The Five Marks of Mission: the Cosmo edition

I’ve said in the past that the Five Marks of Mission—apparently the framework by which the Episcopal Church spends its money—don’t really do it for me. To my mind, the Five Marks are in a long tradition of Anglican and Episcopal slogans, none of which have proven to have much staying power and only demonstrate our inability to engage in serious and honest theological discussion.

It’s possible the Five Marks of Mission have now—finally and officially—”jumped the shark.” There’s a Facebook app (produced by our own Episcopal Church; your pledge dollars at work) that lets you determine what is your Mark of Mission. (When you’re finished with the quiz, I encourage you to take the quizzes available at Cosmo: “Are you good-girl hot or bad-girl hot?” and “Are you way too good for him?“)

Leaving aside the fact that everyone who talks about the Five Marks of Mission talks about how they are integrated and one cannot stand without the other, isn’t there something just a little bit debasing about reducing the Five Marks of Mission to something you’d find in a Cosmo quiz?

Moreover, mission is a transcultural process by which all of God’s children are reconciled to God and one another. The quiz is culturally bound in the worst way—you have to recognize the names of American reality TV shows and vacation destinations available only to those with certain incomes.

Next up: which Millennium Development Goal are you?

“What we have here is a failure to communicate!”

Here is a story that should come as no surprise to anyone:

The Anglican Communion faces a shortage of qualified communicators, according to an international Working Group on communications. The group—consisting of communications professionals from five continents—concluded that the Communion life was at risk of being detrimentally affected by some Provinces’ inability to source and share their news and stories widely.

In my travels around the world church, I routinely encounter fascinating, inspiring, and transformative work that is going on—and realize almost no one else knows about it. I’m convinced that communications is part of the church’s missional witness to the world but we’re not doing a great job of it.

Here are at least some of the reasons why I think this is happening:

  • English is the de facto language of the Communion. If you are among the majority of Anglicans who do not speak English as a first language, you might not want to write down your story and share it. Many Anglicans, I’ve learned, are eager to talk in person about what they are doing but reluctant to commit those same thoughts to paper, at least in part, I think, because they think they lack the ability to do so.
  • Folks engaged in the most fascinating ministry around the world often spend so much of their time in ministry that they don’t make the time to tell their story. This is a perfectly understandable impulse but it is one that drives me crazy. We want to hear your story! We want to be able to pray for you and support you and we can’t do that unless you tell us what is going on.
  • People are humble. This is wonderful. Lots of people I’ve met engaged in transformative ministry around the world just don’t think that what they’re doing is all that important and can’t see why anyone else would want to know about what they’re doing. Humility is a great Christian virtue—but a little well deserved tooting of one’s own horn wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

And so we get stuck in the position we are in now: no one really knows what else is going on around the world church. The loudest, shrillest, and most destructive voices dominate the conversation. And everyone thinks we’re falling apart. But we’re not. I’m really convinced of that. We just need to tell the story better.

Part of the reason I wrote my book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, is to counter exactly this tendency towards miscommunication. It tells the story of work in one diocese in one particular province. But books like it could be written of the work in countless dioceses around the world.

A Spirituality of Mission

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You’re off “helping the poor” somewhere—soup kitchen, homeless shelter, outdoor church ministry, wherever. This is great. You’re participating in “mission,” which has become the buzziest buzzword in the church in recent years.

But the focus has become the actual task at hand: making the sandwiches to feed the people at the outdoor church, cutting the carrots to make the soup. Somehow, the focus on the people you were supposed to be working with has been lost, subsumed beneath the never-ending mountain of need you’re encountering.

I know this feeling well—extremely well, as a matter of fact. When I was a missionary in South Africa, it was easy to let the tasks at hand overwhelm the reality that what mattered was building relationships with the people in the community where I worked. Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve seen these same dynamics at play, like the time I helped a group make sandwiches for an outdoor church and then, when we arrived, watched as our group, myself included, handed out the sandwiches with utmost efficiency—and nary a word spoken to any of the people attending the church. Watching the situation I thought to myself, “Hmmm… something’s missing here.”

