Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mission: the common ground for ecumenism

Looking up at the cross in the ceiling of Chong-Yi Church in China ... should ecumenical dialogue work from the top down or the bottom up? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow

Thursday, 25 February 2010, 7.30 p.m.

Luke 24: 1-12; Luke 24: 25-25; Luke 24: 36-49


May I speak to you in the name of God, + the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Introductory remarks

I want to begin by thanking Father Joe Cantwell for his kind invitation and the honour of speaking here this evening at this annual ecumenical gathering in Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan.

When Father Joe worked with the Irish Missionary Union, we worked closely together in the Mission Dialogue Group, linking IMU and the Association of Mission Societies (AMS) in the Church of Ireland. We were both members too of the Development Forum in Ireland Aid and the Department of Foreign Affairs, where we represented the mission agencies.

Father Joe was also a member of the committee of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, when I was secretary and later Chair of DUFEM. So, we both have had positive experiences of the ecumenical support the personnel in mission agencies offer and provide for each other. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus in our second reading this evening, we walked together on those roads, and in walking together we knew that we were walking together with the Risen Christ.

Our Gospel readings this evening are from Saint Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel reading on Sunday, for the first Sunday of Lent (Luke 4: 1-13), was about the temptations Christ faced in the wilderness – temptations to opulently display his kingship, majesty and glory. And in many ways, there is lesson there for us this evening. It has been said time and again in recent years that we are in an ecumenical wilderness, so we seem to be getting nowhere in the ecumenical project.

But sometimes I think in ecumenical dialogue we have worked from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We have been concerned about the power, majesty and glory of our Church structures. Instead we should have been working from the bottom up, like Christ spent his time working with people, living with them, eating with them, walking with them.

True mission, like true ecumenism, is more concerned with the Good News than with good statements, is more concerned with proclaiming justice than passing judgment, is more concerned with mission than with conformity, rejoices in diversity by finding our unity in the Word of God.

Diversity and unity

Members of a young congregation in China ... are our divisions a barrier to the mission of the Church? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How the mission bodies – such as the Irish Missionary Union and the Association of Mission Societies, or Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society and the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission – work together in mission is, in many ways, a model for how the Churches should be working together too.

Ecumenism looks out, in trying to bring about the unity of all branches of the one Church; but it must also look within, seeking to bring healing and unity within each branch or tradition of that one Church.

For example, within the Anglican tradition, there is a wide divergence and diversity that is so wide it seems at times to be threatening Anglican unity. Those divisions and diversity separating the different mission agencies within the Anglican tradition of the Church reflect the divisions within Anglicanism today, and have also contributed in a large measure to creating those divisions today.

I have had first-hand experience through my work with them: USPG (the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – on whose board and council I serve – has long been seen as being the more Catholic agency within the Anglican churches. On the other hand, the Church Mission Society family of mission agencies – and I worked for CMS Ireland for four years – are seen as being more Protestant.

This can be damaging not only for the witness and mission of one tradition within the Church, but for the witness and mission of the whole Anglican tradition … indeed for that whole one Church, the Church Catholic.

Anglican divisions

The present divisions within Anglicanism reflect the decision by the two main Anglican mission agencies to carve up, divide and share their Victorian world. In an article in the Guardian on the “Battle for the soul of Anglicanism,” the Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, now Canon-Chancellor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, typified the two main Anglican mission agencies, CMS and USPG, as conservative, evangelical and liberal, high church societies that “carved up the empire, creating Anglican provinces of hugely different theological temperaments.”

This rift is also reflected in the current debate within the Anglican Communion, supposedly about the sexuality of one bishop in the United States, and the attitude of the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada to same-sex relationships. But Christianity today largely belongs to the “two-thirds” world, and there is a perception in many African, Asian and Latin American Churches that the Churches in the northern Hemisphere and Australia are rich, domineering, and demanding that churches in the two-thirds world be shaped in their image and likeness in return for mission activity and generous financing in the past.

The rift threatens to divide the Anglican Communion. Already African bishops and archbishops are sending missionaries and priests to North America, not to convert non-Christians or to plant churches, but to win away members of the Anglican or Episcopal Church (TEC).

