By Duane Alexander Miller
Like most Christians, we Anglicans tend to love our traditions and cherish our identity, from the prayer book and particular holy days, or to the very idea of being a via media, Reformed and Catholic at the same time. We are excited when a new church plant or satellite campus opens, and in some Anglican circles there has been a veritable revival in church planting in North America and the United Kingdom. We usually appreciate our diversity — that one can be catholic or evangelical or liberal, though the last decade has tested some important boundaries. We like to send our ordinands off to seminaries within our tradition, we read books by our tradition’s authors (though not exclusively, of course), and we even have our styles of architecture and hymnody.
But then something funny happens on the way to world evangelism. When it comes to cross-cultural missionary work, we quickly forget about our Anglican distinctives. This doesn’t happen in other areas, so why does it happen with cross-cultural and global mission?
Maybe it is because Anglicans don’t know that we have a distinct and valuable treasure in our philosophy and method of world mission. So let me offer a few comments about Anglican mission, so we might regain an appreciation for that aspect of our heritage.
Traditionally, Anglican missionaries were sent by their societies — the Church Mission Society, the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society, the London Jews Society, and so on. These societies were not always purely Anglican, but they were recognizably Anglican, and they each had their distinctives in terms of method and philosophy of mission. As these societies opened new mission fields, often in places where there was some British presence, the expectation was for the Church to grow.
Once there were enough congregations, likely comprising both expat believers and indigenous converts, then a missionary bishop could be appointed. It was not uncommon for the main missionary society present to have a say in who that bishop would be. As the missionary diocese grew and new churches were planted, it would divide into smaller dioceses. Once four dioceses existed, they could ask to be recognized as a province of the Anglican Communion, no longer under the tutelage or supervision of the English or American bishop, but continuing to work with the older Anglican provinces as equals.
All of this presupposes that most of the missionaries who are planting and growing churches in the mission field have an objective and identifiable link to Anglican mission, and not just a personal affection for Anglican spirituality. If a person is the only Anglican in a team that is evangelizing and starting a church, then the church is certainly not going to be Anglican once it is up and running. And so this model of missionaries, churches, missionary diocese, dioceses, and province cannot have the possibility of succeeding.
Why is it worth aspiring to this traditional model? I have three answers, though I’m sure there are others. First, most Anglicans feel there is something valuable and treasured in our liturgy, hymnody, and theological heritage. That doesn’t mean that we’re better than other Christians. It certainly doesn’t mean that we claim to be the one true Church. But, if you believe that Anglicanism has something unique and rich to offer to global Christianity, then isn’t it worthwhile to invest in missions that will sustain that heritage and make sure it is available on the frontiers of Christian mission? Think of the all the non-Anglicans who have benefited from the writings of C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, and N.T. Wright — not to mention the rest of our rich heritage: pastoral, liturgical, architectural, musical.
Second, missionary endeavor is a proving ground for your spirituality. The spiritual DNA of the mission society that starts a congregation or diocese is generally passed on to the new diocese and, ultimately, the new province, should one be formed. With time the indigenous church will work out what exactly to do with that tradition, emphasizing some things and modifying others, and that is to be expected. In other words, this model of mission offers a context wherein your tradition — evangelical, catholic, progressive — can be tested authentically by producing baby churches.
Can your church’s enunciation of the gospel attract new believers and foster a new congregation in a different cultural context? Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14). If your church’s Anglican faith is not able to draw in repentant converts who have heard the gospel, then you have to ask: is it worth anything?
Third, our prayer-book tradition offers an excellent and fruitful balance — a balance between the historical and the contemporary, the global and the local. Churches born of missionary work inherit the liturgical DNA of those who planted them. Missionaries don’t invent liturgies because they feel like it (though I’m sure this has happened). Once a diocese is formed, and it has its own governance, then it has the authority to take its inheritance — whether from England, the United States, or Nigeria — and make changes as the indigenous leaders see fit for their flocks. The new liturgy will resemble the old one, but also be tuned to the local context. Not many forms of Christianity offer such a prudent manner of balancing the old and the new, the catholic and the local.
In sum, there is a broad tradition in Anglicanism that goes from missionaries to new congregations, a gathering of new congregations to a missionary diocese, a growing diocese into further dioceses, and then into an independent province able to make contributions to the life and mission of the Anglican Communion today.
As Anglicans, we value, endorse, and cherish our heritage when it comes to theology, hymnody, and fancy chasubles; we should equally cultivate and explore our tradition in mission as we continue to fulfill the Great Commission in our day.
The Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller is author of Two Stories of Everything: The Competing Metanarratives of Islam and Christianity (Credo House, 2018) and keeps a weblog at duanemiller.wordpress.com. He serves on the pastoral team at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer in Madrid, and is adjunct faculty for the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE).