Challenging Churches and ourselves at Rethinking Mission 2019

Challenging churches to confront their legacy was a common thread explored by our 4 eminent speakers at USPG’s Rethinking Mission: Remembering History conference on Saturday 16th March at Liverpool Cathedral.  They included Revd Dr Michael Clarke,  the Revd Dr Daniel Justice Eshun, the Rev Rose Hudson Wilkin and the Revd Winne Warghese, representing Christian perspectives from around the world, who stimulated new thinking about the theology of mission in the context of our colonial history, but it was also very much about challenging ourselves individually. As the Revd Rose Hudson Wilkin said,

“Removing our own blindfolds and walking as children of light.”

Mission sometime has a murky past, found in its links with colonialism. Formed in 1701, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG, formerly SPG) can testify to its involvement in both the positive and negative impacts of global mission yet it was a thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring day for all of us present as we reckoned with our British complicity in the transatlantic slave trade.

 “In order to re-imagine mission we need to reinvent the church” said the Revd Dr Michael Clarke and he likened the current fear of Caribbean Christians in taking ownership of the church to a form of enslavement.  He suggested that mission in the 21st century context can’t be engaged with on its own but in the broader understanding of faith and the culture in which its disciples are located.  In the Caribbean the attitudes of superiority, based on ethnicity have been inculcated into Christion mission history. He went on to say that we today we need to assist others in their ‘awakening’ and he quoted Bob Marley ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds’.  Revd Michael also said “The planter’s church must become the slave church, coming out to serve”.

Image Copyright: Leah Gordon/USPG

The Revd Rose Hudson Wilkin asked why we have to keep looking back.

“We need to look back in order to go forward as what happened historically is still impacting today and if we can’t stop and recognise this we won’t be able to address it.”

Revd Rose said that people are still suffering from the intergenerational consequences of experiences we could now identify and name as post-traumatic stress disorder, such as the disintegration of the black family.

“The impact of slavery has damaged not only these people but the fabric of society”.

Revd Rose used the fate of Timbuktu in Mali as an example of the devastating effects of slavery – on what was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world with its own forms of culture and religion. It was completely destroyed by the colonisation by people of another continent.  And where exploration and colonisation and exploitation went, there the church followed.  She questioned the church in Ghana, an SPG chapel,  that was built on top of caves or dungeons where they held slaves and the immorality of those praying and worshipping above, behaving as if it were the norm.  And yet we are linked by our actions,

“The chains we put on others, we too are chained by.” As illustrated in one of the quotes in the Slave Museum in Liverpool by Frederick Douglas in 1883 “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other fastened about his own neck.” “If the church is really serious about mission it can’t be in words alone, it has to be in action.”

She then cited two very poignant and powerful poems ‘Checking out me History’ by John Agard and ‘Tell them’ by Roy Mcfarlane.

The Revd Dr Daniel Justice Eshum evaluated the lives and missionary work of the Revd Thomas Thompson, the Revd Philip Quaque (two former USPG missionaries)  the Revd Thomas Freeman and Bishop Samuel Crowther to ask what lessons could be learned for 21st mission individually and from a church perspective and he made what he called “Four bold claims: 1) Mission has to interrogate the prevailing intellectual climate and be challenged by it 2) Mission should be rooted in authentic identity 3) Mission should always deploy the right personnel and  4) Mission should have a clear vision and a clear mandate.”

“Only by being rooted in the identity of God can we equally affirm others identities; we need to have confidence in our own identities.”

The Revd Winnie Varghese gave an impactful final session – inviting us to stand in that place of feeling challenged and disturbed by what we had heard, our shameful history , to face that shame and to find the tools to help ourselves and one another. She shared powerful and encouraging words about living into the future and transforming some of the continuing legacies of slavery. 

“I believe we can repair and heal the breach because the Bible shows us how and it is our job to act”.

One conference delegate, Aidan Watson wrote,

“As a culmination of the day, this was the highlight of the conference for me. Through this dwelling in the uncomfortable, we are led to confession, and subsequently God leads us into an understanding of mission that rejects superiority and instead is Christ- shaped service. Mission is so much more than convincing people to believe what I believe; the church’s mission must be shaped by God’s mission and we are to play our part in redeeming and repairing all that is broken in creation. The Rev’d Winne Varghsee provided hope that it is possible to unmake the damages of racist missionary activity; we can’t erase it, but we can break it. Quoting Frederick Douglas who said that “power concedes nothing without demand.” The conference was clear that church is to provide that demand.”

Duncan Dormor, the General Secretary of USPG emphasised the importance of truth-telling and justice alongside healing and forgiveness within the approach that Christians took to the deeply shameful history of the British slave trade. White Christians in Britain, he said, needed to reflect much more deeply on their heritage and history and its consequences; to be open to the deeply uncomfortable questions raised and to challenge the way in which the story of Wilberforce and abolitionism dominated people’s understanding without looking at what came before – or indeed the many deeply unjust and painful legacies that have followed. He pledged that USPG would continue to explore these issues and invited conference participants to join USPG in doing so, and in sharing what they had heard in parishes and communities.

For more detailed information please visit our Resources section where film footage of the speakers will be uploaded soon http://www.uspg.org.uk/resources/rethinking-mission-conference-2019/

Julia Robinson

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