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It's Just Not Cricket: An Anglican Theology of Mission

Date added: 31/08/2016

It's Just Not Cricket: An Anglican Theology of Mission

Michael Jensen ABC Religion and Ethics 26 Aug 2016

The Rev. Dr Michael Jensen is rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point.

Originally published on ABC Reglion and Ethics.

In the 1890s, there was no more quintessentially English figure than that of Dr W.G. Grace, captain of Gloucestershire and England. This bearded behemoth bestrode the game of cricket like a god. He was its Zeus and its Moses rolled into one. You were never quite sure if he had appeared from Sinai to deliver the law or from Olympus to break it.

He was received in the colonies with awe and a degree of reverence as the incarnation of the gentlemanly ethos of a game that itself was seen as the embodiment of the best of Empire values. And he expected the peoples of these far-flung lands to express their gratitude for his manifestations with hefty appearance fees, though he mysteriously maintained his amateur status throughout his career.

As Australian writer Malcolm Knox has shown in his book Never a Gentleman's Game, Grace may have been his name, but financial exploitation and sharp dealing was his regular practice. Rather fittingly, Grace died in 1916 as zeppelins rained their bombs down on London. His era was already a thing of the past.

The game of cricket, with Grace as its august symbol, was intended to play its part in pacifying the savage corners of the globe and imbuing them with Britishness - to make gentlemen out of ex-convicts and gold diggers and white men out of black and brown men. It was the establishment.

And yet things have not turned out as W.G. might have expected. The game has flourished, but not on the terms that were set for it by those who were its first missionaries. It has been adopted with gusto by those the English came to rule, much to the apparent surprise and sometimes to the obvious disgust of the English themselves. Its centre of gravity is now in the global South, and those countries have made it their own, with a chaos and passion that is the complete reverse of the relative quietude from which it emerged.

I am talking about cricket, but I could of course be, and really ought to be, talking about the story of Anglican Christianity in the last two centuries. I think the analogy is enjoyable, but I don't think it is trivial: the points of connection between the two are multiple. Cricket and Anglican Christianity both came to the colonies of the Empire in institutional form; but as the tide of Empire has receded, both cricket and Anglicanism have been left on the shore. In post-colonial era, both now ask: what does continuity for the game, or for the faith, look like when the institutional form which carried it so far across the globe has been altered beyond recognition?

Cricket can solve its own problems, and it is not my task to offer the International Cricket Council advice. But what of the C. of E. - that Church which one wag has suggested has been "loving Jesus with a slight air of superiority since A.D. 597"? What does mission for our Church look like in the world in which the idea of an institutionalised Christianity has all but faded away?

Even today, if we are to be honest, we sit together munching on the fruits of the Empire period, gathering on now-priceless parcels of land meted out by the government in the nineteenth century - in vineyards that we did not plant, harvesting grain that we did not sow. So we need to ask: given the historical association of Anglican mission with Empire, is there a place for an Anglican theology of mission in the post-colonial world?

It's a good question to ask, because Anglicans have always been the church of the establishment, whether formally or informally. But we should avoid passing over the really impressive story of mission that has gone on under the banner of the Church of England for the last two centuries or more. It's a story of real courage, creativity and sacrifice.

The missionaries of the last two centuries frequently found themselves at odds with the secular authorities, and not infrequently with ecclesiastical authorities. Governor Arthur Phillip imagined that his chaplain would play his role in instilling in the convicts a moral sense; but Richard Johnson was seeking to change hearts for Christ, not simply to keep the peace. The extraordinary mission strategist Henry Venn - one of the first to use the expression "indigenous church" - fought nobly against the West African slave trade. He envisaged what he called the "euthanasia of missions": meaning that mission agencies should see themselves as aiming to hand over responsibility to local, indigenous leadership.

The reality is that while the Church of England was the church of the establishment, its faith was never simply the civic religion of Englishness. The best missionaries of this church always knew that simple institutionalism was not enough for the church to be truly a church of Jesus Christ. They welcomed interdenominational co-operation for the cause of Christ - in the case of Johnson and those that followed him, with Methodists like Samuel Leigh.

An Anglican theology of mission, therefore, is in the strange position of having to reckon with the way in which Anglicanism at its best has risked its own established position and its own monopoly on Christ. Such an account would have recognise that deep in the DNA of Anglicanism is the understanding that the Anglican Church exists for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, and not the other way around.

