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Mission: Reconciliation & Engagement

Mission: Reconciliation & Engagement in Society

Bevans proposes six essential components to God’s mission which the Church are called to participate in: witness and proclamation; liturgy, prayer and contemplation; commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation; interreligious dialogue; inculturation and the ministry of reconciliation.[1] These are all metaphors deeply rooted in scripture and established by God in the Old Testament Covenant. Schreiter agrees: the “praxis of reconciliation is… a newly emerging paradigm of mission.” [2]

Bevans describes our post-Cold War world as a place of exclusion, eliciting angry and defensive reactions and suggests this can be countered by reconciliation that “proclaims that in Christ and in his community, healing is possible.” [3] This can only “be made credible through a Christian community that is committed to giving itself over to the possibility, and to living it out in the authenticity of its life.” [4]  He suggests that Christians make the ministry of reconciliation available to those who are pre-churched, by being open and available with no strings attached to those who suffer, as this cannot but be an act of witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus.

This speaks of ministry that is slow and patient, not requiring an immediate response or outcome but taking the pace of the journey from the persons who suffer. Bevans cites the work of Eleanor Doidge with Native American Indians where she asks: “Are there people today prepared to set down their tents and work to build honest relationships – for years in fact – where the truth can be told and trust can be re-established?”[5]

It requires vulnerability and sacrifice. It is not a propositional work, or witnessing that operates in a ‘hit and run’ manner, but is deeply relational and draws the missionary themselves into the pain and struggle that is seeking to be reconciled. Bevans says “to be a prophet is almost inevitably to suffer”[6] and cites Koyama’s “famous distinction between doing mission with a ‘crusading mind’ and doing mission with a ‘crucified mind’.[7] This kind of mission is characterised as “participation in the dialogical life and mission of the Trinity,”[8] prophetic by nature. He emphasises the need to listen carefully to people’s real questions and offer proclamation only out of a place of weakness and vulnerability. [9]

For Bevans this proclamation “always recognizes the dignity and the tragedy of the human person.” He identifies prayer and contemplation as essential to the work of reconciliation, as part of the “arduous work that takes place at any border crossing”, describing the vulnerability that comes as a part of “learning to acknowledge one’s own wounds.”[10]

Some churches may see the Kingdom of God as “an exclusively future reality and this world as a vale of tears, in the grip of the evil one”[11] and so they fail to accept a model of mission that sees society as the arena of God’s activity. Dan Hardy conversely suggests that the life of God can only be found through society and describes our attempts to separate ourselves from others in society as indicative of our degree of separation from God himself: “… we rationalize our separation from others in practical and theological terms – and build these into the structures of our social life – thereby enacting our separation from God in all kinds of ways.”[12] Deep and vulnerable engagement with other people in society is also a vital means of our own transformation and is itself a model of mission.

Culture and Inculturation: the Church, the People and the Gap  

Inculturation is the process whereby the Good News of Jesus Christ is able to engage with humanity and make sense in all its myriad cultural and social contexts, and as yet has not been fully successful “because it has not truly encountered people in their everyday cultural reality and become embedded in their lives and experience”.[13] Bevans describes inculturation as the most “urgent and controversial” issue in mission for the foreseeable future and the one upon which the future of the Church hangs.  He suggests proclamation of the Gospel in the future will emerge through dialogue in different contexts, requiring the missionary to let go of their power and ideas and enter into a conversation with others, through which the deep social nature of humanity will emerge[14]. When considered this way, we become aware that proclamation of the Gospel involves more than one party who knows sharing facts about reality with another who does not, but is much more provisional and fluid, revealing itself to both parties as they engage with it together. When describing Jesus’ mission model, NT Wright describes him “summoning his hearers to…take up their proper roles in God’s unfolding drama”[15] – a drama that is not yet fully revealed or understood and which requires risk, participation and vulnerable engagement to come to fruition.

Are some of our problems – in terms of the gap that has opened up between church and society – because our ministers don’t see themselves as missionaries to the people around them? In particular for the Church of England, with its establishment ties and self-understanding as the national religion, its ministers are tasked with a specific set of activities that serve ever smaller numbers of people and yet almost all their time is taken up with that and bureaucracy.  Evangelization and growth campaigns, such as the Wedding Project, are being developed on a national scale now and this is hugely to be welcomed but these are not yet embraced by all sections of the church.

Hardy suggests that the Church in the West has gradually drifted into a “position separate from, rather than, convergent with, the surrounding society” which assumes that “it is necessary to be separate from others in order to preserve and pursue the integrity of the Church and its life and message from ‘secularism’.”[16] Hardy describes Christians in the modern era as becoming accustomed to a “very church-centred notion of Christian faith[17] where meaning is enacted inside church by special leaders and the breadth of social meaning and interwovenness with the world is being lost. As this happens, the Church is being reduced and impoverished compared to a time when it exhibited “an extensive scope of Christian social meaning and activity”[18] in ordinary daily life. He likens this to “trying to put sunshine or the Spirit in a bottle.”[19]

As the engagement of the church with society reduces, so also does the capacity of society and church for understanding one another and making social meaning. This shines light upon the notion of reconciliation as a risky process in which each party needs to engage with humility in the search for mutual recognition. Hardy suggests that the ‘lay’ people are “by nature spread out and immersed in ordinary structures or agencies of social meaning” [20] He suggests that finding meaning in life is not a given but an a participative “social process of finding and enacting truth in the meaning of life.”[21] This speaks to the ideas raised by Bevans of dialogue, listening and weakness as dialogue emerges between people. It reminds us that in Adam all humans were covenanted to engage with culture and justice as reflective of the character of God; it is ontological to humans to engage with the world around them and to worship God and witness to Him via this engagement.

