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My pilgrimage in mission.

There exists a very positive theology of Christian mission based upon the unmistakable mandate of the New Testament. Yet I doubt whether anyone has derived the inner imperative, the itch of mission, from theological reflection alone. It is a much more complex impulse than that, and the pilgrimage of anyone who is driven by it consists to a large extent of a gradual purification of motives in the fire of reality.

Fascination of Geography and Culture

In my own case the crude beginnings of this impulse were composed largely of romantic curiosity. Born in 1914, I was four years old when my father, a young evangelical clergyman of the Church of England, became headmaster of a small "public" (independent) school on the coast north of Dover. Visitors from many parts of the world, invited to lecture or preach in the school, stayed for a night or two in our home. Thus I discovered at an early age that Indian, Chinese, or African guests were fun, and this, combined with the almost daily sight of the sea and its horizon, created for me the image of a beckoning world beyond my immediate rather flat and colorless surroundings.

The romantic fascination of geography is not to be despised as a spark to ignite a sense of vocation. For mission means being sent, and you can be sent only from where you are to somewhere else. If you stay where you were before, you have not been sent, or at least, you have not gone. Mission is a going elsewhere. It may not be a geographic elsewhere; it may be a cultural elsewhere, a going to people who speak with a different accent and have a different background. However it is applied, the image of a journey is always a valid metaphor of mission, and the first crucial step is out of one's own shoes into the shoes of another person, or, even more significantly, out of one's own ears into the ears of the person one is talking to, so as to hear one's own words as the other hears them.

My germinal "yonderlust" might just as well have led me toward the colonial service or into social anthropology or even psychiatry, were it not for the religious motivation that my parents gently and consistently imparted to me throughout my childhood. I attempted to analyze this influence in a radio talk I was asked to broadcast in 1974.

I am a devotee of Jesus before I am a believer in Christianity .... I was told the stories of Jesus and taught to speak to him as an invisible but very real companion and Lord. So there was never any distinction between the historical figure in the Gospels and the Christ of experience .... That early relationship with Jesus was naive and unquestioning. But it didn't stay naive .... About many things I am confused and many hopes have been disappointed. But I cannot escape from my enchantment with Jesus. His hold over me grows stronger with the years.

That childish attachment, coupled with the romantic missionary biographies that were included among the books I devoured from eleven years old and up, dictated the purpose of my "going elsewhere," however vaguely understood. I wanted to share and I wanted to help, and this relationship with a living Jesus was somehow central to the sharing. Perhaps because I knew myself to be a very defective disciple, the aspiration was a lot less priggish than it sounds. By the time I was sixteen I felt sure that I should prepare myself for Christian service abroad, though in what capacity I was not clear. The subsequent decision to seek ordination was taken with that aim in view.

Ten years later, married and into my second curacy in the north of England, I saw the issue in rather more realistic and more confusing terms. Through evangelistic work among young people, I had known the satisfaction of seeing others make the discovery of a relationship with the living Jesus. I had learned also the necessity of the living church for the nurture of that relationship. And I had tasted the joys of exploring a cultural "elsewhere" in the back streets of London's West End. So the difference between a ministry at home or abroad seemed far less significant. We were ready to go, but no further call was given, nor could I imagine what kind of signal I was waiting for. By a happy chance I was able to put my absurd problem to Dr. Max Warren, who had just been appointed general secretary of the Church Missionary Society. "Tell me," he said, "where your interests lie and what skills you think you have to offer, and I'll let you know if there's a post in Africa or Asia that I think you might fill." Thus another small heap of unreality was swept away. I confessed that I had wondered about work in a theological college in Britain; five months later, after I had declined an incumbency in North London, Max asked us if we would go to Bishop Tucker College, Mukono, in Uganda.

Lessons Learned in Bishop Tucker College

Probably the most profound and lasting lesson of our ten years there came to me through having to teach biblical studies and general theology in a language devoid of genuine abstract terms. In Kenya Archbishop Beecher argued persuasively that Swahili, with its vocabulary derived from Arabic and ultimately from Hebrew and Greek roots, was best suited to become the theological lingua franca of East Africa, as Latin had been in Europe. This would have been unacceptable in Uganda at that time, and I am thankful that I was forced by the intractable concreteness of Luganda to ask myself time and time again what I really meant by a theological term. This exercise instilled in me the realization that every abstract idea, including our idea of God, is derived from experience, and all revelation is given through things that happen. True theology has to be incarnational.

Without my fully realizing it at the time, it was this insight that added the "Catholic" dimension of the Christian view of things to the "evangelical" dimension in which my faith was formed. In order that its reality may be communicated to those who are not nurtured in a Christian family, the individual's experience of the presence of Christ needs to be embodied in the family of the church. The church is itself part of the Gospel it proclaims: the medium is the message. The damaging and unreal separation of these essentially complementary dimensions was starkly demonstrated in the early history of Christianity in Uganda as described by Father J. P. Thoonen of the Mill Hill Mission in his book Black Martyrs (Sheed and Ward, 1942): "Mackay's method, somewhat puzzling to Catholics, is in accordance with the strictly Protestant idea of conversion, the essence of which is a psychological act of trust, or even an emotional crisis, on the part of the candidate. Conversion in the Catholic, missiological sense consists in the incorporation of the candidate in the visible Church."

It was clear in any case that my pastoral role, and that of almost all expatriate missionaries, was not to evangelize but to contribute to the servicing and enlivening of the church. As mission history came to be more thoroughly researched, it was revealed that in fact the evangelization of untouched people had always and everywhere been carried forward mainly by indigenous Christians in a context of church renewal.

Though I had not consciously identified them, those two principles--grounding all concepts in experience, and embodying the Gospel in the life of the church--induced me to concentrate on three spheres of experiment in the training of men for the ministry. The first I called community. We built a "village" of twelve separate houses for the married ordinands and their families, and gradually more and more of the formal curriculum was related to the daily life, relationships, and tensions of that small theocracy. God's method of teaching theology to his ancient people, Israel, seemed a good model for the training of spiritual leaders for rural communities.

The second sphere of experiment was in the whole area of creativity--the development of drama, indigenous music, and handicrafts. Our motive was explained in a paper I read to the Uganda Teachers' Association in 1953, in which I said, among other things: "Those who have been educated to imitate, whose thought is second-hand and who speak in cliches, whose skill consists in repeating the movements and the processes of others, may attain a high proficiency and usefulness as professional technicians, but as persons they remain deeply unfulfilled and resentful."

The third area of experiment, introduced toward the end of our time at Mukono as Uganda entered the final run-up toward its national independence, was that of political consciousness. This required only a more deliberate reference to current affairs in our routine study of the Old Testament prophets and the background to the Gospels. In retrospect it appears that this last experiment was initiated at least ten years too late to be of any use in equipping the Church of Uganda for what was to come. Though we missed the bus, we had to make the attempt because ideas are unreal unless they are grounded in experience. As I said in a small book written for Penguins in 1956 entitled Christianity and Politics in Africa, "If people feel that God cares nothing for the things which vitally affect their daily lives and stir their deepest emotions they will not easily be persuaded that such a God loves them in any real sense at all." The place of social and political action in the Christian mission is a question that has never ceased to dog my pilgrimage, especially during the years of closer association with the World Council of Churches. The witness of the Bible patently takes full account of the perverse, catastrophic element in human nature, yet it forbids us to abandon this world either to the devil or to the secular processes. I find I have not radically departed from what I wrote in that book in 1956. "We shall not build the Kingdom of Heaven in this world; nevertheless God will give it to us. And all our planning and patience, our fighting and faithfulness, our longing and loss, will be related to the coming of His Kingdom, not as the builder's effort is related to the finished cathedral, but as the caterpillar's slow struggle for existence is related to the butterfly."

