Five Marks of Mission: History, Theology, Critique

In recent years, many Anglicans have given new attention to what are known as the Five Marks of Mission. It’s a definition of mission first formulated by the Anglican Consultative Council in the 1980s but not taken into widespread use until the late 2000s when then Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori used them repeatedly, including to structure her budget proposals and one of her books. At one point, the Episcopal Church even produced a Facebook quiz to let you figure out which mark of mission you were. In the Church of England, candidates for ordination are asked to evaluate themselves against these marks. At the 2016 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, there was an unsuccessful attempt to make them a fifth instrument of communion.

In teaching mission in Cambridge in the last few years, it felt obligatory to talk about these marks of mission. As I tried to do this I realized that little had been written about their origin or their theology. So I started doing my own research, which eventually resulted in a new article in The Journal of Anglican Studies, published last week.

You can read the entire article for yourself but here are some key themes:

  • The Five Marks of Mission were heavily influenced by non-western Anglican leaders, particularly African ones. People like David Gitari, a Kenyan bishop, and Benjamin Nwankiti, a Nigerian one, drew on their experience of mission in their own contexts to shape an approach to mission that Anglicans worldwide adopted. Mission thinking is a site of cross-cultural consensus-seeking in the Anglican Communion.
  • Gitari, Nwankiti, and others were heavily influenced by contemporaneous debates among evangelicals like John Stott and others about the nature of mission. Was mission solely about individual evangelism or did it also involve social action? The Anglican Consultative Council reports that gave birth to the Five Marks of Mission sometimes quote verbatim (and not always with citation) from these evangelical reports of the same era. Although it was non-evangelicals like Katharine Jefferts Schori who brought the Five Marks of Mission to wider Anglican attention, they are deeply rooted in the evangelical wing of the Anglican tradition.
  • For a long time, no one called this definition of mission the Five Marks of Mission. In fact, the definition sat on a shelf for at least a decade more or less undisturbed. The need to turn it into a slogan is part of a larger series of Anglican mission slogans, from Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the 1960s to Partners in Mission in the 1970s and 1980s, the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s, the Millennium Development Goals in the 2000s, and the Five Marks of Mission today. (And if “Five Marks of Mission” is too long, the image above suggests they can be reduced to five words beginning with T.) In studying each of these slogans, it is possible to see how Communion-wide thinking about mission has shifted in the intervening half century.
  • The way in which the Five Marks of Mission are used now—as a check-list approach to mission and as a source of mission strategies—diverges from their original intention, which was as a definition of holistic mission. Lambeth Conferences, Anglican Consultative Councils, and other bodies have produced no shortage of mission reflection over the years, some of it quite good. We should ask ourselves why, of all that material, the Five Marks of Mission rose to such prominence, particularly when their shortcomings are readily apparent (something I wrote about many years ago and expanded in this article).
  • Anglican mission slogans have historically lasted about a decade. New leadership in the American church and in the Church of England is emphasizing other themes—the Jesus Movement, reconciliation, discipleship—and we should not expect the Five Marks of Mission to last much longer. But we can hope the process of cross-cultural consensus-seeking in thinking about mission continues.

As I say, you can read the entire paper I wrote by clicking on this link. Your feedback is welcome.

UPDATE: I’ve fixed the link to the .pdf version of the article so it should be possible for all readers to access now.

The good news of Easter in the midst of the religion of consumption

At several moments in the past week, I have been reminded that Easter is no longer just a holy day for Christians.

  • This week’s edition of Waitrose Weekend, the free newspaper offered by the grocery store chain, lists “100 things to do this Easter.” On the list are such activities as make a robot, time for a spring clean, visit a beer festival, and get involved in the fun of a country fair. Not on the list: anything to do with attending church, marking the resurrection, or meditating on God’s great love for the world.
  • The grocery store Tesco had this new ad:
  • Last week, there was a kerfluffle when the National Trust changed the name of its annual Easter egg hunt to a “National Trust Egg Hunt” (which, incidentally, is one of the 100 things Waitrose thinks you should do over the long weekend). The Archbishop of York weighed in. The prime minister weighed in (rather incongruously from Saudi Arabia). Later in the week, I heard an interview on Radio 4 with an executive from Cadbury’s, the company that supplies the chocolate, who reassured the BBC reporter that “Easter will continue to be an important part of our marketing strategy.”

