Companion links and prophetic mission

The Revd Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary, responds to General Synod’s paper on Companion links…

USPG warmly welcomes the General Synod debate on Companion Links and encourages Synod to grasp this opportunity to help deepen the Church of England’s commitment to, and effective engagement with, the provinces of the Anglican Communion in all their diversity. Effective missional activity involves a genuine and profound commitment to open-ended dialogue and to the emergence of an inter-cultural Christian understanding – even ecclesiology. By its nature, such engagement energises dioceses and parishes, and inspires individuals as well as enriching an understanding of contemporary issues of social justice. In this, the Anglican Mission agencies have an important role in supporting and resourcing the work of both dioceses and parishes.

Making the most of the opportunities

As GS 2081 makes clear, Companion Links ‘offer opportunities for engagement’; an engagement that, at its best, involves generous friendship, warm friendship and mutual encouragement – but also challenges those involved. The briefing paper cites Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence, the key report of 1963, which made the compelling case for a fundamental shift from a giving/receiving- donor/recipient relationship between the C of E and the churches of the Majority World to one marked by mutuality and interdependence.

Yet, GS 2081 also notes, (if coyly), another possibility, namely that companion and parish links can fall back into earlier patterns that replicate the patronage and dependencies of colonial Christianity. Whilst well intentioned, those links dominated by the giving of financial support frequently have a number of negative unintended consequences. In some cases, the financial support or the resources they purchase are distributed inequitably between potential beneficiaries, generating tensions that negatively impact relationships. More widely, however, such financial flows generate dependency and impair the development of relationships that are grounded in a genuine reciprocity. This leads to patterns of relating that limit reciprocity and mutuality. Thus, rather than relating as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ, within the framework of friendship, a more asymmetric pattern of patronage emerges, dividing donors from recipients. This has a negative impact on the dignity and well-being of recipients, who are unable to ‘give back’ in any substantive way. In addition, a naïve desire, (‘we must help them’), on the part of UK parishes encountering deprivation, with which they are unfamiliar, may also be motivated by a desire (however masked) to assuage the uncomfortable feelings of those in more materially comfortable circumstances. By contrast, links and partnerships that are grounded in a more open dialogical approach; that is in personal relationships, in exchanges and visits, in worship or shared social action deepen and transform all those involved.

Mission agencies add value

The tendency to slip into a donor-recipient model is one with which the mission agencies are very well acquainted. It is why many of the mission agencies take great care to prepare Christians who travel overseas so that both they, and those who host their visit, will have the resources to deepen their Christian discipleship through the dialogue and hospitality that such encounters involve. See, for example Naturally that preparation involves learning about particular aspects of culture, specific sensitivities and different traditions of hospitality. It acknowledges that much that is simply assumed in one culture is alien to another. In assisting the individual to be attentive to another culture and its axioms, such education can also provide the individual with ‘fresh eyes’ on their own culture. Christians who set out on this journey in faith begin to encounter their own ‘unconscious bias’, that is the ways in which they have ‘naturally’ conflated aspects of their Britishness, (or even their own churchmanship) with Christianity. As such they are drawn into the work of contextualising their own theology. The opportunities for such transformative encounters are more fully realised if dioceses and parishes draw on the ‘breadth and depth’, on the considerable experience and knowledge, that the mission agencies possess as a result of the active partnerships they have nurtured over many decades and the regular consultations they engage in with the provinces and communities of the Anglican Communion.

Towards Inter-cultural Christianity

The report rightly notes that exchanges between provinces in different parts of the Anglican Communion energise faith: the faith of both the individuals and of their respective communities. This matches the experience of the mission agencies, namely that those UK churches most actively and imaginatively engaged with the mission of the world church are also those that are most outward in their local engagement and flourishing. This is entirely unsurprising, indeed, it is exactly what would be expected: The Church discovers more fully its nature through the outward movement of mission. Equally the individual deepens their spiritual journey as they, prompted by the Holy Spirit, respond to the call of Christ through reaching out in encounter with others. The discerning encounter with another culture that is open and dialogical in character is both deeply enrichening and personally challenging.

It is, perhaps, a consequence of our experience as a not-very-recently conquered Island nation, that we easily forget the testimony of scripture that encourages Christians to live lightly to their own cultural context. This is most explicit in the idea of the Christian as a ‘resident alien’ in 1 Peter, but it is also written into the dynamics of the early Christian communities, to the extraordinary mix of ethnicities found in those great cities of Corinth and Ephesus, and of course, Rome. We need to be reminded that the experience of the early Christians – Jew and Gentile; Greek and ‘barbarian’ – even slave and free – was not primarily cross-cultural, but inter-cultural. Inter-culturality demands that we move beyond home, beyond our places of comfort, to embrace a degree of uncertainty. That movement is one in which we ‘pass over’ into the experience of another, their cultural axioms, language and, perhaps as challenging – their economic standards. To pass over into the experience of another, however partial and stumbling that experience may be, is to be challenged and transformed. And of course, those who have embarked upon the journey to becoming inter-cultural Christians participate in the sort of transformative encounter we witness in Jesus’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7: 24-30) and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).

Mission is prophetic in character

One of the ‘fruits’ of a genuine intercultural encounter, in which the division between friend and stranger, guest and host, listener and proclaimer is challenged, is that individuals come to a deeper understanding of the urgency and centrality of justice within the Christian life more broadly. Christian witness against injustice flows out of a sense of identification with others whose lives are adversely affected or significantly constrained by political oppression, economic circumstance or environmental degradations. The Christian who witnesses first-hand the impact of forced migration, religious persecution, the damage to homes and livelihoods inflicted by environmental degradation or the many forms of gender-based violence is moved to act, alongside their fellow sister or brother. In galvanising faith into social action, mission is thus also prophetic in character. Here, again the mission agencies can facilitate and support the engagement of parishes and dioceses through resource materials, for example, this resource on climate justice.

Three quick ways in which you can support mission within the Anglican Communion.

Be informed: Subscribe to the Anglican News Service: Three stories a day to keep you and your parish informed about the issues.

Be in touch with the Anglican mission agencies (eg USPG, CMS, Mothers Union, Church Army, Mission to Seafarers, ICS). Download their resources; ask for information; invite a speaker; attend a conference, eg Rethinking Mission, 17 March 2018, Birmingham.

Be in prayer: Remember the Anglican Communion in your prayers. Prayer resources:

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of Us.
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