Reconciliation in the context of poverty and terrorism was the theme of an international conference held recently by the Church of Pakistan in Lahore, the capital city of Punjab.  The gathering, titled ‘Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation in the Company of the Poor, Marginalized and Terrorists,’ drew about 55 people from Pakistan, Britain, Finland, Norway and the USA.

Convened by Church of Pakistan Moderator Samuel Azariah, Bishop of Raiwind, one of the church’s eight dioceses, the March 12-15 conference was designed to highlight reconciliation as Christians’ urgent mandate from God in a world where peoples and religions are alienated from each other by the massive injustice of destitution and by intensified violence motivated by religion.  The theme was appropriate as well for Lent shortly before Holy Week, which focuses on the culmination of God’s reconciling work in Christ Jesus.

The conference was designed in large part by Church of Pakistan Coordinator Munawar Rumalshah, Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Peshawar, who said that reconciliation has become the overriding passion of his life.  Formed in 1970 to unite Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, the Church of Pakistan is the largest Christian church in Pakistan.

My address to the conference, ‘International and Theological Dimensions of Reconciliation as the Direction of God’s Mission,’ appears below, but circumstances prevented my delivering the talk in person.  Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, was the other speaker invited to address international issues, but he was likewise unable to attend.

Speakers included the Rev. Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, founder of the Christian Study Center in Rawalpindi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Justice and Christian Community at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Janice Price, World Mission Policy Adviser in the Church of England and co-author, with a body called the World Mission and Anglican Communion Panel, of World-Shaped Mission: Exploring New Frameworks for the Church of England in World Mission (London: Church House Publishing, 2012).

About 25 of the conference participants were from the Church of Pakistan, with three representatives from each diocese.  Mission societies represented included: USPG (currently called Us), represented by Janette O’Neil and Naomi Herbert, CEO and Director of International Programs, respectively; the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM); the Norwegian Mission Society; and Norwegian Church Aid.  A number of clergy and lay members of the Diocese of Los Angeles attended the conference.  The companion mission agencies met with the Pakistani dioceses for several days in Lahore following the conference.

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International and Theological Dimensions of Reconciliation as the Direction of God’s Mission:  Address by the Rev. Canon Titus Presler, Th.D., D.D. at the Church of Pakistan Conference: ‘Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation in the Company of the Poor, Marginalized and Terrorists.’  Lahore, Pakistan, 12-15 March 2016

Videos of the talk: Part 1 (26 minutes)  Part 2 (21 minutes)

See also World Council of Churches article on the conference, written from the perspective of the mission companionship between Norwegian churches and the Church of Pakistan, and posted on the Anglican Communion News Service website.  Dr. Sarah Safdar, who is cited in the article, is a colleague of mine in Peshawar and a member of the Edwardes College Board of Governors.

It is an honor and privilege to address you in Lahore on the theme of reconciliation from a Christian perspective, my particular topic being ‘International and Theological Dimensions of Reconciliation as the Direction of God’s Mission.’  I am grateful to Moderator Bishop Samuel Azariah for the invitation.  I thank Bishop Mano Rumalshah, who is coordinating the conference, and Bishop Humphrey Peters, with whom I have worked so closely in Peshawar, as they have warmly welcomed the prospect of my presence.  I regret very much that circumstances prevent my being with you in person for the conference, the more so that I like being in Pakistan, enjoy its people of all religions, and love the Christian community that is so faithful in that land.

Part 1: A Reflection on the Conference Theme

You have chosen a striking title for this conference: ‘Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation in the Company of the Poor, Marginalized and Terrorists.’  The phrase ‘Pilgrimage of Life towards Reconciliation’ emphasizes that reconciliation is a process, not a single event.  We all know from our personal lives that particular reconciling events – say, between parent and child, or between siblings, or between spouses, or between colleagues at work – do not generally heal relations fully or immediately.  Rather, they inaugurate a process that may take months or even years, with steps backward as well as forward.  Seeing this process as a pilgrimage takes it beyond psychology and locates it in its proper spiritual and theological home.  A pilgrim is a person who travels in search of a deeper experience of God.  Thus a life pilgrimage toward reconciliation is a pilgrimage into a deeper knowledge of God and a deeper experience of God, a pilgrimage in which reconciliation becomes a lens through which we see the light of God.  Read More…

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In the Lenten reflection below, the daughter of Episcopal clergy who were missionaries in Zimbabwe during the 1980s recalls many years later a particularly powerful religious experience she had among members of an African-Initiated Church.  She then relates it to an experience she had later in New York and then to the present in this season of Lent 2016.  Emma Presler is a parishioner, with her husband Steven Yong Lee and their young son Anders, at Grace Church, Broadway, in New York City.  Emma and Steven have been asked to contribute Lenten devotionals to the parish’s ongoing series in this season.  Emma is our daughter.  It is moving to us to see this reflection, a vignette from her mission experience in Africa.

