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By John L. Kater
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Virginia Theological Seminary. Rather than producing an updated history of the type that marks many such occasions, William Sachs and Wanjiru Gitau have chosen to mark the event by focusing on what they define as the primary aspect of the seminary’s identity: its commitment to mission.
In doing so, they have produced an eminently readable volume, the significance of which goes far beyond the narrow confines of one American seminary. Becoming Cosmopolitan offers a detailed analysis of the ways that mission has been understood and practiced in multiple contexts and historical periods, using carefully chosen moments in the seminary’s history to illustrate its thesis.
That thesis is rooted in Virginia Seminary’s foundational narrative, which notes the urgency of mission in the aftermath of the American Revolution. The authors consider that its establishment reflected both the evangelical movement in England and the effects of the Second Great Awakening in the United States: “the core of evangelical faith,” they write, “has been the need for each person to be born again, and evangelical Episcopalians readily endorsed this principle. The spiritual new birth would remake one’s heart and mind, and then the momentous process of rebuilding one’s life would begin.”
One of the seminary’s early faculty members also noted the importance of “its situation in the South, and its accommodation to the habits and manners of that section,” which included the presence of numbers of enslaved people on its campus and, as the authors point out, seriously compromised the understanding of the gospel in ways with which later generations would need to wrestle.
Sachs and Gitau document how mission has dominated the seminary’s vision of its purpose, but, perhaps more importantly, they also emphasize how the very meaning of mission has changed over time. Early efforts at mission not only focused on individual conversion to Christianity; they also assumed that Christian faith was something that missionaries had to give to those whose very survival depended on it.
Such a concept inevitably lent itself to unexamined assumptions of superiority and alliances with colonialism and empire. The 19th century’s commitment to “the evangelization of the world in this generation” went far beyond individual conversion; it also imagined the creation of a worldwide Christian civilization that would bring the enterprise of mission to fruition. That the dreamed-of civilization reflected Western culture compromised the gospel in many ways, not least by leaving racism and imperialism largely unexamined.
But the authors consider that the most significant change in the understanding of mission that has shaped VTS in recent decades has been the awareness that true mission demands what they call cosmopolitanism. “The cosmopolitan outlook,” they write, “has been described as a demand for attachment to distant and different people. … It was a value that centered on the cultivation of mutual obligations that need not be deterred by distance but would lead increasingly outward.” Such an attitude requires “a cultural sensitivity and a capacity to adapt,” which not only challenges assumptions of superiority but assumes the priority of relationship in which mutual learning occurs.
Sachs and Gitau consider that the growth of a cosmopolitan sensibility toward mission can be discerned in the gradual awakening to the sinfulness of slavery and racism, the growing realization that missionaries need not always be “in charge,” and in the complex development of enculturated Anglican expressions in other parts of the world. Christian missionary attachment to Western ideas of “progress” (to be overseen by the missionaries) has been replaced by a recognition that mission does not mean taking the gospel to those who need it, but mutual exploration of God’s presence in every time and place. This perception was spelled out in the concept of “missio Dei” and in the document “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ,” produced by the Toronto Anglican Congress in 1963.
The last chapters of Becoming Cosmopolitan highlight ways in which this new understanding of the nature of mission has changed the seminary’s life while holding fast to mission as its defining purpose. They note the establishment of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies, the diversification of both faculty and student body, efforts at reparations for the descendants of enslaved people at the seminary, and initiatives on interreligious dialogue and reconciliation, as well as the seminary’s openness to theological diversity as reflected in the decision to lift “the absolute ban, under all circumstances, on the admission of non-celibate gay and lesbian persons.”
All these enterprises are, they affirm, a sign that the seminary’s traditional emphasis on mission continues to shape its life; however, a reference to tradition “cannot presume a static quality. Tradition must be lived, it must adapt and change if it, and the institution in which it is rooted, are to thrive.”
Graduates of VTS will, of course, be particularly interested in the authors’ analysis of how the seminary’s primary identity continues its heritage while critiquing and moving beyond its past. But other readers will find this book interesting, not only for its window into our church’s past but for a creative and promising way of thinking about mission in ways that enrich our understanding and motivate us toward the future.
The Rev. Dr. John L. Kater is professor emeritus of ministry development at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and associate professor of the practice of ministry at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong.