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.

Episcopal / Anglican Slogans

Last semester in class, we made a list of slogans, phrases, ideas, objects, etc. that we’ve heard in conversation about or relating to the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, or any part thereof. Here’s a partial list:

  • the three-legged stool (that is, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason)
  • lex orandi, lex credendi—the way we worship shapes/determines/is what we believe
  • a logo that features a shield with obscure heraldry
  • “no outcasts”
  • Via Media, or Middle Way
  • “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” (to what?)
  • Dispersed Authority
  • The Four-Fold Anglican Shape: formed by Scripture, shaped by worship, ordered for Communion and directed by God’s mission (this is the most recent, I’d say)
We can debate some of these later, especially whether their current interpretations and usages match up with the original usage, whether the authors meant for them to have such defining weight (in the case of dispersed authority, definitely not), and whether they are even consistent. What struck me as we did the list is that you could make a similar list of slogans related to Episcopalians/Anglicans and mission:
  • Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ (1963 document from Toronto Anglican Congress)
  • Partners in Mission
  • Decade of Evangelism (the 1990s, as set by bishops at Lambeth 1988)
  • Millennium Development Goals
  • Five Marks of Mission

(Indeed, the word “mission” itself could almost be added to this list, given the reckless abandon with which it has been used in recent years.)

I don’t find many of these particularly helpful. I can never remember the Five Marks of Mission, mainly because they don’t really grab me. I think the Millennium Development Goals promote a shopping-list mentality among churches that prize dollars and cents over relationships. The Decade of Evangelism is very well-remembered in the non-western Anglican Communion (an archdeacon in Nigeria last summer told me, “The Decade of Evangelism saved the Church in Nigeria”) but I rarely hear anyone in the U.S. talk about it.

The thing of it is, despite our wonderful slogans we still seem to have difficulty articulating what the Episcopal Church is and is for (though we seem to have no problem articulating what it is not). And, we lack a clear sense of what mission is, which results in something like the Sauls’ resolution’s very thin idea of mission.

There is much to find depressing in all this but two stand out. First, these slogans replace genuine theological engagement with inconsistent and confusing sound-bites. Second, they betray the assumption that we all know what we’re talking about when we say something so we don’t need to bother figuring out what it means. This is never a good assumption to make.

As far as mission goes, there’s a third disappointment: all of these are focused outward. This is, obviously, quite good. But I’d hope that we remember that in order for us to be a missional church, we need first to be transformed by the love of God in Christ to become missional Christians. Mission is our response to God’s grace—but we need to receive that grace before we can respond.

What are your favourite slogans that I’ve left out?

UPDATE: Welcome to all who are clicking over here from Episcopal Cafe. If you like this post, you might like some others I’ve written about mission lately: the spirituality of mission or how our understanding of mission shapes our budgetary decisions.