None of this is particularly surprising. In England, Easter falls in the midst of school holidays and a four-day weekend; families need things to do to fill the time. Ad-men are always looking for a new hook with which to flog their wares.

But the series of events was a reminder of how Christianity exists in a world of multiple faiths. We often talk about Islam or Judaism but rarely do we understand consumption as a faith. Yet that is precisely what it has become. It defines ethical norms (consume more) and sets the boundaries of our thought horizons (non-consumption is simply not an option).

And, as has happened many times in the past when different faiths interact, one is taking over the holy days and holy sites of the other. In the same way that the Christian feast of Christmas came to overwhelm the feast of Saturnalia in ancient Rome and in the same way that Christian missionaries once built churches on sites that had been sacred to existing religions, the religion of consumption (if we can call it that) is taking over Christian holy days. It’s easy to see how this has happened with Christmas. These recent events indicate the way in which it is true of Easter as well.

When that Cadbury’s executive said that “Easter will continue to be part of our marketing strategy,” I think he meant to reassure people who had protested at the exclusion of Easter. But I didn’t find it particularly reassuring. The trouble is that the deep-seated beliefs of the religion of consumption are diametrically opposite to the good news that is proclaimed on Easter day.

In the religion of consumption, you succeed by buying, acquiring, getting, claiming, and otherwise coming to possess things. One’s salvation, you could almost say, depends on what you have. The person who wins the (Easter) egg hunt is the one with the most eggs. Christian theology has a term for this: it’s called works righteousness and it’s the belief that what we do is what makes us right before God. In the religion of consumption, what we purchase and acquire is what makes us right within the framework of that system.

On Easter morning Christians proclaim that we are made right before God not because of anything that we can do but because of what Christ has done. God in Christ came into our midst—and we put him to death. Christ’s response was to rise from the dead and return to the very people who had denied him and say, “Peace be with you.” The good news of the gospel is that our efforts to make ourself right will always come to naught—but Christ’s work always will.

The religion of consumption (or whatever you want to call it) is exercising a greater and greater hold over society. But the vision of the good life that it offers will always be a mirage. By our own work, we will never be able to achieve it. That’s why the good news of Easter morning is so important. It is Christ who promises and delivers life abundant.

My 7-year-old niece has discovered the best way to resist Trump

Another day, another truly outrageous decision from the Trump administration: all citizens from seven countries and all refugees are to be banned from entering the United States. It’s easy to find reasons to be outraged: theological, practical, national.

  • The Bible repeatedly makes it clear that God takes the side of those who are on the move. It is by being migrants and from migrants that we learn new things about God. This shuts down that possibility.
  • Trump explicitly invoked 9/11 and the importance of keeping the country “safe”—but none of the 9/11 hijackers came from countries on the banned list.
  • The Statue of Liberty says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Yet somehow, none of this feels sufficient. It feeds my outrage but it does frustratingly little in the real world. I can’t turn up at JFK airport and protest. I’m not a lawyer and I can’t file a suit to reverse the decision. When confronted with such a great injustice, how are we to respond?

Children walking in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. Opened in July, 2012, the camp holds upwards of 20,000 refugees from the civil war inside Syria. International Orthodox Christian Charities and other members of the ACT Alliance are active in the camp providing essential items and services.

I’ve been thinking this week about my 7-year-old niece. Sometime last fall, the news about Syrian refugees combined with the rhetoric of the presidential campaign became so uncomfortable and upsetting to her that she decided she wanted to do something. So she told her parents, “Can we have a clothes drive to help refugees?” Her parents did a little research on this and decided that the refugees who had been resettled into their (red) state were well clothed. Shipping clothes to a place like Greece or Turkey was an inefficient use of resources.

