Presiding Bishop book club: Ian Douglas

This is the second in a series of posts reviewing books written by candidates for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. An earlier post reflected on Christian Households by Tom Breidenthal, bishop of Southern Ohio.

Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut and candidate for Presiding Bishop, has a long history of researching and writing about global Anglicanism and the mission of God. These are themes I’ve heard him speak about a number of occasions and they are themes that are at the heart of his published writing.

51Y2ZAFFLEL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Bishop Douglas’s first book was based on his doctoral dissertation and published in 1996 as Fling Out the Banner! The National Church Ideal and the Foreign Mission of the Episcopal Church. (Now out of print but used copies floating around the Internet.) It is, ostensibly, a history of the Episcopal Church’s efforts to send people overseas in mission, from the origins of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (still the official name of the corporate church entity) to the growth of foreign mission as the United States became a growing power on the world stage through to mission in light of the dramatic changes in society after World War II and on to anxiety about mission that came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s.

We have a weak historical memory in the Episcopal Church and I am grateful for works like this that recall and record the stories of now largely anonymous or forgotten figures in the history of the church. Bishop Douglas pays particular attention to the role of women in foreign mission, which is appropriate for many reasons, not least of which is that it was through foreign mission that many women in the 19th and early 20th centuries found a way to assert themselves in the church. There is also good material in here about more senior figures in the hierarchy and Douglas is very good at recalling their debates. In the mid-2oth century, for instance, Walter Gray, bishop of Connecticut, and Stephen Bayne, bishop of Olympia, engaged in ongoing debate about the position of the Episcopal Church in the world. As Douglas summarizes it:

Although both were American bishops, they had profoundly different understandings of the Anglican Communion and the place of the American Episcopal Church in it. Although Gray would not admit, he saw the Anglican Communion as an extension of the Episcopal Church. In this he was not wholly dissimilar to the British view of the Anglican Communion, except that the Episcopal Church, USA, was now the ‘mother church.’ Bayne, on the other hand, was a genuine internationalist. He sought an Anglican Communion made up of true equals where no single church had power over the others. He raised the question: Would the Episcopal Church, and other sending churches in the Anglican Communion change their attitudes and theologies of mission to accommodate the realities of the modern Anglican Communion? Could the Episcopal Church, in particular, move beyond the missiological imperatives of its national church ideal?

This debate has obvious echoes and reverberations in our own time, if only we can remember our history. Douglas, who now sits in Gray’s cathedra, comes down on the side of Bayne, something that has been clear in his ministry since long before he became a bishop.

What strikes me about this book now is the way in which it is also a history of organizational change. Bishop Douglas traces the growth of church institutions that not only sponsored foreign mission but also began to coordinate the activities of the church—the National Council, which became the Executive Council, and others. Along with that went the development the “National Church ideal,” the understanding of the Episcopal Church as being closely associated with a particular sense of American-ness. You can read the book to get a sense of the whole argument, which I commend to you. But I am struck that the Episcopal Church is again in a period of institutional change that is also challenging its sense of its self in the American social and religious landscape. As we are learning, the desire for institutional change is not linked to the reality of institutional change, something that, we learn from this book, has been true at other points in the church’s history.

51LnSn02-2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bishop Douglas has also edited at least two other volumes. One, co-edited with Kwok Pui-Lan and published in 2001, is titled Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century. This book may be a decade-and-a-half old but many of the essays are still well worth reading. In his essay, “The Exigency of Times and Occasions: Power and Identity in the Anglican Communion Today,” Douglas defines Anglicanism as “the embrace and celebration of apostolic catholicity within vernacular movements.” (p. 35) But this identity is comprised by the legacy of colonialism as well as “the ongoing dominance of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of modernity.” (p. 29) He concludes by quoting Max Warren’s dictum, “It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel.” (p 41) Indeed, it does, and Bishop Douglas has always been pushing the church to consider what we have to learn from one another.

A separate volume, Waging Reconciliation: God’s Mission in a Time of Globalization and Crisis, published in 2002, originates in a session of the House of Bishops about globalization that happened to take place a few days after September 11, 2001. Bishop Douglas’ contribution is called, “Restoration, Reconciliation, and Renewal in God’s Mission and the Anglican Communion.” He compares the contention in the Anglican Communion with 9/11:

Up until the summer of 1998, however, most Anglicans in the West could pretty well ignore these radical shifts in the Communion and thus avoid the hard questions of identity, authority, and power. In a similar, yet more extreme manner, up until September 11, 2001, most United States citizens could pretend that we were insulated from the pains and evils of the world. Our cultural, economic, and political hegemony shielded us from deeply engaging the realities of our increasingly multicultural and plural church; just as, in the case of the hijackings, it shielded us from the realities of death and destruction caused by militarism, terrorism, or economic injustice. (p. 218)

This is a bold claim but one that has a measure of truth. As Stephen Bayne urged us to, Anglicans are being called to look past our own individual realities and towards a sense of genuine mutuality? Douglas calls the Anglican Communion a “truly global Christian community of difference” (p. 219). I share this vision (as I have argued in a book of my own). I am grateful for Bishop Douglas’s sustained effort to take as they are all Anglicans—including and especially those with whom we disagree—and look for the bonds that tie us together, baptism above all else.

Both of these essays call for a renewed focus on mission as a way forward for all Anglicans. Bishop Douglas argues, as he has in numerous other contexts, that our true focus needs to be on the action of God in the world (“God’s mission”) and that through this focus, Anglicans can find their way to unity. I am sympathetic to this argument. But I would want to raise three queries.

First, it’s not always clear in this writing why unity is important. Perhaps, fifteen years ago, we could take for granted that Anglicans agreed unity is important. But I think that the situation has reached such a point that many people are very happy to say to one another, “I have no need of you.” (Precisely the thing we can’t say to one another in the body of Christ, but that’s for another time.) Before talking about ways to unity, we need to be talking about why our counter-cultural Christian unity in a divided world is so central to our witness to the world.

Second, I want to be sure that the call to mission does not come off sounding like a call to more work. I’ve written about this in a previous post but to quickly summarize: Episcopalians tend to be people with disposable time and income (at least relative to the population as a whole). Perhaps they can hear the call to mission and see how it fits into their lives. But it’s not clear how a single mother with two children or a elderly retiree on a fixed income might hear this message. The Christian life cannot simply be about what we do. I don’t think that’s what the call to mission is about. But I do worry that it can be interpreted in that way.

Third, when we put all our focus on mission, what are we obscuring? The mission of God is heavily Trinitarian, for instance, but less strongly Christological. There’s nothing inherently problematic about that, but it does make me ask why. Is “mission” language more comfortable for us than “evangelism” language, for instance, or God language easier than Jesus language? Does mission language still have the necessary edge that makes us, in the way of all good theology, uncomfortable? Or is it trying to domesticate religion to make it more palatable? These are not works in which Bishop Douglas would answer these questions but they are questions that arise for me and are worth pursuing further.


My not-so-hidden plea in the previous post for a copy of Michael Curry’s books found its mark. A review of his writing will be the next in this series.

2 thoughts on “Presiding Bishop book club: Ian Douglas

  1. Pingback: Presiding Bishop book club: Michael Curry | Mission Minded

  2. Pingback: Presiding Bishop book club: theology matters, books matter | Mission Minded

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