Article for Current Dialogue, for the World Council of Churches conference, Busan, South Korea, 30 October to 8 November 2013
Current Dialogue 55, September 2013, pp 30-36
(Republished with permission)
In these reflections for the 2013 World Council of Churches Conference in Busan, South Korea, and its theme, ‘God of life, lead us to justice and peace’, I will be drawing on the wells of engaging in mission and dialogue in the contexts of Kenya, Cambridge, London and Dorset.
1. God of Abundant Life: African Traditional Religion and the Bible
After a four year curacy in Harlesden, a multicultural and multireligious parish in North West London, my wife and I were Church Mission Society (CMS) mission partners at St Andrew’s College, Kabare, in the foothills of Mount Kenya (1985-91). The college trained theological students, community health workers and secretaries.
From my students, colleagues and conferences, I soon learnt the significance of African Traditional Religion in the development of African Christian Theology. God is seen as the God of abundant life in Africa and he had not left himself without witness before missionaries came.
Kwame Bediako, the Ghanaian theologian, came to a conference at Kabare soon after we arrived, invited by David Gitari, the Bishop of Mount Kenya East, where we lived. The conference was entitled, ‘The Living God’. 1
My thinking about ‘religion’ – which, as a contrast to ‘faith’, had been Barthian and somewhat negative at the time – was transformed. Bediako wrote later, in his Christianity in Africa: the Renewal of a Non-Western Religion:
The cross-cultural transmission did not bring Christ into the local African situation. If that were to be the case, then, in African terms, Christ would be a disposable divinity, actually able to be taken, carried and brought…and presumably also, disposed of if not needed. The deeper insight is, however, that Christ, already present in the situation, called in His messengers so that by proclamation and incarnation, He might be made manifest. 2
I developed my thinking on this subject when asked to write an article for Anvil in a special edition on Christianity and people of other faiths, ‘Facing Mount Kenya: Reflections on the Bible and African Tradition Religion’. 3 The first section, considering the continuity of the concept of God in traditional religion and in Christianity, was entitled ‘Ngai or ngai?’. Should the Kikuyu name for God begin with a capital letter or a small letter? I argued for a capital letter.
The second section looked at ‘inculturation’ with the heading ‘The Treasures and Wealth of the Nations’, drawing on the vision of Revelation 21:24-27 and the liturgies of traditional African prayers. 4
The third section was on ‘confrontation’ and headed ‘Theological Fornication’, a provocative phrase of Lesslie Newbigin’s, in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, 5 on the line between ‘inculturation’ and ‘syncretism’. It drew on the warnings of the prophets against Baal worship and considered four ways in which biblical writers were forced to deal theologically with ‘pagan gods’ and how this is reflected in Kenya: continuity (Yahweh is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Exodus 6:3); denial of their existence (Elijah and Deutero-Isaiah); demotion (de-deified as sons of God or angels, part of God’s world-wide administration); and finally, and less commonly, demonization (the Hebrew sedim of Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 is translated in the Septuagint by daimonioi, a disparaging term for other people’s gods.
The fourth section dealt with ‘salvation’ and was entitled ‘Extra Regnum Nulla Salus’ (‘Outside the Kingdom there is no Salvation’): this developed as a contrast to Cyprian’s phrase ‘Extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ (‘Outside the Church there is no Salvation).
I posited five responses which I considered to be biblically inadequate: the denial of God’s judgement (‘universalism’); the denial that God’s judgement is just (ie condemnation by geography or chronology – judged in effect by being born in a place, or at a time, before the coming of the good news of Christ); the denial of the distinction between the people of God and of the world (conflating ‘covenant’ and ‘image of God’ language); the development of the Logos/Cosmic Christ doctrine (where sometimes ‘universality’ shifts into ‘universalism’); and finally ‘justification by works’ (eg ‘if you are a good Muslim, you will be saved’).
Positively, I developed four responses which I considered reflected both the trajectory of the Scriptures and the context of Kenya. First, the numerous individuals in the Bible outside the covenant, who knew God. Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro, Baalam, Rahab, Job, Naaman, the Magi etc were all important pointers to God’s grace. Second, the position of the patriarchs. Abraham died before Christ but his faith in God illustrates and is equated with our faith God and his Christ. Third, the surprises of the kingdom. The book of Jonah, Jesus’ parables of the messianic feast where people are welcomed from East and West, and of the sheep and the goats. Fourth, the crisis of the kingdom. The ‘but now’s of the Gospels and Acts eg ‘the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands everyone to repent’ Acts 17:30, also Romans 3:21 and 25. The gospel of the kingdom brings out people’s real response to God, which is already hidden deep in their hearts.