Mission is not a cost-free enterprise. It’s not something that we can fit into a little box—Sunday afternoon, 2 to 4, mission—and then go on with the rest of our life. It’s about an approach to life, one that demands that we engage with those who are different than us, whether they are just down the street or halfway across the world. It’s what Jesus did when he chatted with the woman at the well. It is, ultimately, what God in Christ did in the moment of the Incarnation, coming to we who were “far off” and engaging with us. Difference exists in this world (and we are ever more aware of it as our world is drawn closer and closer together). Mission is what happens when we encounter it in a Christ-like way.

And it’s all kind of scary and unsettling. It’s much nicer to have all the answers—to know exactly how many sandwiches we need or how many gallons of soup—than to have none but strike up a conversation and see where it leads. But if we want the Gospel to unsettle the world, it must first unsettle us.

One thing that is missing, then, from the church’s conversation about mission is what might be called a “spirituality of mission.” I owe this phrase to the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, who has written of the need for a “spirituality of liberation” to go along with his theology of liberation. His question is how to get people who are poor and oppressed to see that liberation can begin with them, in spite of the years of oppression.

How do we become the people who can overcome our fear and reach out to those who are different than us? We do that by cultivating our relationship with God in Christ, the one whose most frequent teaching was “fear not,” and who modeled exactly what the fearlessness looks like and exactly where it can lead.

What gives you the spiritual resources to continue to engage in God’s mission in the world?

“Moral Realism” about Christian service

In his column today, David Brooks encourages those in my generation committed to service around the world to develop a sense of “moral realism” by reading novels by folks like Hammett and Chandler:

There’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on….

A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.

Christians say something similar, only we use words like sin, grace, and forgiveness. Christians know that “corruption, venality, and disorder” begin at home, within ourselves. The point that I make in my new book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, about my years as a missionary in South Africa, dovetails neatly with what Brooks has to say: we can be committed to changing the world all we want, but unless we are also committed to changing ourselves then we will get nowhere.

When I first showed up for work in a shantytown community in South Africa, I was committed to making the world a better place, “solving” the problems of global poverty and poor health. Naturally, with an attitude like this, I fell immediately and repeatedly flat on my face. It wasn’t until I began to realize that my attitude towards and outlook on the world and my work needed to change. I had to be willing to confront my fears head-on, instead of burying them in a welter of emotions about world change. I had to be willing to build an actual relationship with someone who seemed markedly different to me and whom I wanted to treat not as a person but as an object whose problems needed to be solved.

Historically, the Christian tradition has seen baptism as the moment when we are received, forgiven, and transformed by God in Christ. We remember this moment each time we celebrate the Eucharist. In my Episcopal Church, however, baptism is now seen as a moment of “commissioning” to join in God’s work in the world. This is right, more or less, except I get the sense we’re sometimes leaving off the part about the personal transformation and focused solely on the world’s transformation. When we do that, we end up eliding a huge part of the Christian tradition and becoming more or less like the folks Brooks is writing about.

The world needs to change, true. But change begins at home.

How “mission” shapes budget

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?

How? or Why? And what’s the mission?

A friend who has read Diana Butler Bass’s latest book told me the other day about a point Bass makes repeatedly. Basically, as I understand it, Bass argues that the church has been too busy asking how questions that it no longer asks why questions.

I haven’t read the book but the insight struck me as true. We ask ourselves how we are “doing” church but we don’t talk about why we are bothering with it. Ashes To Go, an exciting idea that takes the imposition of ashes out of the church on Ash Wednesday, is still basically a how conversation. How do we impose ashes, not why are we bothering with this liturgy? What does Ash Wednesday mean in this day and age? (Why and what questions are closely related.) Perhaps, we think, the answer to the why questions are obvious but few things with Christianity ever are.

These questions are particularly pressing in the Episcopal Church as we prepare for a General Convention this summer that will be asked to make decisions about restructuring and pass a budget that deals with the painful reality of substantially diminished income.  Both these questions—restructuring and budget—are how questions. How do we be a church and spend our money in light of the realities of church life in 2012?

The answer that has been given to the underlying why questions is, simply, “mission.” We are told we must be structured for mission and we must spend our money on mission. But what is mission? Why is it important? This conversation does not appear, to my knowledge, to have been had. And it is a particularly important conversation to have because mission is in danger of becoming a buzzword, meaning different things to different people and so losing its force in dialogue.

