DG: Is there a difference between the vocation of the Church and its mission (or its role in God’s mission)? Your paper says nothing about worship, which I would understand as the church’s primary vocation. I’m puzzling over whether it is part of its mission.
SB: Spot on question and observation. It seems to me that worship and prayer are about being centred in the One who is beyond and who is to come, about existing solely by grace (rather than by ethnic priviledge etc.) — and in the light of that discerning, through active encounter and engagement with others in and beyond the faith, what is really ‘worth it’ in life. This is the central vocation of the church, the thing that ought to condition all our thinking and action. The vocation of church is therefore to learn how we as human beings can ‘live beyond our means’ in that sense. Its mission is the outworking of that in Christlike ways — localising the experience of the promise and judgment of God, as Bert Hoedemaker suggests, in very different contexts. In that sense I would say that there is a specificity to the life of church (which is fundamentally about its nature — it cannot be true to its worshipful nature and become an exclusive club or an imperial order, for instance). But God’s mission goes beyond the church’s vocation and mission, because God is present in the world in all kinds of ways, and because God’s purposes are concerned with all of life and not just the church. In this sense we might relate the vocation and mission of the church and what gets called God’s mission by talking about ‘the scandal of universality experienced in the particular‘ That would put us in conversation and tension with other particularities that claim to be about the experience of universality. Does this help?
DG: I am interested in the relationship between that question and the “vicarious worship” of which Grace Davie and Mary Grey spoke at the CTBI Assembly.
SB: Me too. I want to hold presence (Grace Davie) and prophecy (Mary Grey) together — a purely vicarious church becomes hopelessly functionalist, a purely prophetic church becomes hopelessly sectarian. The answer isn’t to keep trying to make church this or that, but to look at how different forms and expressions of church can work together, can continue the creative argument about God-and-the-world we call Christianity, and can constantly be challenged by the vision in the midst of messy practicalities…
DG: I am also still puzzling over the relationship between mission and evangelism (recognising the latter to be part of the former). I would tend to locate testimony/story telling/faith sharing aimed at the world beyond the church as evangelism, while action designed to humanise the world without that explicit testimony/story telling/faith sharing as the broader mission. But when I referred at the Assembly to the Scottish and Welsh Churches having helped to shape the story of what it is to be Scottish or Welsh, I’m not sure whether that story-telling was evangelism or mission….
SB: The twin problems are God words unaccountable to action and being, and action and being that becomes inexpressible in relation to the life of God. I find the existing language has great difficulty in coping with this, as your perceptive final comment illustrates. To much that claims to be evangelism I often feel like saying ‘so what?’, and to much that claims to be humanising action ‘so, what (or perhaps, Who?). Elsewhere I have described evangelism as “speech that seeks to redeem rather than to provoke or justify.”
DG: I am aware of a personal need for relatively clear definitions on which to work, even while I know they are inadequate and temporary. Am I right to feel that you enjoy the complications more than I do?
SB: I suspect so. I’m not sure if I always enjoy complications (though someyimes I do!), but I don’t see any way of avoiding them — and I am persuaded that the Gospel is a message of hope precisely at the point where we Christians are contradicted and at a loss, not where we are most comfortable. (I’m aware that this could be special pleading, masochism or evasion… but I don’t think it has to be.) Mostly I’m happy to work with clear definitions — in the same way that I’m happy to say ‘this is the agenda: for the benefit both of those who need an agenda and those who want to change it!’