Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A day of reflection on mission

Back in 1985, when I was Wales Area Secretary for U.S.P.G., I attended a major international conference in Edinburgh on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference which proved to be the founding initiative that led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1945. It was an occasion for me to sit at the feet of a famous Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama. It's so much easier to read the books when you've met the man. He was certainly influential on me.

He related how being missionary in Thailand awakened his serious interest in the value of Buddhism.It connects with my experience of being in mission and being challenged by the values of people whose culture and history are very different from mine - European Protestant, Sikh, Muslim, or secular modernity. Koyama died on Lady Day (25th March) this year, aged eighty. I still recall the inspiring dedication of his book Mount Fuji to Mount Sinaii, which reads :-

'To the memory of George Herbert Brand,
whose preaching in broken Japanese
won my father's heart for Christ.

He'd received Christian faith within his family, as members of a tiny and often suspect minority in his native society, and through his life grown to become a true international advocate of of the Gospel. This idea of 'broken language', as a vehicle for the Spirit who moves people to confess faith in Christ made deep sense to me, in the context of living and working with two languages in Wales, one of which I spoke poorly. It was one of the impulses leading me to seek work outside the UK, and personal experience of immigrant life, learning French and settling in Geneva as pastor in the early nineties. Working on the boundaries of language and culture has been an important component of my vocation since very early on.

All this comes to mind tonight, after a day conference held in Newport bringing together mission practicioners from various South Wales Churches to share stories and reflections about their part in urban mission. This event was part of a process aiming to provide local input into a centenary Edinburgh missionary conference in 2010, which will bring together 200 missionary theologians from all over the world to reflect upon the challenges of mission in the 21st century.

On this occasion, most of the delegates will be non-white europeans, in contrast to 1910 when there were only six who weren't white europeans. It will be a richer, more diverse and complex occasion. Given the conflict of tradition and modernity that has scarred and divided our Anglican Communion in the past decade, it will be more than interesting to see if mission advocates and innovators will be able to express a concensus which inspires and unites people of different Christian traditions to engage in presenting the Gospel relevantly to another century.

It's hard to comment on the significance of what I was part of today, since we were a small cross-section, possibly unrepresentative, of those actually involved in urban mission in Wales. I was rapporteur for a group considering issues about health, healing and spirituality. It was encouraging to listen to people finding common ground in their missionary engagements with others: some suffering as exiles from their homeland, some as families of the mentally ill, some as carers for those on the streets. It was clear to me that traditional Christian values of respect and compassion, giving sufferers the attention and space they need for healing are as important now as they ever were, even if the social and cultural conditions in which mission is done are different from any that have gone before.

In its way, for me it was a day of ressurance. Everything has changed at one level, but at another, effective response is no different.

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