“Mission? Oh, I didn’t know Anglicans were interested in mission,” a Vietnamese house church pastor once told me during a training conference in Thailand. His father had been imprisoned, and he faced threats as leader of an underground movement.
“Oh, yes, Anglicans are interested” was my meek reply. But it got me thinking. Why aren’t Anglicans known for mission? Are they more interested in candles and cassocks, prayer books and lectionaries? Or is their legacy more related to cutting-edge social justice issues than to radically transformed lives?
There are probably a boat load of reasons, but a responsible follow-up question is, “How can Anglicans change a common perception that they’re not too bothered about mission?” My guess is as good as anyone’s, but here are a few ideas for starters.
1. Read up on our history. I’m not one to beat a denominational drum, but there were great missionaries who were Anglicans that we don’t hear much about today. Sure, we often hear about William Carey (1761-1834), the amazing Baptist missionary, Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), the Independent trail-blazer of inland China, and others but we forget that there were others: St Augustine of Canterbury served on the frontiers of the civilized world, Jackson Kemper (1789-1870) evangelized American frontiers, Henry Martyn (1781-1812) served in India and Persia. If we had time, we could trace the seeds of some indigenous church movements in the Majority World today to Anglican missions several hundred years back.
2. Recognize how vital good leadership is. We sometimes forget how vital a role bishops play in missions. As Anglicans, we have many great examples both from the past and today. Bishop Azariah (1874-1945) and Bishop Crowther (1809-1891) were pioneer bishops in India and Africa who faced not only challenges from paganism or Hinduism, but also racial discrimination. Bishops today such as Nathan Inyom, Edward Akanya, Moon HIng of Nigeria and Western Malaysia are similarly unsung heros. They have started churches and entire dioceses amongst unreached peoples from Muslim and tribal backgrounds. Bishops can recruit, select, train and empower their best people to serve the nations. They can ensure the gospel is preached in their home diocese, that the faith is defended from heresies, and that the flames of missionary zeal are fanned throughout their jurisdictions.
3, Revere the Lord in worship, but value people too. Take a look at many church websites and you may see more fonts, apses and chancels than the faces of ordinary people. Historically, Anglicans have constructed worship spaces that reflect the greatness, majesty and holiness of their Creator. This is a good thing. And in an age that favors technology over sacredness, such an Anglican trait has merit, particularly for church architecture. However, there is a downside.
Whatever stripe of Anglican we may be, we tend towards stability, the via media, the predictable. We savor flickering candles during Advent Eucharist, but are uncomfortable when an evangelist speaks with fire in his bones (Jeremiah 20:9). We have panic attacks when the senior warden says there’s no more money to pay to maintain the property. We really don’t want to experience what worship in truth and spirit is without a building (John 4:24). Was it any wonder that during the expansion of the US frontier in the nineteenth century, that the Methodists and Baptists held tent meetings in the desert while the Anglicans remained in East coast chapels? Surely authentic worship inside the sanctuary helps believers to share the Lord’s passionate concern for those outside the church? Maybe we could say that worship is proved true through the mission of the church outside its buildings? Aren’t worship and mission inextricably linked?
Any church that appreciates history, nurtures excellent leadership, cultivates reverential worship, and values people outside its walls will make an impact for missions. You just won’t be able to stop it. However, without these ingredients, all you’ll get inertia, mediocrity or worse. And who wants that?