Ecumenical Mission - some starting points
Rev Dr Ben Aldous, August 2019
A recent report from the Council for Christian Unity entitled Doing Mission Together remarked, ‘there is a growing perception that while ‘institutional’ ecumenism may be struggling, a more ‘missional’ ecumenism is thriving. A key factor in supporting this change is claimed to be a shared awareness of the need to focus on mission – on how the church shares the gospel in every place, ’But what does it mean to do mission together? What do we mean when we use the word mission? Or in more recent times missional? It feels like everything is mission. Stephen Neill the Anglican missiologist famously said, ‘if everything is mission then nothing is mission.'
1. The Ecumenical movement is a mission-shaped movement
Perhaps it’s too easy for us to forget that the gathering in Edinburgh 109 years ago was the response to a crisis felt largely amongst Christian leaders in Asia who saw the competition of Christian mission as discrediting. ‘The ecumenical movement derived much of its original energy from the simple recognition that the churches’ insistence on doing things separately was seriously getting in the way of effectiveness in mission.’ ‘The World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh 1910, was considered a defining moment for the churches in the history of mission.’ At that gathering it was the impassioned speeches from V.S Azariah, a South Indian Anglican clergyman, and a young Chinese from Manchu called Cheng Jingyi that saw a plea for equality and unity. Whilst ruffling many feathers, the result a few years later was the formation of the Church of South India.
In 1928 in Jerusalem the first full meeting of the International Missionary Council took place and again gatherings in 1938, 1947 and importantly in Willingen in 1952. Lesslie Newbigin the father of the missional movement writing in 1961 said, ‘mission and unity are two sides of the same reality, or rather two ways to describe the same action of the living Lord who wills all should be drawn to himself. ’Whilst there have been debates and divisions over what mission should look like the missionary thrust, and certainly some of the defining ways of understanding mission. In the late 20th century have been overwhelmingly shaped by the ecumenical movement. Perhaps we don’t see that emphasis in our work on the ground at absolutely local level but it is an inheritance never the less.
2. The Missio Dei
If we say we are putting mission back on the agenda or allowing it to shape how we will function and operate in the future, we surely have to know what we mean by mission or missionary or missional. We may feel uncomfortable with the word ‘missionary’. Perhaps it conjures up ideas of colonialism, of superiority, or western power, of proselytising, or manipulation and superiority. That’s all justifiable. I was a ‘missionary’ (not a word I used) in Cambodia for 5 years church planting mostly in small villages I usually told people back in the UK I was a cross cultural or development worker.
The word mission is a whole different thing. Again, it was the gathering of the International Missionary Council in 1952 in Willingen, Germany that became a pivotal point in 20th century missiology. It can probably be best formulated like this, ‘It’s not the church that has a mission but the God of mission who has a church.’ Or as the Catholic missiologists Stephen Bevans and Roger Schoeder put it, ‘Mission precedes the Church. Mission is first of all God's: God inside out in the world through the Spirit, God in Jesus teaching, healing, including, suffering. Almost incredibly - as an act of grace! - God shares that mission with women and men. Mission calls the Church into being to serve God's purposes in the world. The church does not have a mission, but the mission has a church. Imagine what church would be like if Christians really understood this and took it seriously. What it means is, first, that the church is not about the church. It is about what Jesus called the Reign of God.’
It was a rediscovery of the missio Dei – that God is first and that the God of mission invites us to join him in the work that he is doing in the world. If we are mission-shaped people or missional people we are missio Dei people. Sometimes this can feel just an act of semantics. Its only really only about word order!
Perhaps an illustration this afternoon will help us. I have 4 children. My second born Amelie is now 11 but when she was 4 or 5 years old what she most enjoyed doing was to bake. Now as you can imagine this is not easy for a 5 year old girl. Mummy would get all the ingredients out and Amelie would drag a chair across the kitchen and stand on it so she could reach the counter top. Mummy was clearly in charge. She knew how to measure out ingredients, she knew how to mix everything in the correct order to put on the oven – it was all her work, but she delighted in Amelie’s participation since she was her child. Amelie felt she was very much part of the process but she was simply following what mummy invited and required her to do. Whilst there is a certain crudity to this analogy it is never the less essentially true.
