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God is working his purpose out

30 January 2012

What part do mission agencies now have in it, asks Chris Chivers


Saving Power: The mission of God and the Anglican Communion
Michael Doe

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A VERY senior bishop recently said to me that he thought mission agencies had no future. “It’s all about personal links now,” he ventured. Another bishop — almost as senior — expressed his belief that mission agencies were still too colonial (when, ironically, some might argue that they are now too post-colonial). A good many bishops besides have frankly expressed indifference about the world Church, excepting, that is, whatever project their own diocese is advancing in relation to it.

Unlike other provinces in the Anglican Communion, the Church of England, for instance, has never really systematically addressed how it participates in God’s global mission. It has not seen things quite so holistically for one thing — since mission, for centuries, has been what we do to others rather than all participate in as equals. It has also been supposed, until very recently, that USPG and CMS were taking forward this reading of “mission” and functioning like a Foreign Office for the Church.

Much has changed. Not least, decolonisation and technology have shifted the balances of power Communion-wide and given the impetus to new theologies of mission, while the opening up of the field, changes in donor culture, and a financial squeeze on parishes have all affected the cash available for mission agencies.

In the C of E, there is a great deal of rethinking to do, and muddled half-truth to wade through, about mission agencies, partnership, communion, power dynamics, and the mission of God — to mention just five areas!

Michael Doe’s book, Saving Power, is an attempt in 100 pages to clear some of the misconceptions up, and also to clear the ground.

As the most recently retired General Secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel — the title alone hints at the historical complexity of the subject area — he is in a very good position to do so. What he offers is an excellent book to read in one sitting on a winter’s afternoon, because it has narrative drive and hints at questions that need to be asked — some more confronting than others — and does so in a way that makes you want to take things further.

It gives a brief survey of Anglicanism as it emerged from initial missions to these islands. It looks at the history of mission from — and now again back to — them. It tackles issues of power, colonialism, globalisation, the market, and post-modernism, and touches on how mission agencies relate to other forms of missionary endeavour — diocesan links, for example — or how mission relates to development.

The prose is tight and clear. The author does not shirk examining difficult truths — of which one is that those who donate cash for mission now want (in a rather neo-colonial way) all the feedback about measurables which can seem to tie partners up in knots and play out unhelpful historic power issues.

There is a very difficult balance to be achieved here, as the author acknowledges. His passion and experience is obvious. The story inevitably conflates a lot into its 100 pages — especially so when the stories from around the Communion are gathered together, and you are left demanding more. But what Doe very clearly does is to direct us all back to David Bosch’s seminal text Transforming Mission, with its central conviction that God’s mission is something in which we join, not something that we create.

How we do so is what Bosch explored for the generation immediately before mine very imaginatively. But Transforming Mission is, of course, now more than 20 years old. The field is as fast-moving as its global context. Doe’s book hints, then, at a necessary reassessment of Bosch for the contemporary Church, and maps some of the territory for readers. It is crucial — if real global communion is to be maintained and deepened among Christians with such divergent views — that it is continued.

Canon Chris Chivers is Vicar of John Keble Church, Mill Hill, and the author of Fully Alive (Pretext, 2011).

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