2. God of Academic Life: Mission and the Meeting of Faiths
In 1992 I was appointed the first Henry Martyn Lecturer in Mission Studies in the Cambridge Theological Federation, teaching ecumenically in the four theological colleges (two Anglican, one Methodist and one United Reformed), and also was an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity. A part time theological course, a Roman Catholic women’s institute, an Orthodox institute, and a Dialogue Institute also joined the Federation.
While founding the Henry Martyn Centre for the study of Mission and world Christianity 6 at Westminster College as an Associate Institute of the Federation, I also studied for a Utrecht University PhD which became Christianity Connected: Hindus, Muslims and the World in the Letters of Max Warren and Roger Hooker. 7
When Warren was General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (1942-63), he played key roles in the conferences of the International Missionary Council, wrote significant books 8 and edited the ‘Christian Presence’ series, which included the following famous insight, in the general introduction to each volume:
Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival. 9
Warren also wrote a monthly CMS News-letter which had a circulation of about 14,000 around the world. It was read by diplomats and politicians as well as by missionaries and supporters of mission. He reflected on new books, the contexts of mission in Africa and Asia and on geopolitics. From 1963 to 1973 he was a Canon and sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey. I studied Warren’s weekly correspondence with his son-in-law in India, Roger Hooker, who was learning Sanskrit at Varanasi and was engaged in regular grass-roots dialogue with Hindu and Muslim friends. Hooker later became the Bishop of Birmingham’s Adviser for Inter-Faith Relations based in the inner-city area of Smethwick. They wrote to each other from 1965 till Warren’s death in 1977 and developed a theology of mission and a theology of religion by letter. It seemed to me that Warren was continuing his News-letters in a new style and was being pushed on theological issues by a familial member. I found the letters by both Warren and Hooker to be a gold mine. 10
I summarized the theology of religion developed by Warren and Hooker as generous, capacious and realistic:
It is generous in that they saw the best in people of other faiths (rather than the worst) and also in that they wanted to share the wonderful riches of God’s grace shown in Christ (rather than keeping that news only within the Christian community). It is capacious in that their theology had room enough for insights about God revealed in the wisdom of other faiths and their concept of eternal life was large enough to include countless people of other faiths. It is realistic in that they did not close their eyes to historical, political and theological clashes that have taken place between Christians, Muslims and Hindus and in that Hooker’s practical experience of close friendships informed their ‘corresponding’ theology. 11
This theology of religion reflected the CMS tradition developed by Temple Gairdner, Constance Padwick, Kenneth Cragg and John V Taylor.
Temple Gairdner (1873-1928), was a CMS missionary in Cairo from 1899 and the author of Edinburgh 1910: An Account and Interpretation of the World Missionary Conference, and the pioneering The Reproach of Islam, which he later retitled, The Rebuke of Islam. 12
Constance Padwick (1886-1968) was one of the leading British women missionaries in the twentieth century. She made her way in the Middle East through her own initiative, having been rejected by CMS, but was in very close liaison with various CMS personnel. She wrote biographies of Henry Martyn and Temple Gairdner and published a collection of Muslim prayers. 13
Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012) was never technically a CMS missionary. He served in the Lebanon, taught at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, was an Assistant Bishop in Jerusalem, a Reader at the University of Sussex, and Warden of St Augustine’s College, Canterbury. His book, The Call of the Minaret had a profound influence on mission and dialogue. 14
John V Taylor (1914-2001), having served in Uganda, succeeded Warren as General Secretary of CMS (1963-74) and then was consecrated Bishop of Winchester (1975-85). His major works on the theology of religion were The Primal Vision, The Go-Between God, and a seminal essay ‘The Theological Basis of Interfaith Dialogue’. 15 Warren described Taylor in a letter to his daughter Pat Hooker dated 26 April 1973:
He is head and shoulders spiritually and mentally above any of his contemporaries and is one of the few Anglicans with a capacity for seeing 6 feet in front of his nose and then a little more. What is more he doesn’t possess the peculiar Anglican Ecclesiastical squint which gets virtually every important issue out of focus. 16
In a letter to me, dated 27 July 1997, Taylor wrote:
The historic Christ, the Logos fully revealed, comes as a story that must be told and an image reflected in other human lives – but he does not come as a stranger. He has been there all along, but his footprints were not on the most frequented paths and he is recognized as a face seen in half-forgotten dreams like that of the Suffering Messiah foreshadowed in the Old Testament but neglected in the on-going tradition of Judaism. He comes to his own in the other faiths in another way also, in that he, the Logos incarnate once for all in Jesus of Nazareth, matches the need and fulfils the promise of each traditional world-view as though he had emerged from within it with no less relevance than he did within Judaism. We who stand outside the other traditions may only guess how this may be. 17
From Cambridge I moved to be involved in front line mission again, in a parish in London.