The Risen Christ in front of the Cross above the high altar in Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, Orlando ... we can know him when we walk together (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The mission agencies are caught in a dilemma: do they support the churches they once gave birth to and that still look to them for support, or do they support the bishops of their own churches at home? So, within Anglicanism, mission agencies need to examine their own contribution to internal divisions within their own traditions before making any claims to a right to engage externally with the divisions in the wider Church Catholic.

The debate within the Anglican Communion may deeply injure if not divide many of the mission societies. This is the sad legacy of an Anglican approach to mission that was based on enthusiasm and the voluntary principle but failed to develop a coherent theology of mission, integrated with a coherent and consistent ecclesiology.

Mission demands ecumenism

Yet, while we seem to bicker and backbite in public, we seem to get along well when it comes to the practicalities of mission. One worker in a markedly evangelical mission agency, working for many years in East Africa, told once how, when you badly need loo rolls and you’ve run out of them, you don’t care, when the nuns give you a fresh supply, whether they are Protestant rolls or Catholic rolls.

Mission can force us into ecumenical dialogue. Mission demands ecumenical dialogue. Mission creates ecumenical dialogue. And mission is the foundation for all true ecumenism.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910. And I hope to return to the significance of this centenary in a moment or two. But we ought to recognise that even before Edinburgh 1910 there were mutual exchanges between [Roman] Catholics and Anglicans on this island that helped us all to grow in mission and to be inspired in mission from the late 19th century on. And it would be impossible to do mission in an Anglican context without being conscious of the ecumenical imperative.

One of the failures of the Anglican tradition after the Reformation was the failure to develop a real sense of mission. The first Anglican overseas mission agency, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), was formed in 1701, and its first Irish committee was formed in 1714 – almost two centuries after the Reformation.

The arrival of Moravian missionaries from central Europe in these islands in the 18th century helped stoke the slow-glowing embers of mission among Anglicans at the time, and ignited the flames that burst into the great fire of Methodism. The failure of Anglicans to celebrate and be joyful in the Methodist missionary impulse was a loss that is still to our great shame.

Philip Embury and Barbara Heck ... a reminder of the Irish contribution to Methodist missions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Orlando last month, in the First United Methodist Church, I noticed panels in the stained glass windows commemorating two early Irish Methodist missionaries, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck. And I wondered: What if Anglicanism had accommodated and affirmed the enthusiasm of those early Methodists and their mission work in America? Would Anglicanism be very different today? While those pioneering Methodists engaged in real mission, Anglicans, including the mission agencies, retreated into the great pink blobs on the map of the empire, giving their priority to chaplaincy rather than to mission.

When Anglicans moved from chaplaincy to mission, we soon realised the ecumenical demands of mission: in India, the first Anglican missionaries, supported and financed by SPG and SPCK, were Lutherans who were ordained in Denmark but were happy to use the Book of Common Prayer; in Jerusalem, Anglicans and Lutherans co-operated in establishing a new diocese; despite misgivings about ecumenical co-operation within their own traditions, they knew it was necessary for the sake of mission, for the sake of the Church, for Christ’s sake.

Unique Irish experiences

In the 19th century, frustrations with the perceived failure to drive forward the mission of the Church led to the formation of the first great university missions on these islands. David Livingstone’s account of his travels in Africa in a speech in Cambridge in 1857 generated new mission enthusiasm, giving rise to the formation of new mission societies at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Dublin and Durham.

In Ireland, a unique outgrowth of the work of SPG and CMS was the formation of two university missions in Dublin, modelled on the Oxford and Cambridge Missions. These two university missions in Dublin predate the missions formed in Maynooth by more than 30 years or a full generation. At a series of meetings in Trinity College Dublin in 1885, the inspirational Robert Stewart appealed for volunteers for China. At those meetings, over 40 students solemnly dedicated themselves to mission work overseas.

These meetings led to the formation of what is now the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, which worked principally in China, and, in 1890, of the Dublin University Mission to Chota Nagpur, which worked in India. Both university missions sent pioneering Irish missionaries to China and India from the late 19th century on. They gave their names to two uniquely Irish foundations that continue to this day: Trinity College, Fuzhou and Saint Columba’s Hospital, Hazaribagh.

