10 July 2024

Making Christian mission
disruptive and challenging
the links between mission,
violence and oppression

Professor Kelly Brown Douglas with the Revd Dr Duncan Dormor of USPG at the USPG conference in High Leigh this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Christian mission is disruptive and it must come alive, according to the Very Revd Dr Kelly Brown Douglas, when she challenged us today to rethink our paradigms of mission, and to think again about how the old models of mission were related to violence and oppression.

She was the keynote speaker this morning at the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), with the theme of ‘United Beyond Borders’. She is a leader in womanist theology and racial reconciliation, the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Canon Theologian at Washington National Cathedral.

Professor Brown Douglas asked us to think what just peace looks like. For her, forging a just peace means rethinking mission, and a shift from mission that is focussed on the conversion of individuals. In the past, mission has made victims of the recipients of mission that was part of colonialism, making them easy theological excuses for exploitation, often with racist aspects.

She linked the cultural and structural violence of imperialism and colonialism with the rise of white right Christian nationalism, and said the past model of mission was antithetical to building the kingdom and a world characterised by a just peace.

True mission is not about thrusting a particular culture and way of life on people, she said, but is about fostering the kingdom of God, the Missio Dei and a loving and just world that is characterised by a just peace.

Christian mission requires we listen to and understand the perspective of the victims of the conversion paradigm of mission and the violence that went with it. Violence breeds violence, she said, insisting violence is never initiated by the oppressed but is initiated by those who oppress.

We were challenged to think about how do we foster justice and the values that underpin justice and peace-making, the justice that God desires, and how do we live them out. This is the work of Christian mission, and it is not a project or event but a way of life, we were told. We heard that we are compelled to rethink mission and to create new models of mission that opens us to being just peacemakers in our world. ‘This is what spreading the good news of the Gospel is about … this is the work of Christian mission.’

The bell tower at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Bradon Muilenburg, the Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, was the keynote speaker this afternoon. He is originally from Michigan and has also worked with the Taizé community in France.

He spoke of his works along border lines and his day-to-day experiences in Calais. His work is supported by USPG, the Diocese of Canterbury and the Diocese in Europe.

He spoke of the distress of a family he heard about last night who were separated from their four-year-old child, and did not know whether the child was still alive or dead. ‘It cannot keep going on like this,’ he said. The child was found in a hospital in London this morning, but it is not always like this, and he spoke of two seven-year-old girls from Iraq who had drowned.

The reality is so different from the political rhetoric, he said. Too often people were spoken of as statistics. Referring to the language of reports in newspapers, he suggested we should not think that refugees are being dehumanised – it is we who are being dehumanised. We need to take fear away from the conversation, he said.

The refugees have experienced war, torture and injustice, they have been pushed back and teargassed at borders, yet they hold onto hope. People who have lost their own children have treated his child like their own family. ‘They shouldn’t have to face death again to be able to claim asylum.’

He spoke too of the work of Maria Skobtsova House, in the heart of Calais, offering sanctuary and hospitality to vulnerable refugees in the spirit of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Maria Skobtsova, ‘Saint Mary of Paris’.

He encouraged us to continue hoping and continuing our small efforts, and quoted the poem ‘Stubborn Ounces’ by Bonaro W Overstreet:

(To One Who Doubts the Worth of
Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything)

You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favour of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

Our Bible study this morning was led once again by Dr Dalcy Badeli Dlamini, Bishop of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. She looked at the idea that ‘for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3: 26-28, NRSV).

Bishop Dalcy is the second woman bishop in Eswatini, and she is leading the Bible studies throughout this week, bringing fresh perspectives on leadership, faith and community.

Looking at the cross, she reminded us that the vertical line draws us up to God, while the horizontal line calls us to reach out to one another. We are called to put aside any differences that society has dictated to us.

She then asked us to consider five questions:

1, What do you understand by the phrase ‘all one in Christ Jesus’ in the context of Galatians 3: 26-28?

2, How does being ‘children of God through faith in Christ Jesus’ in Galatians influence your understanding of unity and equality in your context?

3, How can the church integrate the message of unity and equality in Galatians 3: 26-28 in its daily interactions and ministry with people from different religious and social status?

4, What practical steps can you take to overcome conflicts and divisions in our churches/contexts today?

