Communion Matters X: The Church as a Culture of Gift

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A year ago I heard an excellent sermon by Father JD Brown of our diocese at an ordination. He compared the Church to dominos, which involve a knock-on process, one person to the next. You can trace ‘apostolic successions’ of belief from someone to someone else to you to a person you influenced, often a kind of ‘5 degrees of separation’ network. The Church is better thought of as a process, a living interaction, a giving and receiving, than as an entity of a more static kind.

This idea of an on-going process of giving and receiving, of traditio, which literally means ‘handing over’, connects to other aspects of our faith.  The concept of grace is equally based on the gift, which anthropologists see as the central feature of many traditional societies. (This idea lives on in family in our culture, which is not (we hope) best understood as the transfer of goods and services.  Grace is freely given, and we are defined first of all as recipients. And of course all of this is dependent on Jesus, and his ‘being handed over’ to death and resurrection. 

It is easy, but misleading, to think of communion as a thing, something we a have or don’t, say with the Methodists or Roman Catholics (though the question of whom we can share Holy Communion with is a relevant and complicated question).  Rather communion is being in a relation of covenant in which we are committed to give and receive in our common life.  (If you want a deep meditation on this theme, read the great Orthodox bishop and theologian John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion, which extrapolated from the nature of the Church to that of human existence as a whole).  If I may move to a Spanish idiom for a moment, vivir is naturally compartir, something we do with others inherently.

What kind of giving and receiving is the Church? It is the handing on of teaching and example from one generation to another in a parish, or the giving and receiving of compassion on the face of suffering, or even of discipline and exhortation when things get off the rails.  But at a more macro-level, it is giving and receiving from one place to another, one generation to another, across time and space. This helps us to give language to the kind of process that we mentioned in our meditation of Newbigin. The Church of one culture gives its discernment, of recognition or questioning, to another. At the same time, since the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, it gives and receives monetary help, its testimony of persecution, its music and art, its lament and complaint at injustice, etc.  As this happens, the Church is being brought into being, in the exchange, in the wake of the gift of grace,.

Communion Matters: VIII: Birthday Observance

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This series of blogs is communion as a concept and a reality, and why it matters to us. As such it has a close relationship to mission, the activity whereby churches come to be, by God’s grace, including their on-going relationship to one another.  With respect to both the communion between churches, and the impulse to mission, no one was more important in the last century than Lesslie Newbigin.  His death (or birthday into eternal life in the ancient church) a quarter century ago this week is a good time to recall him.

 

After his time at Cambridge as the leader of the evangelical student group (and a leading social activist!), Newbigin set out to south India as a missionary in 1936. He would stay for nearly a half century, as he mastered the Tamil language. After the creation of the Church of South India this Presbyterian pastor would become a bishop in apostolic succession, much to his surprise. His career tracks all the great themes of modern mission, and noting each directly informs our own missional situation. 

The Church scene in India which Newbigin encountered included all the denominations in rivalry as we might expect. But as time went on, it became clear that the challenges all the churches faced were far more significant in the face of omnipresent Hinduism than the inherited theological differences.  New settings in mission created the impetus for ecumenical reunion. (Though the Anglo-Catholics objected over the apostolic succession), a number of Protestant denominations, including the Anglicans, joined the new Church of South India. Newbigin played a leading role in its creation in 1947.  Here we see the close connection precisely between mission and communion, between evangelism and the Church’s form. At the same time, Newbigin had a deep appreciation and friendly attitude toward Hindus and Muslims. He believed that Christians had in themselves no grounds for a sense of superiority, and that all religions, including the Church, are reduced to their knees at the foot of the cross of Jesus. By this he clarified how the Church does and doesn’t have a unique claim.

In the decade after World War II the churches of the Global South pressed for independence, and the age of colonialism came to an end. Newbigin was a theological leader in the new thinking, which sought to be more Christo-centric, as opposed to emphasizing the building up of the Church per se.  The main agent of mission was God Himself, who in his very triune being sends the Son for the redemption the world. This emphasis came to be called ‘missio Dei,’ ‘the mission of God,’ and became  very popular in the ensuing generation. Eventually Newbigin also became chary of the idea, when he saw how people came to identify what God was up to in the world in His mission with what they wanted him to be doing! (One scholar called it a ‘wax nose.’) Newbigin wanted the discernment of the missio Dei to be determined by the Word of God.

In the late 1970’s he returned to an England very different culturally from the one he had left. He came to see it with new eyes, as a mission field in itself, rather than as the cultural norm one might assume of home. This experience of ‘turning the lens’ and seeing the familiar as new, problematic, was connected to being a missionary accustomed to a certain sympathetic detachment.  He came to see more clearly that the Church needed all its branches, in their widely different cultural settings, to be in communication with one another, to encourage but also challenge one another, so that things that seemed ordinary in one place might be shown to be cultural accretions rather than outgrowths of the Gospel.  One might call this a principle of ‘recognizability.’ Can Churches of other cultures recognize a change as consistent with the Gospel, and can we do the same for them? Here the cultural diversity of the global Church serves to bring a mutual testing to one another, and so communion is intimately related to truth. One can see how applicable this last idea is to our own membership in a global family of churches from different cultures in the Communion.  

Finally, the popularity of the very word ‘missional’ as a way to describe our thinking about the nature of the Church comes from the community of thinkers in the wake of Lesslie Newbigin’s work. He continued his work in a cross-cultural parish in Birmingham, though blind and in his 90’s. May a fraction of his spirit for mission be found in us. 

Peace,

+GRS

 

 

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.

Amen.

GRS