Sunday, May 30, 2010

Church mission to be viewed through different prism 100 years on

There was only one black African and 19 Asians among more than 1000 delegates present 100 years ago at the historic World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

The demographics of those present in early June for an event to mark the centenary of that conference, will, however, reflect more of where the centre of Christian gravity is heading in the 21st century.

There will be fewer delegates, however, when more than 300 people representing 30 traditions from 60 countries gather in the Scottish capital on 2 June at the start of the five-day 2010 World Missionary Conference.

"The 2010 Conference will be held in the same city and in the same month as the epic-making World Missionary Conference of 1910 which many say witnessed the birth of the ecumenical movement," Roman Catholic Marist Brother Stephen Smyth told ENInews. "We will remember, celebrate and be inspired by events of 100 years ago and work together for unity."

The 1910 conference led to the creation of the International Missionary Council in 1921, and inspired other church unity movements, culminating in the official formation in 1948 of the World Council of Churches.

The 2010 gathering will be hosted by New College of the University of Edinburgh with the backing of more than 20 international stakeholders.

They are drawn from Evangelical, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions as well as the WCC, whose general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, is among those who will attend and speak at the conference.

In April, Smyth was seconded by Action of Churches Together in Scotland to help coordinate the arrangements for the conference which Scottish academic, Kenneth Ross, believes could provide a "compelling vision" for Christian missionaries during the 21st century.

"Edinburgh draws its inspiration, not so much from historical memory, as from the need today for a compelling vision, a sense of common purpose and viable practical plans to fulfil the worldwide mandate which is fundamental to Christian faith," Ross said.

On 6 June, the closing day, the (Anglican) Church of England's second ranking leader, Uganda-born John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is set to deliver a sermon at a ceremony in the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland's general assembly hall, the location for the 1910 conference.

Brian Stanley, a professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, told ENInews, "The most desirable thing would be for some message to come out of the Edinburgh Conference which ordinary churches can relate to and grapple with and begin to translate into their own Christian allegiances.

"There is always a danger with events of this kind that they exist in either the stratosphere of academic debate or at the level of mission leadership and ordinary church life carries on totally regardless," said Stanley, who is considered the global historian of the meeting. "I think that's our biggest challenge."

He noted that in 1910, most Christian missionaries were aligned to Western imperial endeavours throughout the world. "At that time, the belief was that missionary activity went from the West to the Rest," said Stanley.

"There was a close affinity between the power of empire and the advance of the Christian faith. Often, the language used by missionaries was military - the rhetoric of combat against the powers of darkness," he added.

"In 1910, there was only one African delegate, Mark Christian Hayford from Ghana. In 2010, the African voice will be heard, providing, of course, people get their visas to enter the UK which is always a problem," Stanley said. He told ENInews, "The role of women is of great importance because globally over 60 percent of all Christians are women and I dare say it's even higher in Africa, maybe two thirds."

Asked if human sexuality and the role of gay men and lesbians in the churches would be discussed, he said, "It is almost certainly going to be raised but this conference will not be about everything. It is one of the major issues that churches are grappling with, but I wouldn't describe it as a mission issue. It is not on the agenda."

Kirsteen Kim, a Leeds Trinity University College theology lecturer who is also working for Edinburgh 2010, said, "This unique global conversation will both inform future mission practices and stimulate further mission studies."

A hundred years ago, John R. Mott, the conference chairperson, said that the Edinburgh conference was "the most notable gathering in the interests of the worldwide expansion of Christianity ever held, not only in missionary annals but in all Christian annals".

But 100 years ago, American, British and European missionaries were often regarded by Africans and Asians as part of the colonial and imperial systems they so disliked and in 1910 there were no Roman Catholics or member of the Eastern Orthodox churches at the Edinburgh Conference.

"All that has changed," said Smyth.