A Christian Today Interview with Simon Barrow of CTBI
Representing the Churches’ Commission on Mission of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) at the WCC’s recent Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, what inspiration have you received from the event?
It has been a major inspiration to be part of an event that truly mirrors the global calling of the Christian family. The contrast between Athens 2005 and Edinburgh 1910 speaks volumes. In Edinburgh at the beginning of the last century, the participants in the first International Missionary Conference (a founding event for the modern ecumenical movement) were mostly white, male, clerical, Anglican and Western. In Athens, at the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism, there were 600 people from 300 churches and agencies across 105 nations and six continents.
In a world still deeply divided by nation, ideology, economy, race and gender, the rainbow people of God is a testimony to the alternative community made possible in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It shows the transforming power of the Gospel. Yet we have to acknowledge that, as Christians, we are still broken and divided, that our human capacity is limited, and that we need the Spirit to interpret between and across our different languages and cultures – so that what could be a ‘post-modern soup’ (as someone put it to me!) actually becomes the new economy of Pentecost.
How does the theme of the Conference “Come, Holy Spirit, Heal and Reconcile!” relate to mission or the spiritual condition in the UK?
Britain is a strange paradox. Immensely secular and suspicious of religion in its public life, it is also a place of renewed spiritual search. But how do we discern what is of the Spirit in ‘the spiritual’? That was one issue we wrestled with in our Athens meeting. In Luke’s Gospel the Spirit of the Lord is manifested in Jesus’ announcement of good news to the poor, sight for the blind, release for captives – the in-breaking of God’s domination-free kingdom. Yet many of our churches are still inward-looking. We do not ‘walk our talk’.
What people outside the household of faith are often implicitly saying to us is “don’t lecture me, show me.” It is the fruits of the Spirit which can transform the church into a community which witnesses through the attraction of how it lives, who it values and what it advocates.
At the same time, those fruits may reveal that people’s longing for a ‘consumer spirituality’ that provides comfort without transformation and therapy without ethical challenge is far too shallow to bring real healing and reconciliation in a divided world.
In Britain we are also moving into a post-Christendom situation. Many of the historic churches have for many years thought of themselves as part of some overriding ‘Christian culture’. But now we can no longer rely on the Christian institutions, symbols and words which were familiar even to those who lived outside the church. So we need ways of speaking and living which communicate the ancient-yet-ever-new Gospel in a fresh way. It is by deeply engaging with those who may be very different from ourselves that we hear the true breadth of “what the Spirit is saying to the churches”, and learn the skills of interpretation and translation which we desperately need.
In your opinion was the CWME a success, and did the talks and workshops offer great insight to those attending and those watching around the globe on the web broadcasts?
The Gospel’s idea of success is faithfulness – even if that leads to the cross. My own culture’s idea of success is a master plan, an increased profit margin or an advertising coup. CWME was successful in calling us to seek the face of Christ in one another and to make that face known in deeds of peace, justice, mercy and healing. But it revealed no new ‘grand strategy’. In Christ, God questions the easy answers we are inclined to come up with, points us back to the hard road of discipleship, and promises to be with us on the journey.
So while the messages and workshops of CWME were full of hope and inspiration, they demanded nothing less than our lives. This is always the way with the Gospel, when it is proclaimed and received authentically.
To choose one example, we were challenged by Mennonites and others in situations of conflict to make the refusal of violence a key “identity marker” for the followers of Jesus. In the cross God absorbs and defeats violence and division. Yet we live in a world which says that such things are not only ‘necessary’ but may even be redemptive. In witnessing to the One who offers true healing and reconciliation, are we not called to live lives disarmed of those weapons which deny the safety of the Body?
CWME was full of tough convictions like that – but also the joy of a common life (praying, talking, breaking bread, sharing the Word) which cultivates the faith and courage we need to face them.
After the experience of the Conference, what would you suggest to the Churches’ Commission on mission of CTBI in order to advance both home mission and world mission in the UK?
Well, for a start we need to understand that ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ are artificial constructs. There is now no locality which is not in some sense global. And we cannot make sense of the global without developing a capacity to think and act locally. So global partnership in mission is essential.
Secondly, many of the British and Irish participants in CWME want to explore with the WCC how we deepen and extend our commitment to holistic evangelism – ways of speaking and acting which truly bear witness to the reconciling love of God in Christ. To be evangelists is to carry good news in our whole being. Often ‘preaching the Gospel’ is associated only with small bands of arrogant fanatics. But it is the whole church which has to recover its vocation to hear, say, do and be good news. That is why it is an essentially ecumenical activity.
How does the ecumenical movement help the mission in the UK and what do you think is the future trend of the movement?
There are quite good ecumenical relations among the churches in Britain. But I am not sure whether there is much of a movement at the moment. We can get trapped by cosiness and limited in our boundaries. We forget that in the New Testament the oikumene is the ends of the earth to which God impels us. It isn’t about re-engineering church structures.
In CCOM we have a project called Building Bridges of Hope which may point the way forward. Its aim is to provide long-term ecumenical accompaniers – people who can support, encourage and ask questions – to churches seeking to be renewed bridges for the Gospel in their communities. It brings together people who never imagined they had much in common – Catholics and new evangelical churches, for example. To their surprise they discover God speaking through the other. They realise they need one another. And in that way ecumenism and movement became essential, rather than add-on extras.
In this sense I would say that the future of ecumenism is pentecostal (Spirit-driven, in the broadest meaning of that term), and vice versa. From the former we get a unifying ethos and a commitment to social justice. From the latter we get the multiplication of gifts and the energy of the word. And together we receive a vision of church-in-mission which is truly catholic.