Hosts at the Table: The Karen Congregation of St. Thomas

 Anglican Church, Werribee, Victoria / 20 November 2016

Bryan Cones and Stephen Burns

                                                  (Photos are from https://www.facebook.com/Karenanglicanyouth/)

Arriving as Guests

We arrived at Werribee through colleagues at Trinity College Theological School, where one of us is a doctoral student, the other on staff, and where several members of St. Thomas are training for ordination. It was a bright and hot November Sunday morning in Werribee, a north-western suburb of Melbourne, where we arrived having requested and received an invitation to attend from the vicar of the Karen congregation, Father Nisher Kunoo. Father Nisher’s daughter, the Rev. Heiden, is one of those who studied at Trinity. What follows is the product of our notes, conversation, and correspondence about our participation in a single liturgy—and thus must remain limited in scope and reflection, not least because of our inability to understand the language of the liturgy and the cultural differences between ourselves and our hosts. (Stephen is English and a priest of the Church of England, while Bryan is a culturally White U.S. citizen and a presbyter in the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Chicago.) Our visit had been prearranged some weeks earlier, and Stephen had been asked to vest and participate as a priest representing the theological school. Bryan also sat “up front” with Heiden and two of her sisters, and was invited forward before the homily to be introduced as Stephen brought greetings from the school.

            This “hybrid” dimension of our participation—as both guests and representatives of an Anglican theological college with connections to the local Anglican diocese—is a helpful lens through which to see the relationship of the Karen congregation at St. Thomas with the local Anglican diocese and the local Anglican parish in which it meets. The Karen congregation is both part of the diocese and of local parish while at the same time being conceived of by those entities as “guests,” and likely experiencing themselves in that way. The website of St. Thomas Anglican Church Werribee, for example, offers a glimpse into this hybridity: The website notes that the parish’s English-speaking congregation celebrates two Sunday morning services, an 8 a.m. “traditional” eucharist followed by a 9:30 a.m. “family” eucharist, “along with a special service catering for members of our local Karen community at 11.30am every Sunday” (https://sites.google.com/site/stacwerribee/, accessed 29 November 2016). The website elsewhere notes that the Karen congregation “is not seen as something separate from other parish services” and that “Saint Thomas’ parishioners are currently working with the Karen people to see how they can best assist the two cultures in being seen as one and not two separate groups” (https://sites.google.com/site/stacwerribee/Home/karen-ministry). The language of these statements suggests that the Karen people are not yet themselves “Saint Thomas’ parishioners,” and we saw or met few if any St. Thomas parishioners other than members of the Karen community, except as they were leaving as the Karen community gathered for liturgy.

            The parish buildings also reflect this tension. In both its interior and exterior, the church reflects an early-twentieth-century Anglo-Australian heritage, with historic biblical saints in the windows (all fair-skinned) and a clearly demarcated “nave” with pews and “sanctuary” area cordoned off by an altar rail. A side alcove served as a gathering place for many young adults present at the Karen liturgy and may at one time served as a choir “chancel.” Notably the “back” (liturgical west end) of the space is open to the entryway of the church building—there is no unique “door” into the nave, and this space reflects some mid-century additions, such as classrooms. Notably, signage is all in English; any exceptions are handwritten on paper and temporarily posted usually in the buildings behind the church in the courtyard, which are used to host religious education and other events for the Karen congregation. In the absence of people, the church would appear to be any Anglican place of worship with a presumed Anglo-Australian membership, though its condition suggested some financial strain in maintaining it.

            The community we encountered when we arrived about 20 minutes prior to the 11:30 a.m. service, however, was almost exclusively Karen, and those who were not Karen left before the liturgy began (likely because they had been to an English language service earlier in the day). Save the assembly and language of liturgy, however, there was nothing in the art and environment that indicated the cultural identity of the assembly that now gathered. From our own “guest” perspectives, the meaning of “along with” in the website description is unclear—perhaps it is unclear from both communities. The website suggests that the English-speaking congregation has a ministry “to” the Karen community as one of host to guest; the liturgy under study, however, made no reference to the “host” congregation at all. Only prior knowledge suggested that the current Anglo-Australian congregation even existed; without that knowledge and some postings on the message board, a guest might suspect that the Karen congregation had acquired a church previously used by an Australian Anglican congregation.

            It is also worth noting that the Karen congregation boasts a large Karen youth ministry, styled on Facebook as “Karen Anglican Youth Australia” (https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=australia%20karen%20anglican%20youth, accessed 29 November 2016). It gathers between 50 and 100 youth and young adults for a separate service described as “praise and worship” and which meets on Sunday afternoon, though in a separate building in the church courtyard. A number of participants at that service also take part in the 11:30 a.m. eucharist; at the celebration under study; they numbered about 30, and a many of them performed a song accompanied by guitar written by one of its members after communion.

