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Saving Power: The Mission of God and the Anglican Communion by Michael Doe

June 6, 2015

SPEver since I did a course, as part of my degree, on the history of missions, I came to the conclusion that they were a bad thing, that there should be a moratorium on them and diverted my giving from them to secular aid charities. (I am not alone. As far back as the 19th Century, some questioned whether the British Empire had any mandate to overturn the religion of another country.)This book, therefore, challenges me, not least because the author is someone I know and for whom I have great respect.

He starts off by explaining the origins of the various missionary societies.

I enjoyed the story, still told in Chennai (Madras), that the East India Company asked SPG if the Magnificat could be omitted in Evensong lest ‘putting down the mighty’ might inflame the natives.’ The stability of the Empire was paramount, and there was fear of anything which would make it impossible for thirty thousand ‘white men’ to govern seventy million ‘sable subjects’ across the world.

However much the Church was expanding abroad, the Church of England did not greatly flourish in the eighteenth j century. In 1747 Joseph Butler, distinguished scholar and Bishop Bristol, is reputed to have declined appointment as Archbishop, Canterbury on the grounds that it was ‘too late to support a falling Church’.

Things were not as simple as I used to think: Brian Stanley criticizes the missionaries for identifying the gospel with civilization as represented by the Enlightenment-driven, indus­trialized West — the religion of the Victorian middle classes — but also sees them as humanitarians because they did not relegate the gospel to the religious sphere, as much Enlightenment thinking wanted, and unlike much (often racist) post-Enlightenment scientific thinking they believed in the advance and potential of all people. And, ironically, it was often the more conservative missionaries who were the more suspicious of the claims of Western civilization.

And around the Anglican Communion today it is more usual to hear positive than negative responses to the missionary inheritance, that Christianity preserved indigenous life and culture, thanks to its emphasis on mother-tongue translation.

The numbers of missionaries has declined — in contrast to US evangelical churches, where they continue to grow — but people still talk of ‘taking the gospel to Africa’ or even themselves ‘going on mission’ for some short-term project. The emphasis is still very much on charity, appealing for money for struggling churches overseas. It is not unknown for African or Latin American dioceses to receive over 90 per cent of their income from the USA, a situation which, as we shall see, becomes all the more problematic if finance becomes dependent on what side the donors have taken in the current disputes.

It seems as if some parts of the Anglican Communion in, for example, Uganda and Nigeria, are obsessed with homosexuality, yet, as I have heard Michael say many times: these people don’t wake up every morning wondering which side they should take in the homosexuality debate. They have enough to do just getting on with the job of being a Christian in their particular situation and taking up what they believe is their part in God’s mission. Even when bishops meet and synods gather, their main business is about staying faithful and meeting the challenges in the place where God has called them to be the Church.

But ‘human sexuality’ (a euphemism for LGBTI issues, not a contrast top animal sexuality) presents the Communion with a more difficult problem than previous issues, on which there was compromise. ‘ On divorce, the Lambeth Conference of 1920 reiterated the indissolubility of marriage, but since then has restricted itself to promoting marriage and family life, perhaps because divorce itself is now seen very differently in different parts of the Communion. Polygamy could well have separated parts of Africa from the rest of the Communion, but the 1988 Conference accepted the compromise that a polygamist might be baptized and not have to put away any of his wives if his community was content with the situation and he did not marry again. On the issue of con­traception, successive Lambeth Conferences have shown a remarkable ability to meet changing perceptions: in 1920 it was rejected outright, even within marriage, but by 1958 it had become a recommended part of ‘responsible parenthood.

Some of the arguments come from a stance which is distinctly UNanglican. In the case of Anglican conservatives, this may be especially seen in their claims for biblical authority. Anglicans have never believed in biblical inerrancy, but only that ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation’ and is ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith? So if phrases like ‘incompatible with Scripture’ in Resolution I.10 of Lambeth 1998 suggest the reading of Scripture ‘without inter­pretation’ — that is, without the benefit of tradition and reason — this raises serious questions about its Anglican credentials. Other critics would argue that Anglicanism has never been this kind of ‘confessing tradition’ anyway — it is rooted in common prayer rather than com­mon beliefs.

This must be the only time that I have ever agreed with him but `We now have people in the US but not only there who believe things about God, about salvation, about marriage and about human sexu­ality that seem to be another religion,’ said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. (Except that I think it is his ilk who have created this other religion.)

There’s a certain fatigue in trying to listen to all sides and I am sympathetic with “I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by lair-minded’ channels that seek to give ‘both sides’ of this issue ‘equal time.’ I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects…. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behaviour, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world’s population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it.’