This may perhaps be a surprising thing to claim. The Church of England as a distinct entity began, as we know, in the service of a King whose goal was as an assertion of the seedy politics of primogeniture - a politics which is alive and well and set to continue into another generation, by George. But the theology that emerged from that difficult period contained two great missional themes which became enshrined in the formularies of the Church of England: the dynamic authority of the Word of God in a vernacular Bible and liturgy, and the gospel of the grace of God to all humankind in the Jesus Christ.

The language of the gospel

The translation of Scripture and the liturgy into English so it may be "understanded of the people" was not simply a piece of populist pragmatism, but was the product of a conviction about what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and how it was to be received. The gospel is the Word of God about a God whose peace passes all understanding, and who dwells in unapproachable light, granted: but it the Word about a God who is revealed to human beings, great and small and far and near.

The great mystery of the secret will of God has now been made known in Christ: it is mystery no longer. As Paul says in Romans 16:25, the gospel is "the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past." It can be declared by mouths, heard by ears and understood in hearts and minds. "Faith comes from hearing," as Paul says in Romans 10. Quite so: in the history of Israel, faith is the right response to the promises of God which were declared in the covenant with Abraham, and restated with Moses and David.

Thomas Cranmer's liturgies are mission documents that call on a nation to repent and believe the gospel. He ensured in the lectionaries that the Word of God which is the source of life itself was read frequently and thoroughly and intelligibly in the hearing of the English people. He gave them a language by which they might pray to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the "Almighty and most merciful Father." Coming to worship was no longer approaching the altar to an unknown God, but rather a resting in the embrace of God with a name and, in Jesus, a face.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that a vernacular liturgy with a vernacular Bible had on upon those who were not familiar with it. For some, the effect was rather more confronting than they were used to!

The translation of the Bible and the liturgy, we should not forget, was attended by considerable risks. William Tyndale, the translator burned at the stake by the agents of Henry VIII, knew instinctively that royal disapproval would attend his work. A translated Bible is a political statement, for it unleashes among the people an authority higher than kings, and to which kings may be called to account; or rather, seeing it from a king's point of view, it unleashes anarchy, since every person becomes potentially the interpreter of his or her own Bible. The King was fully aware of what this might mean, and had to look no further than the Peasant's Revolt in Germany for evidence of what might occur if the Bible was let out of its Latinate box.

Nevertheless, a distinctive mark of Anglican mission ever since has been the insistence that the Christian faith should be transmitted in the vernacular tongue. As the eminent Cranmer scholar Ashley Null writes:

"Cranmer provided the Church of England with gospel-shaped sermons and gospel-shaped prayers written in the language of the people and in the idiom of their own culture. Clearly, effectiveness in transmission of the faith was the English Reformers' highest ecclesiological priority."

Access to the story of Jesus Christ should not be restricted to those who know a special language. But here we ought to pause and recollect that very often, even today, the English language has become what Latin once was in many cases. Even in Cranmer's day, the Cornish rebelled at the new prayer book because they could sense that the use of English was in the interests of conforming them to the national identity rather than serving them with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Anglican missionaries have in many instances worked, and continue to work, assiduously at the task of translating the Bible into the tongues of the world.

This was scarcely foreseen by Thomas Cranmer, of course. But the sixteenth century conviction that people should understand the faith that is being preached to them has had far-reaching social, political and spiritual consequences. What might it mean for us today, however, as we consider an Anglican theology of mission in a very different context?

A commitment to the fundamental translatability of the Bible tells us something profound about its content: that the Christian faith is not a formula of holy words, or a reverence for a particular set words themselves, but a communicable message about a particular person. That is not of course to say that it is reducible to words, or that there is no place for recognising the extraordinary transcendence of God. Christian faith is not reducible to a belief in certain truths. But it certainly involves belief that certain things are true.

That is the vision of Christian orthodoxy; and it has clear missional ramifications, not the least of which is that the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom (which is the first of the "Five Marks of Mission" developed by the Anglican Consultative Council) to those who have not heard it is a message to be spoken.

Salvation by grace

The second great theme for an Anglican theology of mission is the theology of salvation by grace alone. If the vernacular Scriptures were the formal principle of sixteenth century Anglicanism, then the theology of grace was certainly its material principle. It is worth saying that this was not novel to the sixteenth century Reformers at all; but it certainly was an emphasis they sought to enshrine in the formularies of the Church of England.

In its 1552 version, The Book of Common Prayer was, as Dom Gregory Dix suggested with just a touch of his characteristic overstatement, "the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone" - that is, the theology of grace. We come to the Lord's Table as it says in the 1662 "not trusting in our own righteousness, but in God's manifold and great mercies."

