Posted by: Titus Presler | July 7, 2009

Resolution A134 “Mission Partners”: Well-intentioned but misguided

Resolution A134, submitted by the Standing Commission on World Mission (SCWM) to the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church, proposes to change the name of the church’s mission personnel in ministry around the Anglican Communion from “missionary” to “mission partner.” The resolution cites the need to work toward mutuality in mission and states and that in mission we learn just as much as we teach. The concern behind the resolution reflects the important ecumenical consensus that has developed since early in the 20th century among churches and mission agencies that mission is a pilgrimage where, as the Anglican Consultative Council put it in 1970, “the oneness of the missionary task must make us all both givers and receivers.” We all want to move beyond earlier imperial patterns of mission where it was assumed that the West knew best.

The question is whether changing the name for international mission personnel from “missionary” to “mission partner” is wise or helpful in stressing mutuality. I suggest that it is not:

“Mission Partner” is an outmoded term: The resolution cites the 2003 vision statement published by the Standing Commission on World Mission, Companions in Transformation (CIT), in support of the name change. CIT did not suggest a name change. It did suggest a paradigm shift in mission understanding away from Partnership in Mission, the ethos for the PIM Consultations promoted by the ACC in the 1970s, and toward companionship in mission. This shift had been suggested earlier by the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism in its 1999 report, Anglicans in Mission: A Transforming Journey. Its argument, echoed by the SCWM in 2003, was that some Anglicans in the Two-Thirds World feel Partnership in Mission and the term “mission partners” suggest a business contract rather than the growth in shared life and friendship to which we aspire as Anglicans. So it is startling to see “mission partner” now suggested not only as the model of understanding but as the canonical title for the person.

“Mission Partner” is not a consensus term: The Companion Diocese Movement in the Anglican Communion is more responsible than any other factor for Anglicans getting to know one another over the last 40 years. The operative term is “companion,” not “partner.” Sharing the concern behind A134, the Church Mission Society in the Church of England changed the name of its personnel to “mission partners” some years ago. The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, arguably closer in ethos to the Episcopal Church, referred to its missionaries as “mission partners” for some time, but more recently shifted to “mission companions.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with whom we are in full communion, calls its personnel “missionaries,” and its central mission theme is “accompaniment,” very close to companionship, and it has a program of Companion Synods.

“Mission Partner” (or any such phrase) is a confining term: CIT in 2003 stated that the mission companion – whether an individual, a congregation, an agency, a diocese or a province – functions in a number of ways: as witness, pilgrim, servant, ambassador, prophet, host, and sacrament. Good reasons could be developed for changing the name to “mission pilgrim” or “mission servant,” which suggest mutuality even more strongly than “mission partner” does. But changing the name or job title to any particular model makes that model too dominant, especially in the shifting and creative currents of mission reflection, both Anglican and ecumenical. Calcifying such a name change into the canons of the church builds in an obsolescence that will be a nuisance to rectify in future General Conventions when some now unanticipated model of mission may hold center stage. Continuing with the term “missionary” retains theological and practical flexibility, so that our understanding of the role can change as theology and practice change.

“Mission Partner” is a confusing and impersonal term: In joint projects around the world “mission partner” tends to refer more to corporate bodies than to individuals. A diocese in Africa, for instance, might refer to dioceses, parishes and mission agencies that are consulting with it on an educational or health project as its “mission partners” and then add that some “missionaries” are also part of the conversation. Lumping missionaries in with such mission partners confuses persons with agencies and depersonalizes the invaluably personal contribution of the missionary.

“Mission Partner” (or any such title shift) is ineffective: Partnership in Mission was the dominant mission ethos in the Anglican Communion for 30 years, for much of which the British mission societies referred to their personnel as “mission partners.” Nevertheless people in the places where these personnel served continue to call them “missionaries,” as they do the personnel from the Episcopal Church. Why? It’s a convenient shorthand. More important, they recognize historically both the continuity and discontinuity of the current personnel with the outreach through which many of their churches were founded. They recognize the faults of early missionaries, but they also recognize their contributions. They recognize and celebrate the mutuality, companionship, pilgrimage and servanthood in the work of many missionaries today. They recognize the personal dimension of a missionary’s service – the hope, risk, dedication and love – that cannot be duplicated by a fund, program or diocese. For us in the Episcopal Church, this personal dimension is especially important in the impairment that some of our relationships have suffered in the current Anglican crisis.

One possible argument for a name change that the resolution does not make is that the term “missionary” is dangerous in some parts of the world where mission work is forbidden. The Episcopal Church has indeed made appointments to such parts of the world, but it has long been successful in framing the appointments in ways acceptable to local governments in such specific cases. This success and the exceptional nature of such appointments mean that a name change is not warranted for the sake of safety.

Renovating the role of the missionary in various fruitful directions – mutuality, companionship, interdependence, witness, pilgrimage, servanthood and other concepts – has been underway for decades. Significant progress has been made, as many international companions attest, including Desmond Tutu in the “Windows on Mission” video series on Episcopal missionaries. The term “mission partner” will not help this progress and could impede it.

The term “missionary” is useful in highlighting the theological significance of individuals as apostolic “sent ones”; the risky pilgrimage these persons make alongside the relationships established by corporate agencies of the churches; and the ongoing task of refining and deepening our understanding of the nature of the church and the mandate of Christ to be missionary.

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