End of the "Hero" Image

Then came, for me, the final breaking of the romantic image. For inescapable family reasons we had to return to Britain. I had loved Uganda and expected to spend my working life there; I thought that was what good missionaries did. The inner misery of the year 1954-55, with no new job in prospect and an obligation to address audiences over and over again about a calling that was no longer mine, brought me to realize at last that my childish vision of the missionary as the top-grade Christian had been my idol. From that time, whenever I have caught myself trying to be the stuff of which heroes are made, I have known what is going on.

At the end of the year I was invited to join the research section of the International Missionary Council to carry out the first of a series of studies in the processes of growth in local churches and to undertake the exploratory setting up of further studies. It was an interdisciplinary task lying in the no-man's-land between sociology and theology, and it taught me to value listening rather than speaking. The historical side of the research helped me to recognize the praeparatio evangelii that has preceded the planting of any local church. I saw that, before ever the first Christian witnesses arrived, the sociological and psychological foundations of the future church were already laid, and only if that church, when it was built, conformed to those foundations would it be strong. Churches that have been kept too long in missionary leading-strings, or shaped too rigidly to a universal model, do not relate responsibly to their own encompassing situation. After all, what do the ancient centers of Christianity know about being a third-generation church in the twentieth century?

In fact they have shown singularly little interest in knowing. We had hoped that, when the fifteen in-depth studies of local churches in every continent had been completed, they would provide a corpus of practical evidence that systematic theologians would be glad to take into account in their understanding of the nature of the church. But several abortive attempts to get some of them to appraise the material in conference showed that they considered it relevant to no one but missiologists. Theological truths were apparently independent of experience. In the long term the project had been a failure.

In the fall of 1959 I was called to the headquarters staff of the Church Missionary Society. For the next fifteen years, first as Africa secretary and then as general secretary, the task was to occupy and to shape all my thinking. It was a period in which one country after another in Africa and southern Asia achieved its independence, only to have its high hopes torn to shreds by civil war, as in the Sudan, Zaire, Nigeria, Vietnam, Burma, Angola, and Mozambique. All this strife was in some degree related to the cold war between the two great powers. At the same time new dioceses--Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran--proliferated, almost all under indigenous bishops. Except in India, Pakistan, and the Pacific, burgeoning schemes of church union were aborted, and confessional blocs such as the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran World Federation became more self-aware and significant.

These developments heightened my concern and perplexity over the right structures and relationships of mission that the IMC studies had already brought home to me. With the emergence of a new consciousness of mutuality between the independent, national provinces, autonomous missionary societies were coming under attack. Mission, it was argued, should be a church-to-church partnership, and missionaries should feel that they belonged and were individually answerable only, on the one hand, to the church that recruited and supported them and, on the other, to the church to which they were transferred. Now, the policy of the CMS from Henry Venn onward, notwithstanding those missionaries who dragged their feet, had been to integrate every local mission fully into the authority-structure of a responsible indigenous church. The IMC research studies had revealed the debilitating effect of prolonged missionary paternalism, and at Mukono I had taken exception to the Standing Committee of the Uganda Mission for deciding issues that should have been the business of the church itself. Then what made me take my stand in defense of the society principle?

Was it loyalty to my mentor and predecessor, Max Warren, who also believed in it? To some extent, perhaps. I do not think it was a mere refusal to saw off the branch I happened to be sitting on. We were resisting what we saw as a fallacious model of the church that we did not wish to see exported to the newly independent provinces, namely, the model of a unitary homogeneous organization. From the beginning the church has always been a composite body--one whole, certainly, but made up, like the creation itself, of lesser, self-determining wholes that are themselves made up of still lesser wholes. "Suppose the ear were to say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' it belongs to the body nonetheless. If the body were all eye, how could it hear?" Different individuals and different groups within the body of the church are fired by different enthusiasms and equipped with different gifts. All vocation is vicarious. That has always been the justification of the religious orders in all their variety, and a missionary society is very like an order of men and women whose special commitment is to turn the eyes of the church to the world beyond the church. Such a society offers to put at the total disposal of any church those who, as its members, are valued for that particular commitment. For mission is not what one church does for another, but what churches do together for the world.