 

An Assembly Gathers

Over the 20 minutes prior to the “official” 11:30 a.m. service time, a sizeable assembly of approximately 200 members gathered in pews directly in front of the altar area and in an alcove to the left of the altar, where youth and young adults sat together. (Stephen notes that the gathering extended more than 15 minutes beyond the advertised starting time, with no apparent concern or hurrying by the clergy, one of whom said, “We don’t always start on time.”) The members represented a wide variety of ages: elders, adults in their middle years, and noticeable numbers of young adults with infant children, as well as the younger adults and teens. With the exception of ourselves, all shared Karen heritage from Myanmar/Burma. We note that even the naming of their homeland or first culture is difficult, with “Myanmar” a name imposed by military junta in 1989, and “Burma” tricky because some Karen have been at war with the central Burmese government since 1949. The Karen State is a south-western territory within the country and, given the context of war and unrest, many Karen live in diaspora, especially in Thailand where the border meets the Karen State. Members of the Werribee community, of various ages, are among those who have spent much of their lives in refugee camps in Thailand, notably Mae La. The youngest children and some youth in the Werribee community had, however, been born in Australia.

         In terms of dress, the youngest members of the assembly tended (though not all) to dress in a contemporary Australian style (often quite stylishly) indistinguishable from other Australians of their age of various cultural backgrounds; a few younger members and progressively more as members got older wore garments that we surmised reflected homeland culture, including a multicolored overgarment worn by many men of two square pieces of fabric joined in various places, with some also wearing a loose fitting lower garment, which was also worn by some women. A significant number of women covered their heads with a veil either of multicolored cloth, or else akin to a lacy “chapel veil,” which on inquiry, was said to be of British missionary origin. The range of dress and hairstyle, and its correlation with age, suggests, perhaps, a deeper integration with the surrounding Australian culture among younger members.

            The most noticeable range of “difference” within the assembly was the range of ages, with the especially strong presence of (unmarried?) young adults and teens, some of whom sat together in an alcove to the left of the altar. While not sharing leadership in earlier parts of the liturgy, after communion they lined the front of the sanctuary to sing a post-communion anthem (written by one of their number) and led on guitar (the only music not accompanied by organ). Other young adults sat among the pews, often in couples, and many with young children. As the only two non-Karen worshipers, we were noticeably different from the majority cultural group, a difference marked by our inability to speak Karen, our fairer skin, and features that generally suggest north European cultural and ethnic heritages. The introductions Stephen made identified us as coming from Trinity College. The presider and preacher (Father Nisher) accommodated our reliance on English by providing a copy of the service in Karen/English translation and a print-out his sermon text in English. Bryan’s hosts in the pew provided the locations of the hymns in English, drawn from the Australian hymnal Together in Song, which the congregation sang in Karen translation.

 

Service in the Assembly

Vested ministers included three priests, one presiding wearing a chasuble, the other two in alb and stole. The priests sat in the sanctuary area, a rectangle in front marked out by an altar rail with an open center that held the altar, ambo/lectern, and seating for clergy. Only one priest left that area at any time during the liturgy, and that was to proclaim the gospel, while only a few other members of the assembly—a lector, prayer leader, servers, and lay minister of communion—entered that area to fulfill some ministerial function. (The recent graduate of Trinity confirmed that having only priests behind the altar rail as a regular practice, though noted that others “who have a role” can enter that area. When invited forward to be introduced, Bryan, though clearly at the front, stood to the side of the sanctuary rather than enter it.) One of the priests was English (Stephen), the other two Karen. One Karen priest presided and preached; the other proclaimed the gospel and made announcements; the vested “guest” priest offered an introduction, served as a minister of communion, and pronounced the final blessing in English.

            Several servers carried cross, candles, and gospel book. All appeared to be young adults, one was female and two were male. A male lay reader read the first reading and a female lay member led the prayers of the people with her head covered by a heavy fabric; she was the only younger woman to do so. The prayer leader was later identified as a student at Ridley College, another Anglican theological school with a marked evangelical identity. This may have shaped her chosen style of prayer, which was a long and extemporaneous (and prayed with eyes closed), and a notable departure from almost the rest of the liturgy, which was evidently tracking the text given into people’s hands. The young female intercessor was also the only woman to enter the sanctuary, with the exception of a young woman vested as a server who carried the gospel book, and whose head was not covered (perhaps because she had no speaking role?). Another lay male member assisted with communion. A youth choir was gathered in an alcove and supported the singing throughout, also performing a post-communion song. The entire assembly strongly sang all other parts, many by heart and with eyes closed, as well as making strong verbal responses in liturgical dialogue.

