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MISSION?

I see that another congregation in Virginia has decided to go out into the wilderness, set up shop and called in an African bishop as overseer. It calls itself a “mission.” Now I don’t want to be too hard on these people. I understand their dilemma. More of that later.From a New Testament and from an Anglican standpoint, they don’t seem to know what they are doing. Perhaps no one has taught them about mission. The first Christians didn’t go into the world to set up retreat houses or protective fortresses. They went out in mission. The very word speaks of an embrace.

When I was a lad, the present structure of African provinces, except in South Africa, hadn’t emerged. (Do bear with me. A bit of history does help. If we’d read Lawrence, we wouldn’t be in Iraq.) The existing dioceses were formed out of the missionary activity of English missionary societies, all of which were independent of Church control. These societies sent out a bishop and some friends and hoped and prayed there would be success. For the revisionists’ sake I’ll admit they piggy backed on the Colonial power, although that power had little use to these missionaries once they left centers of authority and control.

The main two societies were SPG and CMS, the first High Church, the second Evangelical. Broad Church folk didn’t go on missions. They didn’t have much to say. Being good Anglicans there were some who believed these two societies were a bit tame. So the High Church folk also had the Universities Mission to Central Africa and the Evangelicals the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society. The first believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the second came close to teaching the Real Absence. Imagine what it was like to group these all into Provinces when the winds of change blew across Africa. Talk about impaired communion.

Around the time of Lambeth Conferences, bishops from these areas struggled home for the Conference, and did what was known as the Lambeth Walk. So I met the autocratic +Frank Thorne of Nyasaland (Malawi) in his laced rochet. I’d already encountered some retired bishops from all over the place who gravitated to Walsingham and made the pope look like a protestant. And there were those stern, athletic Evangelical bishops, with very discrete pectoral crosses and rings, who wore black chimeres and promoted “Rugger” and salvation.

Don’t get me wrong. There were saints here. One might not agree with their theology but one couldn’t doubt their self-sacrifice and devotion. They went where they were sent, learnt the languages, lived with the people, often died of exhaustion or disease, or were pensioned off to England. I am not going to argue about colonialism, or even missionary activity. I don’t doubt these people tried to establish Brighton or Cheltenham Spa in Kenya. I don’t doubt that they ignored or misunderstood local culture, tribal custom and acted like Americans in Paris. Nevertheless they were not sacrificing themselves to establish holy huddles of refugees from the world. They were in the world.

But now we see their heirs claiming jurisdiction over scattered congregations in America. The Archbishop of Nigeria, who seems to do as he pleases, suggests that he is promoting mission. If the sort of mission he’s talking about had been established in Nigeria – a scattering of refugee colonies – his Province wouldn’t be as huge and vital as it is today.

Those who are leaving TEC to form such extra-provincial entities have a point. Yes our church, at some stage, decided that it is capable of deciding that the Sabbath is on Wednesday, as long as enough members of General Convention vote it in! Yes, TEC has become prey to programs, structures, methods and ideologies which owe more to the local branch of a political party than to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church Catholic. Yes, TEC has joined the Right Wing in believing that it has a special and unique mission to the world, and that the Holy Spirit has joined up. Joseph Smith call home.

Despite all this, or in a funny way, because of all this, what our church really is stands in relief and contrast. Four hundred years ago Anglicans landed in Jamestown and celebrated the Eucharist. Mission was established. That mission was not to provide some ecclesiastical flavor, choice or alternative. Our mission was to be the Church. Simple as that. Maybe it sounds arrogant. We have been arrogant. Maybe it sounds anti-ecumenical. It shouldn’t be. Part of what our claim says is that we are everywhere seeking to draw all, serve all and love all. If we ourselves enable parishes to be places which draw out from the world like-minded people, we have nothing at all to say to our sisters and brothers in that Virginian mission. They are merely copying us under different management. If we create gathered groups containing our kind of saints why can’t others?

The very fact of the diocese reminds us of our mission. Our dioceses are set in territory. I know that most now append “Episcopal” to “Diocese of”, and that is in itself a retreat and fudge. The fact that our dioceses are “of” means that our parishes and missions are “of”. They embrace the surrounding community.

What about anti-gays, or heretics, thinly disguised new agers, lawless bishops and half dead congregations? For goodness sake! Have we forgotten our history? There was Hoadly who made a Deist look like a member of the Network, Barnes of Birmingham, Hervey and his wenches, and shall I go on? Our history is crammed full with examples of heresy, eccentricity, odd movements, crazy bishops and clergy, lay popes and liturgical chaos. Synods have adopted the daftest things. But unless and until our basic beliefs – formularies – are abolished, or the Christian Year and Calendar scrapped, the authenticity of our sacraments and Orders, lay and clerical fatally compromised, we remain the Church in microcosm. At the moment we are largely a church of middle class white folk who hate George Bush. Now there’s a mission. Even our most divisive causes are safely middle class. If we could just put as much effort into returning to mission, as we do squabbling like street gangs about turf, our mission goals might be realized.

While I was in hospital last week, I met needy country folk. They asked me what sort of a priest I am. “I’m an Episcopal priest”, I replied. A look of utter incomprehension crossed the face of my new friends. They live in this county!

However, what was Gregory the Great about when he sent Augustine to start up a rival church in England?

One Response

  1. Wonderful, Tony. I’m glad you’re back in form. I used to dream of writing a book about bishops I had known which some synodical body would pay me never to publish. Did Bishop Barnes really have a license plate with SOB#1 on it?
    One of my favorite quotations is an ‘overheard’ from Canterbury after an ecumenical meeting where the local Roman vicar gave a talk. One Fr. Gregory Something was talking to a young man outside the hall and said, ” Of course I myself am fully convinced of the validity of Anglican Orders.” The young man paused then replied, ” I myself remain fully convinced of the validity of Anglican disorders.” Jay Wilson

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