The Church of England is often said to be dying, and many of the indicators are indeed of a patient on life-support. But remember what happens with monarchs. The death of one is the opportunity for another: “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
With that in mind, I have been re-reading the classic work by missionary Roland Allen, TheSpontaneous Expansion of the Church (subtitle, ‘and the causes that hinder it’), which should be a required study for all bishops, priest and deacons.
Allen developed his ideas in the wake of the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was the era that brought us the Student Volunteer Missionary Union (later the SCM of liberal publishing house fame), and a huge amount of interest amongst the western intelligentsia in evangelizing the ‘heathen’ nations.
Enormous effort and expenditure was poured into sending missionaries abroad. Yet as Allen observed, the outcome was often disappointing in relation to the effort involved, giving as an example, the following:
In the year I924-25 when a force of 1,233 foreign missionaries, aided by 15,183 paid native helpers, and supported by 603,169 Baptized Christians was under the direction of the most highly organized of our Missionary Societies (the C. M. S.), the number of adults baptized in the year amounted to 31,329; that is 1.9 to each paid worker, on the assumption that the 603,000 baptized Christians did nothing at all to spread the Gospel.
Of course some would have regarded some 30,000 baptism candidates in a positive light. Allen himself wrote, “That is no doubt efficient as we count efficient work; but,” he added, “it surely leaves something to be desired.”
By contrast, Allen pointed to the early church, where missionary work happened without any ‘missionary organizations’ other than the church, where there was no overseas agency supporting foreign mission stations and where the local work was done entirely by locals.
In short, whilst the western model of missionary work seemed to involve huge efforts for little result, the New Testament model produced its results ‘spontaneously’.
At very least, Allen argued, the aim should be to establish genuinely self-supporting, self-extending and self-governing native churches to which should be entrusted the work of the gospel. Moreover, these churches should not be imitations of the western institutions, seeking their own status and security in the closeness of their mimicry of their parent bodies, but should be first and foremost evangelistically structured, aiming to reach as many of their own people as possible.
When I first read Allen’s book about twenty years ago, however, one thought immediately struck me: if you substitute ‘institutional church’ for ‘missionary organization’, ‘parish church’ for ‘mission station’, ‘ordained minister’ for ‘western missionary’ and ‘neighbourhood’ for ‘foreign country’, virtually all Allen’s criticisms could be levelled at our own pattern of evangelization.
Since then, nothing has really happened to change my opinion. In our own diocese of Chelmsford, for example, we are reorganizing and retrenching to reflect the fact that in the next ten years something like fifty percent of our full-time clergy are due to retire. Yet at the same time, the diocese is being put on an evangelistic footing, beginning with a year of outreach in 2014.
Now the second goal is, in my view, admirable. But I have to question the coherence of the first goal in relation to it. I recognize that within the present ecclesiological framework retrenchment is absolutely inevitable. If the supply of workers and the money to pay them (and let’s face it, both are important factors) is inadequate, then one must of necessity cut back to what is manageable.
But there is an alternative. The document putting forward the current proposals for the diocese is titled ‘Re-imagining Ministry’. Why not, though, re-imagine church itself? If the old ‘church’ is dying, perhaps it is time to let it die and to hail something new.
One of the great insights of Roland Allen’s approach was that the early church did not have missionary organizations, it was a missionary organization. Where the word of God took root, what sprung up was a church, which was both the fruit of mission and the agent of further mission.
His other great insight was that a church, to be a church, must be complete in all respects, including both a sacramental ministry and, to that end, sacramental ministers.
Now these might seem strange words coming from a Conservative Evangelical like myself. Either that, or it will automatically be assumed I am arguing for ‘lay celebration’. But in fact if we go about things in an orderly fashion, there is no reason why we need have a revolution with regard to church order, provided we are prepared to be radically imaginative.
If the person who administers the Lord’s Supper must, in the Anglican way of doing things, be an episcopally ordained priest, then let the bishop designate those in each local congregation who administer the Lord’s Supper as priests. In short, let him ordain them. If the sacraments are important to the life of the congregation, then it only makes sense to ensure that they are available to the congregation. Otherwise, those congregations are weakened and their mission is therefore undermined.
Now having said that, it is also clear, as Allen observes, that a lot more needs to be done to explain the sacraments themselves. And here there is a great deal of work to do.
Allen emphasizes the sacraments because he believes that, properly administered, they embody and pass on the core of the Christian message. And I agree with him. But we ought not to assume that just because we are ‘sacramentalists’ this is actually happening.
Consider, on the one hand, baptism. I have often remarked on the fact that after Philip had explained to the Ethiopian Eunuch that Isaiah 53 was pointing to the gospel of Jesus, the latter said to him, “Here is water, what is to prevent me being baptized?” Yet very few of our gospel presentations today would ever lead anyone to ask the same question. Does this not mean there is something missing in the way we present the gospel (and not just ‘believe and be baptized’)? As Colossians 3:11-12 shows, baptism was central to the early Christian understanding not just of ‘how to become’ a Christian but what ‘being a Christian’ actually meant:
11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
On the other hand, it is also clear from the New Testament that their version of the Lord’s Supper was much more a supper, much less a symbolic gesture, than our own. As such, it was a practical embodiment on a regular basis of what baptism expressed in an initiatory way — our union with Christ and with one another brought about by his death and resurrection and our incorporation in him:
17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
And arguably, a proper handing on of this sacramental tradition might go some way to preventing the schism that is so often feared (and sometimes indeed results) from a freer, less controlling, approach to church life.
But for this to be attempted, there is another change which needs to take place in our ecclesiology.
I have often heard things said along the lines that the task of the church is to discover God’s mission in the world and to involve itself in that (or something along similar lines). The image is of a God who is carrying out his own mission, and a church which comes alongside that work and joins in with it.
I believe it is a popular model. And I believe it is not only utterly wrong, but totally debilitating when it comes to the life of the church.
The reason is it wrong is that the church is not ‘involved’ in God’s mission, it is the instrument of God’s mission. Consider what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.
Here we see a proper understanding of the Church in the missio Dei. In Christ, God indeed did a unique and direct work of reconciling the world to himself. But now that work has been committed to the Church. The Church is the instrument of the missio Dei. Therefore we cannot tolerate the Church being cut back and reduced. On the contrary, we must constantly seek to multiply and increase the Church!
The problem is our understanding of ministry and ministers. As I have said, our attitude to them closely parallels the attitude of western missionaries in native lands critiqued by Roland Allen.
Ministers must have a particular sort of training, of equipping, of authorizing, of calling and so on. Even the discernment of their ministry takes years! And of course it must if it is going to cost tens of thousands of pounds to train them and deploy them and support them — to say nothing of their pensions, given the ridiculous longevity they seem to have.
But what if we said, the important thing is not maintaining our standards of what we presume to be the necessary quality and qualities of ministers, but the expansion of the Church? What if we were willing to multiply ministers, yes even to multiply bishops, because we saw the mission of God, and the Church’s place in that, differently?
Of course the result might be chaos, but wasn’t that what the European missionary bodies said about the natives back in the 1900s? And what do we think now of the attitude they had then?
Roland Allen was, I believe, a visionary. But his vision has yet to find its full realization. Yet perhaps the time has come and our sheer inability to keep the old system going will force us to confront new possibilities. One such may be discovering that the problem was not our orders so much as our protectiveness of them, which in the end reflected a mistrust of the work of the Spirit of God in the people of God.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: