Reaffirming Mission at the Centre of the Ecumenical Movement

Article excerpt

Mission created the framework, identified the raison d'etre and generated the energy and enthusiasm for what will be called later the ecumenical movement. The pioneers of this movement were all missionary-minded people and were concerned with the Christian responsibility and vocation of proclaiming the message of the gospel to the whole world. The concern and search for Christian unity have emerged out of this perspective and in close relation to it. Mission has ignited the fire and created the thirst for the unity of the church not as a goal in itself but rather as a sine qua non condition for the credibility of the gospel: "That they may all be one so that the world may believe." (John 17:21)

Mission laid the basis and prepared the way for the establishment in 1948 of the WCC as a fellowship of churches bound together by the common confession of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures. In 1961 the International Missionary Council ceased to exist as a separate organization and merged with the World Council of Churches on the consideration and strong belief that within the new configuration the whole historical tradition of the missionary movement would be carried on. And it is being carried on to this day.

1. Rearticulating the role and meaning of mission.

For some time, but particularly in the last decade, the general approach to and discourse on mission has changed. The wrong doings of the missionaries in the history of Western missions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular, such as the destruction of local cultures, the close link with the colonial powers, the expropriation of lands and the exploitation of the indigenous people were revealed and denounced. Consequently, that brought about in the West a tremendous sentiment of guilt and opened the way for expressing remorse, repentance and apologies for the past. Unfortunately, the very notion and content of mission itself were also greatly affected. In some contexts the very word 'mission' got a very bad connotation and there have been voices clearly speaking against it. Within some academic frameworks, due to a certain extent also to the process of restructuring, among the first chairs to have been eliminated were the chairs on missiology.

More recently, a healthy correction to such one-sided attitudes is coming, in my opinion, from the people of the 'third world' countries, who are themselves the contemporary results of the work of the missionaries in the past centuries.

There have been many instances when representatives from non-Western cultures reacted to the very often masochistic Western discourses on the missionary guilt by asking for discernment, balance and objectivity. They would say that there were indeed many bad and anti-evangelical attitudes in the work of the missionaries which have to be condemned, but that there were also good aspects which have to be recognized and affirmed. Above all and despite everything, they brought the gospel of Christ which became in itself an element of liberation and affirmation of the local people. They cared for the education and health of the people among whom they witnessed to the gospel and built schools and hospitals.

At least on two occasions, such witnesses became very evident at the Harare assembly. I will mention first the strong and meaningful testimonies of both President Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. President Mandela has affirmed,

As we were coming here, I told President Mugabe that he is a younger man than myself, and I said perhaps the experiences I have had he did not have during his time. But I said my generation is the product of church education. Without the missionaries and other religious organizations I would not have been here today. The government of those days took no interest whatsoever in the education of Africans, Coloureds and Indians. The churches bought the land, built the schools, equipped them, appointed and employed people. …