Rowan Williams’s Radical Christian Mission

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture on Christian mission. What, you might be thinking, could Rowan Williams and Christian mission ever, even after having smoked the world’s beefiest bifter, have to do with me? Well, here goes a shot in the dark…

To begin with it might help if we turn to that bastion of lexical resourcefulness, Dictionary.com, for a simple definition of ‘mission’ in the Christian context: ‘a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc.’ In general, even such a neutral description of Christian missionary work as this one can conjure grim spectres of rapacious colonial expeditions in the minds of most enlightened liberals. Having no expertise in the history of such expeditions myself, I’m far from qualified to comment on the justification of these conceptual ghouls. Nonetheless, the stereotype of Christian mission which exists in the minds of secular westerners might look something like this: the white, male, Christian from North-Western Europe arrives in Africa with a fleet of war-ships, over-brimming with brainless, God-fearing mercenaries; he approaches the terrified locals (whom he refers to as ‘savages’) who had been leading lives of perfect contentment up until this point, and stands on the beach proclaiming that he has come to release them from the bondage of ignorance and wishes to shine the light of the irrepressible one true God into their lives; when the locals fail to demonstrate immediate enthusiasm at this mysterious interruption into their hallowed ways, the Christian missionary calls in the mercenaries who butcher, rape and torture at will until the terrified inhabitants of the African wilderness acquiesce and give themselves up to Christ; the said missionary then tears out the heart of one of the corpses, hoists it aloft, and as the blood drips down upon his celestial features he bellows: “The truth of the Lord is written on the hearts of all men!”

In what sense, then, can Christian mission still have any relevance whatsoever to anything at all? I’ll try to keep it brief. Rowan Williams concentrates primarily on the biblical passage of Matthew 10 (the Bible, incidentally, for those of you who never read it – like me 50% of the time – is a disturbing, if invigorating, read):

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food’.

Here’s what Rowan Williams gets from this:

  1. Jesus’ instruction to go to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ implies that missionaries should only go there where they feel God has, in some sense, already ‘tilled the field’, somewhere where God has already prepared the way, i.e. don’t just jump on a plane with your Gideons and invade any old Amazonian patch, but rather think about where you might be needed or – dare I say it? – welcomed. (‘Start where God has started’.)
  2. ‘As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ Rowan Williams reads this as an extension of the first point; when a missionary goes somewhere where they believe God is opening doors, one of the first things they should say is precisely that – God is already here amongst you at work. It seems to me as if one might draw a comparison with Plato’s ‘anamnesis’ or ‘unforgetting’: you help those to whom you go to unforget that God is always already at work amongst them. (Hang in there, all ye atheists – the main point hasn’t been broached yet.)
  3. But then what should missionaries do? Essentially, Rowan seems to think, it’s a question of changing and release: ‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity.’ Ultimately, it is what he calls ‘Christ-shaped change’. And here we approach the main event.

It is worth quoting a whole passage from the Archbishop’s lecture:

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it’s a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that’s going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

Now, as a pseudo-intellectual with Marxist proclivities, this strikes me as deeply radical. Mission is not ‘primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs.’ This goes against all bourgeois thinking on faith. For bourgeois society, faith is something you do in your spare time: it’s a private, internal affair. (This presupposition is, of course, the upshot of the public-private divide which capitalist society exacerbates to borderline schizophrenic proportions.) But what Rowan Williams is saying is something else: mission is not about going to a farflung country and commanding a local people to tick off a checklist of the Nicene Creed, all the time leaving the external environment exactly the same as it was before. It’s about new creation, building a new worldscape, which means material newness as well as psychological novelty. Because faith, despite what many seem to think, is not just a private affair: it is lived out in reality and it recognises no public-private divide. In this sense, it has definite resonances with socialism. (It is no co-incidence that Rowan Williams is often associated with traditional leftist thinking; he was once arrested for scaling a fence during a protest organised by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament).

Indeed, the next part of Matthew 10 simply compounds this idea of creation: ‘You have received without payment; give without payment.’ Contrary to diabolical theories of creation, orthodox theology teaches that God had absolutely no reason to create the world, but did so, rather, out of a sheer superabundance of love. (Fortunately, shareholders play no part in the Trinity, and so the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit were blessedly free of the utilitarianism of the Alan Sugars of this world.) Likewise, Christian missionaries have freely received and so they must freely give: there is no exchange value which haunts this transaction; businesswise the figures just don’t add up. If God created the world for no reason but love, then mission is all about gratitude for that free gift.

Now, gratitude is difficult to demonstrate to whichever brothers and sisters you anticipate serving if you arrive with a fleet of stealth bombers. That might be how oil merchants like to spread their gospel – by inscribing its falsehood onto the blown-up limbs of children – but it is not recommended for followers of Christ. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it rather succinctly: ‘Mission travels light.’ Further on, he expands:

‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – ‘For the labourers deserve their food’.’

It seems to me that this, too, is an extension of the radical nature of mission I’ve accentuated so far. It’s not about planning a military operation, where to strike, and what we want to get out of it. Rather, it’s a case of heeding local communities, listening to what they need and helping them to bring that about. By serving a community, by putting yourself and your resources at their disposal, your deeds speak the words of the Gospel.

So, whether or not one is Christian, or socialist, or a Christian socialist, it is not unthinkable that the most unfashionable of men with the most outrageously unkempt of eyebrows, can, in a lecture on something as obscure and superficially irrelevant as Christian mission, give us a few pointers on where we’re going wrong, and how we might better live together.