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Max Warren: candid comments on mission from his personal letters.

Max Warren was the major British missiologist of the mid-twentieth century.(1) He influenced mission worldwide through his twenty-one years as general secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1942 to 1963 and through his later ministry as canon and subdean of Westminster Abbey for a further ten years, 1963-73. He died in 1977 at the age of seventy-three.(2)

From 1965 to 1977 he wrote a total of 617 personal letters to his daughter, Pat, and son-in-law, Roger Hooker, who were CMS missionaries in India.(3) Roger's ministry was primarily teaching at Bareilly Theological College, and then as a student of Sanskrit at the Sanskrit University, Banaras (Varanasi), which also involved dialogue and witness.(4).

Warren seemed to be using the discipline of weekly letter writing as a continuation of his monthly CMS News-Letters, which had had a worldwide circulation of about 14,000. He kept Pat and Roger in touch with life and thought in Britain, sent cuttings from The Times and The Economist, gave short book reviews, and worked on a theology of other faiths in dialogue with Roger.

These letters were alternately addressed to Pat and Roger and were usually between three and five pages long, sometimes written over a period of days. Most of Roger's side of the correspondence is missing for their first tour in India (1965-70) but available for their second tour (1972-78).

Various themes tend to reappear in the letters, such as God at work outside the covenant, thinking historically, interfaith worship, idolatry, mission through personal friendships, race and immigration, the sickness of British society, ministry at Westminster Abbey, comments and reviews of past and contemporary theologians, and comments on British and world politics.

When I read Max Warren's I Believe in the Great Commission as a young student, I was fascinated by his reference in the introduction to this correspondence.(5) In 1984, while training as a CMS missionary in Birmingham, I met Roger and we discussed the letters.(6) One of the first telephone calls I made on returning from Kenya at the end of 1991 was to Roger and Pat to discuss the possibility of publishing a book of selections from the correspondence (including extracts from Roger's letters to give the other side of the developing dialogue). They have kindly given permission and much encouragement for this project. The following extracts from Warren's letters give some indication of their significance as a window into the mind of this magisterial missiologist.(7)

Letter 1, February 9, 1965 Aim of the Letters

Dear Roger:

I am planning to do a sort of diary letter, adding to it bit by bit as occasion offers and sending off the results from time to time. How long this bright idea will last I don't know but we'll see. Sometimes it will be addressed to you and sometimes to Pat, but the presumption is that you'll both read it--you for the contents and Pat for the spelling!!

Letter 4, March 3, 1965 Consultant at Cambridge

Last Friday |Feb. 26~ I went up to Cambridge to meet with three Divinity Professors to plan the 3rd Part of the Theological Tripos. It was fun and I confess to having got quite a kick out of moving in such exalted circles and even being listened to with what appeared to be respect. There's a bit of me which would have been very content to spend my life in the Groves of Academe, but I'm sure it would have been very bad for me. But an occasional sip at the Pierian fountain does one good!(8)

Letter 114, May 31, 1967 Prophetic Word and Indigenization

We got back just in time to hear the 6.0 pm news all about the tension in the Middle East. Here surely is an issue to tax far more than the wit of man .... Meanwhile the Christian Church hasn't really got much to say, indeed what can it say at the moment?

This poses a question to which I think much more thought needs to be given by theologians. It seems to me that theology is either escapist or complacent over the dilemmas of contemporary history. Either it hands the future "over to God" and says that nothing it can do is effective: or it accepts the world as it is. I speak more of theology not of individual Christians. Individuals in their action are often courageous. They refuse to accept a non possumus and abdicate and at the same time refuse to accept the status quo. But theology tends to compromise. And so when we see a situation like this in the Middle East (including all that has led up to it) or the situation in Nigeria, there is no word ....

I wonder if Alan Booth means anything to you and Roger? He's a friend of mine of many years standing and is the London secretary of the C.C.I.A. |Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, World Council of Churches~. He's a very knowledgeable person and a shrewd judge of what is happening. I wrote to him recently asking if he could give an estimate of how things were moving in your part of the sub-continent. I had in mind the recent developments about which Roger wrote in his letter describing being driven across Agra in a V.I.P. car. What follows is a most interesting comment by Alan. I will put an X for the name of the country and N stands for a very notable person.(9) I can't imagine anyone ploughing through this letter, but this procedure seems sensible.