In an ecumenical “infection” that is impossible to imagine in the cultural and religious atmosphere of the time, both university missions probably played roles in creating the atmosphere if not the inspiration that led to the creation of two university mission societies with roots in Maynooth.

What was once the Maynooth Mission to China dates from 1912, when Father Edward Galvin volunteered for mission work in China. He was joined by Father Paddy Reilly and Father Joe O’Leary, and over the next four years they developed their idea of an Irish university mission society.

When Galvin returned to Ireland in 1916, he and the new Professor of Theology at Maynooth, Father John Blowick, formed a new mission society, the Maynooth Mission to China, later the Missionary Society of Saint Columban. The first group of eleven Columban missionaries arrived in Shanghai in 1920. Since then, the Columbans have continued to grow, working throughout East Asia, and their work has spread far and wide, even to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America.

The same missionary impulse that had its seeds in Maynooth also led to the formation of the Saint Patrick’s Missionary Society, based here in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow. Bishop Joseph Shanahan, a Spiritan, was running a huge diocese in Nigeria, with eight million people and only 23 priests. He appealed to students being ordained in Maynooth to give the first five years of their priesthood to Nigeria. The first student to volunteer was Father P.J. Whitney, who was ordained in 1920 and then joined Bishop Shanahan in Nigeria.

When Father Whitney returned to Maynooth in 1930, he too made an appeal to the students just as Bishop Shanahan had a decade earlier. The society became a permanent missionary body on Saint Patrick’s Day 1932. Since then the work has spread far beyond Nigeria to nine African countries, but also to Brazil and the West Indies.

The ecumenical spark

These two societies are unique in the [Roman] Catholic Church in Ireland. Unlike the Spiritans, for example, they are not religious orders. Unlike other missionary societies or orders, they are uniquely Irish. In their university origins and in their organisation outside the normal diocesan structures or the traditional vows and rules, and in their initial focus on a particular mission field, China on the one hand and Nigeria on the other, they reflect the way the two earlier missions emerged in Dublin University and the ways in which they were organised.

How was this, perhaps unconscious inspiration, this surprising ecumenical cross-pollination, possible in those days? What happened in the generation or two between the formation of the Dublin University missions and the formation of the Columbans and Saint Patrick’s?

The key event in between was the great Edinburgh Missionary Conference, or World Missionary Conference, in June 1910. Although no Orthodox or Roman Catholic representatives were present, or invited, Edinburgh marks the formal beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. The spirit among the 1,200 people present was summarised in the slogan: “The evangelisation of the world in this generation.” Of the eight conference commissions and reports, the most important was that on “Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity.”

A sense of obligation and urgency ran through the debates and reports. Although no common liturgy was celebrated by the delegates, that call to unity among missionaries was expressed as a common desire. Unity around the altar may have been difficult if not impossible; but there could be unity around the Word, and they realised that mission was debased without that unity. The conference laid the foundations for the International Missionary Council in 1921, and, later, for the World Council of Churches in 1948. And so the needs of mission gave rise to realising the need to work for unity.

The purpose of mission

The two Dublin University missions and both the Columbans and Saint Patrick’s recognised something that earlier mission societies, both Anglican and [Roman] Catholic, had often failed to grasp: the difference between mission and chaplaincy. When Bishop Shanahan first made his appeal, it was normal for newly-ordained priests to go to England or America to work among Irish emigrants and their families. But until then, none had gone to Africa. Similarly, Irish Anglican missionaries often worked with Irish Anglican emigrants in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, for example. Realising the mission needs of India and China was a breakthrough in mission thinking in the Church of Ireland. And so we share not only similar stories, but similar insights … we have learned the same lessons at the same time.

In the past, Anglican mission agencies were divided on whether their purpose was to make converts or to work for the expansion of the Church. One emphasised individual salvation, the other emphasised the Kingdom of God through its sacramental and liturgical life.

