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Holistic Mission?

Holistic Mission?

By Andrew Symes
Anglican Mainstream
September 3rd, 2013

What is the mission of the church? To worship Jesus and make disciples? To care for the needy? Perhaps to be the glue that holds communities together? A very important report by the influential Think Tank Res Publica, fills out this idea of "mission = social action" into a comprehensive vision for the Church of England's role in the nation in the 21st century.

The thinking goes like this: the church with its national coverage and local presence, its volunteer network and ethos of holistic care, is ideally placed to help the government deliver social services (health, education, welfare) as a major non-profit business, more efficiently than a state monolith like the National Health Service, and less expensively than contracting out to private firms.

The report calls on government to begin a process of investing serious funding in the church to make it fit for this purpose, and calls on the Archbishop of Canterbury, who would essentially be seen as the CEO of this organization, to get the church ready for this redefined mission of partnering with government.

This would result in a "win-win": the church could recapture its role at the centre of national life instead of declining into irrelevance, while the Government uses an existing network to carry out its responsibilities to society.

The author of "Holistic Mission", Phillip Blond, is a political philosopher with strong links to government policy makers. He is also an Anglican, and the report draws on an impressive list of high ranking theologians, Bishops and clergy, who provide many of the examples of good practice of church-based social action projects.

The report aims to convince those without Christian commitment of the potential for good in using the church in this way. It also speaks to Christians by giving a theological basis for this understanding of the church's mission.

This is where the document is weakest. It does not mention Christ, the cross, the resurrection, the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins, worship, prayer or Scripture. There is no acknowledgement of the reality of the spiritual realm except in one phrase "the individual's ascent to...the creator" (p8). "Faith" is seen as an internal quality which motivates to good works, not a response to the saving grace of the God who is objectively there.

Decline in regular church attendance doesn't matter according to the report, because there is a kind of innate English religiosity in which doing good to one's neighbour is part of connectedness in communities in which the church plays a part by being there in the background. This report was launched with a fanfare just after General Synod in July, enthusiastically endorsed at the highest levels of the church (see for example the tweets following the press release). Some of its thinking has been reflected in recent initiatives and speeches from the Archbishops.

There appears to be a consensus in the C of E hierarchy that this is the best way to keep an established church embedded in society with the good will of government, while also providing opportunities for witness. But to many people this will seem the wrong way round. Shouldn't we rather insist on the primary calling of the church as exalting Christ and making disciples?

This does not mean a disengagement from the public square or lack of concern for the poor and suffering in the world. But this concern and action, inseparable from the message, should emanate from the work of the Holy Spirit through people of faith as part of God's calling and gifting. No doubt those who ask questions about the Res Publica vision will be accused of curmudgeonliness and pessimism. But think for a moment about the implications of this redefinition of the church's mission as government sponsored social service with "spiritual" matters optional and in the background.

Many clergy and congregations are not trained or experienced in this work, so clergy would have to be re-trained as social entrepreneurs and managers - a new form of ordination vows necessary, perhaps? Then, because of the limited scope of volunteers, a new class of professional administrators, social workers and so on would be assigned to the local parish-based projects.

Of course the revamped CofE PLC would have to comply with all equality and diversity legislation (ie no discrimination for any employed position on grounds of gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation), and will have to agree not to "proselytize" at all except in specifically "religious" contexts. But for some this would be a small price to pay in return for the benefits, one of which might be help with the church's salary and pension costs.

There will be concern about this vision of a "new settlement" from conservative Anglicans , but much greater opposition will come from secularists who want to reduce the influence of the church in public life to nil, not increase it. Further developments are awaited with interest.


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