Opinion: Vision 2019 in the context of the Marks of Mission

The Ven. Michael Thompson is rector at St. Jude’s Oakville in the Diocese of Niagara and Chair of the Communications and Information Resources Committee. He was one of the authors of the Vision 2019 report. This article first appeared in the Niagara Anglican.

At the General Synod next month, members will consider a strategic plan for the national life of our church for the next nine years—”Vision 2019.” In an online introduction to the plan, Dean Peter Elliott of New Westminster identifies the Anglican Communion’s five “Marks of Mission” as a critical dimension of the “vision” in Vision 2019.

For Vision 2019 to take hold across the whole church, those Marks of Mission will need to become a set of lenses through which we explore our various ministries as servants in the mission of God. Adopted by the Anglican Consultative Council (the only one of the four “Instruments of Communion” that isn’t entirely made up of bishops), the Marks of Mission are emerging into the life of our church, offering the prospect of a renewed and focused commitment to participate in the work that God is doing to save and transform the world. Just as the baptismal covenant invites persons into a covenant partnership with God in companionship with the apostolic community, so the Marks of Mission invite that community into reflection and action that enact that covenant partnership in our common life.

The first of the Marks of Mission, “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom”, invites us to take up the proclaiming work that Jesus himself takes up in his baptism. In Matthew we hear that proclamation first from the lips of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And following his baptism and desert trial, those self-same words are the first words of Jesus’ public ministry. The Marks of Mission invite the church to begin our ministry where Jesus began his, with proclamation that another way—the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, a New Creation—has become an available choice within history, and not just a hope for the eternal future. As in our baptismal covenant we promise to “proclaim in word and action the Good News of God in Christ”, so in the Marks of Mission we learn that our word of proclamation follows the pattern of the One into whose discipleship we are baptized.

The second of the Marks of Mission (or, in Mississippi steamboat lingo, “Mark Twain”), “To teach, baptize and nurture new believers”, recognizes that discipleship is not passed down with christening gowns and family customs from one generation to another. It is, rather, the work of the church to foster discipleship, to teach the way of Jesus, to invoke the Holy Spirit’s power to graft new members into the living, working Body of Christ, and to nourish the baptized in body, mind and spirit to live as followers of Jesus and fellow-servants with him of the mission of God.

“To respond to human need with loving service” the third of the Marks of Mission, calls to mind the admonition of Jesus, which many of us hear each Maundy Thursday, that those who receive the servant ministry of Jesus become fellow-servants with him. As the Word kneels at our feet in creation, and incarnate in Jesus kneels once more to redeem his disciples, to return to them the grace and gladness of the servant life, we catch a glimpse not only of what God is doing for us, but of what God seeks to do through us.

In the liturgy of baptism, candidates are asked, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” The fourth of the Marks of Mission, “To seek to transform the unjust structures of society”, invites the church to consider how those evil powers work through structures. The structures we create are always subject to the sin that can blind us and bind us, even when we honestly intend them to serve the common good. Not many generations ago, our own church honestly intended to serve the common good through participation in the federal government’s “Indian Residential Schools”.  Even the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus cried out from transformation from a place where elites hid their greed behind a fog of piety—”den of thieves”—to a place in which the mission of God—God’s equity, justice, and reconciliation—could be celebrated, strengthened and renewed.” Unable as we are to fashion structures to shape and govern our common life in the fullness of God’s justice, we commit ourselves to the continuing transformative work of vigilance—what Archbishop Michael Peers call “endless vistas of bother”. In the very moment in which we say, “I can’t be bothered,” this Mark of Mission meets us and challenges us to let ourselves be bothered by those who are left over, left out and left behind by the way we have ordered our society’s life.

Finally, the Marks of Mission include this fifth challenge: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” As the failure of our stewardship of creation generates more and more calamitous consequences, the Marks of Mission recall us to God’s first mandate in Genesis 2, as humankind is set in the garden “to tend and keep it.” We are woven purposefully into the life of creation by the will of the creator, and our abandonment of that purpose for “the devices and desires of our own hearts” is a dimension of our sinfulness whose costs are becoming increasingly evident.

The Marks of Mission are marks of alignment with the missio Dei, the mission that God initiates. It is God who proclaims an alternate ethic, “the land that I will show you (Abram), the peaceable Kingdom (Isaiah), the valley of renewal (Ezekiel), the Kingdom of God, the New Creation. It is God the Holy Spirit who grafts us into the Body of Christ in Baptism, and who teaches us through scripture, tradition and reason the truth of our human purpose and dignity, and of the sin that blinds us and binds us. It is God the Word incarnate who kneels and washes the feet of the disciples. It is God who resonates through Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah to call to account those who exploit unjust structures rather than working for their transformation. It is God who cares for creation and calls into being a woman and a man to be partners in that care. The ministry of the church is to discern the shape and scope of God’s mission in and for the world, and to join in the work that God is already doing, has been doing since “In the beginning”. We need no mission statement of our own, nothing more than our baptism and the landmarks made known in scripture and in the work of the Spirit bringing scripture to life among us.

The faithful discipleship to which the Marks of Mission call us can be derailed in a rich variety of ways. Two are, perhaps, the most common. First, the mission of God can be reduced to a propositional rescue transaction by which some members of the human creation, disposed to affirm “orthodox” propositions, are saved, while the rest of creation, including those indisposed for whatever reason to affirm those propositions, are discarded. Creation, lovingly called into being by God, is treated as nothing more than a stage banged together for the drama of self-righteousness. And this life, sanctified by the Incarnation and by the Spirit’s breath and Pentecostal fire, is nothing more than a global study hall for an exam that a few will pass and most will fail.

The other way that we derail discipleship is by imagining that the mission of God and the maintenance of an institution are so congruent that to ensure the latter is to serve the former. Mission precedes church, and has already outlasted many institutional forms. As Tim Dearborn puts it, “It isn’t that the church of God has a mission, but that the God of mission has a church.” When Jesus speaks in Luke 17 of those who seek to save their lives losing them, and of those willing to lose their lives for the purpose of God saving them, he speaks not just to persons, but also to the community of the baptized, inviting us to thrive as an agency of the divine work instead of melting away in a self-absorbed institutional failure of nerve.

As Vision 2019 passes through the hands of the General Synod, it may well become a vision for the whole church. That is something the General Synod can urge, but not something it can accomplish. In the communities of the baptized that gather across this diocese, we can decide whether and how that vision will become real in our ministry, in how we see ourselves through the lens of the Marks of Mission, and in the courage and imagination we bring to enacting them in our life together.

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