 

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The African-Initiated Church (AIC) Emma is recalling is the Vapostori veJohane Marange, otherwise known as the African Apostolic Church of Johane Marange, which is the largest AIC in Zimbabwe, with probably about 2 million members today.  Marange was a nominally Methodist laborer from Marange District who in 1934 received a vision, while walking in the countryside, in which he believed God was telling him that he was a prophet after the manner of John the Baptizer and commissioning him to evangelize, preach, heal and cast out demons.  As mandated by Johane Marange, walking on fire is a requirement for every Mupostori at least once in his or her lifetime, but the order of prophets within the church makes a regular practice of it during their many all-night vigils.  Drawing on the many biblical references to testing through fire, the Vapostori believe they are called to walk on fire as a testing for the fiery end at the consummation brought at the further coming of Christ.  If they have the Holy Spirit with them, they believe, they will be saved at the end time, and walking on fire without being burned confirms the presence of the Holy Spirit with them.  And by the way, Emma really saw the fire-walking, as have I many times in the course of research on this powerful Christian community.  (For a full discussion of the Vapostori and this practice, with its biblical and theological background, see my Transfigured Night: Mission and Culture in Zimbabwe’s Vigil Movement (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1999).)

 

Posted by: Titus Presler | March 4, 2016

Reconciliation: Why so central in mission?

“Why do you think that reconciliation is such a central concept in missiology today?” That was one of the questions posed to me in preparation for a consulting day last November with the staff of Presbyterian World Mission, the global mission office of the Presbyterian Church USA, in Louisville, Kentucky.

It’s an intriguing and important question.

As posed by Director Hunter Farrell, who previously served with his family as a missionary in Congo and Peru, the question focused on missiology rather than on mission itself.  Missiology is the scholarly field devoted to the theology, history and practice of Christian mission.  As such, it should guide mission.  Scholarly reflection on mission – reflection that is informed by by biblical studies, theology, history, cultural anthropology and the like – should guide the practice of mission.

So the question was, in effect: Why is it that people who think and theorize about mission today are promoting reconciliation as central in mission?

An equally interesting question is: Why is reconciliation more central, or more explicitly central, today in missiological thought than it was in the past?

When the average person hears the word “mission” in a Christian context, he or she is likely to think first about specific activities such as evangelism that aims at conversion, pastoral work that builds up churches, or the basket of initiatives that come under the umbrella of poverty alleviation and sustainable development: education, healthcare, drinkable water, agriculture, sanitation, microenterprises and the like.

Imagine then asking the average Christian, “What is the point of all those activities?  When they are all pursued under the theme of ‘mission,’ what is the overall aim that they share?” The response may be something like: “Well, all those activities promote Christ, some explicitly, as in evangelism or taking care of churches, and others by example, as in education and healthcare.  They all show forth the love of God in Christ in some way.  They all reach out to help people, which is what God wants us to do.”  And then if we ask, “And what is the goal of that?” the responses, becoming vaguer, may be something like, “A better world,” or “Salvation,” or “Unity with God.”  Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | February 2, 2016

Prayer resources for World Mission Sunday 2016

For World Mission Sunday 2016 on Feb. 9 and other missional occasions in the Episcopal Church it may be helpful to liturgists to point out some of the prayers available in the Book of Common Prayer that can be used to lift up the church’s mission both at home and around the world.

The mission prayer I use most often is the second one of the three designated “prayers for mission” found at Morning Prayer, pp. 100-101:

O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The first of the three prayers highlights the “vocation and ministry” of all church members.  The third movingly sees Jesus’ arms outstretched on the cross as expressing his longing “that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace” and then asks that we, Spirit-filled, may reach forth our hands in love to “bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.”  So any of the three is wonderfully edifying. Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | February 1, 2016

World Mission Sunday 2016 is coming up on Feb. 7: Resources

The Episcopal Church’s World Mission Sunday, an annual observance since 1998, is designated for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, this year on February 7.