So my niece had another idea: “Can we make friends with some refugees?” It turned out that not far away from their house lives a refugee family from Congo. It took a little doing and some awkwardness, but pretty soon my niece and her parents started getting to know this family. They learned about some of the challenges they’re facing: the father’s working hours place a burden on the mother and children; they struggle to stay in touch with family members back home; the children need help in school.

I’m not sure how much of this my niece has processed. From what she tell us, it sounds like she mostly just enjoys having some new friends. Once a week, on the way home from school, she spends time playing with them at their house. It’s a young relationship: who knows how it will develop?

I think my niece is on to something. To live in our political moment is to be bathed in outrage. Fine. There are lots of things to be outraged about. But the best way to challenge the the Trump administration is challenge it in our actions. As my niece shows, those actions don’t have to be heroic or extraordinary. They can be as simply as modestly altering our weekly schedule to incorporate a new activity.

Think about what it means to say, “Can we make friends with refugees?” It means that refugees have value, that they enrich our lives, and that they are welcome in her community. It takes a step further than a clothes drive: it involves her life in theirs and theirs in hers. Simply by existing, the relationship she has with this family challenges Trump’s impoverished moral calculus. There’s no executive order he can sign to ban it.

I think she’s on to something.

If at first you don’t succeed…

…seek a larger audience.

The skiing senator

Back in December, I wrote to my senator, Lisa Murkowski, and asked her to vote against the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. My case was fairly straightforward. Climate change is affecting the Arctic faster than any other part of the world and Alaska communities are already being forced to adapt to this new world. We need a EPA head who—at the bare minimum—acknowledges the truth of climate change.

I never heard back.

On Saturday, Alaska Dispatch News, Alaska’s largest news organization, published an opinion piece by me that makes the same case at greater length and to a much larger audience. You can read the article here:

It is possible to disagree with the actions of the EPA and how the Obama administration has sought to combat climate change. Indeed, Murkowski has at times voiced such disagreement. But it is not possible in 2017 to deny the reality of a changing climate and the role of human agents in this process. To put a man like Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency would constitute a major blow to Alaska communities looking to their elected representatives for help as they work to adapt to the new reality we face.

Scott Pruitt’s nomination will likely come before the full Senate in the next few weeks. Murkowski should vote against his confirmation and insist that Donald Trump appoint an EPA director who takes the threat of climate change seriously. It is the only reasonable move….

Sen. Murkowski is not short of reasonableness. In an unreasonable age, she must now find her courage.

There’s been a lot of talk since November’s election about how people who dissent from the Trump agenda can best make their voice heard. Write to your elected representatives and call them. But the weakness of local and regional news organizations makes them desperate for content and eager for prose they can publish. Don’t underestimate the significance of submitting unsolicited columns to your local paper. If no one else, you can be sure that your members of Congress will read it when their name appears.

But that strategy only works if other people make their voices heard as well. So if you live in Alaska and agree what I wrote in the ADN, write to Lisa Murkowski yourself and tell her she needs to vote against Scott Pruitt. Then call one of her offices and do the same.

5 things to read in preparation for a Christian response to a Trump presidency

In less than three weeks, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States. As I think about how Christians are called to live in the midst of this global moment of increasing populism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, these are some of the texts I find myself returning to.

stringfellow-10William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. For the last eight years, it’s been possible to think that society is on a steady march forward. Not always in a straight line, of course, but we’ve had enough evidence to think that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That view seemed to shatter in the early hours of November 9.

The Trump presidency demands that Christians reclaim the apocalyptic. Early Christians didn’t believe in gradual incrementalism. They understood themselves to be fighting against powers and principalities that needed to be overthrown. One author who consistently and compellingly articulated these themes is the late William Stringfellow, Episcopal layman, lawyer, and theologian. An Ethic for Christians is an extended exegesis of the book of Revelation and the need to defeat “Babylon.”