Alan wrote "I entirely agree with your comment about X. Or rather I should say that there are a number of factors of estrangement becoming prominent against a background of almost inescapable cultural attraction (very shrewd! MACW). No doubt the whole political scene in X is entering into the first phase of real Xisation, after the dominance of the very English N. I have the impression that much of the thinking of people like M. M. Thomas, which concerned itself with the Parliamentary system of government as over against the authoritarian, will now be thought to be couched in very western terms and that the next generation of Xian thinkers, Christian and otherwise, will tend to look more for clues in Asian thought and life for the solution of the immense political problems of the X sub Continent. In this respect I think that the day of a fairly sophisticated liberal, humanist, secular democracy in X is probable passing and what emerges has yet to be seen. The point is that the new thing is likely to be a good deal less British."

Letter 119, July 9, 1967 Academic Calling?

I think I can understand exactly how you are feeling. "Busy here and there" and what is there to show for it? That is part of the feeling. Again there is the awareness of such vast ranges of knowledge even in those fields in which one is undaunted: yet again life is short. All this I know full well in experience. Deep down in me there has always been a longing to be a Don! And I had the opportunity once when invited to be Chaplain of Queens' Cambridge with the Deanship and a Fellowship a few years later. I know I could have done something worth while in the academic field if I had concentrated. But I knew my 'calling' was to "mankind"--to help folk to set forth the Gospel and to serve the Christian Mission. And in this 'calling' such potential academic gifts as I possessed have not been wholly wasted. I suppose that a certain ability to see the wood and not be wholly obsessed with the trees, was due to my real interest in history and theology. And I've tried in a small way to get this across in such things that I've written.

Letter 168, June 30, 1968 Great People of the Twentieth Century

By the way Dillistone is going to write Charles Raven's biography. Sometime or other 'Dilly' wants me to tape-record my memories of Charles. I've already had one session with him. I loved Charles. With William Temple, and Bell of Chichester, Charles was one of my three main heroes. I shall always reckon they were far and away the three greatest Anglicans of my lifetime, all of them giants, besides whom most other men have been pygmies--and that goes largely for the State as well as the Church. Winston and Smuts were giants. But in this country I cannot think of anyone but Winston. And in the Old Commonwealth I think only Smuts will still be reckoned a giant in 50 years time. At one time I thought Nehru might be of his status. But I am less sanguine the more I read of him. However I am open to conversion.

How very few really great men there have been in this century, men whose names will still be on men's lips in the year 2000.

John R. Mott, yes and J. H. Oldham, and Visser 't Hooft, and Soderblom, these + my three are all I can muster from the Christian angle. Perhaps Kagawa ought to be included.

Of World statesmen who will be gratefully remembered--how very very few! Gandhi, yes, Jomo Kenyatta and Kenneth Kaunda (possibles), Hammarskjold and Winston--any others? I would like to get a considered list out of you and Roger.

Letter 199, January 18, 1969 Idolatry

You'll be amused to hear that the Swedish missionary society have asked me for a paper on 'Christians and Other Faiths' and as they gave me a month's notice, I have told them I can only let them have a reduced Kelham paper.(10) As the Kelham paper was 6,000 words and the Swedish allowance is 3,500 it is a considerable reduction, but privately, and just between you and me, and the door of your study, I am rather thrilled that some folk on the continent are interested in my views on this subject. The origin of their curiosity is my introduction to the 'Christian Presence Series' which, so it appears, are very widely read in Scandinavia.