5, What measures can the church put in place to reflect the unity and equality Paul speaks about in the passage of scripture?

Once again, there was a choice between three workshops this morning:

1, Beyond borders: Gender Justice female Leadership in the Anglican Church – this workshop was an invitation to explore the opportunities, strengths, and challenges for female leadership in the Anglican Church. The facilitators were USPG’s Senior Regional Managers Fran Mate and the Revd Davidson Solanki.

2, The Past in the Present: Mission, Empire and Racial Justice – this workshop explored the legacies of a history marked by slavery and racism that offer unique possibilities in the present. The facilitators were Dr Jo Sadgrove, the Revd Dr Evie Vernon and the Revd Garfield Campbell.

3, Seeing Differently – an interactive workshop using a real-life case study to recognise and reveal attitudes leading to exclusion of others in plain sight, drawing on the experiences of Gypsy Roma and Traveller Friendly Churches workshops.

The High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire … the venue for the USPG conference this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The USPG conference began yesterday in the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire and continues until tomorrow.

The annual meeting of the council of USPG this afternoon included the appointment of new trustees, reports on the vision and strategy of USPG, and reports on USPG’s work in Rethinking Mission, Energising Church and Championing Justice as the global mission agency, transforming mission thinking, practice and solidarity at the heart of the life of the Anglican Communion.

There were reports on USPG’s work with partners across the Anglican Communion in many areas, including theological education, economic justice, human trafficking and climate change. Staff members, including new members of staff, spoke of the diversity of their work and key highlights from the last six months, including this year’s Lent Appeal and a new website due to be launched in the weeks to come.

Today opened with morning worship led by Derby Guerrier from Haiti, and members of the Tsedaqah Community (Triangle of Hope), a missional community based at Liverpool Cathedral and made up of young people living together in community for a year. The Triangle of Hope links the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, the Diocese of Liverpool in the Church of England and the Diocese of Virginia in the US.

Tsedaqah community members work in a variety of social justice projects across the Liverpool City Region, in conjunction with the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool and Liverpool Cathedral.

Tsedaqah is a Hebrew word that means ‘righteousness' or ‘to do justice', the very reason that the community was formed. The instruction in Micah 6: 8 inspires its mission as a community, and community members seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. This passage from Micah was also the reading at our Evening Worship.

This morning’s worship included a prayer for immigrants from Pope Francis:

Merciful God, we pray to you for all the men, women and children who have died after leaving their homelands in search of a better life. Though many of their graves bear no name, to you each one is known, loved and cherished.

May we never forget them, but honour their sacrifice with deeds more than words. We entrust to you all those who have made this journey, enduring fear, uncertainty and humiliation, in order to reach a place of safety and hope.

Just as you never abandoned your Son as he was brought to a safe place by Mary and Joseph, so now be close to these, your sons and daughters, through our tenderness and protection. In caring for them may we seek a world where none are forced to leave their home and where all can live in freedom, dignity and peace.

Merciful God and Father of all, wake us from the slumber of indifference, open our eyes to their suffering, and free us from the insensitivity born of worldly comfort and self-centeredness.

Inspire us, as nations, communities and individuals, to see that those who come to our shores are our brothers and sisters.

May we share with them the blessings we have received from your hand, and recognise that together, as one human family, we are all migrants, journeying in hope to you, our true home, where every tear will be wiped away, where we will be at peace and safe in your embrace.

We were also invited to respond to a prayer from the Jesuit Father Dan Hartnett:

God of love and compassion: may we always recognise your spirit:

• in the refugee family, seeking safety from violence;
• in the migrant worker, bringing food to our tables;
• in the asylum-seekers, seeking justice for their families;
• in the unaccompanied child, traveling in a dangerous world.

Give us hearts that break open whenever our brothers and sisters turn to us.

Give us hearts that no longer turn deaf to their voices in times of need;

Give us eyes to recognise a moment for grace instead of a threat.

Give us voices that fail to remain silent but which decide instead to advocate prophetically.

Give us hands that reach out in welcome, but also in work, for a world of justice until all homelands are safe and secure.

The impaled arms of the Barclay and Buxton families in High Leigh … a reminder of the Barclay family who once owned High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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