The rationale is that Epiphany celebrates the showing forth of the light of Christ in the world, imaged centrally in the appearance of the star that guided the Magi to Bethlehem.  Other gospel lections in Epiphanytide highlight the manifestation of Christ to the world, as in the Baptism of Jesus on Epiphany 1, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine on Epiphany 2, and, this year, Jesus’ announcement of the content of his mission at Luke 4 on Epiphany 3.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ response to the Nazareth folks rejecting him – this year’s reading on Epiphany 4 – likewise had missional significance as Jesus noted how Elijah’s being sent to the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian being sent to Elisha for healing declared that God was at work among the peoples of the world beyond God’s chosen people Israel.

Whatever the lessons turn out to be for much of Epiphanytide, which depends the lectionary year, the theme of Christ’s glory being shown forth in the world climaxes every year with the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, which this year occurs on this coming Sunday, Feb. 7.  Jesus was transfigured by the glory of God in order that he might be strengthened to undertake his missional work’s last stage, which was to face the opposition that was building against him in Jerusalem.  Preachers this year might note that in Luke’s account it was in order to pray that Jesus went up onto a mountain and that it was ‘while he was praying’ that he was transfigured (Luke 9.28-29).  What we term ‘our mission’ or ‘the church’s mission’ is a participation in the ongoing mission of God in the world, and it is only in prayer that we are able to discern what the nature of our participation might be.

Congregations casting about for a quick way to access resources in world mission might find this list helpful:

• Blogs of Current Missionaries – These are especially illuminating and can quickly get you close to the ground of missionaries’ actual experiences.  The Global Episcopal Mission Network website has a number of current blog postings, and blogs from current Episcopal missionaries are found on the Mission Personnel page of the Episcopal Church website.  You’ll find lots of testimony to how the church’s missionaries have found their mission experiences transformational.

Articles about Current Missionaries – Articles published by Episcopal News Service about current missionaries put their work in a helpful context. Read More…

“Headwinds: Challenges and Opportunities of Christian-Muslim Engagement in the 21st Century” was the theme of the keynote address I offered at Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, on Monday, Jan. 25, as the annual lecture sponsored by the Bridge Institute, a ministry of Christ Church.

The Bridge Institute has posted the presentation to YouTube, and it is available here.  The recording equipment malfunctioned just at the start of the talk, so the first minute is missing.  Here is the text of what is missing:

‘Headwinds: Challenges and Opportunities of Christian-Muslim Engagement in the 21st Century.’  That is the title of evening’s talk.  The image of ‘headwinds’ actually understates the theme, for the weather in inter-religious relations feels more like gale-force winds today.  On one side we see such events as churches burning in Egypt, ISIS killing and driving out Chaldean Christians from entire stretches of Iraq and Syria, and their lining up Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach and beheading them. On another side, we see a US presidential candidate proposing to ban Muslims from entering the United States, German right-wingers in Cologne and Dresden marching against Islam, and scattered attacks on Muslims and mosques in Europe and the USA.  And then there are the countries where major conflict between Muslims and Christians has been underway for years: Nigeria, where Boko Haram is a relative latecomer to the inter-religious violence that has gripped the north of that country for a couple of decades; the center of north Africa, where Muslim-Christian conflict resulted in the creation of South Sudan in 2011; and Malaysia, where Christians have been forbidden to use the name Allah for God.

The global community must address three major crises in the 21st century, three overarching crises that are unlikely to be resolved entirely even 100 years hence: the poverty crisis, in which over 2 billion of the world’s people live on less than $3 a day; the environmental crisis, which is driven by human-generated climate change; and the inter-religious crisis of whether people of different religions can live together in peaceful co-existence.

It was a privilege to offer this talk as Theologian-in-Residence at Christ Church.  About 400 people attended the event, which was emceed by the Rev. Remington Slone, Associate Rector for Worship and Formation.

Time for questions followed the talk.  The first speaker was a Pakistani-American who said pressure on the Christian minority had prompted him to leave the country for the sake of the future of his children and move to the USA.  He expressed appreciation for many Muslims but commented that extremism had shifted the mood of the country.

