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Actually, my heart isn't for mission

19 July 2013

THE Archbishop of Canterbury gave the General Synod a sharp reminder of how quickly British culture is changing. He is all too aware that a new hostility to the Church has emerged.

This sets a profound challenge: can the Church show that it has the interests of the whole of society at heart?

The sexuality debate marks a rift in society's good will towards the Church. It is easy for the Church to think it can recover its credibility simply by barking against welfare cuts. But the bark has no bite: the Church is still widely, if unfairly, perceived as caring only about its own issues - not just about women and gays, but also about numbers and decline.

For obvious reasons, "mission" has become one of the most important words in the Church's vocabulary. Parishes and deaneries are enrolled into Mission Action Plans, and the clergy are expected to provide "missional" leadership.

I use this mission-language myself, but find it increasingly problematic. If I were an outsider, and had only secondhand knowledge of the Church's concerns, I could well find the "mission" word slightly sinister.

I know that many of those with a "heart for mission" care deeply about the whole fabric of society. The problem is that language produces attitudes, and mission-shaped language will always sound vaguely predatory to those who fear that they may be the object of the Church's outreach. Would I let my children go to Sunday school if this is what I feared?

The Church has been part of the English landscape for more than 1500 years, and it is still very evidently around. The prevalence of the word "mission" could suggest that its interest is institutional survival: bums on pews, money in the plate. What is missing is the concept of participation, a concern for society's well-being.

Here's an idea. Credit unions make a real difference to those who are on the edge of survival. A credit union has just been launched to help the clergy. It's a shame that it started this way, but the Archbishop has suggested that the Church could build on this, using church halls as a base for local credit unions, as an alternative to pay-day loans.

If this really worked, and the Church facilitated a network of credit unions, it could put the loan sharks out of business. Forget about bums on pews. Humility, like charity, begins at home.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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