Today’s Episcopalians need to see themselves not primarily as an institution but as a vital part of the Jesus Movement that began with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the 1st century and that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can participate in transforming the world today.
That was the central theme of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s keynote address at the Global Episcopal Mission Conference in Puerto Rico on May 18, organized by the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN). World mission wasn’t central in his talk, nor was mission amid migration, which was the theme of the conference.
Curry’s a revivalist. He wants the church to be revived. He wants Christians’ personal relationship with Christ Jesus to be revived. He wants Episcopalians to be open about their faith and invite others to explore the possibility of such faith for themselves. He wants the church to on fire with the gospel and God’s work of transforming the world through reconciliation.
With that kind of urgency, he tends to focus on those themes in whatever context he’s asked to address. And that’s all right. This is the kind of urgency Episcopalians and their church need. Especially refreshing is the fact that he did not launch a ‘listening process’ to find out what Episcopalians think they need, nursed by consultants and focus groups, all toward an inevitably ephemeral strategic plan. Hey, he’s a revivalist!
Curry’s audience in Puerto Rico was a group of world mission activists, people involved in doing, supporting and coordinating Episcopal global mission work – missionaries and parish, diocesan and organizational leaders. People were thrilled, even though world mission wasn’t his centerpiece.
Yet there were some good world mission takeaways from the talk:
- Kudos for the missionaries and activists: Curry opened his talk with a commendation: ‘I give thanks for those who serve on behalf of the Episcopal Church in the world community,’ he said. ‘Jesus has something to say to this world to help people live life fully – and that matters! What you do matters! It matters eternally.’
These were bracing words in an environment where people on the front lines sometimes wonder whether they’re making a difference, whether they have a supportive community behind them, and thus whether their vision and work matter at all.
- Kudos for the Global Episcopal Mission Network: In his dinner remarks at the May 19 banquet hosted by the Diocese of Puerto Rico in a grand colonial downtown ballroom, Curry had this to say: ‘GEMN is a vital part of the Jesus Movement. GEMN is vital to God’s work in the world. You matter, and what you’re doing matters, not just now, but eternally.’ Or words to that effect.
This was encouraging for the church’s 20-year-old freestanding network of mission activists in a time when the church’s global outreach is flourishing at the level of parishes and dioceses but resources are dwindling at the churchwide level.
- “Evangelism and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin,” Curry said. “We wouldn’t be here without evangelism,” he continued, referring to the fact that Christian profession depends on knowledge of the gospel story, which in turn depends on someone telling the story.
Episcopalians have a perennially ambivalent relationship with evangelism. On one hand, they rejoice in how the Book of Common Prayer proclaims the gospel and highlights three scriptures and a psalm every Sunday, and they delight in good preaching and persuasive theology – in other words, they drench themselves in religious word. But when they they discuss witness to others, they emphasize everything but word, claiming it’s sufficient to witness in deed, helping to heal the world’s hurts, and offering a good example in the process. Indeed, many Episcopalians disparage evangelism as unseemly, obtrusive and inherently coercive. Curry affirms the importance of witness in deed but insists that word is crucial as well.
- Curry said that evangelism and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin, not that evangelism and social action are two sides, and not that evangelism and international development are two sides of the same coin. Curry’s main example was the vision of Clarence Jordan and the founding of the Koinonia community in rural Georgia in 1942. He described Jordan as realizing that his initial emphasis on agricultural techniques to eradicate rural poverty needed a companion effort to address spiritual poverty. This led to the gathering of a community of Christians to live out the life of Jesus in rural Georgia through three major commitments: equality of all people, rejection of all violence, and ecological stewardship – all of which were especially radical in 1942 in that setting. The community did good community development work, but was explicitly a Jesus-focused community, proclaiming through their common life the reconciling word of Jesus.
In Going Global with God I suggested that reconciliation is the ultimate direction of God’s mission. More recently – for instance, at the Diocese of Massachusetts ‘Global Mission Summit’ in April and in a workshop at the GEMN conference – I’ve urged that all missional goals – education for all, health for all, clean water for all, a living wage for all, and so on – are penultimate goals in the sense that all of them, while good in themselves, need to be refocused by asking the question, ‘How does this particular mission activity catalyze people’s reconciliation with God, with themselves, and with one another?’ Reconciliation is the ultimate test of Christian mission because it is God’s ultimate vision for the cosmos. Curry’s pairing of reconciliation with evangelism expresses a similar view. We hope to hear more about that in the future.
- ‘Are you God?’ This was the question Curry described a young boy asking him as he sat in his office on the first day of his first job in a parish after seminary. Curry told the story with his well known zest and humor. The boy was on his way back from the bathroom in the parish day school when he stopped at Curry’s office door and asked, ‘Are you God?’ In retrospect, Curry admires his own quick reply, ‘No, I’m not God, but I work for him!’ Then two other children stopped and asked him the same question, and Curry replied as with the first, all the while wondering what had prompted this startling question. Evidently, his answers did not persuade, for when the whole class trooped by his door for a walk outside or some such, the entire procession called out to him, ‘Hi, God!’ Curry’s point: From one perspective none of us is God, but from another perspective all of us are called to live in such a way that people see and experience something of God through us.
Incarnational presence is central to Christian witness and mission, whether at home or abroad. People being with people, companionship – that is the crucial modality of Christian mission. Projects, programs, techniques, money have tended to be the focus of many in global mission at various times. All these help, but they’re not the heart of it. Incarnational presence that shows forth the presence of the Triune God is the heart of Christian mission.