Current controversy about immigration and refugees was the context of another questioner.  She said her concerns about the adequacy of background checks for people seeking to come to the USA from Syria and Iraq had prompted others to ask whether she was approaching the issue with a “Christ-like attitude,” and she asked me to comment.  I responded that it is important that Christians agree that we can have legitimate disagreements with one another about matters of public policy, especially when the differences involve particular policy details.  At the same time, I said, we must prayerfully examine our motives in order to ensure that we are not driven by fear, chauvinism or revenge.  I then reiterated that people of genuine faith must recognize that we can, from the standpoint of faith, have legitimate policy differences.

A third questioner testified to the longstanding friendship that his family had with a Muslim colleague in the Middle East and how they had been able to share perspectives at a deep level, including religion.  I responded with the story a Christ Church couple had shared with me the previous day, about how a chance meeting years ago with a young Pakistani Muslim looking for a job had developed into a decades-long friendship.  I then shared vignettes from shared times of prayer that I had had with Muslims in Peshawar.

In the aftermath of the Jan. 11-15 meeting of the Anglican Primates at Canterbury Cathedral in England the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN) renewed its call for Episcopalians to engage in God’s mission:

Responding to the decision concerning the Episcopal Church announced by the Anglican Primates Meeting on January 14, the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN) Board renews GEMN’s call for Episcopalians to engage in global mission by sending and receiving pilgrims, missionaries, volunteers and learners between the Episcopal Church and the whole world, with emphasis on the Anglican Communion. In the midst of a situation that is painful for all concerned, especially because of potential impacts on treasured relationships throughout the communion, we choose to act in faith, hope and love.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said at the Primates Meeting, “… the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

Episcopalians, young and old and from all walks of life, encounter those “outstretched arms of Jesus” in new and empowering ways when we engage in international mission. Such companionship is transformational. GEMN will continue, with renewed energy, to invite and equip Episcopalians for service and learning with our sisters and brothers of the Anglican Communion.

GEMN welcomes the primates’ affirmation of evangelism, in which they said, “We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.”  We likewise welcome the primates’ attention to climate change, religiously motivated violence, poverty and war as highlighted in their communiqué.  All these concerns are vital to God’s mission in the world.

We invite all individuals, parishes, dioceses, and mission-minded organizations to join us in advancing God’s global mission. In particular, we invite people to come, or send others, to the GEMN Global Mission Conference in Ponce, Puerto Rico, May 18-20, 2016. Details are at www.gemn.org.  Our Presiding Bishop, Episcopal Migration Ministries and other leaders will address the theme of “God’s Mission With a World in Continuous Motion”. Mainlanders will join with Episcopalians from Latin America and Episcopal missionaries from around the world.

Founded in 1995, GEMN is a network of dioceses, congregations, organizations and individuals who are committed to participating in God’s mission on a global basis.  It is a voluntary organization and not an official organ of the Episcopal Church.  I joined its Board of Directors at the network’s annual conference in Atlanta in May 2015.

GEMN’s statement was published by Episcopal News Service on Jan. 19.

 

Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, an Episcopal congregation  of about 6,000 members just south of Jacksonville, Florida, has for the first time invited someone to be Theologian-in-Residence, and it’s striking that they’ve called a missiologist, that is, a scholar of the theology, history and practice of Christian mission.  It is an honor for me to be the person invited to undertake this ministry, and I started this past week on the assignment, which lasts a couple of weeks.

It is a good sign that a parish of the stature of Christ Church chose to make mission and Christian-Muslim relations the centerpiece themes for intensive theological reflection in the congregation

This evening features a keynote address, “Headwinds: Challenges and Opportunities in Christian-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century,” an opportunity to address the inter-religious crisis that is one of the major concerns in this century.  The 7pm event is free and open to the public.

Christian-Muslim relations and the phenomenon of religious persecution were themes of this morning’s interview on First Coast Connect, hosted by Melissa Ross, on WJCT, the Jacksonville PBS station.  A podcast of the interview will be available presently.

These concerns were also the theme for the talk invited last evening at the home of former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Marilyn McAfee and her husband Gerry in Ponte Vedra.  It was a privilege to discuss the issues with a group of about 40, many from Christ Church and from the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville.     

