I believe first and foremost that any period of Church history, be it the Apostolic Era to the Crusades to the Victorian era, must be judged by the standards of the Great Commission. No Church or group of Christians is perfect. I do believe in the doctrine of the indefectability of the Church (this is different that inerrancy). The Church makes mistakes, but I believe as long as we attempt to live out the Great Commission as best we can as individuals and as a Christian community, the Holy Spirit will not allow us to be led into serious defect wherein our very salvation is at stake. I believe only the lens of the Great Commission should be used to attempt to judge or critique Christians from another era.
Political correctness as well as the prevailing attitude in the Post Modern era that whatever is the most new is somehow the most correct and most enlightened compared to that which came before. We like to wag our collective fingers at various times and Christians from other periods. We like to hold them up to Modern or Post Modern criteria for political correctness and enlightenment and behavior, and then denigrate them for not being as enlightened as we are. Certainly, Christians from other eras have made horrendous mistakes, but we should always be careful before patting ourselves on the back with the hands of modernity, lest the Church 200 years hence curses us for our cultural blind spots, of which we have many. God will be the ultimate Judge, and criticisms of other time periods should be for the purposes of learning and repenting from our past collective mistakes, lest we repeat them ourselves.
As such, certainly the Victorian era was not without its faults and cultural blind spots, not the least of which was the horrible things done to Native Americans by the prevailing American culture. I noted previously some of Bishop Whipple's ways of referring to Native Americans, terms that are now considered (and I believe rightly so) offensive. Again, if all we do is wag our fingers at him and write him off, we have not done either him or ourselves any great justice. We feel superior by putting others down. What good does that really do anyone in and of itself? I believe Bishop Whipple should be considered by the standards of the Great Commission. And until we can prove ourselves greater at doing those things mandated in the Great Commission, we should be loathe to criticize his shortcomings lest we be criticized by an even Greater Judge.
In his own words, Bishop Whipple concisely summed up his Theology of Mission is this way:
"The Apostles went everywhere "preaching the Kingdom of God." To the eye of man there was nothing more than a few lowly men going two and two, telling of God's love and pouring water upon willing listeners and breaking bread with benediction. Yet, wherever they went, the Kingdom of God went also. The Gospel they preached was no new religious philosophy. It was not a mere aggregate of religious doctrine. It presented to all men a real King and a real Kingdom. It told them of a risen and ascended Lord, who had made the trial of human sorrow, and knew the burdens which brought furrows to the cheek and deeper lines of suffering to the heart. It told them of a real Son of Man who loved them, who pitied them, who felt for them, and of a Son of God who was able and willing to help them. The Gospel which the Apostles preached centered in a person. It presented to all men a religion of fact. It gave to them for the theories of philosophy, the realities of a Kingdom of God on earth, which had come with the coming of the Son of God, its King. The Gospel cured the alienations, and strifes and discords of a warring world by a new brotherhood. It did not uproot human relations. It did not subvert the order of society. It interfered with no social ties. It had a message for Caesar's household as it had for the fisherman of Galilee. It came to kings and to subjects, to masters and to servants, to fathers and to children, to philosophers in the academy, and to trafficers in the market, and it brought to each one an Evangel, which hallowed and consecrated all other ties. It gave to men citizenship and kinship with an unseen King, and brotherhood with each other in His kingdom. The sacrifices they made to preach the Gospel and the free-will offerings of all possessions for the members of that kingdom, were the natural fruit of faith in their King. Who could believe that Christ was very God, and that they were own brothers in Him, and not be willing to give up all for that Brother's sake? The Church knew that the Apostles bore God's authority, and so they "continued steadfast in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship in the breaking of bread and prayer."
-This is from the sermon Whipple preached at the consecration of William Hobart Hare as Missionary Bishop to Niobrara, the full text of which can be found here.
