Our Theology of Mission
HOW WE UNDERSTAND OUR MISSION
ECM has understood from its foundation that its mission is to work with and for those that are left at the margins of society.
In the early 1800s pious Episcopalians sought to reach out to those who were called “street people,” teaching Sunday School to poor children in a corner of Atlantic Avenue, working with troubled youth, single mothers, sailors, and other populations that did not feel very much at home in the affluent environment and culture of the Episcopal churches.
More recently, the call to work with and for the lost, the least and the last has taken the form of a commitment to address the root causes of poverty and oppression by working for structural transformation of society. In the last thirty years ECM has pursued this mission through program related investments (such as through the Housing Seed Loan Fund, the Morville House and the Pelham Fund), through the empowerment of urban congregations (Churches in the Neighborhoods and City Programs); through community organizing (the Urban Fund/Burgess Urban Fund); and through public policy advocacy. So, how do we understand this mission?
First: ECM is, as its name indicates, an EPISCOPAL mission. This means that ECM’s work is framed primarily by Anglican theology of mission (missiology). This missiology begins with the missio Dei (God’s mission) and seeks to understand and to incarnate what God sends us to do in the world (missio is the Latin form for the verb to send). To be in mission, in the Anglican sense (as well as in the ecumenical sense in general) is, first of all, to be sent by God to do God’s work in the world. The word co-mission, means to be in mission with… The church is commissioned by Christ: “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” (Jn.20.21). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus defines his mission by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk.4.18). So, the mission is not ours, we do not have a mission; we are invited into God’s mission.
Second: ECM’s mission, as a Christian mission, and in particular as an Episcopal mission, is incarnational, i.e., it seeks to flesh out concrete measures of the goodness and grace that God intends for all humanity. This means that we need to discern what is within our reach to do in our time in order to make human life more human in our context. Facts matter: data matter; sociological, economic, and political analyses do matter.
Third: Since its reorganization in the 1960s under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. John Burgess, former ECM Superintended and Diocesan Bishop, the Episcopal City Mission has moved away from its previous orientation toward charity work and has re-focused its mission on social structural change. In the 1960s this focus was an expression of the theology of the social gospel. With the emergence of Latin American, Black, and Feminist theologies of liberation in the 1970s and 1980s, ECM adopted strategies consistent with those movements, especially in the area of grass roots organizing and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. Another result of the liberation movements was greater awareness and intentional affirmation of diversity in the life of ECM. (The framing our mission in terms of the needs of the “urban poor and oppressed” is an intentional embrace of the language of the “preferential option for the poor” articulated by Liberation Theology.)
WORDS OF CAUTION
First: A major mark of the transition from the social gospel to liberation theology was a shift from the assumption that the church(es) can tell the world what is good and right (the basic premise of the social gospel movement) to a more modest approach that includes the acknowledgement (the confession) that the church — in general — has been equally guilty of perpetuating social injustice. Liberation theologians called the churches to exercise both, criticism ad extra (i.e., a critical reflection on the ills of the world) and criticism ad intra (i.e., a critical reflection on the role(s) that churches play in the ills of society — or self-criticism). One concrete manifestation of this dual critical reflection was the conviction that it is those who have been the victims of church and society that need to redefine the agendas of social transformation. In Latin America this took place through the base ecclesial communities… In the US the civil rights movement was supported (and led) by some church leaders but most progressive organizing happened outside the churches — especially outside the white churches. ECM was not an exception. In the 1980s, Joe Pelham and the ECM board found more space to work with secular grass roots organizations than within most churches. ECM’s institutional and legal structure, however, remained untouched and ECM continued to belong to the parishes of this diocese. So, even though, in the 1990s, the word “Christian” was dropped from ECM’s mission statement, the statement still affirmed that ECM works through “parishes, community organizations and individuals.” That connection to parishes needs to be reactivated if ECM is to have integrity in the fulfillment of this mission statement.
Second: Another criticism ad intra: In a Fall boardretreat designed to review ECM’s theology of mission and values the retreat facilitator led the board in a day-long process of discernment based on meditation and reflection on Scripture. From that process Micah 6.8 emerged as one of the best expressions of ECM’s call:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”
The emerging consensus was that ECM is here to work for justice. From time to time, however, we hear someone questioning (criticism ad intra) this notion that we actually work for justice. At the time of the previous strategic planning, some churches expressed discomfort with the name of a previous project called “From charity to justice” for two reasons: (a) they thought that churches should do both, work for charity and for justice; and (b) people felt that it is quite arrogant for any one to claim that what they pursue (versus what others pursue) is justice. The concern is that “justice” is such a high goal that it is virtually unattainable within the realm of society in which we live. So, perhaps, we need to pay attention to the third requirement of Micah 6.8: to “walk humbly with God.” Then, perhaps we will be more modest in our claims and more truthful in our expectations. It was not suggested that we drop the language about seeking justice but that we do not deceive ourselves by thinking that we are actually doing it. Another Hebrew prophet, the Third Isaiah was blunt on this: “We have all become like one who is unclean and our works of justice are like filthy rags…” (Is. 64.6) (Or, as long- term board member The Reverend Canon Ed Rodman likes to remind his friends: “never believe your own propaganda.”) Micah’s proclamation is a call to work for justice (structural social change) at the same that we “love mercy” (do not despise or neglect charity) and walk humbly with God (be guided by a life of worship). Without the modesty that comes from a life of spiritual humbleness, we are tempted to appropriate the call to “do justice” without regard to mercy and confuse our pet projects with God’s perfect designs.
Third: A word about “theology of mission” and “mission statements:” In business marketing, a mission statement is designed to focus the resources of a corporation in order to maximize its performance. This is significantly different from a theological understanding of mission because God’s people are not called to be successful selling a product but to be faithful to God in all dimensions of life and life is complex. (Also: diversity is good for life in community as well as smart investing.) Marketers use surveys to make their products correspond to peoples’ tastes and preferences. Christian mission, however, is guided by values that precede us and that we believe will outlive us — not the volatile whims of a given market or culture. In fact, the prophetic call to justice was (and is) counter-cultural. The two cautions here are: (a) as much as we need to focus in order to be effective, we should not be caught in an “iron cage” of a one-dimensional alignment of all our resources and activities (diversity is good for community life and for investments and it is good also for Christian mission); we need to be nimble and ready to respond to opportunities; and(b) our strategy is defined primarily by the Christian values on which ECM is founded and not by the latest demands of the market or the culture.
values that inform ECM’s work
- ECM is here as a Christian witness in the city
- ECM is here for the least, the lost and the last
- ECM is here as a prophetic voice for social structural change
- ECM is here as an agent of the Episcopal churches
- ECM is here as an agent of hope
Why are values important?Jesus said:
“where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt.6.21)