The first engagement was a Sunday morning class yesterday, “Mission: Ministry in the Dimension of Difference,” an interactive session with about 75 people that highlighted the understanding of Christian mission that I’ve developed over the years and which is discussed fully in my book, Going Global with God: Transforming Mission in a World of Difference.  Here’s the blurb for that class:

Over the past 40 years mission as a concept in the Episcopal Church has leaped from being scorned as “converting the heathen and clothing the Hottentots” to being highlighted in the 1979 Prayer book’s Catechism and now emphasized widely for practically everything the church does. But, as Anglican historian Stephen Neil said, “If mission is everything, then mission is nothing.” So what do people mean by mission these days? And how can our thinking and acting retain mission’s cutting edge? Theologian-in-Residence the Rev. Canon Dr. Titus Presler will explore these questions and suggest a way forward that energizes the church’s mission both locally and globally.

Other engagements will include classes; mission committee meetings focused on the congregation’s work in Bolivia, Cuba and many local outreach ministries; Book Club discussions of Going Global with God; preaching on the commemorations of the Conversion of St. Paul and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple; availability for one-on-one consultation; and meeting with the staff.  The blurb for a Sunday Bible class reads:

Mission Trajectories in the New Testament – The wonder of the Bible is that it grounds everything in our faith: prayer, worship, theology, ethics, community life, social action.  It can also be read as our charter for mission as we’re inspired to share the full spectrum of God’s good news in Christ with the whole human family.  In this session, Theologian-in-Residence Titus Presler will focus on the breadth of God’s mission as presented especially by Luke in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles.

And one for a midweek forum:

Education and Religion at Risk: A Mission Venture in Peshawar – Religious extremism is one of the world’s chief challenges in the 21st century.  Titus Presler went to Peshawar, Pakistan, at the heart of Taliban country along the border with Afghanistan, in 2011 to lead Edwardes College, a church-sponsored undergraduate institution where 90% of the students and faculty are Muslim.  In his Midweek Forum talk, Dr. Presler will discuss the efforts he and his colleagues undertook to enhance education and nurture a community of tolerance among young adults in one of the most polarized regions of the world.  He will focus on the innovative Integrity Project, which drew students into weekly discussions of the purposes of education, discernment of talents, ethical understanding, gender respect, diversity tolerance, community responsibility and servant leadership.

The residency is a well-rounded program designed to give parishioners opportunity to delve deeply into God’s missional call in the 21st century.

According to Associate Rector Remington Slone, the idea of inviting a Theologian-in-Residence arose from parishioners who, used to one-shot presentations by visiting speakers, suggested a more extensive and intensive engagement that would be multi-faceted in various venues, with more opportunity for extended conversation and deep engagement.

Here’s what I wrote to the parish in response to the invitation

“Let’s explore mission!” says Theologian-in-Residence Titus Presler

The invitation from Christ Church in Ponte Vedra to be Theologian-in-Residence over the next weeks is an honor and a privilege, and I am grateful.  I look forward to engaging with you as a community in a variety of venues, which include a keynote, Sunday and weekday classes, mission group meetings, a Bible study, preaching, and informal gatherings.  My wife Jane is with me and looks forward to exploring the Ponte Vedra community.

One theme of my visit with you is Christian-Muslim relations, surely one of the major challenges facing Christians and the world community in the 21st century.  My reflection arises out of recent experience in mission and higher education in Peshawar, Pakistan, as well as long residence in India and some exposure in the Arab world.  How might we best understand the disturbing phenomena of religious conflict and violence in our time?  How can Christians and Muslims build bridges of understanding and mutual exploration?

Mission is an overall theme for my time with you.  What is Christian mission?  What do we see in scripture and history about the movement of God’s mission in the world?  Amid the myriad claims on our care and concern, what is the distinctive note of mission?  Today’s world is being torn apart by differences that are used as pretexts for exclusion, oppression and violence.  Mission as ministry in the dimension of difference is an understanding that pushes us to address the world’s anguish and keeps us focused on reconciliation, which is the ultimate aim of God’s mission in Christ Jesus.

Christ Church is a gifted community of vision, with much to offer to the world.  I look forward to engaging with you around how God may be moving you to greater participation in God’s mission.

