Could the Anglican Communion be a “broker” for global mission?
This question was raised by the Rev. Dr. Wonsuk Ma, director of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, at the most recent seminar of Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion. From various corners of the church, thirty attended the meeting convened at Lambeth Palace by Bishop Graham Kings: church planters in London and Somalia, theologians, clergy from various dioceses (priests, archdeacons, canons, bishops), lay workers, and at least one principal of a theological college.
Dr. Ma’s talk on the “Growth of Global Christianity: Shape and Significance for Theology” ranged across various bits of data and historical record. Two of the most striking things he discussed, however, are the much-noted shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the Global South, especially Africa, and the burgeoning numbers of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians, expected to make up 9.8 percent of the global population within the next nine years.
Like previous seminars, the format allowed for significant discussion and mingling in the beautiful conference room at Lambeth. Most of the group then met in the chapel crypt for a said BCP Evensong with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, his chaplain, Jo Bailey Wells, and some members of the Chemin Neuf community resident at the palace. (The Lambeth papers are also given again at the University of Durham.)
Throughout the talk, I was most intrigued by Ma’s confidence, missionary zeal, and discussion of the great opportunities now facing the worldwide Church. Ma is an Assemblies of God minister and served as a missionary in the Philippines before his post in Oxford. His conviction that Christianity must continue to grow in order to witness to the gospel, his confidence that mass or worldwide conversion is indeed a possibility, and his commitment to broader, more holistic mission: these all made for a welcome change to the oft-times shallow, weary, and fatiguing discussions of mission in Anglican contexts, especially in the North Atlantic.
As Ma noted, it was over a century ago that the global missions movement discussed the possibility of the complete evangelization of the world “in our lifetime.” Since that time, most mainline Protestants and many Anglicans seem to have lost confidence in the desirability or possibility of that goal. Platitudes about unease regarding “proselytization” trip off the lips of many.
Not Ma. His zeal reminds me of my great admiration for the vigor of worldwide mission in the Assemblies of God, a denomination of which I was a member for about five years. Its missionary efforts match those of many other denominations: in size, it is already comparable to the Anglican Communion, which had a 400-year head start. The Assemblies has more than 67.5 million members worldwide, though it is a looser association than the Anglican Communion. (We should remember this in humility every time the press builds up our sense of self-importance as the “third largest” body of Christians in the world: at 80 million, for instance, only by the generous counting of those baptized in England, and by extreme growth in Africa.)
Because of my history with the Assemblies of God — and because I have many friends who are still a part of that movement — I’m most intrigued by the idea of cooperative possibilities globally, both evangelistic and educational. Ma acknowledged, as did several other seminar participants, that one of the primary needs in the growing churches of the Global South and East is education and the navigation of culture. This has also been raised in a previous paper at the mission seminar and in a recent book review on Mission Theology’s website.
- Joseph Galgalo, “Developments and Trends in African Christianity: An Anglican Kenyan Perspective” (Oct. 20, 2015)
- Hassan John, Review (Feb. 10, 2016), Saw Maung Doe, Discipling the Church: A Study of Christian Education in the Anglican Church of Myanmar (2015)
Pentecostals from Burkina Faso to Hong Kong to Brazil (and, let’s be honest, also in North Atlantic nations) are waking up to the need for better training for pastors. Anglican theological colleges worldwide continue to be under-resourced. Discipleship and education for all believers is a real concern, and all face huge challenges in the societies where they live, work, and do mission.
Might there be some kind of cooperative solution? In many African contexts, Pentecostals, charismatics, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and many others all engage in vigorous pursuit of mission alongside one another, admittedly often in open competition. But I wonder if we might look forward to another great age of theological and cultural development, should they come together more deliberately.
One participant spoke of the need for African churches to move toward deeper engagement: putting down deep roots in their societies, forming strong disciples and Christian families, passing on the faith from generation to generation. Might we look forward to a new Christian flourishing, perhaps in the same way that Christian culture took on such beauty and depth in medieval Europe? The great flowering of medieval theology, art, and government was the result of many centuries of steady witness and of the gradual population and evangelization of cities and the countryside. We have to ask whether Africa, in particular, is poised to reach that stage much faster, due to the speed with which Christianity has grown there. At the very least, there is an opportunity and a need, since many acknowledge that Christianity in Africa is (somewhat like in the American South) often a mile long and an inch deep. In an age of great shifts and transitions, we cannot afford to idolize churches in the Global South, nor can we afford to ignore or neglect our brethren.
If I am correct, then the broader commission of Bishop Graham’s project to raise up, resource, and publish the work of new doctors of the Church from around the Communion is ever more important. But so should be plans for founding and strengthening theological education across the Anglican Communion in cooperation with Christians of many stripes, in a true ecumenism of obedience and joy in service of gospel witness. If we commit ourselves here, we might not only serve unity and mission among our Anglican brethren, but also the formation of pastors and ministers from many churches, with the ultimate goal of the gospel reaching every nation, every people, whom God has formed of one blood and whose times and bounds he has arranged “that they might seek after him and find him” (Acts 17:26). May Christ be proclaimed!
We might yet hope to bring together the gifts and virtues of the whole Body of Christ and thereby reap together in that field that is already “white unto harvest” (John 4:35). Anglicans, Pentecostals, and many others have much to learn from one another. And, at a time when the Anglican Communion and many other Christian fellowships are at risk of collapsing and dividing into myriad new divisive bodies over various internal issues, it would be good to turn our gaze to our brethren across the world, regain our focus on the gospel, and go out as “fellow workers” in and for “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9): his Catholic Church across the globe.