To take one example, the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, Stacy Sauls, last year proposed a resolution calling for a special convention on church structure. It reads, in part: “The Special Commission shall be charged with presenting a plan to the Church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this Church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18) in a way that maximizes the resources available for that mission at all levels of this Church.”

The text thus claims to answer the why mission? question. It does so in a way that is faithful to scripture by pointing to Jesus’ “inaugural address” in the Gospel of Luke. (We should note, of course, that Jesus is here quoting the prophet Isaiah. There is little thought given in this resolution to what Jesus “adds” to this Isaianic mission, though of course he must add something or the Gospel would no longer be good news but good olds.)

But is Luke 4 the only way to think about mission? Hardly.

What about when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”? (John 10:10) Or when Jesus is asked what to do to perform the works of God and he replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”? (John 6:29) What about when Abraham is told that if he follows God’s commands to get up and go, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), a promise repeated in Genesis? What about Jesus pre-resurrection commands to “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2) and post-resurrection commands to, famously, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? (Matthew 28:19-20) There’s a whole whack of Pauline passages to consider as well, of course.

None of these are contradictory and all form a piece of the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ. Nor is God’s mission necessarily something best learned by pointing to individual passages. Rather, I’d have us consider the entire witness of the people of God as recorded in the Bible. But these few verses certainly complicate the picture of mission put forth in the Sauls resolution.

The recently-released budget for the next three years of Episcopal Church spending points up exactly why we need to be having a conversation on what we mean by mission. While the narrative to go with the budget mentions mission in its first paragraph, there is almost no explanation as to what the budget drafters think the word means. The result is that the conversation about the budget has been almost entirely about how questions, not why ones. Every decision in the budget is one rich with missional implications—cutting funding for youth events but increasing it for policy advocacy is a missional decision, for instance—and I want to talk about the what and the why before talking about the how.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions I’d like to think about in the run-up to General Convention

  • What is the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ?
  • What does the church have to offer the world in this generation?
  • Why is the Christian witness significant/important/meaningful in this time and place?
  • Why does the Episcopal Church exist? What is the unique offering that Episcopal followers of God in Christ can make to the world?

I have some thoughts on all these questions and hope to get around to sharing some of them. For now, though, I hope we can change our budget and structure conversation away from one that pits Episcopalians against one other in a scarce fight for money and power and towards one that starts asking what and why before asking how.

“Get up and go”

I’ve just returned from pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in England, the “mother church” of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.

There is much that is moving about Canterbury—the site of Thomas Beckett’s murder, the throne of St. Augustine, the lively and vibrant congregational life that makes this cathedral no different than a country parish on Sunday mornings, the fabulous choir that leads Evensong every day.

But what I found memorable was the visit—in the rain—to St. Augustine’s Abbey a short way from the cathedral. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory in the late sixth century to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine set off but got cold feet and turned around in France. When he returned to Rome, Gregory sent him off again—this is immortalized in stained glass in Lambeth Palace that has Gregory pointing and saying to Augustine, “Go!”—and Augustine eventually showed up in what is now Kent.

There, he met Queen Bertha, who was from the Continent and already Christian. Together, the two of them set about evangelizing the area, eventually converting Bertha’s husband, Ethelbert. And so Christianity was reintroduced to this part of the world.

The ruins, from the cathedral tower.

Augustine is buried in the abbey and his grave is a pile of stones. Our group thought about what it says about Anglicanism that our notional founder is buried in such modest style. The contrast with, say, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is stark.

For a long time, the abbey in Canterbury was a major centre of religious life. But then the Reformation came along and Henry VIII shuttered the monasteries. The abbey was put to a number of purposes but eventually abandoned and left to fall further into ruins.

In the nineteenth century, this began to change. A missionary college was built near the ruins and the ruins were preserved. Thus, at the same site at which Augustine arrived after being told to “Go!”, scores of British missionaries were trained to go out into all the world, spreading the Gospel, and laying the foundation for our contemporary Anglican Communion.

For all that we get squeamish these days when we recollect the mission past, when I was standing in the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey last week, the word “Go!” was sounding in my head like a gong. Movement—across barriers and boundaries of language, culture, race, class, sex, identity, and so on and so forth—is at the heart of our Christian faith and the abbey ruins reminded me powerfully of it.