Altogether this venture is a fine undertaking on the part of Christ Church, Ponte Vedra, a privilege and honor for me, and a good sign of mission concern in the church.

The decision of the Anglican Primates’ Meeting on Jan. 14 to place sanctions on the Episcopal Church USA for its General Convention’s approval of same-sex marriage last summer is a serious blow to the standing of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and, possibly, to its global mission work.

The primates’ decision, which is reported to have been affirmed by two-thirds of the 38 senior bishops present, does not in any explicit way limit the Episcopal Church’s participation in inter-Anglican mission work, whether through missionaries or participation in joint efforts in evangelism, church-planting, education, healthcare or justice.

Rather the decision excludes the Episcopal Church from certain specific official functions:

It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

Thus it appears that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry can continue to participate in Primates’ Meetings and that the church’s three representatives can continue to participate in the Anglican Consultative Council, though in neither of these venues can Episcopal representatives participate in decisions about doctrine or polity.  It is not clear what the standing will be of Episcopalians already on various internal committees that are not related to ecumenical or interfaith matters.

Nevertheless the primates’ decision may prompt some Anglican provinces that support the decision to curtail mission collaboration with the Episcopal Church, whether through the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society or through the hundreds, even thousands, of missional links that have been developed by Episcopal dioceses and congregations with Anglican dioceses and congregations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

All this is unfortunate.  Like much of the controversy since the 2003 consecration of a gay Episcopal bishop, the primates’ decision once again exhibits the Anglican Communion as a community in turmoil.  Despite the primates’ declared desire to focus equally on climate change, religious violence, war, poverty and ethnic hatred, the world will perceive the group as focused on sexuality.  Indeed, it is clear from the primates’ communiqué that this issue occupied center stage.

Read More…

In 2009 the International Bulletin of Missionary Research published an article entitled “The Impact of the Sexuality Controversy on Mission: The Case of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.”  By then the broad parameters of how the conflict was affecting mission had become clear, and they have remained fairly stable since then – until yesterday’s decision of the Anglican Primates Meeting to sanction the Episcopal Church for three years.

The article is a helpful backgrounder to the situation of the Episcopal Church in relation to mission and the sexuality controversy.  The link is here.

The article expanded a talk I gave on the subject at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven at the invitation of then director Jonathan Bonk.

Posted by: Titus Presler | December 2, 2015

CrossFit a religion? – Hate to break it to you, but . . .!

Distinguishing religion from other human phenomena is crucial in our paradoxical era of intensifying religious violence and, in some places, declining religious practice.  Understanding the 21st century’s religious landscape can be difficult, but the difficulty is compounded by proposals that broaden the definition of religion to include virtually any social group that has strong internal bonds and a distinctive view of the world.

Such  a proposal appears in the Nov. 27 New York Times “Belief” column by Mark Openheimer, “When some turn to church, others go to CrossFit.”  He recounts two Harvard Divinity School students’ explorations into whether the particularly enthusiastic devotion of some CrossFit members to their fitness gym’s community and discipline qualifies as a kind of spirituality and, indeed, religiosity and even “church” in the contemporary USA.

Here’s an excerpt:

After all, it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion. [A participant] speaks about her [CrossFit] box as others might speak about a church or synagogue community. The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.

Any criteria you choose to define religion will quickly reveal its shortcomings. Is it about belief in a deity? Judaism and Christianity have that, but many varieties of Buddhism do not. Existence after death? Mormons believe in that, but plenty of liberal Protestants do not.

Among various facile notions the article cites about what qualifies as religion is one serious suggestion, from a Whittier College scholar, that any activity that establishes a worldview is religious.  There are several problems with this definition.  One is that it collapses the distinction between religion and philosophy, which certainly establishes a worldview.  Religions have philosophical underpinnings but are not reducible to philosophy.  In the modern period many philosophical approaches have specifically excluded religious perspectives.  What then?  To assert that anti-religious philosophers are actually religious, albeit unwittingly, is condescending and arrogant. Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | November 27, 2015

Prayer requests for Christians in Pakistan

Sometimes a request for guidance in intercessory prayer from someone else can help one assemble one’s own intercessions in a more organized way.  Such is my experience today as I’ve received a request for suggestions about praying for the church in Pakistan from a member of the St. Anselm’s Community, the group of 36 young people from around the world invited by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to spend a year in prayer, worship, study, community life and service to the poor from Lambeth Palace in London.