 

The Assembly at Work

The celebration of the liturgy itself reflected an Anglican heritage: presbyters vested according to office (alb, stole, chasuble) and following the colour of the current liturgical season (green), with servers in cassock and surplice. The language of celebration was almost completely Karen, with texts translated from Anglican sources, with the exception of the announcement and the final blessing by the visiting priest (Stephen), which he made in English without immediate translation, suggesting a presumption that most of the assembly understood English. There was a procession with the gospel book, which moved deep into the assembly. With the exception of minor variations noted below, most “historic” Anglicans would be able to recognize the liturgical pattern as Anglican even if they were unable to understand Karen.

            All hymns were Karen translations of music found in Together in Song, though service music (Gloria, Sanctus, Lamb of God) were sung by heart by the assembly, some of whom also sang the hymns by heart with eyes closed. The youth choir sang one song which proved to be a significant exception to those just noted; its music had a quite different tone and “feel”—more contemporary and, to these guests’ ears, more emotive than the traditional hymns, which the assembly nevertheless sung with devotion. Most hymn melodies were recognizable as of European (specifically English) origin; later conversation revealed that the only music native to the assembly as regards origin was the original composition sung by the younger members just after communion.

            The texts and liturgical order were drawn from A Prayer Book for Australia [APBA] with these exceptions: a prayer said by the presider with the assembly kneeling at the beginning of the liturgy, which later questions revealed to be the “refuge [Saraman] prayer” from the Burmese prayerbook which has its origins in Anglican liturgies across the Indian Subcontinent and environs which Christianise a ritual familiar in Hindu temple worship; a prayer echoing 1 Chronicles 29:14 and including the line (in English) “All things come from you” (which is found in some Anglican provinces’ prayer books as an offertory prayer over gifts of money) just before the preface dialogue; the Prayer of Humble Access before the Lamb of God, reflecting its position in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; and the position of the Lord’s Prayer after communion as a thanksgiving, which reflects its positioning in the BCP 1662. These variations are drawn from a version of The Book of Common Prayer of Christ’s Church of Burma, which had just recently been replaced in this community by recourse to APBA. This included a change of eucharistic prayer in favour of one found in APBA, which replaced the distinctive Burmese prayer, which uniquely among the churches of the Anglican Communion addressed Christ directly during the institution narrative (the Burma prayer is accessible in Colin Buchanan, ed., Anglican Eucharistic Liturgies, 1985-2010: The Authorized Rites of the Anglican Communion [London: Canterbury Press, 2011], 223). The vicar reported that because the community wished to be recognized in the Diocese of Melbourne as a congregation, it had made this adaptation for its Australian context. The recent graduate of TCTS noted that one implication of this shift in the eucharistic praying  was a more “dialogue” feel because of expanded use of the liturgical greeting, “The Lord be with you,” with its response, “And also with you,” by the assembly. She judged that these changes had made the liturgy less hierarchical. At the same time, she also noted that the elements preserved from the Karen liturgy reflected themes of humility strongly present in Karen Anglican spirituality that, in some cases, had been rejected by Anglo-Australian colleagues.

            Like much of the music, the participation of the assembly was largely “by heart”—from memory with strong responses. There was no “pew sheet” for the day or printed copy of the readings; there was a locally produced reusable order of service that included most of the prayers and responses (excluding the collect, readings, and prayers of the people) in Karen and English on facing pages. There were some prayers, however, that were not included, such as the refuge prayer before the collect, and the prayer before the preface dialogue—in other words, the variations on APBA. Bryan noticed no one in the assembly other than Stephen and himself was using the Karen-English worship aid.

 

A Feel for This Church

Of all the assemblies we have been in since our arrival in Melbourne in January 2015 and July 2016 respectively, this one felt one of the “fullest,” both in terms of number of people and strength of participation: the pews were full, the songs and responses strong, much was known by heart. It was also one of the youngest of the congregations, with all current generations present, from month-old Priscilla, the newborn daughter of a couple who sat in the pew behind Bryan, to an elder who needed assistance to come to communion. There were particular visible forms of piety practiced, including some members who participated or came to communion in bare feet or with covered heads; priests also did not wear shoes. Stephen noted that only one communicant looked at him when receiving the sacrament; all other communicants had their eyes downward, suggesting a eucharistic piety much more individualized than the rest of the liturgy. It seemed that most members received communion, though the youngest children received a blessing instead of communion. Most communicants bowed in the direction of the altar both before and after kneeling at the altar rail for communion.

