The final touches to this review of the work of the Churches’ Commission on Mission 2000 – 2001 were being completed when the awful news of the suicide plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon hit the headlines. Several commentators remarked that these events constitute a turning point for the world. In a culture of instant rhetoric and breakneck change it is often wise to reserve judgement: but a number of major trends – all with significant implications for Christian mission – have certainly been highlighted.
One salutary reminder from the carnage in New York is that the world is unavoidably interlinked. There may not yet be global community, but there are certainly a host of global interdependences – such that it is now impossible even for a superpower to limit the consequences of its entanglement with the wider world simply by armed might or political muscle. This in turn illustrates the limits to the ascendancy of nation states and empires, the vulnerability of what we had assumed was most unassailable (the global economic system, the military-industrial complex), and the capacity of small, mobile groups and individuals to intervene in the web of a high-tech infrastructure in dramatic and powerful ways – for good and ill. Add to this the challenge of biotechnology and genetic research and you have some picture of the massive moral, human and communal challenge of the 21st century. As Martin Luther King once reminded us: we have to learn to live together or we risk dying together.
Promise and judgement
Why is all this pertinent to the task of Christian mission today? Well, human history understood biblically is full of pictures, from Babel to Babylon, of the confounding of conventional power relations among those with a tendency towards seeing themselves as invincible. The eyes of faith do not bring easy solutions to human traumas, but they do suggest that fruitful responses will be aware of a certain pattern of promise and judgement affecting especially those who think they are self-sufficient.
Moreover, the dynamic of the Gospel – the being with us of a God who, in Jesus Christ, declares a distinctive way of forgiveness, new beginnings, mutual vulnerability and communion – is (or ought to be) both the founding of a proper missionary vocation and the basis of the good news which the world needs to discover, not least when its existing assumptions have been badly shaken.
In the face of a sudden eruption of pain, such as the World Trade Center bombings, the human temptation (understandably) is to look for immediate scapegoats and quick vengeance. This is a common way of coping with loss and displacing pain and evil outside ourselves. But in the end it often reaps yet more damage, imperils the humanity which Christians believe is a gift of God, and reinforces an illusory sense of our own righteousness.
Facing reality hopefully
‘From the place where we are impregnable, flowers will never grow’, said the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai. This is a basic biblical insight. Yet Christians find it hard to apply in an often brutal world – and no less easy in their ecclesial backyard. For the reality is that our own impregnability is also challenged. For years Christian mission has been carried out from a base of strength and authority. But now, as a consequence of the reshaping of the institutions and nations of which the historic churches have been part, the last vestiges of privilege are being removed and the respect that was once accorded to the Christian message – even by those who disbelieved it – is dissolving.
These realities, along with institutional decline, recently spurred the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster to talk frankly of Christian influence on government and people’s lives as having been ‘almost vanquished’. Similarly the Scottish author Callum G Brown has written of ‘the death of Christian Britain’. Secularity runs deep in western societies and the flowering of spiritual interest, which paradoxically accompanies it, is often decidedly non-traditional in its form. There is much talk of new forms of church, but the reality is still in its formative stages. Partnerships with vibrant Christian communities in other parts of the world are revitalising, but they still leave the challenges of different contexts needing to be faced in specific settings.
It is sometimes said that the future of Christianity is in Africa, or in China. That may be so, but it is clear that our sisters and brothers in those and other parts of the world face their own difficulties on the cusp of recent growth. In a global system they are also increasingly subject to the disenchantment that affects the West.
And the persistence or expansion of other great religious traditions reminds us that visions of mission rooted in Christian hegemony no longer face the reality. As we have said, one of the facts of globalism is that no-one can claim insularity from the problems that effect others – even if, for a time, it seems as if they might.
Do we want the truth to set us free?
Such thoughts are difficult. They puncture easy optimism. Jesus told us that the truth would set us free, but there are some aspects of the truth that we could frankly do without! However, in the midst of the difficulty and the dislocation that rapid change produces, there are also many signs of hope. Communities renewed, lives changed, faith strengthened and justice done. But only when we are able to let go of the assumptions of the past, in order to be led into a future which will be equally (in its own new context) the gift of God.
One sign of this is the ability to gain a clearer perspective. Just as the United States’ vision of its own strength – so terribly rent asunder – was only ever a partial reading of reality, so much of the strength of Christendom exposed by church decline was more fabric than substance. Times of trial bring us back to the core of our calling, make us reassess priorities, enable us to be open rather than closed, help us to discover the potential for sharing, and above all put us in a place of vulnerability where we ourselves really need the message we proclaim, that of life beyond death. The late Bishop Colin Winter of Namibia called this ‘the breaking process’. The signs are that the breaking continues, but there are also clear examples in this Review of people gathering the fragments – an image which returns us to the feast of a Kingdom which is in our midst, and yet very much still to come.
In the meantime we need persistence, focus and vision. The persistence often comes in maintaining the relationships and links that can often be lost in the midst of the larger forces of globalisation. So it is important that CCOM offers forums – spaces for collaboration, conversation and encouragement – among those who sustain relationships with churches in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East and China. But as our Moderator, Dr Chris Wigglesworth, suggests in his Preface, these have to be focussed on active collaboration in the purposes of God, not simply bilateral pleasantries.
CCOM: pioneers and settlers
Mission is not something we ‘do’, it is something we receive from God. But it involves risk and discernment. In recent years CCOM’s member bodies have collaborated together in the Building Bridges of Hope programme. As you will read in this Review, BBH is now entering an exciting phase of supporting pilot initiatives out of the congregational learning that took place from 1996 – 1999. We hope that these pilots will offer new resources to the church here and in other parts of the world. However over the next 18 months we have the task of ‘bedding down’ that work in local and national churches across the four nations. This will enable the Commission to invest more resources in our global relationships again, especially through our European networks. Partnerships like the one we have re-affirmed this year with Birmingham University, on East Asian Christian studies and ecumenical China work, are among the examples of what can be achieved through CCOM.
This leads naturally enough to focus. It is clear that some of our member bodies are developing strong and distinctive ideas about their own role and purpose. CMS and BMS are among those. The task of the Commission should therefore be to use its structures to enable ‘gifts differing’ (and perhaps, sometimes, viewpoints differing too!) to be shared creatively, so that we are able to do together what we cannot do by ourselves. The pioneers and the settlers have much to offer each other in this respect, though it is probably small, people-focussed and mobile ways which will continue to convey hope in transition, rather than traditional structures alone. In all this, CCOM is a place where people have an opportunity to think ‘across frontiers’ – not least theologically. That too is a vital contribution towards identifying and capitalising on the signs of hope that we seek in a time of change.