The principal farewell I have in mind today is not my own, but the impending one of the CTBI Churches’ Commission on Mission – an ecumenical space for cooperation where the intention has always been to support Christian mission (our engagement and two-way conversation with the world around us) not as the preoccupation of the few but as the vocation of the whole Body, formal and informal.
So what’s the next step in the journey? Out of the conversations that have taken place around CCOM over the past eighteen months, what has emerged is a proposal for a Global Mission Network. And it is the connection between those three terms, ‘global’, ‘mission’ and ‘network’, that I want to explore here, with particular emphasis on how theology and vision might help to shape – not merely ‘inform’ – the fabric of what we are putting together.
At the end of the day the importance of frameworks for ecumenical collaboration is not their own specificity, but what it is they signal about how to enhance the Christian witness and service of a broken church seeking salvation for a broken world.
Tough reality is where we need to begin, therefore. The inherited churches you represent here have lost power, influence, money and numbers quite dramatically in recent decades. There are, of course, stories of bravery, success, unity and growth that count against this decline. But we would be unwise to allow ourselves to let such signs of vitality spin us out of an honest recognition of the continuing crisis facing Christianity in these islands, and the vituperative counter-witness that sadly characterises some of our own disagreements about human sexuality and more.
The presentation of the situation from Wales yesterday (1) seemed to strike the right balance: a forthright admission of the scale of the problem, and then a determination to look for where there is life and energy – both in helping those locked in a culture of stasis to edge forward through new relationships and possibilities; and also (in the case of the Cornerstone church) by recognising the inspired risk-taking of a small group of initially impoverished young Christians who, through prayer, skill and determination have found themselves playing a significant role in regeneration, using that term in both its community and spiritual senses.
These examples help to remind us that the proper (hopeful) context for our continual brokenness and fragility is the Gospel of God-given life. Biblically speaking the resurrection of Jesus through which this life issues is not a denial of death, nor is it an inevitable happy ending, nor the reversal of natural biological processes. It is the substantial but unfathomable action of God in restoring life to the body of Christ – the personality, power and purpose embodied in and as Jesus – in ways that exceed our capacity for description and comprehension.
Moreover, as the New Testament reminds us, we are, in the power of the Spirit, the Body of Christ too. And goodness, do we need resurrection. A resurrection that will only come if (in following a famous injunction of our Lord in St Luke) we stop “looking for the living among the dead”, and start looking for the Living One in the marginal and unexpected places where he is most frequently to be found.
This is the global mission to which we are called, and that provides us with the human cells (or networks if you prefer) through which the life of the Crucified and Risen One may flow. Like the famous passage we read yesterday from Acts chapter two, where we meet Christian communities giving concrete expression to the domination-free kingdom of God at the very centre of their lives, new possibilities are not about what we are able to achieve through our own plans and designs. They come from what I would call ‘living beyond our means’ in prayer and expectation.
The story of early Christian cells in Acts chapter two also draws our attention to the network beginnings of the mission of the global movement we call ‘church’. Actually we heard two expositions of this passage yesterday. The first, quite rightly, reminded us of our human tendency to romanticise the text, to locate hope in an irrecoverable golden age, or to overestimate the influence of the very small and local.
A network of believers sharing their goods in common, breaking bread and praying together, building shalom, taking this regenerational life into the world and seeing God add to their numbers and capacity? I mean come on, we’re hard-headed, sophisticated people – and we know it mostly doesn’t happen like this, don’t we?
Well, indeed, mostly it doesn’t. And I’m sure the writer of Acts was far too canny to think that he was producing a simple prescription. After all, by the time the text came together its originators were only too aware of the really tough problem of managing and developing the architecture of a church that was moving beyond the phase of ‘emergence’.
But the writer clearly felt that the example of those small experiments was worth telling and passing on, perhaps because he saw that the primary problem Christians face is not romanticization, but our inability to believe that the fragile, broken Body of Christ really can be that costly, that transformational, that radically different from ‘life, church and politics as usual’. Especially when it receives its sustenance from something (someone!) infinitely more powerful than our sceptical tendencies.
Which brings us back to the other Acts two story we heard yesterday, the contemporary version from Cornerstone in Swansea. We doubt the text, if we are honest. They are trying to live it. Not perfectly, not ideally, I’m sure. Certainly in a form that raises tricky questions about how the church appropriately offers life, service and programmatic action in a complex, modern, urbanised world. But also in a way that reflects a deeply disturbing loyalty to the Jesus who was found not in the architecture of the Temple system, but on the streets with those who the religious and political elite had already written off as unclean, unworthy and unviable.
The Cornerstone story is somewhat dramatic. The example we heard from Meirion Morris in North East Wales is about a struggle we perhaps understand better – how to stop a rut becoming a grave, and how to allow our deep traditions to be knitted gradually into a different, more creative pattern. Both these accounts concern small, emblematic successes not easily measured in conventional terms. They echo much of what is being learned through CCOM’s Building Bridges of Hope project.
All this points us to the core challenge that faces us in ecumenical mission cooperation today: we have to be tough-minded about the practicalities, yes. But if our hearts are not first warmed and turned towards what Acts calls “the ends of the earth” (in their days just the Roman empire, in ours something way beyond that), then we will find ourselves doing little more than managing decline.