The biblical topic is politics. The Bible is about the politics of fallen creation and the politics of redemption; the politics of the nations, institutions, ideologies, and causes of this world and the politics of the Kingdom of God; the politics of Babylon and the politics of Jerusalem; the politics of the Antichrist and the politics of Jesus Christ; the politics of the demonic powers and principalities and the politics of the timely judgement of God as sovereign; the politics of death and the politics of life; apocalyptic politics and eschatological politics.

Stringfellow is consistently challenging and creative in his writing and this book is an excellent introduction to his thought.

9780199747580John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Lederach has traveled the world to teach peace-building skills in zones of prolonged conflict. In this book, he sums up a lot of what he has learned. What we need to move beyond violence, he writes, is a new “moral imagination.” This has four aspects:

the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity….; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.

In addition to reclaiming the apocalyptic, Christians in the Trump era need also to learn deeply from the witness of Anabaptist Christians. Lederach starts us down that path.

The Kairos Document. In 1985, as the anti-apartheid struggle reached a crisis point, an ecumenical group of South African Christians published a document that critiqued what it called “state theology” and “church theology” and began to articulate “prophetic theology.” While it is shaped by its time and its context, it is still a document that speaks to our present moment.

There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace–the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants (Jn 14:27). The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness. At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension. As Christians we must say with Jesus: “Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth. No, I tell you, but rather dissension” (Lk 12:51). There can be no real peace without justice and repentance. (3.1)

Others might point to the Barmen Declaration, written by confessing Christians in Germany during World War II. You should also read that.

(The entirety of the Kairos Document is available online.)

P.D. James, Children of Men. James’ dystopic novel (set in 2012) envisions a world in which people have lost the ability to have children. It was turned into a pretty good movie about a decade ago, one I’ve thought of often in recent years, but the movie strays pretty far from the book. The novel is well worth reading in its own right, especially for the way in which childlessness comes to stand in for godlessness. I remember being struck particularly by the quiet insights into the role of the Christian liturgy in sustaining communal life in desperate times. Reclaiming the meaning of the liturgy (a cause that Stringfellow championed, among many others) is a vital task.

9780674659681-lgHarvey Cox, The Market as GodThere is a lot of talk about economic inequality, both within countries and globally. But we don’t tend to talk about the penetration of market-based forms of thinking into more and more areas of our life and the resulting impact this has on how we see the world. The recent Christmas season is an annual reminder of the way in which a Christian holiday has been taken over and subverted by the great god of consumerism.

Harvey Cox recognizes all of this and in this recent book (itself an expansion of a 1999 article in The Atlantic) he argues that the market has become a god in our society.

To begin exploring the market theology is quickly to marvel at just how comprehensive it is. There are sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a liturgical year, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints, and even what theologians call “eschatology”—a teaching about the “end of history.”…. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economy operates today is not simply “natural” or “just the way things work,” but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as ersatz religion.

To live in a Christian in this day and age means to be clear-eyed about the other gods that roam the religious landscape of our day and compete for the faith and trust of believers. The market is chief among them.

That’s my (non-exhaustive) list. What’s on yours? Recommendations for fiction are especially welcome.

UPDATE: Several good recommendations have been arriving on social media and other forms. They include:

  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (“or anything by Steinbeck”)—heartily agreed! I re-read Grapes for the first time since high school last fall and was struck by how painfully good it is.
  • “Something by Boenhoffer.” Also agreed. Recommendations welcome.
  • Paul Aster, In the Country of Last Things
  • Walter Wink, Naming the Powers
  • Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man

Keep the suggestions coming!

Jesse Zink (@jazink) is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and author, most recently, of A Faith for the Future.

Not Losing Heart: Praying for the Kingdom of God

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” -Luke 18.1

To look around the world today, it’s very easy to lose heart. People are drowning as they cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats to Europe. A once-fine Syrian city is being bombed into rubble. An oppressive and irrational dictator in North Korea has increasingly powerful nuclear weapons. Oh, and the foundations of American democracy appear under threat by an unhinged demagogue who caters to our worst instincts.

