Here’s an example about how the Episcopal Church’s failure to have a conversation about what we mean by mission produces contested and confusing budgetary decisions.
The budget proposed for the next three years in the Episcopal Church adds close to $700,000 for the Office of Government Relations, to be focused on anti-poverty advocacy. Great! All Christians can get behind anti-poverty advocacy, right?
Except that it comes at the expense of other programs. More than a million dollars cut from funding the work of the Anglican Communion Office. Close to three million cut from the budget for youth programs.
The first thing to note is that these are policy decision being made without, to my knowledge, policy debates being had. I used to be a reporter and covered lots of budget debates in lots of organizations. One realization I always came away with is that how a group spends—and doesn’t spend—its money reflects its values.
The closest Episcopalians have come to a conversation about budgetary priorities is the constant repetition in the church of the word “mission” without any clarity as to what that word means. And since, as we’ve seen, one influential document defined our mission as simply being what Jesus says in Luke 4, spending more money on anti-poverty programs makes a lot of sense; “good news to the poor” and all that. (Of course, in the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spends precious little time with people we would identify as “the poor,” raising questions about how to interpret this passage. But that’s an exegetical conversation for another time.)
What if we defined mission a bit differently? This is not the place to lay out a full-blown missiology but what if we said that God’s mission is the restoration of right relationship between humans and between humans and God? (Our catechism says something very similar.) What if we saw relationships as being at the centre of our role in God’s mission? What if we thought that in the Incarnation, God in Christ takes relationship to a whole new level, crossing the barrier between divine and human and engaging with those who are different in a credible, costly, and vulnerable way?
In short, what if we said that mission is about building meaningful relationships with those who are different than us as we work towards that glorious day when there will be “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10) Although in our polarized and fractured world we demonize and mock those who are different than us, the witness of Scripture is that, at the end, all of us who are different will be united in one. We might as well start working towards that, and, in the process, follow the example of Christ who engaged with difference in a way no one had ever seen before or since. It would be a powerful, counter-cultural model to the world around us if the church could be an incubator of heterogeneity rather than a mere simulacrum of the world’s drive towards homogeneity.
If we said all this, we might have different priorities. We’d spend our money on a place like the Anglican Communion Office so it can continue its important work of bringing together different people from different backgrounds and different parts of the world to find common ground in projects like Continuing Indaba and the Bible in the Life of the Church. We’d make sure that the Episcopal Youth Event stays in business so young people from different backgrounds can engage in meaningful, Christ-centred interaction in a way they get almost nowhere else.
But we might not increase funding for the Episcopal Public Policy Network, making the painful decision that in a time of limited funds, policy advocacy is not part of the church’s unique charism.
You might disagree with these ideas (and you’ll note undoing EPPN’s additional funding doesn’t produce enough to fund EYE and the ACO) or you might have different ideas for moving money around in the budget. Terrific! What I wanted to illustrate in this post is the impact of not talking seriously about mission. My hope is that the church can begin to have a conversation about its budget—and the future of the church—that grapples with the missiological issues at stake.
If we’re going to place “mission” at the centre of everything, could we at least start talking about it?