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It’s time the Church of England looked out beyond the cliffs of Dover

09 March 2018

The C of E has shrunk its horizons, Duncan Dormor argues. It should focus on world mission again

USPG/Leah Gordon

Candidates await confirmation in St Andrew’s, Glenview, Harare

Candidates await confirmation in St Andrew’s, Glenview, Harare

WE IN the Church of England increasingly recognise ourselves as a community of “missionary disciples”. Over the past decade or so, we have witnessed, or participated in, a host of innovations — from mission action plans to Fresh Expressions and Messy Church.

Despite this renewal of focus on mission, there is an extraordinary gap. We are all aware of the many ways in which our lives are embedded deeply in processes of globalisation. Through the flow of goods, information, and people, our lives are entangled with, and indebted to, many unseen others.

Yet, in the C of E, we have narrowed our horizons and lowered our gaze: we have forgotten that mission — our mission — is world-shaped. So our relationships with Christians abroad, if we ever think of them, tend to be described in terms of conflict and schism. The implication is that, cast adrift, we would have little to lose.

The centre of gravity of Christianity and Anglicanism has shifted decisively to the majority world in the southern hemisphere; so it is time for the C of E to refresh radically and reframe its thinking about the global aspects of mission. It is time for us to play a fuller part in the life of the Anglican Communion, in all its astonishing diversity and joyful celebration of the gospel.

If we do not, we risk conceding effective global engagement to the agency and agendas of other religious groups — most obviously, Pentecostalism and the resurgence of Islam — or to secular organisations. Such an abdication of responsibility is not an option.

Given that we believe that we can participate genuinely in the transformation of lives and communities in the UK, why should such engagement stop at Dover, or Heathrow? Our lack of genuine interest in the life of the Anglican Communion is shocking.

This February, members of the General Synod were privileged to hear from three contemporary Anglican leaders who brought a flavour of the world Church to Westminster. The Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba, spoke of the water crisis that is facing the cities of South Africa; Archbishop Winston Halapua, of Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia, conveyed a powerful sense of the challenges of climate change; and the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Bishop of Peshawar, the Most Revd Humphrey Peters, spoke of the challenges facing Pakistani Christians, and of his ministry in Peshawar, working alongside the Taliban.

All spoke movingly from their personal experience of the power of Christian faith, hope, and love. The General Synod’s Business Committee granted them 15 minutes to do so — between them (Synod, 16 February).

USPG/Leah GordonChristina Mng’ong’o, a lay catechist trained at Milo Bible School, supported bv USPG, reads the lesson at St Joseph’s, Peluhanda, in Tanzania

THE scope of Christian mission today knows no limits. It is simply the whole Church, with the whole gospel, for the whole person, in the whole world; from everywhere to everywhere.

Yet, of course, mission is inextricably tied up with culture and context. As British Christians, we have to contend with some weighty history; for Anglican mission bears the pervasive mark and deep scars of the British imperial enterprise.

These are not just the horrors of the Amritsar massacre, or the Mau Mau reprisals, but the widespread “everyday” exploitation, enslavement, displacement, and genocide of indigenous people. Like many of my generation, I can still recall the chant “Free Nelson Mandela”; and yet apartheid arose in a situation in which the majority of the native population survived the colonial encounter, unlike 80-95 per cent of the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

There are also the more insidious psychological and cultural effects; for much of the missionary enterprise over the past three centuries has been tied to the agenda of cultural imposition: “civilising” others whom we have “discovered”. As a result, Anglicanism has been complicit in the many dimensions of the “colonisation of the mind”, establishing ideas of superiority grounded in racist ideologies that have been deeply wounding.

It is because the Church of England is so tied to its history as an Imperial Church that the word “missionary” operates as a toxic brand in our contemporary moral lexicon — fairly, but also unfairly; for, while many Christians operated as willing servants to the Empire and its “glorious” mission, Anglican mission agencies also founded important hospitals and health initiatives, as well as educational establishments. Some of these nurtured the emergent nationalist leaders.

Then there are those extraordinary women and men who, behind the mask of conquest, broke the shackles of their own cultural assumptions and stepped out in trust, with vulnerability, to be shaped by their encounter with others.

Women such as Mary Slessor (1848-1915), who, for 40 years, lived and worked in Calabar, Nigeria, adopting unwanted children, especially twins (who, by custom, were frequently put to death), and contributed immensely to the community. Or priests such as C. F. Andrews, in India, or Roland Allen, in China, who endured the sneers and jibes of compatriots as they embraced local culture and promoted the rights of “subject peoples”.

Such Christians participate in intercultural encounters of the sort that lie at the heart of Jesus’s own ministry: in the dialogue that he has with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30) or the woman at the well (John 4.1-42), or, indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In short, encounters that are transformative exactly because they bridge the gulf of cultural difference.

AlamyAn illustration from Missionary Travels And Researches in South Africa, which was published in 1857 by David Livingstone

FAR too often, much that passes for overseas mission in our churches unwittingly replicates the older “civilising” imperial pattern. It generates unhealthy patterns of dependency, albeit today in the form of naïve charitable giving. However well-intentioned, church initiatives grounded simply in financial flows generate dependency that impairs the development of relationships marked by genuine reciprocity.

Rather than relate as friends, and as brothers and sisters in Christ, this sort of giving creates a pattern of patronage. Real relationships between persons in all their complexity and vulnerability are reduced to the more limited and limiting relationship of donor and recipient.

We give, and do not enquire about the cost to the dignity and well-being of those who receive, and who are not given the opportunity to give back in any substantive way. But we also give out of fear, and so we remain as we are: unchanged and unchallenged.

Our motivations (“We must help them”) remain unexplored. Yet, however masked, they clearly include the psychological need to assuage our uncomfortable feelings, which are feelings rooted in our attachment to material comfort.

By radical contrast, well-established partnerships, which allow for real conversation between real people — through exchanges and visits, worship, or shared social action — have the genuine capacity to deepen and transform all those involved.

Like all relationships, such partnerships take time. They involve a deep listening, mutual respect, discernment, and the willingness to learn. In this, they truly partake of the character of mission.

Real encounter can be daunting. We have to learn about the lives of others, and attend to the sensitivities and traditions of strangers who think and act in different ways from ourselves. Receiving the generous hospitality of other cultures, for example, gives us a glimpse of the ways in which, so often, we have conflated culture with Christ, and Britishness with Christianity.

Stretching and challenging encounters give us fresh eyes on our faith. It is no coincidence that many of our most dynamic churches are those that are most alive to worldwide mission. There are even cases in which engagement with global mission has reignited the embers of congregational life in decline.

If we are to be missionary disciples in a globalising world, we need to look up and out; to be drawn into the work of contextualising our experience of faith; and to begin a journey to an Anglicanism that is beyond Englishness, and beyond Empire.


The Revd Duncan Dormor is the chief executive of USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), the oldest Anglican mission agency, founded in 1701.

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