In that frame of mind, I went to church this morning and heard a parable from Jesus—a parable that is told so that Jesus’ followers do not “lose heart.” Just what I needed!

But at first glance the answer seems depressing. Apparently, what I need to do not to lose heart is to pray. The parable is about a widow who badgers an unjust judge who finally grants her justice. “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” (Luke 18.7) That’s it? In the face of all the truly frightening things in the world, the answer is to keep asking God for justice? God’s justice depends on my asking for it? It can seem an inadequate response.unjust-judgeOne of the primary concerns of the author of the Gospel of Luke is prayer. Jesus is frequently depicted as being at prayer. This parable about prayer appears in no other gospel. And prayer is linked with one other central concept: the kingdom of God. That’s most obvious in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus tells his followers to pray for the coming of the kingdom, but there are other places where the connection is made. Shortly before this parable about prayer, Jesus tells his followers not to look for the kingdom of God “with things that can be observed… For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17.20, 21) And how does the kingdom of God come to be among them? By the kind of fervent prayer that is described in the parable of the widow and the judge.

Our common views of prayer seem to involve a person (or people) sitting around (often in silence) and asking God for various things. I don’t think Luke would recognize this. For Luke, prayer is active and engage, an activity in which followers of Jesus come into contact with the world. Prayer is the activity by which the community of Jesus’ followers comes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.

Next week in church we’ll hear another parable about prayer, about a righteous Pharisee and a sinful tax collector. The former prays standing up in the temple, the latter throws himself on the floor. This parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18.9) It’s a reminder about prayer: the prayer that brings about the kingdom is the fervent prayer (like that of the widow) of those who know their need for God’s mercy (like the tax collector). The values and virtues of the kingdom of God are brought about by humble and fervent prayers to live according to precepts Jesus taught.

In the midst of a deeply uncertain and terrifying world, I want not to lose heart. The answer Jesus gives me is to pray. How do we pray? We work for the kingdom in our midst. How do we work for the kingdom in our midst? We pray.

How do the prayer practices of a Christian community you’re associated with reflect the unease and tension which so many of us experience in the world today?

Cambridge Church Leaders Dinner

img_7815-1Last week, I attended a dinner in Cambridge that brought together the two bishops of the Diocese of Ely with about seven or eight leaders of black Pentecostal churches in Cambridge. (Picture above taken before everyone arrived.) You may have heard of these churches: denominations like the Redeemed Christian Church of God or Kingsway International Christian Church that were founded in non-western countries but are gradually establishing a presence in the U.K. and other western countries. There are two RCCG congregations in Cambridge, for instance. The idea was to eat, talk, and pray together so that in learning more about one another we could see where we were being called to work together.

One thing that often strikes me in meeting leaders of diasporic churches is the nature of ministry. Every one of the black Pentecostal leaders at dinner was in what, in C of E parlance, we would call self-supporting ministry. In the U.S., the word would be bivocational. Every one of them had a full-time job to which the church leadership role was additional. One was a nurse, one a software engineer, one a solicitor, and so on and so forth. (They are, of course, not alone in this: the Latter Day Saints have an almost exclusively non-professional leadership class.) By contrast, the Anglicans at the dinner all earned their living working in the church.

Listening to their stories of leadership, I was struck how they seem to do as much or more with their congregations as many full-stipend clergy: Sunday services, Bible studies, collections for the poor and needy, and large festival celebrations. They also plant new churches. One difference we noted in our conversation was that the black Pentecostal churches are more active in church planting than the Diocese of Ely. They certainly do more of it. Not all of the church plants of the main RCCG congregation have been successful, but a couple have been.

I began to wonder if there’s a connection between their approach to ministry and their ability to plant churches. In the C of E, we have this idea that you need a fully-trained cleric to lead or plant a church. In the RCCG if all you’re looking for is a committed lay person, the task becomes easier. It was easy, sitting in that dinner, to think that the requirements of the priestly class of the C of E are actually stifling the church, not enabling it. It takes a long time to make a priest in the C of E (sometimes not long enough, I think) and I am deeply committed to that process. But still.