            In addition to the obvious energy, joy, and pride in this congregation’s cultural heritage, there were also a number of signals of “negotiated edges” in this hybrid congregation. One obvious one is simply the liturgy itself: For the most part it was drawn directly from A Prayer Book from Australia, performed following what to our eyes appears to be anglo-catholic ceremonial (perhaps similar to what is done in St. Thomas’ English-speaking congregation): formal processions with multiple vested presbyters, acolytes wearing cassock and surplice, the use of a processional cross and candles, all of which reflect an Anglo-Australian adaptation of English cultural heritage. Even those elements from The Book of Common Prayer of Christ’s Church of Burma largely reflect the reception of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, though interpreted through the Karen spiritual lens of “humility.” The music also reflected European origin, though it must also be noted that liturgical and musical texts may have acquired different layers of meaning in their translation to Karen that would be inaccessible to one who does not speak that language. Still, apart from the language, dress, and Karen embodiedness of the assembly, the structure of the liturgy seemed decisively English or Australian Anglican in cultural expression, if not in language or emotive quality. There seemed to be a desire to emphasize a connection to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, both in the adaptation of APBA and in the invitation for the staff member at Trinity College to vest and serve as a liturgical minister. But given that this “anglo-catholic” community is both larger and more vibrant than perhaps any other self-designated anglo-catholic congregation in Melbourne, it is perhaps questionable as to how much conforming to local liturgical norms the Karen community might wisely do, and whether it might better stand its ground as a sign of renewal from overseas to others more depleted.

            Of particular note in this liturgy, which perhaps proves the dominant rule as well as revealing another negotiated edge, was the song performed by the youth choir after communion and during the announcements. After they were introduced, the youth (about 20) gathered across the front, still outside the altar rail, and performed a song in Karen composed by a member of the youth group. It was accompanied by a single guitar (other music had been played on an organ) and seemed to have a refrain. Its musical and emotional tone evoked a contemporary evangelical or neo-Pentecostal ballad, and the youth swayed as they sang. The rest of the assembly sat in generally silent attention, though some young people sitting in the pews seemed to know the song and sang along softly. (We learned later it had been sung at one of the congregation’s youth camps.) All applauded gratefully, acknowledging not only the skill, perhaps, but also the piety and message embedded in the song, which we later learned spoke of the search for single-heartedness. There is no doubt the congregation takes great pride in its youth, pride expressed several times by the vicar.

            This single “outlying” song proposes questions about the relationship of the afternoon youth service to this service marked by the leadership of “elders,” which could only be answered by attending that service. This song suggests a different “feel” and a different assembly. The song’s position in the liturgy—during the announcements, in a sense “after” the liturgy of communion, and performed “outside” the bounded sanctuary—and its manner of performance—“solo” choir rather than full congregation—suggest that it is somehow not fully of this particular liturgy, or at least reveals edges which this liturgy is attempting to negotiate and hold together. Among them could be a Karen identity and its transfer to a younger generation more at home in the surrounding dominant Australian and English-speaking culture, visible in younger members clothing, hairstyles, and even choice of song. One might even imagine resistance on the part of younger church members to their elders’ traditions, who might prefer the afternoon service but attend the earlier out of duty or obligation or for some other reason apart from preference. Stephen, for example, noted that a few youth delayed communion until the very last possible moment, as if they were deciding whether they would participate. Another tension could be this local assembly’s relationship to the Anglo-Australian congregation by whom they are according to the church website ministered, and which imagine themselves as “host,” and to the Diocese of Melbourne, which may have the same attitudes writ larger, edges negotiated through adaptation of both APBA and the local parish ceremonial style.

            As a U.S. citizen and Episcopalian, and a British-Australian citizen and English Anglican, and thus current, if privileged and secure, cultural migrant ourselves—and our reflections as “guests” in this congregation are inescapably refracted through these lenses—our experience suggests to us the ongoing challenges and “feel” of migrant hybridity experienced in this Karen congregation, and perhaps other migrant-majority and monocultural-migrant congregations in dominant cultures, which also exist in other contexts: the sense of fitting in (as Anglicans), while also not fitting in (as Karen Anglicans); the desire to maintain cultural identity, language, and heritage (as Karen), while also experiencing pressure and even desire to feel at home in the dominant culture; the need to create a home for oneself while also negotiating the conflicted meanings of “host” and “guest,” while perhaps also contesting those identities; the challenge of valuing what is essential about gifts brought from one’s home culture, as well as taking on and adapting to the expectations of a new home culture; the ways in which these dynamics are at play inter-generationally, with perhaps different senses of belonging in this liturgy dominated by an anglo-catholic style, but with some negotiated more evangelical expression by the youth. In praying with the Karen Anglican assembly in Werribee, we found ourselves feeling surprisingly at home, not only because they are negotiating a hybrid migrant reality which proposes reflections for our own, but even more because of the way they practice it: with a warm welcome to these “migrants” who arrived as “guests.”