In response, I’ve put together a set of concerns that might be of interest to others who would like to pray for Christians in Pakistan and for the Church of Pakistan, the ecumenical church that in 1970 brought Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians into organic union.  Here they are:

• Encouragement and blessing through Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s visit, especially in the Diocese of Peshawar and at All Saints’ Church, where two suicide bombers killed 127 people and wounded 160 in September 2013.

• Strength and hope for the Christian community as it experiences discrimination, oppression and persecution in Pakistan.  Protection from physical attacks.

• Reconciling hearts among Pakistani Christians, that they may resist tendencies to caricature and disparage the faith of Muslims, and openness to inter-religious dialogue and shared projects with Hindus, Sikhs and, especially, Muslims.

• Opportunities for educated young Pakistani Christians, that they may resist the common desire to emigrate to escape the difficulties of Pakistan, and recommit themselves to building a culture in Pakistan where differences can be not only accommodated but celebrated.

• Strength and perseverance for the many Christians engaged in education, healthcare and socio-economic development.

• Vision and witness among the many congregations of the Church of Pakistan and its eight dioceses: Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Raiwind, and Sialkot.

• Edwardes College in Peshawar, the Church of Pakistan’s one institution of higher education – its faculty and students – and the Diocese of Peshawar as it seeks to strengthen its oversight of the college.

• Ties that the Church of Pakistan and its dioceses have with the Anglican Communion through Lambeth and the Anglican Alliance, with mission societies around the world, and with other provinces of the Anglican Communion.

• Ties that the Church of Pakistan and its dioceses have with Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian bodies around the world.

• Inter-religious initiatives of the Church of Pakistan, especially Faith Friends in Peshawar and the Christian Study Center in Rawalpindi.

• Bishops, presbyters and lay leaders of the Church of Pakistan, especially Moderator Samuel Azariah, bishop of Raiwind, Deputy Moderator Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters, bishop of Peshawar, and Bishop Munawar Rumalshah, provincial coordinator.

Some talking points about the Church of England’s proposed cinema ad promoting prayer and the debate it has prompted:

  • The 60-second series of vignettes of different people offering phrases of the Lord’s Prayer in succession is a commendable mission effort by the church to encourage prayer and bring spiritual practice into the public square.
  • The cinema industry is right to categorize the ad as religious and to exclude it from theaters on the grounds that allowing one church or religious group to present prayer and faith would make it difficult to exclude similar ads from any other group.
  • A possible response that the Church of England is the established church and may therefore have its ad presented as an exception simply exposes the deeply problematic and, in fact, anti-gospel nature of any kind of state-established religion.
  • Ironically, though, the church’s gambit, even if unsuccessful in its immediate objective, has been wildly successful in highlighting prayer, drawing attention to its new website Just Pray, and prompting important discussion.

Here are two links about the controversy, one from the Guardian, the other from the New York Times And here’s the story from the Anglican Communion News Service.

First, the ad itself: It’s good.  Various people in various settings, beginning with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, pray phrases of the Lord’s Prayer.  Altogether there are 17 vignettes with people of various ages and ethnicities in short snippets: a young man at a grave, emergency personnel in a street, a couple at a snack table, a farmer among his cows.  Some are in groups: a black gospel choir in rehearsal, a youth event, a wedding, and, notably, a group of young adults in St. Augustine’s Chapel under Lambeth Palace.

Then the intent: Clearly the Church of England is trying to have an impact beyond its stained glass windows.  It is seeking to fulfill its mission, that is, to respond faithfully to God’s call that it reach beyond itself and out into the world and, in this case, let people know that there is a life of prayer available to them that can illuminate their lives, strengthen them in tough times, and nurture their relationship with God.  As an attempt to convey that message, the ad is good mission work, as is the website Just Pray.

But the problem: The Church of England could resort to a common contemporary distinction and say that the ad is spiritual but not religious, that is, that it seeks to reawaken people to resources of spiritual practice and not promote Christianity in particular and certainly not Anglicanism.  The church has not said this, but such a characterization could be an undercurrent in its rationale.  After all, there is no evangelistic appeal, and the tone of the ad is meditative, not doctrinal.

