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What We Shall Become

by Katharine Jefferts Schori

The Episcopal Church is not the only part of the body of Christ or the people of God that is robustly engaging in assessing its way of being and working together. In strikingly similar ways, many Christian bodies and other religious communities, as well as mission agencies, nonprofits, and other kinds of service organizations, are asking how they can be most effectively organized and structured to fit their mission in a rapidly changing world. The Anglican Communion as a whole is asking these questions, and the vigorous conversations we have had about an Anglican Covenant and the “Instruments of Communion” are good examples. Structures are meant to be servants of mission, and if they are not fit for purpose, mission suffers.

The mission we are engage in is God’s mission to heal and reconcile the world (Book of Common Prayer, p. 855) – and it’s not just the church’s responsibility. God’s Spirit is present in varied places and communities, and if we are to be faithful, part of our job is to build partnerships for mission with others who share our understanding of what God’s mission is about. There are several places to look for insights about God’s mission, and I’ll begin with scriptural foundations.

The entire biblical narrative leans toward the divine vision of a healed world, from the creation narratives of Genesis through the prophetic exhortation to do justice in human communities; from Jesus’ reconciling life, death, and resurrection through to Revelation’s great dream of restoration. There are several quite specific summaries of what reconciliation looks like:

  • The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40)
  • The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • Jesus’ Mission Statement (Luke 4:14-21 and Isaiah 61)
  • The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10)
  • The Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 25:31-46)

Our developing Anglican tradition has attempted to gather these understandings in what are called the Five Marks of Mission, summarizing what it means to be engaged in God’s mission:

  1. Proclaim the good news of the kingdom.
  2. Teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.
  3. Respond to human need through loving service.
  4. Transform unjust structures of society, work to end violence, and promote reconciliation.
  5. Care for the earth.

Healthy and mature Christian communities engage all these aspects of mission, and reflect them at different levels of complexity like a hologram. In other words, the larger structures or parts of the body of Christ are not the only ones who engage all sorts of mission; each cell of the body should have something to do with each form of mission. A mature Christian community, of any size, hopes, prays, learns, serves, does justice, and stewards creation.

As we think about new structures of support encouragement, and empowering, we ought to be able to dream a church that has space for, and indeed honors, the particular ministries of

  • cathedrals as house of prayer for all people
  • communities of faith in bars, factories, sports clubs, offices, hospitals, jails, online, on the street, and in places and contexts we have not yet imagined
  • monastic foundations both ancient and modern – with spaces for the habited, cloistered, married, single, celibate, and those living in the world under a rule
  • communities of transformation through Twelve Step programs
  • and others we have not yet dreamed of as well as more traditional congregations that faithfully teach, nurture, and baptize God’s people for mission in daily life.

Whatever structures we develop and use will need to work in the context of order and freedom if they are going to be faithful to our tradition. We are going to have to ask – again and again – what the limits are, and be fearless about it. We have wrestled with that question in every age, from early church struggles over whether circumcision and adherence to Jewish dietary laws were necessary, to whether confirmation is necessary before communion, or what kind of human being is “fit matter” for baptism, ordination, and teaching in the church.

How is your church open and available (and responsive) to people of all sorts and conditions, of many families, languages, peoples, and nations?

WhatWeShallBecomeThe Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori is the 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. This article is a portion of her essay from What We Shall Become: The Future and Structure of the Episcopal Church edited by Winnie Varghese (2013: Church Publishing). It features essays that seek to provoke imagination and inspiration as churches re-imagine mission and structure from contributors: Gay Clark Jennings, Robert W. Pritchard, Ian T. Douglas, Mathew L. Sheep, Dwight J. Zscheile, Thomas Ferguson, Katherine Hancock Radsdale, Bonnie A. Perry, Gary Commins, Susan Brown Snook, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Miguel Escobar, Carol Gallagher, C. Andrew Doyle, and Kay Collier-McLaughlin. 

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