If the idea of academic ecumenical conferences doesn’t float your boat, now is the time to click onto a different site. However, if you can get beyond thinking it will be dry or abstract, you might well find that the conversations stimulated by the papers given in Salisbury this last week float your mind and theological imagination off in unexpected directions. I was tired when I arrived at Sarum College on Tuesday, but totally ‘alive’ when I left last night (unfortunately, missing the last morning). Anyway, here’s a summary of key points from the papers and a reflection: it might be quite long, but you have been warned.

Bishop Graham Cray, Ecclesiology, Culture & Mission: This began with an explication of the ecclesiological heterogeneity inherent in Fresh ExpressionsEmerging Church and the churches involved in and around them. Starting with a brief survey of the changing context of English society and the place of the church within it (set out in the Mission Shaped Churchreport), the challenges facing a ‘traditional’ church are not hard to detect. The challenge to the churches is, therefore, to engender new forms of church which stand alongside, emerge from or extend the reach of existing churches.

The key point about Fresh Expressions is that there is no standard model to adopt or replicate; rather, there is a process of thinking, questioning, planning and discerning which has to do with genuine love of neighbour and not the prioritising of preferred worship styles. The theological underpinning derives from (according to the paper) (a) deciding what constitutes ‘church’, (b) the trinitarian nature of the ‘Missio Dei’, (c) mission as incarnational, (d) the church as ‘sign, instrument and foretaste’, and (e) our understanding of the ‘economy of God’.

Fresh Expressions have generated significant challenges, particularly at the interface of ecclesiology, mission and culture. The place  (and dynamic) of sacramental life in the priority of a new Christian community is a key challenge within the church, but this has also to do with the nature, identification and generation of appropriate leadership. The ecumenical challenge is not the least of these.

The paper led on to discussion of key points, such as the nature of consumerism as both context and (potential) content of Fresh Expressions. The Germans are interested in how the Church of England in particular – given its particular history and culture) has come to a point of agreeing (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) that permission should be given for such risk-taking and ground-breaking initiatives.

Bishop Professor Dr Friedrich Weber, Current Missiotheological Discussion in the EKD following the 1999 Mission Synod in Leipzig: The German context differs from the English in that (a) membership of the Church is counted according to those who pay the Church Tax (two thirds of the population – 50 million – belong to a church), and (b) the division of Germany and subsequent reunification has profoundly challenged not only society in general, but the churches also. Projections in Church Tax income over the next thirty years led to the Reformprozess and some renewed thinking about the raison d’etre and mission of the Protestant Church in Germany. (The English cynics need to realise that the huge income from the Tax also funds massive and massively impressive social care provisions.)

Based on the image of ‘breathing in’ (worship, teaching/preaching, sacraments and fellowship) and ‘breathing out’ (mission, outreach and service), mission is not an optional add-on for churches that like that sort of thing. A brief survey of German social trends (de-christianising of society; reducing church membership; individualism of faith; the eclectic provisionality of personal ‘meanings’) explains why the mission question has gained in urgency since the late 1980s. The Mission Synod in Leipzig in 1999 was a key point in getting mission on the agenda of the EKD.

The state of play in Germany in relation to mission theology is characterised by such themes as: mission as a worldwide partnership for questions of peace, justice and the integrity of creation; mission as keeping alive the question of God beyond territorial borders; mission in the context of globalisation as intersubjective dialogue; mission as the recruitment and winning of people for the community of the church; mission as the conversion of people to one another and, therefore, the struggle for the unity of the church; mission as planned dialectical behaviour.

This has all led over time to specific initiatives in the EKD and its constituent churches, including: the establishment of centres of mission and evangelism training; courses on church growth, evangelism, nurture, education and service; nurture course resources; church planting.

There is a lot going on, but there is also resistance to these impulses for mission. Nothing new there, then!

Revd Professor Loveday Alexander, Mission & Unity in the Acts of the Apostles: Every church uses the Acts of the Apostles to justify (or direct) their (wildly diverse) ecclesiology and missiology! We are given a paradigm for a church that is apostolic, but also (and often forgotten or ignored) one that demands “strong – and equally costly – commitment both to the unity of the church and … to the catholicity of the church“. Luke gives us not a propositional model, but a narrative illustration of the first churches.

Via an exploration of the word ‘ekklesia’ and its use to denote both the ‘local church’ and the ‘whole church’, we can see mission as key to Luke’s narrative explanation of what the church is for. The church has always allowed space for diversity within its overall unity (of origin, place and practice). Antioch is the ‘fresh expression’ model of church, but Paul insists on its (and his) accountability to the ‘traditional/centre’ church in Jerusalem: the ‘centre’ and the ‘marginal’ are mutually dependent and mutually accountable. It was his taking this so seriously that ultimately cost Paul his life.