And what was this theology of grace about? The New Testament spends an inordinate amount of time concerned with the puzzle of the Gentiles: how could the election of Israel as God's chosen people in the Old Testament, with all the conditions that attended that election, be squared with the admission of the Gentiles into the people of God in the New Testament? The answer was not that Israel's history was a grave mistake, or that the old covenant had been built on a false premise.

Not at all: Jesus, Paul, Peter and the author of Hebrews are all concerned to show that a true reading of Israel's history and her texts would reveal that the way had always been prepared for the Gentiles. God came to Abraham and called him out of Ur, in Genesis 12, promising that his people would be the conduit for the blessing of God to the whole world. This was confirmed throughout the Exodus: the choice of the slave-peoples of Egypt to become the treasured possession of God was by grace: not because they were more numerous or more lovely, but because of the love of God, and with a longer purpose in view: the rescue of people from all the nations on earth, from every tribe and tongue.

In the New Testament this grace-theology of the people of God finds its focal point in the death of Christ. The cross of Christ, itself the result of collaboration between Jew and Gentile, is remarkably the source of salvation for both Jew and Gentile - in the words of Article XXXI: "The offering of Christ once made is the perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world." "He is our peace" as we hear in the Ephesian letter: because in the cross of Christ Jew and Gentile become one - judged alike, and redeemed alike. The church itself is a people gathered in the wake of the finished work of Christ. As we read in 1 Peter, like Israel, we are a community gathered by the grace of God for purpose, or a mission: that we might declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.

The end of Anglicanism?

Taken together, what do these two principles of an Anglican theology of mission mean for us here today? In the first place, they remind us that mission is the work of God. In the words of the bishops of the 1998 Lambeth conference: "Mission goes out from God. Mission is God's way of loving and saving the world ... So mission is never our invention or choice." The grace of God reminds us that God is at work to build his church. The building of the church is a work in which we are privileged to share, but it is not a work over which we are sovereign. Why do we need to hear this? Because sometimes we are rather slow to recognise it where God is at work outside the categories we have organised for him to operate him.

Second, the gospel of grace and the vernacular Bible remind us that access to the Father of Jesus Christ is not by dint of privilege or race or class. Whatever Anglicans do when they do mission, they must not perpetuate the impression that God is only for the nice. We've been very good at doing that. The nice need God, of course - perhaps more than they realise. But the gospel of grace tells us that niceness is worthless, as a matter of fact. The parables of Jesus open the doors to people who have no appreciation at all for the finer things in life. Likewise, to be truly Anglican, Anglicans need to undo the impression that God is English and speaks English. Inclusion in the people of God is not on the basis of anything but the finished work of Christ.

But perhaps the most shocking realisation we need to come to is that both of our principles significantly relativise the Anglican Church itself. Both of our principles say to an established church that it should never, ever, be guilty of smugness or complacency. They say that our habit of happy co-operation with the state and with contemporary culture should never obscure the gospel we are commissioned to proclaim to the nations.

The Church of England in its current form - the Anglican Communion - has been and is being mightily used by God for his mission in the world. Members of the Anglican Church, we should not forget, sit on some of the great fault-lines in global politics: I am thinking of my friend Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos in Nigeria, who has seen congregations of Anglicans in his diocese burned in their buildings as they worshipped, and who lives in a society ravaged by corruption and by the rapacity of Western oil companies; and yet who has seen remarkable spiritual and numerical growth over the last two decades.

There is every good reason to think that God has not finished with the Anglican Church yet. At the same time, Anglicanism reminds itself that it is historically contingent. It is a form of the church on earth that is good for the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ; but if in the cause of mission it disappears, or its outward forms radically change, then so be it. The sacrifice that Anglicans might have to make for the sake of Jesus Christ is the end of Anglicanism as we know it. But that would be very Anglican, actually. Archbishop Robert Runcie once said: "Anglicanism has a radically provisional character which we must never allow to be obscured." The same point was made by another Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay in 1936:

"While the Anglican Church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as 'the best type of Christianity', but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died."

An Anglican theology of mission, therefore, ought not to allow us to be complacent about our privileged position. We are not, it turns out, simply called upon to be the chaplains to our culture. As Anglicans we serve a purpose that exceeds us, and will hopefully transform us.

The Rev. Dr Michael Jensen is rector of St. Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point.

 

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