The signboards at the ruin call the abbey an “early foothold of Christianity in England.” We know, of course, that Christianity is on the wane across Britain. I wondered if in the future there will be more such ruins, and if this former abbey, once a harbinger of what Christianity would look like in the British Isles, is now a harbinger of the shape of Christianity in generations in come.

We returned to the cathedral for Evensong that day and the lesson was from Genesis 12. God said to Abram, “Get up and go to the land that I am showing you.”

The Commemoration of Stephen F. Bayne, Jr., January 18

On many days of the church year, Episcopalians commemorate figures from the past who are models and exemplars of holy living and Gospel witness. These people range from Ignatius of Antioch (Oct. 17) to Jonathan Daniels (Aug. 14) and everyone in between. There’s a big new revision of this list called Holy Women, Holy Men that is the result of years of hard work.

But there are many figures who are not in HWHM who deserve to be remembered. For me, one of those figures is Stephen Fielding Bayne, Jr. I’ve written a commemoration in the style of Holy Women, Holy Men and encourage you, if you are able, to use it in your worship life. Bayne died on the same day as St. Peter so you might want to commemorate him (as we do with others), the day before or the day after.

The commemoration is below. Who else do you think deserves to be commemorated?

Stephen F. Bayne, Jr.
Bishop 1974

Psalm 133, Romans 12:1-8, John 20:19-23

Gracious God, whose Son prayed that his followers might be one, we remember in thanksgiving this day your servant Stephen Bayne; inspire in your global church the same passion for unity which shaped his ministry; deepen our relationships in a spirit of mutual responsibility and interdependence, and empower us to be servants of your reconciling Gospel; through the same Christ our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

for Pentecost

Stephen Fielding Bayne, Jr. was the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion, helping Anglicans around the world understand why their worldwide Communion was important in the challenging post-war years.

Bayne was born in New York City on May 21, 1908. After studying at Amherst College and The General Theological Seminary, he was ordained a priest in 1933 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He served parishes in St. Louis and western Massachusetts, and as chaplain at Columbia University and to the navy during World War II. In December 1946, without informing him he was a candidate, the Diocese of Olympia elected Bayne their bishop. During his episcopacy, he presided over a growing diocese and remained an active scholar, contributing a volume on Christian ethics to the Church’s Teaching Series and writing several other books.

At the 1958 Lambeth Conference, Bayne chaired the committee on “The Family in Contemporary Society” and distinguished himself for the way he navigated difficult issues of sexuality. Bishops at the conference approved the idea of a creation of an “executive officer” for the growing Anglican Communion. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher invited Bayne to fill the position. Bayne accepted and began work in January 1960. The Anglican Communion was at a crossroads. The demise of the British Empire, the growing ecumenical movement, and a sense that the world was changing challenged Anglicans to determine what it is that held them together.

Bayne’s tenure was marked by his unrelenting travel, on average 150,000 miles a year, to provinces of the church all over the world. It was said of him that “Bishops come and go but not as much as Bishop Bayne.” Declaring the need to make “a frontal attack on provincial and national narrowness,” he emphasized the importance of relationships among Anglicans and developed many new communication instruments—including the Anglican Cycle of Prayer—to facilitate this. Everywhere he went, he emphasized the mission of God, urging Anglicans to figure out what God was already doing in their midst and then join in that task.

The apex of his time as executive officer was the 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto. There, delegates approved a document drafted primarily by Bayne titled “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.” MRI called for new patterns of being Anglican marked by “the birth of entirely new relationships” and declared “our unity in Christ…is the most profound bond among us, in all our political and racial and cultural diversity.” MRI—and Bayne—was widely hailed as a break with an outdated Anglican past, even appearing on the front page of The New York Times.

Bayne stepped down as executive officer in 1964. He narrowly lost the election for presiding bishop that year but still accepted a position at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. As a bishop, he chaired the heresy investigation of Bishop Pike. In 1970, he returned to General Seminary as professor and later dean. He died on January 18, 1974.

(Photo from An American Apostle: The Life of Stephen Fielding Bayne, Jr. by John Booty.)