Read More…

Posted by: Titus Presler | November 24, 2015

Tribute to a bookstore in an unlikely place – Islamabad

It’s startling and gratifying to see today’s New York Times story on Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, an emporium I found to be a rich resource for work at Edwardes College in Peshawar and a welcome haven during my post-attack internal exile in Islamabad last year.

Until reading the article I did not know that it is one of the largest bookstores in the world, although being there reminded me of the Strand on lower Broadway in Manhattan, the Harvard Coop in the old days, and Blackwell’s in Oxford.  And 5 million books in warehouses!  In the Pakistan of today, where genuine inquiry is threatened and open-mindedness has definite limits, it is remarkable to walk into an establishment with floors and floors of books of all types, clearly catering both to inquiry and broadening minds.

I did know, of course, that Saeed Book Bank was originally located in Peshawar, for it was during my time there that the proprietors found Peshawar too dangerous and moved to Islamabad, a shift lamented by readers and academics in the city it left behind.  As the Times story puts it, “Later the rise of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam made Peshawar, capital of the wild frontier lands of Pakistan, a dangerous place for a bookseller – especially one who insisted on carrying magazines like Cosmopolitan and Heavy Metal, books by Karen Armstrong on Islam, and even the scientist Richard Dawkins’s atheist treatise, The God Delusion. (‘You just wouldn’t believe how that sells,’ Mr. Saeed said. ‘We buy a thousand copies from Random House every year, year after year.’)”

Saeed is a good source for academic books, and we had discussions with the bookstore about truckload-size prospective purchases in connection with the enhancement of the Edwardes College library that was planned as part of the overall upgrading necessary for degree-awarding status.  Unfortunately religious discrimination and intellectual closed-mindedness halted the university project, even at the advanced stage we had reached.

Piled just inside the entrance to Saeed Book Bank is a large array of recent publications about Pakistan, everything from academic ethnographies of the country’s diverse ethnic groups to the many trade books about upheavals in Pakistan since 9/11, all of them seeking to shed light on the murky social, religious geopolitical currents that have made Pakistan what it is today.  Thumbing through them and acquiring a number of them up was always a pleasure.

As the article notes, various shades of religious skepticism were easy to find on Saeed’s shelves, as were hundreds of books, many of them devout, on Islam, and some general surveys of world religions.  Absent, however, were books specifically on Christian theology, church history or, indeed, Christian topics in general.  There would doubtless be a market for such, but even Saeed could not go that far in the current climate of fear and intimidation around religion in Pakistan.

Peshawar’s loss in Saeed’s move was Islamabad’s gain.  Pakistan’s capital city, a planned metropolis laid out in ways that still work well after 60 years, is a congenial and stimulating environment – not as cosmopolitan as Delhi or New York, but certainly cosmopolitan compared to Peshawar.

May Saeed Book Bank – and the minds it feeds – continue to prosper!

Posted by: Titus Presler | November 11, 2015

Core values of mission networks: Reflections from Hunter Farrell

Mainline Christian denominations in North America share a number of developments in their world mission efforts:

  • Support has declined for centralized mission work, but mission efforts have proliferated from the grassroots of congregations and mid-level judicatories such as presbyteries, conferences, synods and dioceses.
  • Centralized staff are fewer, but networks of people concerned with particular kinds of work (for instance, education, medicine, micro-enterprise, ecology) or specific parts of the world (for instance, Haiti, Sudan, Jerusalem, Dominican Republic) have proliferated at the grassroots.
  • Longterm missionaries are far fewer today than in the past, but thousands of short-term mission teams go out from USAmerican churches every year, especially in the summer.

These developments are part of the democratization of world mission that I explored in Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, a democratization that includes the localization and deprofessionalization of mission activity.

Hunter Farrell, World Mission Director for the Presbyterian Church (USA), has just published online an excellent column, “Effective mission networks share seven core values” – here’s the link.  He has in mind the 40 freestanding mission networks through which Presbyterians are channeling their concern for certain kinds of work or parts of the world.  Yet his observations apply equally to such networks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), United Methodist Church (UMC), and Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA).

Especially notable are Farrell’s caution against bureaucratizing a network into a committee, the importance of privileging global partners in the conversation, and the role of bridge figures who have long and deep mission experience in whatever context is in view.

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