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. 





Communion Matters VI: Movie Night

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Or better yet, I am referring to movie nights! How does the one and constant Gospel come to have expression in a myriad of cultures across centuries and cultures? We may think of this as a modern preoccupation, and so it is. But it was not invented so recently, and some of the most creative answers came about at the very dawn of the modern era, in the 17th century. I have in mind the Roman Catholic order of the Jesuits. They were so deeply and thoroughly formed that they carried their monastery on their back, and could try some bold experiments in adaptation. They were not beyond criticism, but they always stirred up though reflection on the challenge of the Gospel.

I want to begin my description in the mode of movie and book reviews. The most famous is ‘The Mission’ with the remarkable soundtrack. The ‘kingdom of the Guarani’ was an indigenous Christians in present-day Paraguay, apart from the depredations of the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. It embodied Francis and liberation theology at once. At roughly the same time, in present day Canada the mission to the Huron people led to torture of the missionaries, who thereupon struggled to return to their flock. They embodied missionary identification. The movie ‘Black Robe’ renders that world hauntingly. More recently the movie version of Endo’ ‘Silence’ presents the martyrs’ history of the Jesuits in Japan and raises deep questions about what fidelity looks like.

To this we could add Jonathan Spence’s ‘The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci.’ Ricci took the road of slow adaptation wherein the missionary inhabited areas of common faith until the host culture was ready for the shock of the cross- other Catholics objected strongly! Ricci in his topknot and silk could quote Confucius with the greatest local scholar in perfect Mandarin. To this we can add Peter Phan’s ‘Mission and Catechesis’, a study of Alexandre de Rhodes’ work in Vietnam, where he used the local philosophy as toeholds into explanation of Christian doctrine, from most to least accessible.

These are settings far afield, and yet the very question that lie before in this altogether changed circumstance.




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.