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The hard lesson of being mutual

16 August 2013

The Toronto Congress 50 years ago set an agenda that is still relevant, says Jesse Zink

Learn from the flock: an Anglican nursery in Southern Rhodesia in 1963

Learn from the flock: an Anglican nursery in Southern Rhodesia in 1963

FIFTY summers ago, Anglicans from around the world gathered in Toronto, for the second post-war Anglican Congress. Over ten days in August 1963, lay people, priests, and bishops heard many speeches and had much conversation around the theme of the "frontiers" - interreligious, political, cultural - that their Churches confronted. But the high point of the Congress was the reading of Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ, a manifesto that laid out a new vision for the Anglican Communion; it is one that Anglicans would do well to recall today.

MRI, as it came to be known, was the fruit of pre-congress meetings of mission executives and Primates, who shared a restlessness with the state of the worldwide Communion. The end of the British Empire meant that it was no longer clear what held Anglicans together. The growth of the Church outside the Euro-Atlantic world forced them to recognise that Anglicanism was no longer an exclusively Western Church.

Many saw this as an exciting new development, but there was concern that the Church was unable to move beyond old patterns of relationship. In MRI, they described a reborn Communion, held together in one interdependent body of Christ.

"To use the words 'older' or 'younger' or 'sending' or 'receiving' with respect to churches is unreal and untrue in the world and in our Communion," they wrote. "Mission is not the kindness of the lucky to the unlucky; it is mutual, united obedience to the one God Whose mission it is." 

ONE man at the centre of these pre-Congress meetings was the Rt Revd Stephen Bayne, a former Bishop of Olympia in the United States, and, by 1963, the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion. His wide travel in this post had given him the outlines of a theology of the Communion - a theology that began with St Paul's understanding of the body of Christ.

Anglicans around the world - whether they recognised it or not, and whether they liked it or not - were already linked in one body.

It was time to find "completely new" ways to express Anglicans' common obedience to one Lord, MRI said. "The keynotes of our time are equality, interdependence, [and] mutual responsibility."

In order to make these "keynotes" a reality, MRI challenged Anglicans to consider what they had to give, and to receive from others around the world. It was this latter part that so many Anglicans in the Euro-Atlantic world found challenging. 

Speakers at Toronto emphasised ways in which the life of Anglicans in the Euro-Atlantic world could be enriched by Anglicans from elsewhere: by learning about a holistic approach to the gospel, for instance, or in mutual prayer. But, for this giving and receiving to work, Anglicans needed deeper relationships with one another.

A significant focus of Bishop Bayne's time as executive officer was building up communications links between parts of the Church, and encouraging Anglicans to meet one other in their own cultures.

This emphasis on the importance of relationships led to a new way of thinking about what the body of Christ was to do and be in the world. Mission, MRI said, is not "something we do for someone else". Rather, mission was about all members of the body of Christ joining in what God was doing: calling all people to unity and service in the world.

"Missionaries do not go out into the world to introduce the world to God, or he to it," Bishop Bayne said in Coventry in 1962. "He is already there; he has been there from the beginning; he is standing waist-deep in history, calling us to join him."

When Donald Coggan, then Archbishop of York, read aloud MRI to the assembled delegates on Saturday 17 August 1963, it was widely hailed as a moment of rebirth for the Anglican Communion. The New York Times carried a front-page article about it, and printed the full text. Other observers praised MRI for the way that it showed Anglicans honestly wrestling with what obedience to God meant in a new era.

Despite the praise, however, MRI failed to live up to its billing. Many Anglicans interpreted its call to mission as a call to financial giving, even though such giving can undermine the development of the very relationships that MRI saw as critical to the existence of the Church. Churches became consumed by domestic issues in the turmoil of the late 1960s. Gradually, MRI faded from conversation.

In its fractures in the early 21st century, the Anglican Communion stands as a mirror-image of the divisions that stalk a world ever more divided by class, race, region, background, and so much else. "Frontiers" abound, in parishes, dioceses, and the worldwide Church. The body of Christ seems not a reality, but an ideal hardly to be grasped.

Fifty years on from MRI, it is worth returning to the manifesto and the period that produced it. In its emphasis on the patient work

of building genuine relationships across lines of difference, the importance of genuinely coming to know one another in the context in which each lives, and above all in its recognition that God is always calling us to something greater than ourselves, MRI has much to teach us.

It is risky to reach out to those who are different from us, and daring to ask what we might learn from someone from a different background. But it is precisely these things that are at the heart of what it means to be God's people in the world - a fact that is no less true today than it was in August 1963. 

The Revd Jesse Zink is assistant chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and author of the forthcoming book Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion.

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