Mission and the Unity of the Church
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
“Mission” is often proposed as a source of unity for our divided church. I put “mission” in quotation marks because it is a word that is used as though everyone knows what it means. In the vernacular of The Episcopal Church, mission, with very rare exceptions, means something the church does in the community to address problems of human need. A soup kitchen is mission. A homeless shelter is mission. Advocacy on behalf of migrant workers is mission. The millennium development goals adopted by the United Nations are put forward as banners of mission around which the church can unite both in the United States and across the Anglican Communion.
There is a tremendous amount of theology that is being finessed here and the use of the term “mission” by leaders in The Episcopal Church in this way is equivocal at best and its use with traditional Christians who are likely to understand mission in terms of bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ appears at times willfully misleading. It is quite correct that the church is called to serve the world and especially the needs of the poor, the sick and the oppressed. A church which never backed up its proclamation with practical acts of love would be a contradiction and a countersign to the Gospel. (“Gospel” is another word that is used with great finesse and equivocation as though everyone knows what it means.) But our good works, no matter how noble and how helpful, can never be the center of unity in the church and they can never be the center of unity for a badly divided human race. New divisions are bound to come about the right objectives and the right means, about who distributes the goods and who is entitled to receive them, about which missions are the most important ones, about who is shouldering their fair share in the work of mission and who is riding on the shoulders of others. For the entirety of my more than thirty years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church “mission” in this sense of good works, and with the subtext of “deeds not creeds,” has been the central organizing principle and it has ushered in a period of deep division and a diminishing ability to come together to address a needy world. This center has not held, and will not hold.
The human race is rent with division. As we enter the 21st century the divisions of race and clan and tribe are more murderous and threatening than ever before. These divisions are entirely capable of defeating any effort at development that the concerted effort of the nations of the world might make, not to mention the efforts of a mainline American church which has been in a decades-long decline.
The human race is divided because of sin, an enthrallment to evil, a fundamental break with God made from the human side which cannot be repaired from the human side. Unity and reconciliation are not something that can be produced by any human program of development. Unity and reconciliation are created by the costly and sacrificial work of God. The break between God and the human race must be solved from God’s side and this is what he has done in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Proclaiming and witnessing the new life with God and the new life with each other that is possible in Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. Of course it includes acts of love but it is not a program of development. It is an invitation to come to the one place of possible unity for both the church and the world, the level ground at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ where faith grasps the costly mercy of God and the new light of the resurrection begins to dawn and true charity begins to flow. To try to speak of “mission” and “reconciliation” apart from God’s saving deed in the cross of Christ is to sever the consequences from the cause and to vainly fabricate a source of unity apart from the one God has actually provided. So much popular preaching and teaching in the Episcopal Church now emphasizes the ministry of Galilee at the expense of the teaching of the cross and the resurrection. You cannot have the inclusive table fellowship of Galilee without embracing the sacrifice on Calvary. A church that cannot confidently call its own, no less the unbelieving world, to rally to the One who is the way, the truth and the life, is doomed to fruitless divisions and has no hope, no new reality to offer a world that is perishing from division.
To proclaim Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life,” does not mean that there is no truth or beauty in the world’s great religions and philosophies. It does not mean that we can confidently assign all believers in other creeds to certain damnation, though we can offer them no assurance of salvation apart from the One to whom we have been elected witnesses. It does mean that the church proclaims to the world, in word and deed, and by a life in which men and women of different tribes and races are actually reconciled with each other because they are reconciled with God by the sacrifice of the saviour, that there is an actual dependable point of reconciliation, with God and each other, made not by our hands but by the outstretched hands of the saviour upon the cross. The unity and future of the church and the human race, here and hereafter is vouchsafed in this one saving deed of God. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me.” John 12:32.