But today, by and large, all Anglican mission agencies accept the five-point definition of mission, first formulated at the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 and developed in 1990. That five-point definition says mission is:

● To proclaim the good news of the kingdom;
● To teach, baptise and nurture new believers;
● To respond to human need by loving service;
● To seek to transform the unjust structures of society;
● To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In those five aims, there is a real overlapping with contemporary theology of mission in [Roman] Catholic thinking, particularly as I find it outlined by Donal Dorr in his book, Mission in today’s world (Dublin: Columba, 2000).

The challenges in mission today

The principal day-to-day challenges facing us all in mission today are shared and demand co-operation and ecumenical vision. They include these ten:

1, Working with HIV/AIDS. Surely the suffering of people is more important than their sexuality, liberation from their exploitation more important than judgment?

2, A drop in giving to all mission agencies throughout the northern hemisphere, and making them more dependent on the demands of the support base rather than responding to the needs of churches.

3, Growing secularism and the general acceptance of post-modernism: for example, post-modernist thinking affirms the separateness of mission agencies at a time when they need to coalesce in a secular world.

4, Muslim-Christian encounters, which are often confrontational but need to be turned into dialogue. An example of seeking best practice in this field is the Anglican-Muslim dialogue initiative in Egypt, but this is not something we can do on our own, we can only do it honestly if we are hoping to engage the whole Church Catholic in this dialogue.

The emerging needs of churches in post-communist countries make new demands on our understanding of mission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford),

5, The emerging needs of churches in post-communist countries such as Romania and China to be equipped in and empowered for mission. In central Bucharest, the Anglican and Orthodox churches, realising their shared experience of suffering and oppression, can share in meeting the needs of homeless people living on the streets of the Romanian capital. In China, you cannot imagine the impact of a group of northern European Protestant church leaders dropping to their knees in prayer together in Shanghai’s Catholic Cathedral ahead of a meeting with Bishop Jin. For in China, Protestants and Catholics are divided within themselves, and are seen by the rest of the Chinese people as two separate religions.

An ecumenical mission group from Europe meeting Bishop Jin in Shanghai

6, Learning to distinguish between development work and mission. It is easier in many parishes in Ireland to raise funds for Trocaire, the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal Fund or Christian Aid than to raise support for a mission project. There is a danger that dependence on Irish Government funding can set priorities for the mission agencies, focussing more on development than on mission. We need to guard against reducing mission to evangelism, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, to good works.

7, Ecumenism not only externally between the churches, but internally, for example between the agencies within Anglicanism, which are competing with each other for a support base, and feel threatened when another agency is seen to shift its ethos because of closer working relations with external bodies.

8, The emergence of new churches that are not easy to define within traditional ecclesiology: for example, is the China Christian Council a Church in ecclesiological terms? How do we co-operate with these churches without being judgmental? How do we protect them from heresy yet respect their independence and their authentic identity so they can explore their potential for mission?

9, The emergence of a shallow fundamentalism that is lacking in real spirituality, and which promotes a feel-good factor but not discipleship. And this point is one that threatens the church in all its expressions in various guises. It is, by nature, opposed to all ecumenism.

10, And finally, I could not go without mentioning the present crisis in the Church here in Ireland, which is the most immediate challenge we face in ecumenism and in mission. This is a crisis of confidence in integrity, in morality, in the life, witness and mission of the Church. It is a crisis that is so deep that it is a barrier to many people ever being open again to receiving the ministry of Word and Sacrament in their lives. It is a crisis that has dealt a severe blow to the whole Church, not just to one part of the Church, and if we fail to face this crisis as partners in the Gospel, if we fail to walk on the road together, we will fail to allow the Church to be transformed by the Risen Christ.

If we fail to face up to our need to work together in ecumenism, we may fail in the mission of the Church, in fulfilling the Great Commission itself. But if we walk together, then shall find that we are walking with the Risen Lord, and together we can say we know him too in the Breaking of the Bread. As I said earlier: mission can force us into ecumenical dialogue. Mission demands ecumenical dialogue. Mission creates ecumenical dialogue. And mission is the foundation for all true ecumenism.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the 2010 Annual Ecumenical Lecture given at Saint Patrick’s College, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, on Thursday 24 February 2010.