One of the great things about studying history is the realization that the questions we are dealing with now have been questions that have been asked for hundreds and thousands of years. That’s what I learned when I was a Classics major. And it’s what I’m learning in a course on American religious history I am required to take this this term. The term project for the class has given me the opportunity to explore some Episcopal mission history.
I’m looking particularly closely at some writings from Bishop Stephen Bayne, who was the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion in the 1960s. Prior to that, he was a bishop in the U.S. (and prior to that he was rector of St. John’s, Northampton, Massachusetts, a parish of no slight significance to me).
I just read an address Bishop Bayne gave to the Overseas Mission Society in February 1961. He suggests there are “four notes” of mission. It was the fourth that really took my breath away:
The final note about mission is that basically mission is not about things that we do as much as it is about what we are. The mission of the Church is not, first of all, to do something but to be something.
In our world, broken and divided by the barriers between nations, it is very hard sometimes for us to do very much… I am not sure that measuring how little we can do or have done means too much because in our world it may be very difficult for us to do things.
I go in the Orient or to Africa, and look at the great benefactions of time past when it was possible for great hospitals and universities and school systems to be built out of the munificence of churches. This kind of things cannot happen any more in many parts of the world. We cannot give these things; we cannot send vast numbers of people; we cannot overawe and impress with our riches. Therefore, we are being forced back on being something, and the essence of being something is in the little cluster of ideas which is the only precious and irreplaceable treasure at the heart of the Christian body.
I almost gasped aloud when I read that because it reminded me so strongly of a similar conclusion I reached in South Africa.
Everything old is new again.