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Mission Under Pressure

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’” (John 20:21). In the accounts given in the Gospels of meeting the risen Christ, we repeatedly find this interplay of gift and calling. The disciples receive grace from him beyond anything they could have dreamed or imagined, and they are commissioned to share in his work. Resurrection spells the end of this age, yet while tasting the joy of God’s new creation in Christ, the community that gathers around the good news of his resurrection has tasks to perform in the continuing time of a creation growing old.

It seems to me, however, that in the contemporary context the calling, the summons to act can press hard upon us in a way that risks obscuring the gift, the eternally abundant life we have received. Perhaps that is just my (self-inflicted?) experience as a parish priest in the Church of England, struggling with the everyday demands of full-time ministry. Perhaps it is a feature of involvement in any of the U.K.’s historic churches, in which long-term decline in religious affiliation, activity, and belief, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be pushing us with increasing speed to the edge of a precipice from which we are desperate to scramble away (see the recent contributions by David Goodhew). But perhaps it is something too about our theology, specifically our theology of mission and the church.

One of the great achievements of ecumenical theology in the second half of the 20th century was a shared understanding that the purpose of the church is to serve God’s mission, or the missio Dei. Yet with it went the danger that certain versions of this thesis at least would put such weight on the activity of the church, sent to share in the sending of the Son and the Spirit, that the glory of the gift that is our life would be eclipsed.

The International Missionary Council, meeting at Willingen, Germany, in 1952, asserted that “There is no participation in Christ without participation in His mission to the world” — a powerful application of John 20:21. The church is not founded, however, or indeed justified by its work in serving the missio Dei, but by receiving the gift of peace that the risen Christ speaks to sinners who can offer nothing in return. Nonetheless, we know this gift is to and for all the world, and not just for us who now acknowledge it. We cannot, therefore, receive it without accepting the calling of Christ to be sent as he is sent by the Father, and always in his company.

What can feel, for some churches at least, like an urgent struggle for survival inevitably affects the way that the claim the church exists to serve the missio Dei is heard. If it does not speak directly to that sense of existential crisis, then — however much comfort and indeed inspiration a rich theology of mission and the church may bring for those who hold it — it will fail to orient the practical thinking that determines our attitudes and actions. On the other hand, if it can readily function as a persuasive rationale for whatever strategy may appear most likely to be effective in countering institutional decline, then it may silence questions we should be asking and serve as a solvent for historic commitments that should not be lightly abandoned.

Let me try to explain a bit further what I mean. Looking back over the development of thinking about mission and the church since Willingen, we might distinguish three distinct threads, brought together in varying combinations. One thread celebrates the multifaceted character of the missio Dei in all creation, including human society and culture beyond the borders of the church, and sees the church’s calling as discerning, affirming, and participating through its actions in this continual divine movement. Since the 1960s, such thinking has given scope for embracing the space left by religious decline as still full of divine activity, and therefore still an invitation for the faithful engagement of the church in God’s mission. Perhaps, on this view, the approaching precipice is nothing to be afraid of.

Another thread gives a specific priority to the task of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples as determining the church’s participation in the missio Dei. The Decade of Evangelism announced by the 1988 Lambeth Conference began in 1990 with the issuing of Redemptoris Missio by Pope John Paul II, which also reasserted the importance of people coming to faith in Christ. Religious decline in Western societies, and the vigor of different forms of religiosity elsewhere, have perhaps helped to promote this way of understanding the relation between mission and the church. But it can intersect with the crushing demand that churches work ever harder to reverse the encroaching tides of secularization, while also being invoked to dismiss the significance of aspects of church life that appear to lack “missional benefit” in attracting new people to our churches.

There is also a third thread, perhaps not so easy to define and not so widely influential, in my church at least, as the other two. It would be expressed in something like the claim that the church serves the missio Dei by sustaining a way of being, a form of life, that is given by God: through the relationships it encompasses, configured by its commitment to certain practices and structures of relation. What matters most for the church in mission, in this view, is not about ever-changing forms of activity directed toward engagement with the society in which it is set, as envisaged by both the first two threads in their different registers, but continuing faithfully to be the church in the world, which means maintaining the texture of practices and relationships that bestows its character and its continuity across the ages.

Weaving together that third strand with the second, if not the first as well, seems crucial for articulating anything that could claim to be a distinctively Anglican understanding of mission and the church. That may be stating the obvious, though how to do it well is not so straightforward. I would argue that Michael Ramsey’s approach in The Gospel and the Catholic Church still points us in a helpful direction. The third strand also, however, underlines that the church begins from women and men receiving together the word of the risen Christ, so that this receiving, which always elicits a response in faith, with gift and calling intertwined, forms a community, shapes its practices, and gives texture to its relationships as one body, his body, through all generations. It is only in welcoming his word of peace, which dispels all anxiety, and letting it fill our common life, that we participate in the mission of the Triune God and share the good news of his resurrection with the world.

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