Who are the relatives and pluralists here?

And are gays a soft target to scapegoat? Maybe for the conservatives it was the only issue available. In their determination to reaffirm what they believe to be Christian orthodoxy, there are other issues on which Scripture (or at least, St Paul) is very clear, such as divorce and remarriage, or the role of women in both society and church, but these would have involved tackling US culture head-on, and indeed would have alienated many of their own members. It’s instructive that in the 2009 canons of the newly formed Anglican Church of North America, there is direct provision for marriage after divorce, and the ordination of women is treated as a secondary matter despite its significance for the validity of ministry.

And one might ask what has happened to another moral issue: economic justice, which should surely be at the top of the Christian agenda, but which has received little priority from Western Angli­cans, whether conservative or liberal. Scripture takes this far more seriously than sexuality, and until fairly recently the tradition of the Church took an equally hard line on such matters as usury. The liberals, despite General Convention’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and the emergence of Anglicans for Global Reconciliation, have done little to distance themselves from US capitalism and its economic colonialism. The conservatives, having derailed the 1998 Lambeth Conference from its planned focus on international debt, have equally said very little on the matter apart.

Despite following the Church Times and the fact that every parish I’ve been involved with is a USPG supporter (high church folk aren’t so keen on CMS), I had never heard of the Anglican ‘Five marks of mission’ nor of the USPG aim: Mission is ….. ‘holistic, responding to all of God’s liberating activity so that people may ‘grow spiritually, thrive physically, and have a voice in an unjust world?

In Transforming Mission, David Bosch summarized how people had seen mission in the past: During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and the South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination).

Michael believes that mission must be about acknowledging and proclaiming the centrality of Jesus Christ, but not to the extent of those who interpret the first Mark of Mission in such a way that the Missio Dei becomes a marketing and recruitment exercise where success will only be measured by individual conversion and church membership.

There’s a bit of competition between the traditional missionary societies and current diocesan twinning arrangements which evolved from `Partners-in-Mission. At first the policy, at least in the Church of England, was that these partnerships were for prayer and mutual support, but increasingly they became channels for funding, bypassing the mission agencies. Today Christians as much as any other charitably inclined people are part of a donor culture in which those who give want to decide where their (sic) money goes.

There’s a suspicion that the UK has a secularist agenda which makes people suspicious of ‘faith’ and fearful of religious proselytism. This Western agenda, together with the continued exploitation of develop­ing economies and the inequity in international trade, is seen by commentators in the South as the reinvention of colonialism, seeking to impose Western values while taking economic advantage. However, Western governments and NGOs, especially in their newly found commitment to grass-roots development, can’t escape the fact that on the ground it is often faith-based communities who have the values and systems which can deliver. The World Health Organization estimates that between 30 and 70 per cent of healthcare in Africa is provided by faith-based organizations.

There’s a bit of criticism of Christian Aid, in contrast to CAFOD and TEARfund, for having: much to say about ‘life before death’ but without any larger context of life beyond it.

Christian Aid has been more shaped by the kind of post-colonial and secular theology which emerged in the World Council of Churches from the 1960s, in which ‘the world sets the agenda:” One outcome of this theology was that mission became very much identified with poverty reduction, human rights and, more recently, climate change, while proclaiming the gospel, especially when among people of other faiths, became less acceptable.

I liked the parody of puritanism, “They have gone from the Enlightenment’s ‘I think therefore I am’ to the post-modern ‘I feel therefore I think’.”

Has left-wing social democracy and the identification of liberation movements as movements of the Spirit of Christ become what Stephen Sykes calls a new form of Constantinianism?’

On episcopacy: Views differ as to whether the more authoritarian style of episcopacy found in many African churches arises from their traditional culture and the role of a tribal chief, or from what the first Western bishops imported from the Church of England. Trevor Mwamba, Bishop of Botswana, says: The totem of the Manja tribe in the Central Africa Republic is the rabbit because it has ‘large ears’. The Manja stress listening as the most important characteristic of the chief…. The problem in the Anglican Communion is that the bishops have ‘short ears’. Which means we are hard of hearing, all deafened by the noise of our respective agendas. The great tragedy speaking as an African bishop is that having ‘short ears’ makes some of our Primates in Africa act like ecclesiastical Mugabes. . . . The spirit of African Anglicans is not inclined to schism but reconciliation.’

Michael wants the communion to stay together but I wonder whether that is possible, or even desirable, in the long term.

 BTW, I like the cover, which could be mistaken for a monstrance.To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.

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