Rebirth of the Church in Myanmar: Missionaires' Legacy Still Lingers 35 Years Later

By Thrall, James H. | Anglican Journal, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Rebirth of the Church in Myanmar: Missionaires' Legacy Still Lingers 35 Years Later


Thrall, James H., Anglican Journal


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 three-fold 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 nor 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. …

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