Thursday, March 8, 2007

Mission (Alone) Won't Keep Us Together

At the March 2007 Executive Council meeting in Portland, OR, there was no lack of meetings, as you might expect. The Saturday plenary session featured an address by the Rev. James B. ("Jim") Lemler, the Director of Mission for the national church and former dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, on the new mission funding initiative for the Episcopal Church.

I thought Rev. Lemler gave a decent pitch for an ambitious program. (I'll write more about the actual program another time.) One statement he made particularly stood out to me: an assertion that only common mission would hold together the Episcopal Church.

This is not a new perspective. It’s been reiterated time and time again by many people throughout this time of trial in the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Communion. And, personally, I'd love to agree with Rev. Lemler and the others who are so convicted. I really would. If there's one thing, though, that I've seen time and time again, it's that mission alone is not a source of unity—not in the Episcopal Church, and not at all in the churches (period).

Don't get me wrong. Anglicans of all theological stripes may value and support the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They're the vehicle that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has described as the way that the Episcopal Church will meet God's vision of shalom. Neither orthodox Anglicans nor progressive ones own a monopoly on the desire to reduce poverty (much less extreme poverty), see education expanded, and combat life-threatening diseases!

But when the Episcopal Church holds its primary mission as reconciliation in the sense of healing the world through the MDGs, as Bishop Jefferts Schori told the press after the departure of the Virginia parishes in December—then any “unity” is a very fragile one that inevitably will shatter. Evangelicals and other orthodox Anglicans simply have a different sense of the primary mission of the church.

Bishop Jefferts Schori herself is well aware of this fact. She mentioned it at the Episcopal Urban Caucus annual meeting held in Raleigh, NC, this February. There, she said that some Episcopalians look to the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31–46 for the major mission of the church, while others look to the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18–20.

She’s right, although many progressives cite Matthew 22:34–40, with the two great commandments, as their mission statement. Progressives and other Anglicans believe that the church primarily is called to love people by responding to their needs through social witness (e.g., feeding the hungry, alleviating the needs of the poor). Orthodox Anglicans, on the other hand, take their cues from Jesus’ call to make disciples and see the Church as needing to call people to repentance and faith in Christ.

Is there a middle ground here? “I don’t believe God has any patience with arguments over which is more important—evangelism or social justice,” Bishop Jefferts Schori told the Episcopal Urban Caucus. She emphasized that evangelism involves both words and deeds, and orthodox Anglicans would agree. Nevertheless, she clearly leads the denomination in the direction of, and places her main emphasis upon, a progressive social witness; she has talked comparatively little of evangelism, and when she has, she has spoken primarily of “deed-based evangelism.”

But even if Episcopalians and Anglicans united around the Great Commission found in Matthew 28 as the primary mission of the church, it would not be enough. Why? Because it’s not mission that binds the church together, but worship.

“No problem,” might be the response. “We are united in worship thanks to the Book of Common Prayer” (BCP). Indeed, the BCP is a wonderful gift. Still, even it is not enough when unaccompanied by a common conviction regarding what constitutes the gospel that the Church is to spread. Bishop Jefferts Schori alluded to this difference in a February interview with USA Today. There, she spoke of two strands of Christianity that could be found in Anglicanism: one that focuses on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the need for human beings to repent of their sins, and one that in her mind is “more gracious” and affirms life. While she did not elaborate further, the “more gracious” strand must be the “ministry of global peace-making that makes a place and affirms a welcome for all God’s creatures” that she described in her investiture sermon. The first strand emphasizes humanity’s rebellion against God; the second one calls for the inclusion and affirmation of each individual. As the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, memorably said, “We have moved from sinners in the hands of an angry God to clients in the palms of a satisfied therapist.”

The BCP also is not enough when many Episcopalians take the truths of the gospel in a metaphorical, as opposed to a literal, sense. For example, many (not all) progressive Episcopalians uphold Jesus not as the “Son of God” in the orthodox sense of being “the only begotten Son of the Father” who has existed from eternity past. Instead, they take the previous terms metaphorically and view him as the greatest human example of what a life with God should look like. Is Jesus literally deity made flesh, or is he instead the greatest human being in the history of the world? If he literally is God and not just a human being, then the otherwise (from a human standpoint) outrageous claim recorded in the gospels that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18) and subsequent call to go into the world that everyone might believe in him and receive the forgiveness of sins makes sense. It has force and leads directly to the orthodox understanding of the primary mission of the church. But if Jesus is only the best possible example for Christians of what a life that reflects God’s character and heart looks like, then the Great Commission may well have less weight and his works of mercy, healing, and other forms of social witness may well take center stage—as they have in the Episcopal Church. And the social witness espoused by the Episcopal Church is almost uniformly a politically and socially liberal, as opposed to conservative, one.

Over 70 years ago, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, saw that mission alone could not unite Anglicans. In his famous work The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1990), originally published in 1936, he wrote:

There are many … within the Church who believe that its relevance must be found in its ability to take a lead in social and international policies, and who would meet the situation by attempts to make the Church “up to date” and “broad-minded” and “progressive” … [but] the relevance of the Church of the Apostles consisted not in the provision of outward peace for the nations, nor in the direct removal of social distress, nor yet in any outward beauty of the Church itself, but in pointing to the death of Jesus the Messiah, and to the deeper issues of sin and judgement (3–4).

Make no mistake: Sharing a common mission in the Episcopal Church and/or the larger Anglican Communion can be a great and powerful force for good. The MDGs on the whole are praiseworthy even though they certainly are not the only way to tackle the problems that they address. Furthermore, Anglicans can differ in non-essential elements of the faith and work in different ways to fulfill the various facets of the gospel. But mission alone will not create unity within a deeply divided part of the body of Christ. Unity in an understanding of and commitment to the gospel out of which mission flows is essential.

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