Palliative care is, of course, a vital part of Christian pastoral ministry. I’m not knocking it. But it isn’t the key missionary task and it isn’t usually where the church finds renewal. The trouble is, we know how to care for the dying, a little bit at least – but some of us are not at all sure how to do mission any more. Our old models and assumptions have been (rightly) shaken and stirred. Which is where we need to come back to the clarifying import of those terms ‘global’, ‘mission’ and ‘network’ considered in dynamic relation to one another.
In the construction business there is a wise warning that if your only tool is a hammer, you will tend to see every problem as a nail. The tools chosen in re-thinking our ecumenical future are architecture and financial realism. These are crucial. But without the vision of what it is we are building and what Godly resources are available to us beyond our own pockets, we labour in vain. (“Unless the Lord build the house…” is a realistic warning, not a pleasant but ineffectual piety).
In the 1960s and 1970s we became used to the aphorism “think globally, act locally”. But we are perhaps only now on the threshold of understanding what that really means. To talk about “the global” is to expose the shallowness of the categories ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ that we previously used to describe mission. It is to recognise that we exist beyond a world traversed in the image of just one of its parts (the uni-versal), and beyond those relations between countries that are indicated by state borders (the inter-national). It is to understand instead that we are irretrievably networked together across all these boundaries (and more), in ways that are both fruitful and deeply divisive.
There is now no locality that is not in some sense global (even if we fail to recognise it). In the most remote parts of the earth the camera lights shine. Rural Wales is tied into a global marketplace. The reframed questions that we face, then, are how and where do we meet the global, and what sense do we make of it? This ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ is always something that starts on our doorstep, with our own context. But it cannot, by definition, stop there, unless we seriously misconstrue the world and the Gospel. (2)
So if we think we are dealing with purely local aberrations when we encounter the profound difference in perspectives between, say, Lagos and Leyton, we kid ourselves. What is at stake in today’s world is precisely the globalisation of local difference, as well as the transmission to the local of global branding.
How Christians make sense of it all is through mission – not as imperial extension, but as loving encounter, costly engagement, speaking and listening, initiating and cooperating, reaping and sowing, scattering and gathering. We do this together or not at all, because it is about being transformed into the Body, not about proliferating particular ecclesial and ecumenical expressions. That is the purpose of being networked, its ‘added value’ (to use a term beloved of the accountancy age).
Moreover, we seek to be networked in the pattern of discipleship (the seeking and following of the one Jesus who meets us in different times and places). And we find ourselves linked afresh through the power of the one Spirit whose life is the globalisation of God’s energy in and across the world’s pains and joys. (3)
But to do this we do need form and structure. These days ‘network’ is often used as a fantasy word to magic away the requirement for nasty things like meetings and institutions. That is an illusion, and it is no part of what we mean in talking of the development of a Global Mission Network to replace CCOM. What we are referring to, rather, is the priority of putting our resources, plans and organisation into those places where there is life and energy for both inherited and emergent church, and where the engagement of the church globally can be strengthened through our various ecumenical links – which are, by the grace of God and the dint of history, extensive.
When we look at CCOM we can clearly glimpse, in spite of its fragility, the benefits of the kind of synergy through which we seek to move further forward. Building Bridges of Hope has been about helping and accompanying fresh expressions of mission. The China work offers resources for practical relationships with Catholic and Protestant Churches in a place which constitutes over 20 per cent of humanity, and in a part of the world – the Pacific rim – that will shape our global future like no other. (When people ask why we focus on ‘one country’ in addition to world regions, I’m not sure they grasp the full significance of this!) There are many other examples, and what we are now seeking to set up through GMN is a conscious, effective way of continuing to multiply our common capacities in a changing world.
Can we afford to do this? That’s an important question. But it may not be as important as the question about whether we can afford not to do it. It’s an issue I am content to leave in your hands, and in the safe lap of my successor, knowing that the truth of the globalisation depicted in Acts chapter two lies not just in the instrumentality of the churches, but in their mutual capacity for faithfulness to the vision of the new heaven and a new earth that called them into being in the first place. For it is that God-given vision by which all of us are ultimately judged and redeemed.
(1) The CTBI Church Representatives’ Meeting is a biennial gathering of authorised persons from the denominations, agencies, commissions and bodies in association across Britain and Ireland. There is always a presentation of the local context where CRM is meeting. In this instance CYTUN, the Welsh ecumenical instrument, offered an overview of the situation of the churches in Wales, highlighting tow examples of positive responses – one a traditional church set up in the valleys, the other a ‘new church’ initiative in inner city Swansea. The latter raises fascinating (and difficult) questions about ecclesiology, and partnership with local authorities, civil society groups and other churches.
(2) This means we also have to “think locally and act globally”, as well as “think globally and act locally”.
(3) See Simon Barrow, ‘The Globalisation of the Spirit’ (CCOM, 2002), which argues that Pentecost affords us an alternative strategy for relating difference – not by reversing Babel’s subversion of a ‘universal language’, but by generating translation and interpretability between the different languages which together make up the economy of God.
(4) See the CTBI Assembly Review 2005, pp.10-11 and www.ccom.org.uk.