union, they do not like it.”

The church also finds itself pushing against cultural norms as church-supported health workers attempt to respond to an epidemic of HIV/AIDS infection. With AIDS rampant in Burma, despite government efforts to downplay the extent of the problem, a training program based at St. Mary’s church in the diocese of Mandalay, as one example, is preparing young women from rural villages as health and spiritual outreach workers.

More than 20 women have received the three months’ training provided by retired professors and other members of the congregation who have appropriate expertise, said Aung Khin Thein.

With the church yet to ordain women, the issue of ordaining non-celibate homosexuals is difficult to even contemplate, Aung Khin Thein said. Burma’s bishops apparently did not involve themselves extensively in debates over sexuality at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. “They came back from Lambeth Conference and just shared what they had heard from other countries,” he said. “From our country, no reaction.” James H. Thrall is a doctoral student at Duke University and former deputy director of ENS.


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