Mission-Shaped Church: A Critical Commentary and Analysis

1.5 Theology for a Mission Church

"The Church of England", says the Report: "needs to be true to the Gospel and its own history, while engaging adequately with the society in which we now live”(84). The Chapter does not aim to provide blanket coverage but to establish principles:

God is Trinitarian and is a missionary whom we only know through the sending of the Son by the Father in the power of the Spirit. This mission is cosmic and, to quote David Bosch: “There is Church because there is mission and not vice versa"(85)  (Transforming Mission, Orbis, 2001). Apart from worship, everything else is secondary. This sets the standard by which the Church tests all its activity. Church planting should therefore not be church-centred, to perpetuate an institution, but is an expression of the mission of God.

Mission comes from The Father, through the Son in the power of the Spirit. The Son is the sole foundation of the Church and we are stewards of the Gospel that tells what He has done. The Son expressed this mission in terms of the Kingdom which is a divine activity whereas the Church is a human community; but the Kingdom  agenda is more radical than the Church readily allows. It is the work of the Spirit to empower the Church to preach and embody that Gospel in ways appropriate to each cultural context.

Although Jesus became human in one culture His salvation is universal. This train of thought is much less easy than its predecessor: "The diversity of creation, through Christ, with its diversity of human cultures and communities, gives a further indication of the appropriateness of diversity in expressions of Church"(86). This thesis was set out in Chapter Two and is no more logical now than it was then. Clearly, the opening section sets some proper limits to diversity within a Credal framework but the connection between the nature of the Trinity and what the Report proposes appears to be contingent rather than divinely foreshadowed.

The Report then views its proposals in the light of the key events in the life of Jesus: incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.

The incarnation of God in Christ is unique: "... The revelation of God for all cultures was embodied in one particular culture. ... The early Christians did not remain culturally static,, but quickly translated the Gospel out of the original language and culture of Jesus as the Church was planted into non-Jewish cultures. ... If the Church is to be in a position to offer all men the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ by His incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among whom he lived" but: "The incarnation of divine love in a world of sin leads to the Cross. ... Jesus belonged to his own culture and yet was prophetically critical of it. His life of faithful obedience to his Father, in his culture, led to his death. ... Christians are called to live, within each culture, under the Lordship of Christ, irrespective of the cost” (87).

Quoting Irenaeus: "Christ became what we are in order that we might become what he is", the Report says that this 'Exchange' is relived every time there is an act of enculturation. Incarnation, it continues, tends to emphasise vulnerable identification with others rather than the radical cost to the Son; and if it is in the nature of God to undertake sacrifice so it must be in the nature of His Church.

Turning to the Resurrection, the Report says that: "Churches can be pointers to God's promised future. They are to be sources of hope, imperfect local pilot plants of God's future world” (89). There follows much more admirable theology on the nature of the Church's mission but it is questionable whether this is necessary because it does not show that there is a clear distinction between the theology of fresh expressions of church and the traditional church. Neither does there seem to be any real distinction, for example, between the ecclesiology justifying the building of a new church with a designated geographical territory and planting one without.

Where the discussion converges with the major concern of the Report is in its consideration of enculturation, the need to move from cross-cultural mission to: "Contextualization as a necessary practice of all churches" (Lausanne Haslev, 1997). It then goes on to say: "Any theology concerning the nature and shape of the Church in a new missionary context must address the appropriate place of culture in shaping the Church”(90). There must be a three-way conversation between the historical Gospel, the Church and culture: "All three are needed to form a Church embodying the Gospel in a way appropriate to the local context"(91) (Reform, please note). The Gospel must come from 'below' and, with the help of the Spirit, transform a community within. There is, however, always a danger of syncretism.

There then follows an immensely long and detailed episode of ecclesiology which explains how we are where we are and how substantively justified this is but this throws no particular light on the core subject. The upshot of the historical analysis is that church planting is at the heart of the Pauline mission but that is such a statement of the obvious; when confronted with virgin territory, what other options did the early Church have? The questions this Report set itself to address is not how would one justify any particular ecclesiological strategy in an unchurched land but what must be done with oddly shaped patches of wilderness in a densely if superficially churched environment; and what must be done for those whose territory is 'virtual'?

The Report then turns to more practical matters under the Credal quartet: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. The Church is one through Baptism which is an integral dimension of mission which creates unity within a diverse culture. There then follows yet another justification of diversity based on the model of the Trinity. The Church is holy because it is set apart for God and His mission in history. the Church is Catholic which means it invites inclusion which implies a capacity to embrace diverse ways of believing and worshipping; but it also implies there are limits to diversity because there is only one Gospel. The Church is Apostolic as the true source of unity and catholicity which prevents enculturation becoming syncretism.

None of these ideas, says the Report, is alien to the Church of England and, furthermore, Anglicanism has a distinctive testimony and tradition within the Christian Church, particularly its organic ecclesiology (my term) where the Gospel must be proclaimed afresh in each generation. It also, through such instruments as the Lambeth Quadrilateral, seeks: "Unity within tolerated diversity." The key issue here is the sense of the word "tolerated" because, in the subsequent discussion on the Dominical Sacraments, the Report says: "Churches are Eucharistic communities irrespective of their church tradition, or the frequency of Eucharistic worship" (101) which leaves a great deal of latitude for individual churches not to celebrate the Eucharist at all which has immense ramifications. If a non- or post-denominational church wants to establish itself as an entity based on worship, the Word and lay administered Baptism, what need does it have of Anglican Episcopal paraphernalia? This issue will require further exploration in Part Two, Section 5..

The Report, however, immediately and unequivocally affirms the centrality of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and, as if to underline the point, it proceeds immediately to a discussion of the vital missionary role of the episcopacy. This means that there must be proper relations between fresh expressions of church and an episcopacy which is designed to take account of local requirements. How this might work in practice is the subject of Chapter 6.