Wednesday 2 September 2015

What is mission?

I started writing something on mission, but it was becoming something much longer than I wanted to publish here just at the moment. I shall try again, reflecting only on what I mean and understand by mission.

Others may use this word and other associated words in a variety of ways. I am not suggesting that they are wrong to do so, nor am I criticising any other model. But I do want to clearly explain and describe what I mean, especially as I have been given the responsibility of caring for and developing three mission communities in the UK by His Holiness Pope Tawadros, under the oversight of His Grace Bishop Angaelos.

In some contexts the word mission is used as a noun. In such a use this particular group of people meeting together are a mission. I understand this use, but it is one I wish to try and avoid. It seems to me that as soon as a group of Orthodox Christians are committed to meeting together in worship and service then they are the church, indeed they are already a church, even if a priest comes to celebrate the Liturgy for them on a occasional basis. The use of the word mission as a noun seems to unavoidably suggest that this group of Orthodox Christians are not yet a local church, and I think that is a mistake.

In my activity here in the UK with various people who have become Orthodox Christians in the Coptic Orthodox Church, I am committed to the idea that already they are the Church, and already they are a local Church, however small and humble in scope. I am trying to explore what we can do within the resources that God has provided to serve the wider British society around us, and we are coming up with ideas such as a Family Fun Day, parcels of toiletries for the homeless, feeding those less well off folk who come to our events, even opening a drop-in cafe to make ourselves available to the non-Orthodox folk we are living among.

I prefer to speak of these groups as communities, Orthodox communities. It seems to me that this stresses the fact that we don't have any great resources, we don't own our own property, but we are a group of Orthodox Christians seeking to live the life of Christ together. This is where all Christian congregations should begin. As Orthodox Christian people in relationship with each other and with God.

What about using mission as an adjective? I am still not sure. If all of the congregations of the Church are essentially and primarily communities then what do we mean by speaking of a mission community? If we mean that this community is committed to sharing the Orthodox Faith, while this other community is not committed, then I rather reject the distinction as dangerous and harmful. All of our Orthodox congregations should surely be engaged in mission, it is a fundamental quality of the Orthodox Church. A congregation that is unsure how to engage in mission ministry is in one situation, but a congregation that rejects the need to engage in mission ministry is in another altogether.

If we mean that this community has its origins in mission activity, while this other community has its origins in a gathered congregation of immigrants, then that is a valid distinction to a point. I understand and can speak of mission communities in such a sense. But I would want to ask when such a mission community should cease to be characterised by its origin. After 30 years, for instance, is a community that began in mission ministry still a mission community in such terms? It must at the least cease to be such a mission community when it reaches some degree of stability and growth so that it is able to sustain itself in its own evangelistic ministry.

Some have used mission as a means of describing a community that exists to serve the needs of a young congregation, or to meet the needs of those in mixed marriages. These are commendable objectives, but it seems to me that they are pastoral objectives and that such groups are meeting pastoral needs. I am not convinced by homogeneous communities in the Church. It seems to me that as far as is possible there should be that natural variety of age, ethnicity, gender, social status and intelligence which is representative of the universality of the Church.

There is certainly scope for communities organised on the basis of language, as long as the integrity of the wider Orthodox Church is preserved. I mean that it is understandable and necessary that those gathered in local Orthodox communities are able to comprehend their common worship, and this has resulted in some local communities being formed to meet the needs of those who, usually, speak the language of the place, rather than Arabic. But it does not seem to me that these are essentially missional communities. They are responding, in the first place, to a real pastoral need, which must be responded to.

In my own understanding of this term I want to understand mission communities as those being formed through missionary activity and continuing to engage in missionary activity as a significant aspect of their life. They are not daughter churches of other larger congregations. They do not exist to serve one constituency in the Church, such as youth. I am not criticising these other activities whatsoever.

But in my understanding, a mission community is one which is formed through missionary activity.It requires a going out into the non-Orthodox and non-Christian society around us and establishing an Coptic Orthodox community where there was not one before. It might begin with just one person showing interest, as St Mark was able to begin his missionary activity in Alexandria with St Anianus, the cobbler. Such an activity might certainly begin with a small group of Coptic Orthodox committed to reaching people in a new place, and giving their life and service to such a ministry. But it seems to me that it must begin, however it begins, with a sense of looking outward.

In my use of terms, an established community, when it comes to realise and embrace its own responsibility, will also begin to look outside and seek to reach people with our Orthodox Faith. I prefer to use the term evangelism for such service. It is certainly and necessarily a sharing of good news. But it is bringing people into an already existing and stable community, while it seems to me that mission, or missionary work, is going where there is no community, and is seeking to establish one among those who do not know Orthodoxy for themselves.

There are concerns among some people about the quality and character of the Orthodoxy that is promoted in mission communities of various origins. I will speak only about my own values and opinions. Our Lord commands us to go into the world and preach the Gospel and make disciples. It seems to me that this requires us to begin with our Orthodox Faith and Tradition. To preach the Gospel is surely to share that Good News we have already received ourselves, and to make disciples is to integrate those who come to faith with the Orthodox Faith and Tradition. We are not to create a new Faith and a new Tradition, if that were so then we would not be sharing what we have received as Good News, and we would not be making disciples.

I am therefore entirely and absolutely committed to the Orthodox Tradition of Faith and Spirituality. The whole point of mission ministry as far as I can see is to share this treasure. To diminish it in the name of making it more acceptable is to lose its substance and to share only a hollow shell. In the communities with which I am working I will be celebrating the Coptic Orthodox rite, to the best of my ability, and will be teaching our Orthodox spirituality and theology as I have learned and experienced it.

But to communicate this treasure does require some enculturation. I can only share what I have received in my own language and in the language of the people around me. There must be some modulation of the music of our worship, not that it becomes something else, but rather so that it is experienced as our own music. This requires no great change in tunes or chants. It means only that in a sense we are able to enter into the same tune and the same chant but with our own voice. And there is of course a different social culture within mission communities being built upon the discipleship of British people.

On the other hand these mission communities must be from the beginning an integral part of the wider Coptic Orthodox Church. These must not be special communities. These must not be odd communities on the edge. But must both welcome all members of the Coptic Orthodox Church to worship with them, and also make every effort to participate in the ordinary Coptic Orthodox life in the UK, even if this requires mutual patience in bearing with language and cultural differences.

There are these two poles then, in my thinking and understanding. On the one hand there is the Tradition we receive. This is always primary. All that we have to share is this Tradition, and of course the word tradition means essentially that which is passed on. The other pole is the non-Orthodox world around us. A society viewed with compassion and sympathy, a society of those who are blind and sick, in need of illumination and healing.

Our aim must be twofold. If it were only to make converts then we could present our faith in whatever way seemed most likely to generate an immediate positive response. But we are not engaged in making converts. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to disciple those who respond to the voice of God in their hearts. And the process of discipleship requires change in the one being discipled rather than in the substance of the life being shared.

I desire nothing more than that thousands of British people, non-Orthodox and non-Christian, become Orthodox, and become Orthodox in the Coptic Orthodox Church as she engages in mission in the UK. This seems to me to require that we go out into the communities around us where there are no Orthodox, and also that we remain always committed to the integrity of our Orthodox Faith. We will use that language which is required to explain our faith and spirituality, but the ambition is not to create a new Tradition but to allow people even in Britain, people such as myself, to embrace this Tradition authentically as our own Tradition, and in our own language, voice and culture.

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