Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Tale of Two Edinburghs: Mission, Unity, and Mutual Accountability

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

A Tale of Two Edinburghs: Mission, Unity, and Mutual Accountability

Article excerpt

   Most of all do we need to lament that we carry about with us so
   small a sense of the harm that is wrought by our divisions, and so
   little pain for our lack of charity. (1)

The World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910 gathered 1,215 delegates, including 207 women. Preference in attending the meeting was given to "those of long experience and mature years," (2) as is amply borne out by the photographs of the event. (3) Yet, looking back at these pictures across 100 long years--pictures of stem-looking, late-Victorian gentlemen (and, yes, some ladies) in their stiffly starched collars--should not blind us to the passion that marked this decisive ecumenical gathering.

This was a passion not least for the unity of the church--passion arising from the convictions that both unity and mission are intrinsic to the nature and life of the church, that the unity of the church is necessary for effective mission, and that mission must bring persons not only into this or that confession or denomination but into the church, the one undivided body of Christ. I hope to convey some of this passion for unity by examining issues of mission and unity raised at Edinburgh, by comparing the vision of unity raised at Edinburgh 1910 with key points in the work on unity within the Faith and Order movement, by looking at mission and unity as developed at the centennial of the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh 2010, and, finally, by suggesting the notion of "mutual accountability" as a way forward in the effort to integrate mission and unity.

Edinburgh 1910: A Passion for Unity

Edinburgh 1910 is remembered as a new beginning, but it must be understood first in terms of continuity with earlier developments in the mission field. For example, as early as 1806, William Carey had proposed "an international and interdenominational world missionary conference," "a general association of all denominations of Christians from the four quarters of the world," to be held in Capetown in 1810. (4) A second example: The right of local, mission-planted churches to determine their own identity had been firmly stated by the London Missionary Society:

   [I]t is declared to be a fundamental principle of the [London]
   Missionary Society, that its design is not to send Presbyterianism,
   Independency, Episcopacy, or any other form of Church order and
   government ... and that it shall be left ... to the minds of the
   persons whom God may call into the fellowship of His Son ... to
   assume for themselves such form of Church government as to them
   shall appear most agreeable to the word of God." (5)

The planners of Edinburgh 1910 thought in terms of continuity; that is why they originally proposed that the title should be "The Third Ecumenical Missionary Conference" (following conferences in London in 1888 and New York in 1900)--"ecumenical" here referring to broad geographical, rather than confessional, scope. (6) Edinburgh itself was preceded by three preparatory meetings: the South India Conference at Madras in 1900, the all-India Decennial Conference at Madras in 1902, and the Centenary Conference of Christian Mission in China in Shanghai in 1907 (as we shall see, the last of these was to have a strong influence on the discussion of mission and unity at Edinburgh 1910).

But, the most significant preparation for Edinburgh 1910 was a survey sent widely by Commission VIII--on "Co-Operation and Promotion of Unity"--to missionaries in the field. The commission felt that "the main substance of its report should consist of a careful statement of the actual facts relating to movement in the direction of Co-operation and Unity in the mission field." (7) Eighteen detailed questions asked whether local united conferences of missionaries from different mission societies existed; what their actual experience of success or failure was; the actual extent of common work, and how it was practiced and understood; and, significantly, whether there was cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church in cooperative endeavors. …

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