But there was a flip side to our conversation. Many of these black Pentecostal leaders wanted further theological education themselves. Some of these denominations have training colleges that they may have attended but this is more in the way of continuing education. These people wanted to study for degrees to fill in what they felt they were lacking. I can’t speak for them but from their perspective I sensed that an educated leadership class seemed like an asset they wanted to develop as well.

Perhaps there is a way to square this circle: on the one hand, theological education remains vitally important. The church should support it in every way possible. On the other hand, ministry cannot be seen as the preserve of an elite professional class. Lay people are leaders in ministry just as much as those who get paid for it.

The word that I left the dinner with was this one: permission. These black Pentecostal churches give permission to their members to fully engage in ministry as they are called. They experiment with new approaches. Sometimes they don’t work. Sometimes they do. But it’s a low cost approach. How can we create a culture of permission-giving in our churches?

It was a great dinner—and this is only a small piece of the puzzle. There are diaspora churches from Asia, eastern Europe, and many other places all active in Cambridge and we want to expand the network of relationships as we go forward.

Hillbilly Christianity

The presidential candidacy of one Donald J. Trump has driven members of the coastal elite looking for explanations for his success: who is voting for this guy?

162224This summer, many members of the media thought they found an answer in a book by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even the normally staid Economist declared: “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”

Vance, a veteran and a Yale Law graduate, writes of his upbringing in Rust Belt Ohio, the child of transplants from Kentucky, and the family instability, economic crisis, and cultural values he experienced. His conclusion, more or less, is that the problems facing the white working class are not just the result of economic displacement as a result of globalization but also a set of cultural values that don’t nurture the necessary attitude to survive in the world. When he told his father he had was going to Yale Law, his father asked if he had “pretended to be black of liberal.” “This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen,” Vance writes. “We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.” (p. 194)

You can make what you will of that argument. But when I read this book, I was struck by his passing references to Christianity and its role among his hillbilly family. He describes his grandmother, who played the most significant role in his life, as someone who, every night, watched Law & Order, read the Bible, and fell asleep. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers.” But she also hardly ever attended church, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt,” and “saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers.” Her faith was, in his words, “unsophisticated.” Once, when she nearly caused a car accident, scaring Vance, she turned to him and said, ‘We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (pp. 85-86)

This theology, Vance concludes, was what he needed to hear: “To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.” (p. 86)

As a pre-teen, Vance became associated with an evangelical church, read the Left Behind books, learns how there is a war on Christmas, discusses whether the Antichrist is already alive, and realizes the world is “lurch[ing] toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah.” (p. 98) Before long, however, he rejects this, realizing in retrospect that this version of Christianity was “sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (p. 99) (There are hints towards the end of the book that he has returned to church as he is writing.)

What I am struck by in this description is the pervasive influence of Christian rhetoric—the Bible, Jesus, Christianity all figure as important ideas in his life—but also the apparent insufficiency of this rhetoric. The Christian answers he and his grandmother have  do not help them cope with the situation they find themselves in. And it’s no wonder: the version of Christianity his grandmother presents strikes me as one version of what I have called in the past “just do it Christianity,” that is, it’s clear what you have to do—work hard, take care of your family—so just do it already. But what if there are no jobs to work at or the jobs that there are don’t pay nearly enough? What if your mother is—like Vance’s—an addict who gives rise to immensely complex feelings in her children?

Meanwhile, when he does attend church he is directed to apparently central issues—the end times—but is offered no convincing resources (theological or otherwise) to cope with the situation of family and societal breakdown in which he finds himself. Gradually—and understandably—he drifts away.