Therein, I believe, is a beautiful Theology of Mission. The images are replete with the Revelation of Jesus Christ and the urgency with which the Great Commission should be carried out. I think a Parish church could do a lot worse than to adopt this as its Mission Statement. Of course, the would require modern Christians to have an attention span for longer than 10 seconds.
A declaration of a clear Theology of Mission, often called a Mission Statement in modern ecclesial parlance, is far more than a glorified text message or buzz word that is the latest drivel from the advertisement department at the Prayer Book factory. A Theology of Mission means something more than just a catchy phrase that people can remember or a bland catch-all directive the Priest can point to when he's out of sermon material. A Mission is an operational task with duties to perform and objectives to accomplish.
Richard Niebuhr wrote an interesting little work back in the 1951 entitled Christ and Culture. In it, he proposed several neat little paradigms about how various Christian groups view Christ in relation to culture. Its had several flaming critiques over the years for various reasons, but the idea of how Christians try to apply Christ to culture is still a relevant question. I believe Christians today are either ambivalent and let culture dictate to them how Christians should behave or else believe that the Kingdom of God is aways contrary to culture, often to the point of being violent protesters at the drop of a hat.
I believe Bishop Whipple was such a man who understood that a solid Theology of Mission involves being flexible. In fact, I would go so far as to say he understood the Church's Mission to not be one of catchy buzzwords that people could remember or to constantly being in people's faces like a house fly. Mission to Whipple involved getting dirt under your fingernails, standing up to the Kingdom of Man with a Message from the Kingdom of God, to grow and to expand the Kingdom, and yet to to work with the Kingdom of Man when a joint and peaceful effort best contributes to the greater Kingdom of God.
What best sums up Bishop Whipple's view of Mission were, in fact, not his own words, but the words preached at his Ordination to the Episcopate:
"Because of the house of the Lord, you are now to go out, seeking the good of Zion in places where it cannot indeed be said, in the presence of some who are here, [18/19] that you enter into no man's labors, but where you will still be, to a large extent, the first and foremost of the company of her preachers. You will need varied wisdom, firm fidelity and enduring patience. The sternest bleakness of our Northern winter differs scarcely so much from these soft skies as, I presume, the meagre rudeness and scanty numbers amidst which you must often lay toilsome foundations, from these thronged courts, ringing with the one song of the thousands whose prayers and salutations surround you and your three brethren at this hour. Yet kneel, strong in faith and in hope. It is a happiness to praise God here. It is a happiness, too, and one unspeakably greater, to brace ourselves to His work, where we may be like Him who brings home the sheep lost upon the mountains. Go in the cheerful strength which becomes your still youthful maturity, and may your years of labor be prolonged, if it he God's will, you also, at threescore and ten, may say like Jacob, or like him who has first exercised the office of a Protestant bishop beyond the great river of the West, "with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become two bands!" If a shorter ministry await you, yet so pray and so live, that, whether richly honored with success, or only holding out in patience to the end, you may have no record on earth or on high but that which justly belongs to a Christian bishop, blameless before men, and through the Lamb, our Righteousness, blameless also before God. So, may it be given to you and to all who pray for you and with you, to meet at last the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, and be found in Him!"
-The Rt. Rev. George Burgess, Bishop of Maine, at the Ordination of Bishop Whipple, 1859. (Full text found here.)
We are called to go out, to seek the good of Zion. Sometimes that is a mission to go to the ends of the earth to lands exotic and strange, sometimes that is a mission to go to the end of the street to show love to the guy sitting destitute on the park bench. But to wherever God sends us, we are always to remember that "He has ordained that they that preach the gospel are to live the gospel,"
Or as St. Francis once prayed, "
- Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
- where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- where there is injury, pardon:
- where there is doubt, faith;
- where there is despair, hope
- where there is darkness, light
- where there is sadness, joy
- O Divine Master,
- grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
- to be understood, as to understand;
- to be loved, as to love;
- for it is in giving that we receive,
- it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
- and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
May it always be so with us as we strive to live out the Mission of the Gospel.
Bishop Henry Whipple.
Pray for Us.