Vinoth Ramachandra

A Centenary Celebration

Posted on: June 11, 2010

Exactly a hundred years ago this week an epoch-making World Missionary Conference took place in Edinburgh, Scotland. The conference brought together about 1200 representative of Protestant churches and missionary societies to study the state of the world vis a vis the Christian faith and to make plans for the evangelization of the “non-Christian nations” (which excluded Europe, North and South America). Questionnaires had been sent beforehand to several missionaries working in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the South Pacific. The speakers and respondents were overwhelmingly of the stock of white European and American males who dominated the ecclesiastical and missionary centres of power. No native African spoke for African Christianity, nor were there many representatives from indigenous churches outside the European world.

More about the fascinating reports that emerged from this conference and how our understanding of the issues they dealt with have changed in the past hundred years can be found in the volume Edinburgh 2010: Mission Then and Now (Oxford: Regnum Press, 2009)- in which I have an essay exploring the best-known Commission IV Report that dealt with the “Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religion”.

I was in Edinburgh last week for the centenary celebration of the 1910 conference. The numbers were far fewer than a hundred years ago, mainly because of financial restrictions; but there was a large internet audience as many of the sessions were broadcast “live”. Also, the conference was the culmination of a 2-year long study process that took place in most of the regions of the world. Many of the papers emerging from that process can be found on the Edinburgh2010 website.

I was one of three “participant-reflectors” who were invited to share our thoughts on the conference in the final plenary session. I observed that, in terms of church traditions, this was probably the most comprehensive gathering to have taken place in the past century. There were speakers from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. I expressed the hope that just as one of the consequences of the 1910 conference had been the birth of the ecumenical movement and the breaking down of the boundaries between churches in the Global South and North, so can we intentionally break down the divisive boundaries between “ecumenical”, “evangelical”, “Pentecostal”, and so on? Mission and unity, truth and justice, reason and emotion, belong together.

Perhaps the most divisive barrier we face is the one between pastors/clergy and the rest of us so-called “laity”.  All the speakers who addressed us during this conference were Bishops and senior pastors, seminary professors or leaders of Christian institutions. This perpetuates the massive “blind spot” concerning mission in our churches. Surely the primary way the church impacts the world is through the daily work of Christian men and women in offices, schools, factories, village councils, research laboratories, company board rooms, and so on. These are the contemporary sites of Christian mission. Yet where were these men and women in Edinburgh?

My wife and I work primarily with Christian in secular occupations, helping them to live out the Gospel and communicate God’s truth and justice in the fields of science, business, the arts, medicine, education and so on. These men and women who engage Christianly with the secular marketplace are at the cutting-edge of mission.

Moreover, there are many thoughtful people who are profoundly attracted to Jesus but frankly “put off” by what they see of the church. They see a lack of integrity: a huge gulf between the message the church proclaims and the way its leaders behave, not least towards one another. How did a socially subversive, egalitarian movement centred in worshipping and following a crucified Jew change so quickly into a hierarchical, patriarchal and anti-Semitic religious institution? Whether we are Pentecostals or Roman Catholics we need to keep returning to that old question. We in Asia and Africa cannot keep blaming Christendom. I am amused by how many of our Southern bishops and clergy who bitterly condemn Western Christendom cling so tenaciously to titles and status honour and forms of address (and dress!) that they have inherited from Christendom.

Clericalism has crippled the witness of the church. Not just authoritarian forms of leadership but the way so much revolves around the clergy and their programs. In my experience, “lay” men and women of different church backgrounds rarely have problems working together in facing common concerns. They have no sacred turf to protect. John R. Mott, the architect of the 1910 Edinburgh conference was himself a Methodist layman. It was his experience of working with the Student Volunteer movement and the YMCA that lay the ecumenical ground work for that conference. If left to church leaders and church-based mission societies, Edinburgh 1910 is unlikely to have happened.

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