From my privileged, outsider position, it is relatively easy to point this all out (and wish that Vance had written more about Christianity in the book). But it’s much harder to figure out how to respond to it. I can offer a theological critique of it—Christianity is precisely not about our hard work, but the work done by Christ in his death and resurrection; Jesus had some very hard things to say about family relations; Christianity is concerned with our lives here and now because God in Christ comes into the midst of them and transforms them now—but none of this changes the fact that the version of Christianity he describes holds great sway among many people.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the state of American Christianity is its segmentation: there are correlations between socio-economic status and both church attendance and the kind of church one belongs to. People like Vance’s grandmother have given up on church—or has the church given up on them?—but they haven’t given up on the rhetoric of Christianity. There are clear opportunities for churches to minister alongside such communities. But if we cannot overcome the vast social distance between our churches and such communities, such ministry will never even begin.

One bishop without a home, and one bishop with two

In January, there was an odd story from the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan: Precious Omuku, an Anglican priest from Nigeria who currently works in Lambeth Palace for Archbishop Justin Welby, was made a bishop in ECSSS.abpandbps

He’s not a diocesan bishop, but has rather a roving, ambassadorial role.

According to the Revd. Dr. Joseph Bilal, a board member of the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation of the Province of ECSS& S, Bishop Omuku will continue to work in his base at the Lambeth Palace as special adviser of Archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion Affairs. “He will not necessarily be move out from his base at Lambeth Palace, but he will continue with his duties as adviser of the archbishop of Canterbury on Anglican Communion affairs. He will be keenly involved on issues of sustainable development, justice, peace and reconciliation in South Sudan and Sudan,” Dr. Bilal explained.

What’s odd about this? It’s not odd that a person ordained in one country became a bishop in another country. (The bishop of Waikato in New Zealand was ordained in the Church of England. Desmond Tutu was once the bishop of Lesotho.) It’s not odd that a bishop is doing a non-diocesan role. (The bishop of Algoma is about to become the principal of a theological college. There is a “bishop at Lambeth.“)

The oddity has something to do with place.

For Anglicans, geography shapes the church. The Church of England, for instance, divides the entire country into parishes, groups parishes into deaneries, deaneries into archdeaconries, archdeaconries into dioceses, and dioceses into provinces. The bishop is the head of a diocese and an archbishop is the head of a province. Other Anglican churches do things in various different ways but all still maintain in one way or another that a bishop is linked to a particular place, called a see. You can give up that see later on and still remain a bishop, but to become a bishop you need to be linked to a place.

So it’s odd, then, that the church in the Sudans should consecrate someone to be a bishop without a place but rather with a role.

I probably would have let this oddity pass me by except I then read another odd story about bishops and place recently: the suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, Susan Goff, has now become an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool. The oddity here also has to do with place: a bishop is to be linked to a place, as Bishop Goff, already is, but it is to be one place. Now Bishop Goff is a bishop connected to two places. I have no doubt that the link between Liverpool and Virginia is strong and important to both dioceses. I want to take nothing away from that relationship. But in ecclesiological terms, this particular move doesn’t make much sense. (And, indeed, Bishop Goff had to post a video clarifying that she’ll only be in Liverpool up to two weeks a year.) To ask one particular question: who is Bishop Goff’s metropolitical authority? Is it the Archbishop of York (through the bishop of Liverpool), as it is for other bishops in the northern province of the C of E? Or is it the rather diffuse metropolitical authority of the Episcopal Church (through the bishop of Virginia), as it is for other Episcopal bishops?

The church is full of oddities, ecclesiological and otherwise, and I’m usually content to let them go unremarked upon. But these particular oddities reveal some deeper confusion in our Anglican thinking about bishops. There are many voices (with which I heartily agree) that tell us about the importance of all orders of ministry, about the need for priests and lay people to take an active role in governance and decision-making, and so forth. In the Anglican tradition, bishops are not the sole locus of authority. Readers of this blog and my books will know how frequently I have nattered on about the importance of involving more voices in determining the direction of the church, rather than just those that wear purple shirts.