3. God of Urban Life: Amidst Terror, Justice and Peace
Praying for justice and peace to the God of life, in the midst of death, is not easy. I was vicar of St Mary’s Church, Islington near the centre of London, from 2000 to 2009. Islamist bombs were detonated on London Underground trains in July 2005. The route of the Number 30 bus, which was also blown up in Tavistock Square, went past the church.
As I reflected on this atrocity, lines from T S Eliot's The Dry Salvages, part of his Four Quartets, came to mind:
...To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road. 18
I wondered how we should begin to respond as Christians to this 'distress of nations and perplexity on the shores of Asia and in the Edgware Road'? Edgware Road is an underground station in west London where one of the bombs was detonated.
The Sunday after the bombings, I preached on ‘London Bombings: Warning and Support’ which developed into the first Newsletter of Fulcrum, an online evangelical Anglican journal, of which I was theological secretary. 19
The warnings were: we are called not to hate Muslims; not to hate terrorist bombers; not to ignore theology; not to scatter blame everywhere; and not to overreact with draconian legislation.
The suggestions of Christian support were: Jesus’ response to the Zealots (non-violent peace); Jesus’ response to the Samaritans (dialogue); support for the Police and the Judiciary (justice); support for youth clubs (education); support from the heart (prayer).
This was the prayer we prayed on that Sunday:
Creator and Judge of all,
through the death of your only Son,
you know tragedy and loss.
We pray for those mourning the death of loved ones
killed in the London bombings,
for the wounded in hospital,
for the doctors and nurses,
for the firemen and transport workers,
for the police and intelligence services:
grant them your healing presence, insight and courage.
We pray also for those who planned and planted the bombs:
turn their hearts to peace and bring them to justice,
through him who prayed for his enemies,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In November 2001, after the Al Quaeda attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington, we had held a civic service. Kristin Bruess, an American member of St Mary’s, read out the list of nationalities of people who had died. I interviewed Musa Admani, the Imam ‘chaplain’ at London Metropolitan University: he was very perceptive. After the 7/7 bombings in 2005, I invited Musa to lead a discussion group at St Mary’s about Muslim responses to the bombings and again later interviewed him during a service. We were struck by how the present Islamic context was similar to pre-Reformation England. Musa was trying to encourage younger Muslim students to get to know the text of the Qur’an in English translations. A former student testified to becoming more moderate as a Muslim, once he had studied the text of the Qur’an, rather than relying on what he was told by his leaders the Qur’an said. 20
I was also involved in a Shiite-Anglican dialogue in Maida Vale, the first ‘Vicars and Imams’ conference in Britain and in the Network for Inter Faith Concerns (NIFCON) of the Anglican Communion. In 2008, NIFCON published an Anglican theology of inter faith relations, Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue. 21 Later that year, I led a seminar on salvation and people of other faiths at the Lambeth Conference.
4. God of Rural Life: Education for Dialogue, Justice and Peace
Since 2009 I have been Bishop of Sherborne in the Diocese of Salisbury, focusing in particular on the county of Dorset, in South West England. There are not many people of other faiths in this part of England but I have given a lecture at Bournemouth University on inter faith issues and will be speaking later this year at a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews in Bournemouth.
Doing theology as a bishop, as well as writing it, often turns out to be exhilarating. At the end of November 2011, I chaired an extraordinary study day with 300 sixth-formers from four Sherborne Schools: The Gryphon, Sherborne Boys, Sherborne Girls and Leweston School. 22 We welcomed Peter Kosminsky, 23 the film Director and considered the issues of Israel-Palestine, 24 through clips from his Channel Four series, ‘The Promise’. 25
The film interweaves the history of Britain’s involvement in the founding of the State of Israel with current events, seen through the eyes of Erin, an 18-year-old girl retracing events in her grandfather’s diary. Aired over four 100-minute episodes in the spring of 2011, it explores the little-known experiences of British soldiers serving in Palestine in 1947-48 and confronts the troubled present-day reality in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
We were joined by Rabbi Danny Rich, from London, and the Senior Lecturer in computer animation from Bournemouth University, Dr Hammadi Nait-Charif. 26
The fascinating questions – many of them unexpected - ranged across the fields of religion, politics and the creative arts. The workshops in the afternoon and the final plenary panel were deeply moving. That evening at Sherborne Abbey, we had an Advent Carol Service with a difference. 27 It included readings in Hebrew and Arabic, (with translations) and a song in Aramaic, the mother-tongue of Jesus of Nazareth.
