Friday, 11 December 2009

Can the west be converted?

This morning at prayers Theodore Gill read an extended passage from Lesslie Newbigin's essay "Can the West be converted?". Earlier in the week our general secretary Samuel Kobia in his valedictory sermon remembered Newbigin who would have been 100 on 8 December.
I was fortunate to have been taught mission by Lesslie - though as is the way of youth I was not entirely convinced that this was a privilege at the time! I was very sure about the church's role in politics (this was in the midst of Thatcherism), I was also not at all convinced by the anti-enlightenment agenda that Newbigin seemed to pushing at the time - we used to have quite animated discussions about this at West Midlands Synod meetings. He was always polite, errudite and attentive - and very good company as well as being much more left wing than I expected! (His son was writing speeches at the time for Neil Kinnock the then leader of the labour party.) He found it a bit surprising that most of those interested in his ideas in those days were on the evangelical wing of the church.
Having been "away" from what might be termed home for nearly 20 years now I can sympathise better with some of his displacement problems. Missionaries go home and find neither the church they had left behind - yet taken with them in their heart and memory - nor do they find the vibrancy of the church they discovered and served in the mission field. Lesslie served in retirement at Winson Green URC - an urban priority area with a very multicultural population and quite extreme poverty. That humbles me - that was the sort of area I was intending to serve in and somehow I seem to have ended up in one of the richest parts of the world talking alot about poverty and justice ...
When he moved back to the UK Lesslie began his retirement by reading the whole of Barth's Dogmatics - something for Dr B to look forward to perhaps (however, Barth will not be the book on my desert island!).
Listening to what was read this morning I was struck by how very reasonable what he said seemed - and doubtless how wrong I had been ... 25 years on the tectonic plates in the church in the west have really moved and the resonance of the need to take the gospel outside the institutions is felt all the more keenly. Perhaps the churches as institutions - denominations in particular - are killing off the gospel rather than bearing witness to it.
So the question remains - can the west be converted?
Over on Open Source Ecumenism Dr B has also been remembering Lesslie Newbigin and there are some good links to further articles there. Like many missionaries he was also an excellent linguist, using those skills to serve, translate, listen and understand. Dr B has also posted Newbigin's hilarious account of writing the final message of the WCC's first assembly in 1948. Very funny in whichever language you read it.