Yet at the same time we have this fixation on bishops: who they are, what they do, what they say. We develop fancy ways of referring to them (+ or ++, which is an oddity for another time). We struggle to call them by their first names. We surround their visits with a kind of aura. The result of all this is that we are developing this unstated assumption that the only things that matter in the church are what bishops say. There’s no reason that ECSSS could not have appointed a priest or lay person as its roving ambassador. If the Diocese of Liverpool wanted to cement its ties with Virginia, the bishop could have made a priest or lay person from Virginia a canon in his cathedral. But in each case, it was decided the role needed to be filled by a bishop—a response to and a furthering of this over-emphasis on episcopal ministry. And that emphasis has real world impacts, not least the proliferation of bishops and dioceses in a church like ECSSS so that ever-smaller regions of the country can feel like they have an adequate voice at the table.

If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably as far into the weeds of Anglican ecclesiology as I am. These situations are not the most pressing issue facing the church or the world. But they are odd. And in their oddity, they reveal a rather worrisome trend in the life of our churches.

3 things you might have missed at #ACCLusaka

The 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council comes to a close in Lusaka, Zambia today. Many worthy topics have been discussed and there has been good coverage from a handful of Episcopal/Anglican news organizations. But it’s easy to let meetings like this slide by. I wasn’t there but here are a few things I noticed from afar that are worth highlighting.

You might have missed that the meeting happened at all. In stark contrast to the gathering in January of senior Anglican bishops, the ACC meeting has received almost no coverage in secular global press. It’s probably a safe bet that you won’t hear a report on the ACC on NPR or see it on the front page of the Guardian, as you could after the January meeting. No news editor will ever run the article, “Anglicans meet, read Bible, celebrate Eucharist, and discuss climate change, discipleship, and transitivity in Anglican-Lutheran agreements.” Plus, Lusaka is a lot harder for international media to get to than Canterbury.

This is a recurring problem in the Anglican Communion: our perceptions are formed by media coverage that is decidedly selective. Yet meetings such as the one in Lusaka have as a great a claim to represent the mind of the Communion as anything else does.

You might have missed the discussion of finances. In the past, there has been a curious divide in discussions about how the Anglican Communion Office is funded. On the one hand, conservative Anglicans claim it is funded by the Episcopal Church to spread its liberal influence around the world. But some Episcopalians say their church should not give any money so long as the Anglican Communion is unresolved on questions related to sexuality. This issue occasionally crops up at Episcopal General Conventions with proposals to cut back on the amount given to the ACO. Then there was the curious announcement a year or two back (with great fanfare) that the Episcopal church would give more—but still less than was being asked (there was less fanfare for that).

But in the middle of this, it’s never quite been clear just what the ACO is asking for from provinces. This year’s ACC had an open conversation about precisely this subject. It raised some good questions about reasonable expectations for contributions from churches. Above all, it raised the issue directly. That’s a good thing.

(Amidst all these debates in recent years, the staff of the ACO have continued to do important and innovative work that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the Communion. But that’s a post for another day.)

You might have missed the steps taken on an Anglican archive. In a passing reference, we read of how the Standing Committee (meeting before the actual ACC meeting) “adopted objectives for the management of the Anglican Communion Office Archives.” Why does this matter? In the Anglican Communion, we lack a good historical narrative. Events, actions, and reports from even just a few years ago are forgotten, even as we talk through the same set of issues. Having consulted these archives myself in the past, I can attest that they are a valuable resource for the Communion if they could be made more widely available.

To take one example: there was considerable debate in the run-up to this ACC meeting whether the American church should even be present after actions taken in January at the Primates meeting. The debate turned on interpreting a sentence or two in the statement from that meeting. But few people in the debate looked to past precedent. In 2005, at a similar Primates meeting, the Primates requested that American (and Canadian) representatives withdraw from a forthcoming ACC—and they did. In 2016, it seems that if the Primates had wanted the Americans to stay away from the ACC in particular, they would have directly said so as they have in the past. History can help give some context and specificity to our conversations.

And another thing you might have missed: the guy who is taking a selfie during the group shot at the top of this post. Can you find him?