The aspects of mission, however, that increasingly claimed my thought during the years with CMS were ones for which the distinction between home and abroad had no significance. Still convinced that the Gospel has to be conveyed and grasped in the terms of Everyman's mundane experiences, I searched on for a synthesis of the great Pauline categories and the world's agenda. In 1968 I wrote:

The language of salvation--sin and judgement, repentance and faith, reconciliation and new birth--is not meant to describe events in a separate or inner world of "spiritual realities." ... The self that experiences God, and the self that works and worries and quarrels and belongs to the here and now, are not separate selves but one indivisible person. That person is continually responding to others and affecting others, growing more human or less human, turning towards life or towards death, being shaped for salvation or for damnation through everyday choices and decisions, his own and other people's .... The life of the world, then, its network of human relations and its processes of change, is the milieu, the element, in which Jesus Christ is at work to make men whole.

The new religious pluralism of British society brought other pressing questions--how to dispel insular prejudices, how to help the churches to recognize and aid fellow God-fearers in a materialist culture, and how to interpret the familiar concepts of mission in the light of these unfamiliar experiences of people of other faiths. Some of the theologians who had hitherto ignored missiology as strictly extracurricular now leaped into this field with confident new brooms. But the people whose guidance I could trust were those who had already enjoyed years of close friendship with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. From such spiritual proximity they had learned not to compare systems and dogmas but to discover what those things mean in experience. In dialogue people of different faiths find much common ground and also confront an impenetrable "otherness." At which point--and few have gone beyond it--each can only bear witness to that "face" of God to which his or her own religion bears its most characteristic witness. The Christian has to affirm that, whatever else God may be, God is Christlike--and such a statement stands or falls according to the life-style of the speaker. In this day of pluralism the testimony of one faith to another is more than ever dependent upon the conduct of its adherents as a community.

That challenge to a church on trial has become my main preoccupation during ten years as a diocesan bishop and seven more in retirement. Does our Christianity make any difference to our citizenship in the secular world? Is Christ equally a reality for us at both ends of the commuter line? Is the local church a worship club with a paid secretary, or is it a means of equipping its members to live Christianly in the neighborhood and the workplace? The honest answers to such questions are discouraging, not because we are wrongly organized, but because, as a church, we are no longer really convinced. And our loss of conviction stems from the fact that the things we say we believe are so little descriptive of the things we commonly experience. Making the connection between doctrine and normal experience has become for me the most urgent task of mission. Perhaps the only connection that can now be unmistakably brought home to our Western civilization in its affluent meaninglessness is that between its own experience of decline and the theology of judgment. For the focal point, the spotlit area, of Christian vitality is moving elsewhere, as it had done three or four times before in the history of the Gospel. There are no grounds for gloom in this prognostication, however, for the mission is not ours but God's. "The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of our God endures for ever."

John V. Taylor graduated in English literature and history at Cambridge, England, and in theology at Oxford. He also took a diploma in education at London University. After two curacies in Britain he spent ten years as warden of the Bishop Tucker Memorial College (a theological seminary) in Uganda. He then spent four years as research assistant for the International Missionary Council, after which he became Africa secretary and later general secretary of the Church Missionary Society. During this time he served as vice-chairman of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches. From 1975 to 1985 he was bishop of Winchester. Taylor's best-known book is The Go Between God, which continues to sell in its twentieth year. Another volume in the same genre, The Christlike God, was published, also by the SCM Press, in October 1992. His other writings include The Primal Vision--Christian Presence amid African Religion and Enough Is Enough, a critique of the consumer society.
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Title Annotation:development of a vocation for the missionary life
Author:Taylor, John V.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:Max Warren: candid comments on mission from his personal letters.
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