Ah, the joys of being an Episcopal priest in the Bible Belt. Never shall its thrill wane, I suspect.
The latest wave of joy springs from a conversation with a man who works closely with me in ministry under the aegis our local Episcopal parish. He and I both have a good friend who is a kind of “missionary,” among many kinds of missionaries in East Texas. (Surely we in East Texas boast the highest per capita density of missionaries in the US.)
Our friend finds it objectionable and offensive that our Episcopal Church has no foreign missions pastor or committee or budget.
At a certain level, that makes sense. After all, I too grew up in an evangelical, Bible Belt culture. I vividly remember the first time I ever put money into an offering plate at my family’s Bible church: two silver dollars, after a slide-show missionary presentation, to support a missionary working on the other side of the globe.
However, there are many good reasons why Episcopal Churches, in the main, do not have these kinds of structures. Today I mention only two: historical consciousness and global communion.
First, historical consciousness. Ever wondered why most Roman Catholic churches in American don’t have “missions pastors?” Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they don’t see themselves as the “Mother Ship” of their church, which after all was established 2000 years in Rome. And I’m not referring to Rome, Texas.
American Roman Catholic churches see themselves as the mission field, themselves as the result of missionary efforts (from the other side of the Atlantic, not to it). The real missionary control center of the Catholic Church is in Rome, or perhaps in the headquarters / cathedral of each diocese, but not at the local church. Only American evangelicals (and some mainline Protestant liberals) see America as the Mother Ship, the sending center from which the conversion of the heathen issues forth.
Secondly, and related, global communion. How does one explain the shocking and horrendous fact that virtually no American Episcopal Church raises up and sends missionaries to, for example, Nigeria? Maybe it is because Nigeria has 25,000,000 Anglicans who love and worship Jesus. That’s more than twelve times the amount in the states. And while the numbers vary, similar things could be said about Japan, the Middle East, and Asia.
The American Episcopal Church is one of 38 global Anglican provinces, among whom are numbered the Church of Kenya, the Church of Australia, the Church of the Southern Cone in South America. Should we be sending missionaries to those countries? In the main the Anglican tradition has answered questions like this in the negative. In fact, historically Anglicans have refused to send missionaries to lands that already have a Christian presence. (So for example, there have never been Anglican missionaries in Russia.)
To my mind, there are two fundamentally different ways of being Christian. There is the American Evangelical way (based in many assumptions which are typically American), and there is the historical catholic way (with many habits, convictions, and quirks rooted in the past). This issue of foreign missions is a case in point.