Hardy’s view of inculturation is that it is the inevitable consequence of the Church encompassing a broad sweep of ordinary people, who can share how Christianity relates to any number of particular situations. He suggests that God’s purposes reveal themselves via Wisdom as faithful human beings struggle with situations in the context where they are.The incorporation of these struggles into the sacramental worshipping life of the church gives wider meaning to God’s purposes and establishes the identity of the church for Hardy, which in turn allows the church to ‘make sense’,[22] a pre-requisite for its missionary task.

The drift towards a habituated inner life of the church that differs from the outer life of the people requires a re-building of connection and Hardy sees this happen where individuals “accept their missionary responsibility to assist each other in seeing and enacting the mutual implications of ordinary shared meanings with those involving God.”[23]

The LICC published a report several years ago called Mind The Gap[24] which researched how helpful attending church was to people in dealing with the difficult issues present in their real lives, such as caring for elderly parents or financial pressures. The results were truly awful, yet the Scriptures and the tradition contain principles and wisdom for almost every modern day situation!

Sarah Coakley describes the Church of England’s process of trying to re-imagine its place in a secularised society starting with the re-imagination of the priesthood: “before we could effectively reimagine the wider problems of Church and culture,” a conversation must take place within the context of the erosion of social status of the priest[25]. I would argue however that the erosion of the status of humanity as potentially priestly which is the real starting point for this reimagining, and also that the established Church must bear some responsibility for the way in which it has elevated clerical status above that of the whole body of believers as potential agents of God’s mission. Perhaps the predominantly lay led ‘Fresh Expressions’ movement is evidence that this is now being recognised and responded to.

From a feminist perspective, there is also much work to do here: “The greatest possible distortion of church is to identify it with an ecclesial superstructure that distorts our true nature and has been created by competitive and oppressive hierarchicalism. The whole concept of ministry as an ordained caste, possessing powers ontologically above nature and beyond the reach of the people, must be rejected. Instead, ministry must be understood as the means by which the community itself symbolizes its common life to itself and articulates different aspects of it to empower and express that common life.”[26] As until fairly recently clericalism has been a term that could only apply to men, there is a sense in which women coming into the structures has helped the Church to reimagine itself, by bringing new approaches and experience.

According to Koyama we live in an age of transition, a borderline between paradigms and as such this is a time of crisis, a point where “danger and opportunity meet.”[27] It is a time when the Church has lost some of its Constantinian privileges[28] and could take a different approach to mission; an approach based on engagement in society, responsive and inclusive, moving beyond its own walls, rather than structured around missionary ‘projects’.[29] This speaks to the image described by Bosch of the church as a pilgrim people, wandering in an age where it has no power or kingdom[30] and mirrors Jesus’ statement in Matthew 8:20 that he had nowhere to lay his head.

Again these are metaphors of weakness, not control or power. Can they speak to the Church as it tries to negotiate its weakened status in a society that desperately needs to hear the good news that we all need?

The latest Fresh Expressions research is very good news because it points to a shift in the structure, the way power is used, and who is allowed to create and contribute. ‘Lay lay’ people starting up new forms of church is a huge culture shift for the Church of England. What needs to happen next I believe is for this to become intentional and embedded into our practice, with new forms of church being matched or partnered locally with priests from the tradition who are willing to work together, share and respect the strengths of each tradition and its heritage, share ecclesiological and missiological perspectives, pray for one another, laugh and cry together about the struggles, talk and reflect on the changes in society and the local area and work together to close the culture gap and reimagine the purpose of church as servant to a community.

This takes a leap of imagination from where we are now. It will take a great deal of honesty, courage and vulnerability for clergy to lay down their power and training and learn say from housewives who’ve set up a messy church, or detached youth workers out on the streets, or to think what their roles might be in a post-establismnent postmodern world. And it may take the same courage for people who may have been ignored or ridiculed by the church to sit around the table and share what they’ve learned and why they took risks. As facilitated conversations looks set to become the norm at General Synod in negotiating disputed issues, maybe this structure of guided conversations could provide a model for future sharing together as we try to work together to see the Gospel transform our society.

[1] S Bevans, Prophetic Dialogue (Orbis Maryknoll NY) 2011 p351
[2] R Schreiter quoted in Bevans Prophetic Dialogue p389
[3] Ibid p391
[4] Ibid p391
[5] Ibid p391
[6] Ibid p361
[7] Ibid p361
[8] Ibid p349
[9] Ibid p360
[10] Ibid p368
[11] Ibid p517
[12] D Hardy Finding the Church (SCM Press Canterbury) 2001 p241
[13] A Gittins in the foreword to G Arbuckle Culture, Inculturation and Theologians (Liturgical Press Minnesota) 2010 pxii
[14] Bevans Prophetic Dialogue p373
[15] NT Wright ‘the Mission and Message of Jesus’, cited in G Arbuckle Culture, Inculturation and Theologians p152
[16] Ibid p252
[17] Ibid p252
[18] Ibid p253
[19] Ibid p253
[20] Ibid p253
[21] Ibid p253
[22] Ibid p256
[23] Ibid p256
[25] Sarah Coakley ‘Prayer, Place & the Poor’pp1-20 in Edited by S Wells & S Coakley  Praying for England (Continuum London) 2008 p1
[26] R Radford Ruether Women-Church (Harper & Row, San Franscisco) 1986
[27] Cited in Bosch Transforming Mission p366
[28] See discussions of a ‘weak state church’ in the Littlemore Conference papers, Edited by S Wells & S Coakley in  Praying for England (Continuum London) 2008 p159; 
[29] Bosch p372
[30] Bosch p374

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