This brings me to Isaiah 44:5-13. I do not find that this passage in any way conflicts with my thesis. I am wholly at one with the prophet in denying any validity to idols. Idols are the false concretions of spiritual insights. What I am concerned with are the 'insights'. When someone is wrestling with the mystery of creation, I am not primarily interested in his translation of this symbolically into a phallus. That is simply a rather crude and oversimplified analogy drawn from an accurate biological fact but when a man is concerned with the mystery of creation, then his mind is being moved by the Creator's Spirit. Not for one moment do I want to claim that Hindu or other interpretations of this mystery are in themselves inspired. What is inspired is the recognition of mystery. Once a man ceases to be preoccupied with the material he is moving in the realm of the spiritual and in that realm he is, wittingly or unwittingly being moved by the Logos, the Creator Spirit, the 'uncovenanted Christ'. That man goes sadly awry when he comes to interpreting his experience as sadly true. Here is the signature of the Fall.

You see, I am not equating the insights of Hinduism with those of Judaism and Christianity. All I'm claiming is that in so far as the insights are true, they come from the God of truth. As I see it, this is it, this is a genuine bridge which enables us to talk with and listen to the other man for we have both been touched by the grace of God. Is that not a reasonable view? But let us continue the debate. If it serves no other purpose than to make me a little more coherent the energy expended is not wasted!!

Letter 245, November 4, 1969 Influencing the Queen's Christmas Message

While I was sitting at lunch, all by myself in the sunlight (it really was pouring in through the window), who should come in but the Dean of Windsor, the Very Rev Robin Woods, a friend from long ago. I had written to him wondering if he could gently insert the idea into the head of his Royal Mistress that when she writes her Christmas Message for the Press she should say something nice about our fellow-citizens in this country who are black or brown. Robin has many opportunities of slipping in a word edgeways. He came to talk about this. But he added that on Christmas Day the Queen is coming to Church in Windsor Chapel. The service is to be televised and he, Robin, has to preach for 12 minutes. The upshot of all this was a request that I should put down the main headings for his sermon!! That is what I meant by saying that one never knows what odd job will come one's way.

Letter 286b, July 9, 1971 Bonhoeffer and Mission

I must share with you two passages from the Life of Bonhoeffer. What follows is Eberhard Bethege's interpretation not Bonhoeffer's actual words.

... Bonhoeffer's theme involves a setting out to discover the presence of Christ in the world of today: not a discovery of the modern world, nor the discovery of him outside the modern world, but discovering HIM in this world. BONHOEFFER asked the simplest of questions, from which it is impossible to emerge unchanged: "Who are YOU?", and that is why he also mentions prayer right at the beginning of his essay.

There is a lot there to chew over. It seems to me to be a real insight into what you and Pat are engaged upon in India, what in a very poor and dim way some of us are trying to do in England. I wish I had read that passage before editing the "Christian Presence" series. I'd have made it the text of my Introduction!

Letter 292, August 5, 1971, Interfaith Worship at the Abbey

Now here is a message very specially for Roger. Edward Carpenter, on behalf of the World Congress of Faiths, has set up a working group on "Inter-Faith Worship". He has asked me to be a 'consultant member', which will not involve lots of meetings.

In accepting I advanced the suggestion that there was a real weakness in trying to get a service in which half-a-dozen Faiths were represented. This results in each choosing the most edifying passages from their sacred scriptures. There is no sense whatever of corporate worship. I said that I thought it would be much more sensible for each Faith in turn to have an ordinary normal service of their own, to which others would be invited as guests, but would not be expected to contribute (except, no doubt in private prayer). I added that I fully realized that even this meant being 'spectators' and thus making for unreality. But at least the experiment was worth making. I knew that Edward goes every year to the sedar with a liberal Jewish family on the Eve of Passover. I then cited Roger's going to the Satsang.(11)

Letter 305, October 17, 1971 Universalism and Modern Baals

I am always grateful for being challenged on 'universalism'. But with you I believe in paradox. I'm sure that two mutually inconsistent ideas may have to be held in tension in this our 'time of ignorance.' I wholly agree that God only wants the free response of man and that must involve the possibility of a free rejection. Yet I find myself increasingly perplexed as to what to do with the multitudes, an ever increasing number who are not free to reject because they know of no one to accept. Isn't this one of the vastest problems of today. It isn't that 'God is dead'. It is that he is unknown as God. Here is our problem with the vast secularist mood of our time. You know the phrase "A God-shaped blank" in the mind of modern man. I'm not sure that is adequate. I wish there was a sure consciousness of a blank to be filled. Where there is such it is being filled with all kinds of 'false gods' and here is where the OT becomes so important. We are wrestling with the same issues as the OT prophets. The modern 'Baals' do exist in the minds of their worshippers, indeed in altogether too many professing Christians--hence another relevance of the OT.