So, if mission starts with God it starts in the life of the Triune Godhead. It starts in the way the Father, Son and Spirit love one another eternally in perfect, selfless life-giving ways. In the godhead we see a community in communion, a community in unity. In the trinitarian Godhead is a set of dynamic, selfless, ever giving, dance filled relationships - being sent has ontological primacy for God. My understanding is that the Triune Community overflows and outflows with love for the other. We see unity in diversity. The divine Trinity is ‘open’ not because it is imperfect, but by virtue of the graciously overflowing love open for all beloved creatures. The missio Dei reminds us that the church is the church for others: Kenotic, selfless, outpouring. We are invited into the life of the Godhead.The Trinitarian dance is participatory and invitational. In the Trinitarian concept of the missio Dei we are invited to join in what God, in community, is doing in the world.’ It is communal.
It’s centrifugal – or more biblical it’s sending work. The Father sends the Son, the Father and the Son send the Spirit. It’s catapulting, it's an outward centrifugal force. In John 20:21 after the resurrection behind locked doors Jesus appears to his disciples. What does he say to them? ‘As the Father sent me so I am sending you.’ It hard gets mentioned in commentaries on John’s gospel but Jesus refers to God in two different ways. The first we all know. But what about the second? The One who sent me.
It’s creative work because redemptive work at its very heart is creative. It’s creatively following the missionary Spirit. In that same passage Jesus breathes his peace on the disciples. The creative work we are called to is participating in God’s mission and bringing peace, being a blessing.
In our ecumenical endeavours are we truly following the missionary Spirit or are we simply strategising our way into the future? I say this because as I listen to what is happening nationally there can be a tendency to set the 5 marks of mission (which are excellent and holistic) in a slightly instrumentalist way. But behind those marks is another an important understanding that God is the one who leads us. Bevans and Schroeder again say, ‘recognising that the mission is primarily God’s…eases our anxiety in the church. We do our best, we work with all our hearts but we can realise that is not all up to us.'
With all the above in mind what does CTE do and how can we help churches at national and local level be better at working together?
3. CTE and the Swanwick Declaration
A key part of the history and purpose of Churches Together in England is the Swanwick Declaration which includes the text signed by national denominational church leaders in September 1987: 'It is our conviction that, as a matter of policy at all levels and in all places, our churches must now move from co-operation to clear commitment to each other, in search of the unity for which Christ prayed and in common evangelism and service of the world'.
You can read more about the Swanwick Declaration here.
The prayer at the end of the Swanwick Declation is still a frequent prayer of Churches Together:
Lord God, we thank you
For calling us into the company
Of those who trust in Christ
And seek to obey his will.
May your Spirit guide and strengthen us
In mission and service to your world;
For we are strangers no longer
But pilgrims together on the way to your Kingdom.
A useful document exploring different denominational understandings of 'mission' has been produced by Action for Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) called 'What mission means'. You can download a copy here. For a detailed study of how churches and agencies see 'mission' in their context, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland published research in 2010.
'Churches Together' and 'churches together'
In England there are 2500 local 'Churches Together' groups, some of which like Bristol and Cambridge have a long history going back to the 1920's and 30's. Many were formed after World War II when the World Council of Churches came in to being, especially in the 50's/60's/70's when the ecumenical movement grew. Now there are 800+ formal Local Ecumenical Partnerships.
Mutual Respect and Interdependence
This phrase has been key over the past 20 years in overseas mission activity and reports of the Council for World Mission and Evangelism of the World Council of Churches. Sometimes called the MRI principle, it has lead to fundamental changes in how mission is conducted, especially overseas (eg missionaries are now called 'mission partners') and is now seen by many as a guiding principle for mission in the UK.
If 20 churches are all involved in a mission project, eg major festival during the 2012 Games, they will build better relationships if the 'MRI Principle' is followed. One church may provide volunteers for making tea, while another brings a worship band. One church puts money in while another offers premises as 'gift in kind'. A large church may have a youth outreach, while another naturally attracts older people. In CTE we sometimes talk of 'celebrating diversity' while the biblical picture is of many parts of the one body working together.
For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function,, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy in proportion to our faith; if service in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness'. (Romans 12: 3-8)
Evangelisation / Evangelism
A key aspect of all that we are called to do in response to the 'missio dei' - the mission of God - is the specific task of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. This brings us to the 'Great Commission' - often the starting point for mission and unity in practice. 'Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ' is often called 'evangelisation' or 'evangelism' (the difference is too detailed to explore here and the two words are often interchanged). Churches Together in England supports this work through the Churches Group for Evangelisation, which brings together the denominational officers for evangelism and several key leaders of home mission agencies.
The Great Commission
So, a key mandate for mission comes from the Great Commission of Jesus recorded, for example, in Matthew 28 where we read, 'Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."' (Mt 28: 18-20)