Future discussions with sixth formers will include Nicholas Mercer, curate at Gillingham, Dorset, and former senior legal officer of the British Forces in Iraq. In November 2011, he had been awarded the Human Rights Lawyer of the year award, by Liberty. 28
In July this year, the Diocese of Salisbury and the Episcopal Church of Sudan celebrated 40 years of their partnership-in-mission link. On 9 July 2011, during the Independence Day celebrations in Juba, I sat next to Shik Juma Said Ali, a South Sudanese Imam who was one of those leading prayers at the celebrations: we had long discussions about the just call for Independence from the Republic of Sudan in the north and hopes for peace in the new country. Like many Muslims in the South, he was delighted at the new birth of South Sudan. 29
These experiences of mission and dialogue in African, academic, urban and rural contexts, I have found energizing and transforming. May the God of life, indeed, lead all those present at the World Council of Churches conference further into his reign of justice and peace, centred on Jesus Christ, in the power of his Holy Spirit.
1 D M Gitari and G P Benson (eds), The Living God (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1987).
2 Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Edinburgh and Maryknoll: Edinburgh University Press and Orbis Books, 1995), p. 226.
3 Graham Kings, ‘Facing Mount Kenya: Reflections on the Bible and African Traditional Religion’ Anvil 1987, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 127-143. Robert S Heaney has reflected perceptively on this theme in his recent Oxford DPhil thesis ‘Culture, Context and Theology: The Emergence of an African Theology in the writings of John S Mbiti and Jesse N K Mugambi’ (2013).
4 This developed later into Graham Kings and Geoff Morgan, Offerings from Kenya to Anglicanism: Liturgical Texts and Contexts (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2001).
5 Lesslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda (London: SPCK, 1985), p. 244.
6 http://www.martynmission.cam.ac.uk/ 2012 was the bicentenary of the death of Henry Martyn (1812) and I was invited to give a lecture in the Faculty of Divinity, ‘Henry Martyn: Missionary Scholar for our Age’ http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/699
7 Graham Kings, Christianity Connected: Hindus, Muslims and the World in the Letters of Max Warren and Roger Hooker (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 2002).
8 Eg Max Warren, Caesar the Beloved Enemy (London: Highway Press, 1955); Partnership (London: SCM Press, 1955).
99 Max Warren, general introduction to the Christian Presence series in Kenneth Cragg, Sandals at the Mosque (London: SCM Press, 1959) pp. 9-10.
10 The originals may be read in the University of Birmingham and copies in the Henry Martyn Centre, Cambridge. Annotated selections are published in Christianity Connected.
11Christianity Connected, p. 147.
12 W H T Gairdner, Edinburgh 1910: An Account and Interpretation of the World Missionary Conference (Edinburgh and London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1910); The Reproach of Islam (London: CMS, 1911); The Rebuke of Islam (London: United Council for Missionary Education, 1920).
13 Constance Padwick, Temple Gairdner of Cairo (London: SPCK, 1929); Henry Martyn: Confessor of the Faith (London: SCM Press, 1923); Muslim Devotions (London: SPCK, 1961 and Oxford: One World, 1996). Catriona Laing wrote a recent Cambridge PhD thesis on Constance Padwick.
14 Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1956 and London: Collins, 1985).
15 John V Taylor, The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion (London: SCM Press, 1963); The Go-between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (London: SCM Press, 1972); ‘The Theological Basis of Interfaith Dialogue’ International Review of Mission 1979 , Vol. 68, pp. 373-384.
16 Cited in Graham Kings, ‘Mission and the Meeting of Faiths: The Theologies of Max Warren and John V Taylor’ in Kevin Ward and Brian Stanley (eds), The Church Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799-1999 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 285-318.
17 Cited in Kings, ‘Mission and the Meeting of Faiths’ p. 309 and in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams (compilers), Loves Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 714.
18 T S Eliot, The Dry Salvages (London: Faber and Faber, 1941), p. 14, and later in Four Quartets, (London: Faber and Faber, 1944) and The Complete Poems and Plays of T S Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. 189.
19 Graham Kings, ‘London Bombings: Warning and Support’, http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/?1
20 Graham Kings, ‘Worship on Upper Street, Islington’ in Tim Stratford (ed.), Worship: Window of the Urban Church (London: SPCK, 2006), pp. 74-86.
21 Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns, Generous Love: the truth of the Gospel and the call to dialogue (London: Anglican Consultative Council, 2008) http://nifcon.anglicancommunion.org/resources/documents/generous_love_A4_with_foreward.pdf
24 A documentary DVD, produced by Jon Pullman, was made of the study day at Sherborne, ‘A Heartfelt Wish: An Interfaith Search for Justice in Israel-Palestine’ (Jews for Justice for Palestinians, 2012): http://jfjfp.com/?p=34938
29 Graham Kings, ‘South Sudan, The Promised Land’ The Guardian, 18 July 2011 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/jul/18/south-sudan-leaders-of-africa For a photo gallery of Independence Day, see http://www.salisbury.anglican.org/gallery-1/sudan-independence-2011