I am now thinking aloud. I wish I had put more of this into the article I've done for the College of Preachers' Bulletin. But our research group is going to grapple with this to-morrow when one of our members is going to introduce a discussion of how to preach about God today.

This, so it seems to me, gives a dimension of depth to all one's thinking about 'UNIVERSALISM' and the ultimate destiny of man and the meaning of anakephalaiosis. Now while you may not yet be up against quite so much secularist thinking as we are at this end, you are in continuing touch with those who are devotees of a God they do not know, "The Unknown Christ" who is veiled within all their best thinking. Here I am not suggesting that all Hindu philosophy is a 'veiling'. I expect some of it is as perverse in leading to nihilism as is much western philosophy. Indeed with you I would expect that "Bhakti" Hinduism and even the sheer animistic superstition of the unlettered conceal more of the real Christ than the elegant sophistication of learned minds. It has always taken 'the childlike in heart' to know God in a vital way.

So you see what a long chase your paragraph on 'UNIVERSALISM' has taken me. Keep up this challenge--you are, as I said in my last letter, the only person with whom a regular conversation is possible.

Letter 307, October 26, 1971 Dialogue and Semitic Background

I was very interested in your report of the conversation with Dube about the Satsang. The extract from your diary is making a point of enormous importance, though it will call for the continued pursuit of a coherent way of expressing what in your previous letter you so rightly called the 'paradox' at the heart of the Christian Faith--the Cosmic Christ and the Jesus of Nazareth. The Universal and the particular--but the particular anchored in secular history.

Of course dialogue implies a recognised distinction of "I" and "Thou" horizontally as well as vertically.

I think you are almost certainly right when you say that while you are experiencing Dialogue you doubt if the other man (Hindu) is. Have you thought of taking this up with Akishiparanda or with Klaus Klostermeier? It would be very useful to get their minds on this point. If you see Raymond Panikkar this coming weekend (we'd got your dates wrong) I doubt if you'd get time to tackle so vast a subject. But the point you make is vital, though it in no way relieves you of the effort! ...

Now here is a point where in our discussions (you with me) we need to be clear how very great are my limitations. I know a little about Islam and Judaism and Western Agnosticism (secularism if you like). I know nothing about Hinduism or Buddhism.

In meeting with a Muslim or a Jew or a Western Agnostic I am meeting with three persons who to a real extent argue from the same premises |for example, the~ Muslim, Jew and I all revere Abraham and for precisely the same reasons, faith-obedience to God. We all three reckon that history is supremely important. We all see God acting in history--in all history--we all believe in Transcendence and whatever our different views of immanence they are always related to Revelation of the Transcendent. And the Western Agnostic, though he is often unaware of it, has had all his mental processes formed from this marrying of Hellenic and Semitic thought. What we have to recognise as the real dividing line is that, whatever the degrees of "differences" of the three monotheistic religions all have a "westward look". The marriage really was between Greece and Judea with the Desert throwing up Muhammed no less than Amos and John the Baptist.

Now my whole approach to dialogue is profoundly influenced by my mind being settled in this particular groove. In relation to all my experiences of dialogue the musts of de Corneille are valid.

I most fully recognise that this does not apply to you. For me one of the enormously enriching experiences of Pat's inspired choice of a husband is that my assumptions are always being very properly challenged by the reminder that there is another "universe of discourse" where they cannot be applied simpliciter.

In a very small way, in my first essay in A Theology of Attention, I've gone as far as intuition can take me though at least with a Hindu or a Buddhist I would have to listen and try to hear what he was saying--not imagine that the words we used meant to him what they meant to me.

Letter 396a, April 26, 1973 John Taylor and Episcopacy?

