At the Edinburgh 2010 closing celebration. Photo: Gary Doak/Edinburgh 2010

At the Edinburgh 2010 closing celebration. Photo: Gary Doak/Edinburgh 2010

by Theodore Gill (*)

“Take your stumbling-blocks, and turn them into stepping-stones.” This was the well-known personal byword of Christian statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate John R. Mott (1865-1955). Mott, a Methodist layman from the United States, was a key organizer of the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910.

As some 300 delegates from over 60 countries and virtually all Christian traditions made their way home from Edinburgh 2010, a 2-6 June convocation held to honour the centenary of Edinburgh 1910 and consider means of witnessing to Christ today, visions of stumbling blocks and stepping stones were easy to conjure.

"Edinburgh 2010 has opened up a vision for common work and further cooperation between mission organizations and churches from different traditions", says Jacques Matthey, a Swiss theologian who for many years has been a leading figure in the World Council of Churches’ work on mission and evangelism.

"Whilst Christian mission in the 21st century has been marked by conflict, the Edinburgh 2010 process opens up the promise to bring about an era of new relationships in mission between various traditions of world Christianity", says Matthey. "We have seen that a different way to relate to each other is possible." If only because of that, the conference is "an important step towards wider forms of unity in mission".

On the other hand, Matthey acknowledges that Edinburgh 2010 was not fully representative of world Christianity. "The youth, the global South and neo-charismatic or independent groups among others were not sufficiently represented", he says. In addition to that, as some Pentecostal participants have pointed out, there was too much academic language and not enough narrative contributions from the South.

However, Matthey still finds as a "legitimate source of joy the enormous breadth of participation" that marked Edinburgh 2010. The wide spectrum of churches, denominations and mission traditions united around the project – which included Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent traditions – made it "the most representative of the diversity of world Christianity today".

For Matthey, the conference's Common Call "carries some significant theological content". To highlight but a few elements, Matthey points out "the understanding of Christian mission as God's mission in the world; the idea that mission involves the whole of life including God's creation; the importance given to the role of the Holy Spirit; the space of youth and children in mission; and the value of cooperation and mutual welcome between churches".

“Mutual acceptance and appreciation”

On Sunday 6 June, after the end of a three-hour closing celebration in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly Hall, where the historic 1910 gathering took place, four panelists who were involved in the 2010 conference shared their opinions of conference outcomes as well as questions they have been left to ponder.

Rose Dowsett of Glasgow, Scotland, one of the planners of the Edinburgh 2010 study process, said she found Edinburgh 2010 “unique and historic” because of the scope of its inclusion and the extent to which participants had “found ways we could work together” in bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. “We are in agreement that the news of Jesus Christ is good news, and it is for all people. I hope we can carry this away with us.”

Dowsett, who is vice-moderator of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)’s mission commission, observed that Edinburgh 2010 did not create a “continuation committee” as was the case in 1910 because there is “no intention for a long-term institutional life this time.”

However, she emphasized that individual comments on reports of the conference and local or regional groups’ contributions arising from the process will continue to be received and reviewed, particularly through discussion on the conference website.

José Lopez Vázquez, a Latin American youth delegate, detected hesitancy on the part of participants to raise controversial topics during the four days of discussion. He cited gender, sexuality and restorative justice as issues that had been largely avoided. “This was a very nice attempt to reunite around mission,” he said, “but people didn’t really engage seriously, sometimes. They were afraid.”

Lopez Vázquez also protested the dominance of the English language in the proceedings, pointing out that representation from regions of the world is sure to remain unbalanced unless problems of translation can be overcome.

The remaining members of Sunday’s panel were the Anglican archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti.

Archbishop Conti expressed hope for the future of Christian mission undertaken in a spirit of unity. He felt strongly encouraged by the way in which participants had been "looking together at the way we could act effectively in witnessing to Christ today”. He strongly endorsed the Common Call of the conference as a statement of principles.

Archbishop Sentamu also spoke of the challenge to Christian mission that arises from the flawed, human character of the faithful themselves. Those who fully come to accept people who are different from themselves often lose standing in their own communities. He observed, “a rediscovery of our common humanity is something we do not easily respect.”

For Sentamu, the establishment of unity among human beings, including the members of diverse church traditions, is never a matter of “a cheap or costless compromise”. The intricacies of ecumenical dialogue are bound to occupy theologians over time, but they ultimately will lead to "a meeting in the truth of the gospel", said the archbishop, quoting the late Pope John Paul II. Meanwhile, he added, “We need to be able to pray for one another.”

“The end and the beginning”

Encouragement to exercise loving hospitality towards others and humility in Christian outreach formed the refrains of Edinburgh 2010’s closing celebration, which was attended by more than a thousand worshippers gathered at the same venue as the 1910 groundbreaking World Missionary Conference: the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, set on The Mound near Edinburgh Castle and St Giles Cathedral.

Archbishop Sentamu preached the sermon. “Human activity only begets human activity. The prophetic Word and the Spirit make us live,” he said. His voice echoed with an evangelizing passion that recalled preachers of the past who spoke in the same space.

John R. Mott, who was elected chairman of the continuation committee established by the 1910 conference, famously began his final speech at that gathering: “The end of the conference is the beginning of the conquest. The end of the planning is the beginning of the doing.” Yet Mott was no stranger to obstacles when it came to mission and Christian unity.

He saw plans for the International Missionary Council tragically delayed in the decade following Edinburgh 1910 because of the turmoil of the great war of 1914-18. A generation later, the formation of the World Council of Churches was similarly stalled by the devastation of the Second World War.

And yet Mott could be relied upon to implore his colleagues to find ways of turning “stumbling-blocks into stepping-stones”. Surely this is also Mott’s message for Christians of the 21st century.

[1,146 words]

(*) Theodore Gill is senior editor of WCC Publications in Geneva and a minister ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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