Posted by: Titus Presler | June 25, 2015

Presiding Bishop’s ‘missionary expedition’: Analyzing use of an image

‘Missionary expedition’ is an image Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori used prominently in her June 24 remarks to the bishops and deputies assembled in Salt Lake City for the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

As Tracy Sukraw wrote in her Episcopal News Service story:

Jefferts Schori described The Episcopal Church’s trek as ‘a missionary expedition,’ using a space exploration analogy that played off the TREC acronym for the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, whose restructuring proposals are a high-profile topic coming before General Convention.

“There is abundant adventure ahead on this heavenward trek, and it asks our courage to engage unknown beings, new challenges and unexpected opportunities,” Jefferts Schori said.  “We’re bound for the galaxy called Galilee and the edges of the known world, because that’s where Jesus sent us and that’s where he promises to meet us.”

‘Missionary expedition’ is a term that critics of historic Christian mission – let’s call them missio-skeptics – would ordinarily frown on as connoting horseback and ox-drawn-wagon ventures undertaken by 19th-century missionaries they imagine to have been bigoted Europeans and USAmericans going out to evangelize and ‘civilize’ what the adventurers thought were ‘benighted’ people in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Yes, some expeditioners held views of indigenous peoples we would not affirm today, but the negative stereotype is just that, a stereotype that does not fit the overall historical reality. I think of mission figures from the past 150 years in two settings where I have ministered: George Broderick and horseback pastor Canon Cristelow at Bonda in what is now Zimbabwe, Thomas Hughes and Worthington Jukes in Peshawar, and Theodore Pennell at Bannu in Waziristan in what is now Pakistan. At that time just getting to their stations required these missionaries to undertake expeditions or, in the terminology of Africa missionaries, ‘go on trek.’ They ministered sacrificially and sensitively. Not perfectly, of course, but who among us ministers perfectly, or, especially, will be deemed to have done so with the perspective of 50 or 100 years from now?

The fact that Jefferts Schori used the image without apology may indicate that the negative stereotyping of missionaries is finally ebbing. But what does her use of ‘missionary expedition’ convey? What does it say to a church that tends to be comfortable with the word ‘mission’ when it includes everything the church already does but less comfortable with the word ‘missionary’ when applied to a particular person ministering on a cultural, linguistic, religious and national frontier? It’s not easy to discern Jefferts Schori’s intent: Is she trying to rehabilitate the notion of a missionary expedition? Or was she simply struck by the image as a useful metaphor?

‘Missionary expedition’ deserves attention because it highlights two essential elements in the missionary vocation. It highlights moving over boundaries and venturing into communities different from one’s own – different in culture, language, socio-economics, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or any combination of these. It is this element that prompts my defining mission as ministry in the dimension of difference: ministry is the totality of our service to God, whereas we are distinctively on mission when we venture into difference.

Jefferts Schori’s opening address functioned as her valedictory to the church, for her 9-year term ends Nov. 1, so she took the opportunity to frame her theological summa, ably bringing together multiple themes of God’s call, Christian identity, accountability to one another and responsiveness to the needs of the world. Amid it all she attended to the centrality of mission’s engagement with difference. She summed up God’s call as, “Love God. Love neighbor. Work to heal the world.” The journey will involve “learning from the margins and distant outposts.” Practically: “Go into the neighborhood, across the tracks. Meet and befriend the other, whether poor, or bruised, or differently abled, or too beautiful for words.”

The analogy of an expedition into inter-planetary or inter-stellar space is a good one, for that is certainly a dimension of difference: no gravity, no air, and so on. Jefferts Schori really got into the space travel imagery, with references to Mission Control in Houston, a next-generation operating manuel, and so on. Part of her use of the image built on the fact that the environment around the church is changing – the digital age, the culture’s diminishing interest in church – so that the church may experience expeditionary vertigo without moving much at all.

Readers may be interested in novelistic treatments of Christian mission in galactic space. Reasonably well known is Mary Doria Russell’s prize-winning The Sparrow, published in 1996, about a Jesuit mission to a planet near Alpha Centauri. Michel Faber’s 2014 The Book of Strange New Things, featured on the front of the New York Times Book Review, tells the tale of a British free-church missionary appointed to pastor a church on a planet being exploited by a mysterious USAmerican corporation. Both novels are good, and Russell’s is especially thought-provoking.

These novels depict missionary expeditions that in various and interesting ways echo strengths and weaknesses of missionary expeditions on planet Earth. Significantly, each expedition has evangelistic intent, which may or may not be high on the agenda of the missionary expedition Jefferts Schori had in mind.

The second noteworthy element of the phrase ‘missionary expedition’ is the focus on the person, the individual who ventures out in mission. Jefferts Schori could have said ‘mission expedition’ or ‘service expedition’ or, less plausibly, ‘ministry expedition,’ but she went with ‘missionary expedition.’ Yes, she meant that the church as a whole is on a ‘missionary expedition’ so that the missionary is the church. This is in line with at least 60 years of ecumenical missiological reflection on the missionary vocation of the church. “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning,” was the memorable assertion of Swiss theologian Emil Brunner. But Jefferts Schori was equally exhorting all Episcopalians to take their part in the church’s missionary expedition and thereby implying that every Episcopalian ought to consider himself/herself as having a missionary obligation.

Less compelling would be the application of ‘missionary expedition’ to the structural proposals contained in the TREC report. The proposed structural changes – a unicameral General Convention, a smaller Executive Council, adjustments in the respective powers of the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council – are important, and it can legitimately be claimed that they may facilitate the church’s work of fulfilling God’s mission. But they are simply corporate structural changes that seek to clarify responsibilities and implement efficiencies, partly in response to continuing decreases in the Episcopal Church’s numbers and finances, and these particular changes may or may not stand the test of time. In that sense they constitute ecclesial housekeeping, not mission.

Restructuring that may facilitate mission should never be confused with mission itself and should certainly not be considered a ‘missionary expedition.’ At points it seemed that Jefferts Schori might fall into that facile equivalence, but she wisely stayed pretty clear of it. May the General Convention do likewise.

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