I have a strong hunch that we'll not have |John Taylor~ much longer in C.M.S. (This is for you and Roger alone). He's already turned down two bishoprics, but the pressures on him are mounting. He is head and shoulders spiritually and mentally above any of his contemporaries and is one of the few Anglicans with a capacity for seeing 6 feet in front of his nose and then a little more. What is more he doesn't possess the peculiar Anglican Ecclesiastical squint which gets virtually every important issue out of focus. So perhaps one ought not to grudge him to the Episcopate. If one does it is because there is so much grim evidence of what 'elevation' does in the way of paralysing creative thinking and creative action. I am full of foreboding.(12)


1. This essay was presented originally at the eighth conference of the International Association for Mission Studies, in Honolulu, Hawaii, August 3-11, 1992.

2. For Warren's influence, major books, and articles, see the articles by F. W. Dillistone, "The Legacy of Max Warren," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 5, no. 3 (1981): 114-17; Tim Yates, "Evangelicalism Without Hyphens: Max Warren, the Tradition and Theology of Mission," Anvil 2, no. 3 (1985): 231-45; idem, "Anglican Evangelical Missiology, 1922-1984," Missiology 14, no. 2 (1986): 147-57, as well as Warren's autobiography, Crowded Canvas: Some Experiences of a Lifetime (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974), and his biography, F. W. Dillistone, Into All the World: A Biography of Max Warren (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980). Three theses have been written on his missiological thought, by P. G. C. Meiring (Pretoria, 1968), F. E. Furey (Louvain, 1974), and O. Haaramaki (Helsinki, 1982, which has an excellent, full bibliography as well as a short English summary of the Finnish thesis). See also O. Haaramaki, "Mission and Unity in the Missionary Theology of Max Warren," International Review of Mission 72, no. 286 (1983): 267-72.

3. Warren's parents were CMS missionaries in India, where he spent the first eight years of his life.

4. For his accounts of, and reflections on, this ministry, see the following books by Roger Hooker: Uncharted Journey (London: CMS, 1973); Journey into Varanasi (London: CMS, 1978); Voices of Varanasi (London: CMS, 1979); Themes in Hinduism and Christianity: A Comparative Study (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1989).

5. Max Warren, I Believe in the Great Commission (London: Hodder and Stoughton; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976).

6. Roger and Pat Hooker are currently missionaries among Asians in Smethwick near Birmingham. For a description of their ministry there, see Roger Hooker, "Ministry in Multi-Faith Britain," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 13, no. 3 (1989): 128-30. See also Roger Hooker and Christopher Lamb, Love the Stranger: Ministry in Multi-Faith Areas (London: SPCK, 1986).

7. The extracts are from the first 400 of the 617 letters. The titles are my own; the letters were numbered by Roger Hooker later; the spelling and punctuation are left as in the original.

8. Warren gave two series of lectures in the Cambridge University Divinity School, which were published as The Missionary Movement from Britain in Modern History (London: SCM Press, 1965) and Social History and Christian Mission (London: SCM Press, 1967).

9. Warren here is using X to mean India and N to mean Nehru. His next sentence implies he had the possibility of censorship in mind, though the code is rather obvious.

10. When the paper on which this article is based was presented at the International Association for Mission Studies conference in Hawaii (see n. 1), Prof. Carl Hallencreutz, who was present in the meeting, announced that he was the one who had invited Warren to write that paper. He also added that Gustav Warneck had had a significant regular correspondence with his son in Indonesia.

11. A weekly meeting when a Hindu family and a few neighbors recited and listened to expositions of the Ramcaritamanas of Tulsi Das and the Bhagavadgita.

12. In fact John V. Taylor did have a creative period as bishop of Winchester. During this time he wrote a prophetic book on ecology, Enough Is Enough (London: SCM Press, 1975); chaired the Church of England's Doctrine Commission, which produced Believing in the Church: The Corporate Nature of Faith (London: SPCK, 1981); and directed the premier production of a modern opera of Jesus' passion in the cathedral at Winchester.

Graham Kings, a contributing editor, is Henry Martyn Lecturer in Missiology in the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges, England. He previously served as a CMS missionary in Kenya for seven years and as vice principal of St. Andrew's Institute Kabare. He is editing a book of selected letters from Max Warren to Roger Hooker (his son-in-law who was in India).
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Author:Kings, Graham
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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