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Cape Town’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

By George Sumner

In Jesus Christ — it may always be “Yes” (2 Cor. 1:19), but to fulfill their calling Christians must at times utter an earnest and timely “No.” In such moments, when a movement of the Church needs to mobilize its own efforts and protest the culture’s corruptions, within and without, it will compose a confession. This is a delicate art. The manifesto needs to speak to the moment but still echo the perennial creedal articulations. Its protest runs the risk of seeming dyspeptic and rear-guard. Finally, on the Protestant side of the aisle, an outsider may ask the authors who made them pope.

The Lausanne movement has, for the past four decades, been a source of cohesion and encouragement for worldwide evangelicalism. It benefitted at its outset from the magisterial presence of John Stott. It sought to promote cooperation between myriad evangelical bodies, to stoke continuing evangelistic will, and to promote a vision of integral or holistic mission. Its rallying cry was “the whole Church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world.” The Third Lausanne Congress was held in Cape Town in 2010. Out of the event came a document, which, together with a study guide, has been published as The Cape Town Commitment (henceforth Cape Town). It is a wise and spiritually profitable text. If we consider Cape Town as an example of the confession genre and hence as an interpretation of the circumstance in which the movement finds itself today, it will yield valuable lessons both about evangelicalism and our own tradition of Anglicanism.

The Cape Town Commitment
A Confession of Faith
and a Call to Action
By Rose Dowsett
Pp. 160. $9.95

Cape Town, building on prior Lausanne documents, begins by identifying itself with the pillars of the “order of salvation”: creation, sin, redemption, consummation. It assumes throughout that this order requires of the Church proclamation to individual souls of the saving faith. It does not shy away from the conflict that this involves with “the world, the flesh, and the Devil.” By building on these basics, Cape Town can deploy positive articulations of the faith without soft-pedaling or shortchanging it. (In all this the deft hand of Anglican theologian Chris Wright, who heads Langham Partnership International, may be discerned). So Cape Town is structured around the divine love for us, our responding love for him and for his creation. These prior and basic themes keep the structure from the insipid.

At this point a sidebar is in order, one that I do not tire of making. Cape Town appeals to the ubiquitous “mission of God.” What could sound more evangelistic and orthodox, especially when served with a dollop of trinitarianism? Is there anything in our Church for which the missio Dei isn’t a warrant? The weakness of this move is that it quickly attributes to God what we ourselves want to be up to. In the case of Cape Town the awareness of this prior doctrinal framework is precisely the reason that it can appeal to the theme as truly evangelistic and orthodox. In a similar way one may test all its uses by the question whether at least an implicit awareness of such doctrines is assumed.

It is instructive to consider all the things that are not mentioned in this evangelical summation of the faith. There is no theory of biblical inspiration. There is no mention of predestination, single or double. The statement does not wade into Calvinist and Methodist differences on human agency. No account of conversion is normative. Neither how we ought to think about ministry, nor the Lord’s Supper, nor baptism, is anywhere mentioned. Polemic against Catholicism is long gone. The power of the Spirit is testified to, but the necessity of particular gifts nowhere comes into view. These are of course varied issues; some have distinguished evangelicals, while others have differentiated kinds of Protestants. Nor am I suggesting that these issues ought to have been dealt with; a statement such as Cape Town seeks consensus.

Surely it is correct to begin with the gospel and go on to articulate the central doctrinal affirmations of the faith. But that is precisely what makes Cape Town interesting, for it represents a contemporary articulation of what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” To be sure, its emphasis on “the Word of God” has a Reformation feel to it. But it does not distinguish worldwide evangelicalism from the magisterial Reformation traditions. Likewise an adherent to the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church would be hard pressed to find a sentence he or she would consider false.

So if it is Mere Christianity we are listening to here, what happened to the “No” which occasions such a confession? Against what does the statement contend? The authors would probably be pleased that we need to exert ourselves to answer the question, for they want Christianity’s shared “Yes” to stand in the foreground. Still, their first answer would come by pointing to the side range of forces that oppose the gospel in all the different contexts in which the global delegates lived. On the one hand is the plurality of religious traditions, such as Islam or neo-Hinduism, contending against particular Christian claims to truth. On the other hand is the postmodern pluralism of the West, both inside and outside the Church, which undermines the concept of truth itself. The faith may be one, its opponents many, but that there is some opponent or other in each place, and that on its face truth is at stake, are likewise assumed. In other words, the postmodern predicament is not so rare, nor so sophisticated, as it supposes.

What might Anglicans make of these conclusions? Cape Town is in the main consistent with a serious, plain-sense reading of The Catechism of the 1979 prayer book. Our evangelical neighbors show us not the face of “the Other” but rather that of our own forgotten selves. If to some readers Cape Town seems distant, it will be because of our own estrangement or amnesia. Traditional believers within Anglicanism, be they Catholic or evangelical, are not some outdated rump but rather the enfleshed memory of normative, ecumenical, global Christianity.

Here the question of what Cape Town is saying “No” to returns. What makes Cape Town appealing is its address of Christian practice as well as belief. It consciously compares itself to Pauline epistles, which move from proclamation (kerygma) to moral exhortation (paraenesis). Talking the talk must move on quickly to walking the walk. And on this score Cape Town does not let evangelicals off the hook. They have not always proclaimed the whole gospel, nor have they reined in their own leaders, nor consistently addressed the pressing social issues of their day. While the doctrinal part of Cape Town aims at the perennial, the ethical section seeks after pertinence to today’s context.

Here too is a message crucial for Anglicans to hear. Cape Town’s call to action asks: How are we addressing dramatic urbanization and constant migration on the global scene? How are we catechizing our young? How can be minister with honesty and charity to the postmodern era’s commodified and disordered sexuality? Has our theological education retained a heart for evangelism? Have we retained an interest in giving a “reason for the hope within us” in a winsome manner? Have we thought seriously enough about the evils as well as the goods of the technological revolution all around us? Have we enlisted our global partners in fighting an evil like human trafficking, which is a contemporary form of slavery, or in engaging Islam in a manner that is both realistic and constructive? Global evangelicalism has, in The Cape Town Statement, articulated an inescapable agenda the address of which will require global communion.

The Rev. Canon George Sumner is principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.


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