Friday, October 22, 2010

Final Thoughts on Bishop Whipple, part I

In my previous thoughts on Bishop Henry Whipple (found here and here), I tried to lay out his biographical sketch as well as a primary example of how his theology informed his views of the Missionary Work of the Church from an actual sermon he had preached to the Clergy of Minnesota in 1862. In some ways, I feel like that sermon of his speaks for itself. I would like to add a few general and closing comments for consideration by the modern audience.

The first point I would make is how do we in the 21st Century define Mission theology, and subsequently, how does having a theology of mission affect who we are as Christians in our day to day ministry? This, of course, assumes we are concerned with Mission theology at all. Many churches claim to be "Mission minded" or "Missional churches." First of all, what do we mean by this, and what is the theology behind these claims?

I would argue a difference between a theology of Mission and a Missionary theology. I know quite a few people from my seminary days that had completely and openly abandoned the idea of Missionary activity and the theology thereof. This was in large part due to the collective hand wringing over the Anglican church and the British Empire. While I was always horrified at the idea of an ordained person actively repudiating a missionary theology, one does have to grapple in our tradition with the fact that Anglican clergy were the Chaplains to the Empire during the Victorian era. One could quibble that the Episcopal Church was not part of the British Empire, and therefore men like Bishop Whipple were not chaplains to the Empire. While technically true to the extent of the British Empire, Victorian America was just as Imperialist what with Manifest Destiny and all that. Certainly, I can give you numerous examples of Episcopal priests and bishops that very much were chaplains to the American Empire. Bad things were done by the Church in the name of the State, particularly to indigenous peoples. That's just reality we need to grapple with as mature Christians.

A (I thought bizarre) theology that I seldom agreed with but seemed to be accepted as self justifying in seminary (Seminarians: always be leery of argumentation or buzz words in Church work or seminary that are assumed to be self justifying. They usually are not, but the powers that be often want you to believe that they are) was Bosch's seminal work, Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in Theology of Mission (1991). I always found this to be a cop out of people who did not want to go so far as to completely chuck the idea of a missionary theology but still wanted to avoid all the connotations of Chaplains to the Empire. The basic premise as I remember the book (and it has been about 4 years since I read it) is that Missionary Theology in the 1800s was "taking God to the heathens." The new Missionary Theology seeming to be "God is already with the heathen indigenous children of God, your mission should you choose to accept it, Mr. Phelps, is to show them how God is already at work." I may be taking a bit of license with Bosch's message, but that is certainly the synopsis that was portrayed in class by the instructor. Sadly, Bosch died in a car accident shortly after publishing the book, so how he would have edited or changed his theology after peer review will never be known.

I never cared for the missionary theology presented in that book for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it seemed to be contrary to the Gospel message, particularly as described in the missionary zeal of St. Paul and St. Peter in the Book of Acts. Paul did not preach that famous sermon in Acts by prefacing it with 'God is already at work here through this altar to the Unknown God.' (I won't even go into how applying such a missionary theology of how God was somehow at work through Baal and Asherah in the Old Testament would be sheer theological folly.) As I stated previously, I found it to be a cop out for people who wanted to grapple with the excesses of missionaries in the Victorian era (and today for that matter) but not have any meaningful dialogue about the grand Missionary schemes and projects from that era that actually were Christ centered and helpful in the long term.

I feel I am somewhat digressing here, but I bring this up to point out the difference between a Theology of Mission and Missionary Theology. A Theology of Mission is a more overarching theological question of having to do with all things the Church is involved in as a mission for the greater Kingdom of God. In other words, what is your Mission as a Church?  Supporting Missionaries and Missions work abroad is important, but not to the exclusion of the homeless guy sleeping in the Parish church's bushes or the Women's weekly bible study or the local food pantry you help with or what have you. Those are all part of the Mission of the Parish as well.

Mission is likewise more than just a catch phrase or Mission statement. I was on a committee once to draft a Mission statement for a parish, and let's just say it ended in fiasco. Personally, I think if a parish has to sit down numerous times in committee to figure out what its mission actually is, and subsequently can't agree on it, something somewhere has gone off the rails. I think sincere and mature Christians should know what their mission is. If they don't, something is seriously wrong. This is not to say that Mission statements and discussions thereof aren't good because a Parish (particularly smaller parishes) can't be all things to all people, but they are not the end-all-be-all of a Parish's Theology of Mission.

I believe the Great Commission is the clearest example of what the Mission of the Church is to be. There are those who vehemently disagree with me, saying the Mission of the Church is found in the Summary of the Law or the Golden Rule or various other passages from the Bible. Most major religions have some form of the Golden Rule, and Jesus gave the Summary of the Law in a debate with Jewish  Pharisees, so at the very least, the Summary of the Law applies to both Judaism and Christianity. Thus, I do not believe either of those are the actual Mission of the Church as they apply to non-Christians as well; those elements are the ethics and morals that guide the Mission of the Church but are not the Mission unto itself. The Mission of the Church is as follows:

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 2and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

The Church can fail to love one another from time to time, the Church can get off into infighting and weird theological abstractions, but if the Church  fails to do this Great Commission as its primary mission, then the Church itself has failed utterly and entirely. I do not know how a Theology of Mission or Missionary Theology can be premised on anything other than this as its foundation. 

Now, after all this discussion, I come back to the topic at hand: What was Bishop Whipple's Theology of Mission and his Missionary Theology? I see that this blog entry has already gone to too great a length, so I suppose I will make a 4th and final entry on Bishop Whipple. (I promise it will be the last one.) But, I think this was helpful, at least to me, to flesh out what I believe the Theology of Mission is before proceeding onto what Bishop Whipple's idea of it was.

Please feel free to comment.

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