So, mission is not the sole preserve of the ‘fresh’ or marginal churches, but permission, generosity, complementarity and mutual accountability are the hallmark of a genuine missiological ecclesiology.

Professor Dr Martin Wallraff, Mission & Media: Remarks on the Spread of Christianity in Late Antiquity: Christian mission always uses certain media for communication and these also shape that mission and the church itself. (a) Communication of the church’s mission in the early post-apostolic centuries (up to the fourth century) did not centre on the use of media: “For the church, the widespread communication of its missionary activities was not important.” (b) The spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire coincided with the proliferation of the new medium ‘codex’ (i.e. from ‘scroll’ to ‘book’). The early Christians soon learned how to positively take advantage of this new medium. But it raises questions about what it means to call Christianity a ‘religion of the book’. (c) Stories of mission in late antiquity often emphasise that the conversion of whole peoples began not with a church government initiative or a bishop’s commission, but with surprising and ‘humble mediators’. (d) Christian mission often corresponded with a historical quantum leap in terms of media: (e) Liturgy (preaching, performative acts & aesthetics) acquired an exceptional position on the ‘religious market’ in late antiquity. (f) More work is needed on the correlation between media and mission – and this must be done ecumenically.

Discussion went on to the disaster for mission that is the unruly horrors of the internet when used by competing Christians engaging in their theological controversies. However, this particular genie is already out of the bottle.

The Revd Dr Paul Weston, The Missionary Church in the Theology of Lesslie Newbigin: This paper was an excellent and timely reminder of the greatness of Newbigin. It looked at ecclesiology in (a) eschatological perspective, (b) corporate perspective, and as (c) ‘foretaste’. Newbigin writes: “The disunity of the church is a public denial of the sufficiency of the atonement. It is quite unthinkable that the church should be able effectively to preach that atonement and to become, in fact, the nucleus of the reconciled humanity, while that denial stands.”

The connection between the doctrine and its consequent ethics has clearly still not been understood by the squabbling church whose Gospel lacks credibility in the light of its behaviour and discourse.

Professor Dr Michael Weinrich, Missio Dei and the Mission of the Church: Systematic Theological Suggestions in the Perspective of Karl Barth: This paper (in the absence through sickness of the author) represented a Reformed understanding of the church – one that drew criticism from all sides of the conference. However, it put emphasis on the activity of God in mission and placed a question mark over a church which busies itself with self-justifying activity aimed at self-preservation or self-perpetuation for its own sake. Mission begins and ends with God and is not primarily about bigging up the church. However, one comment suggested that an ecclesiology that reduces the church to nothing raises the question about why anyone should bother with it in the first place. (Weinrich disputes that reading of his text.)

Professor Dr Corinna Dahlgrün, Protestant Theology in a Religious Vacuum: This offered a searching and moving reflection on the experiences and challenges of  ‘a missionary perspective on the study of theology in Eastern Germany’. It covered the differences between the experiences of the church in the two Germanies and the particular challenges faced (particularly by the East) since reunification – which include small membership in the post-Communist East, residual ignorance of church and Christianity, materialism, and the imbalance between churches of East and West. The three concluding theses were: (a) the churches need individuals to undergo a ‘spiritual reformation’ in order to renew the church and society; (b) to do this, the church must learn to translate its message into a language people can understand; (c) the church needs to worry less about its internal purity and take seriously its vocation to mix it in the world for the sake of the world it is called to serve.

Dr Cathy Ross, An Exposition & Critique of the Five Marks of Mission: This paper offered a clear tracing of the development of mission understanding in the Anglican Communion in the last thirty years. It is remarkable how much energy and how many words can be expended in trying to sort out ‘mission statements’ when there is less evidence of their fruit to be seen. How on earth has the church managed still to obsess about the artificial division between evangelism and social action? “When Jesus was asked to sum up what God required of us, he did not answer in terms of either a set of ‘projects’ to be performed or a set of ‘doctrines’ to believe. Instead we are called to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbour in the same way we love ourselves.” (Ramachandra) We were helpfully reminded (with reference to Oscar Romero) that “no mission statement can say everything, that we cannot do everything, that the final responsibility lies with God and that we are only ministers, not messiahs.” The ‘five marks’ were summed up by CMS as: ‘Proclaim, Teach, Respond, Seek, Renew’. But, perhaps ‘worship’ ought to be in there somewhere?

Bishop Martin Schindehütte, On the Missionary Dimension of Diaconal Service/Work: God wants everyone to be helped, saved, healed. That is the basis of the German church’s vast and expansive service of young, sick and vulnerable people through its Diakonia work. This led on to reflections on how those who work in this way (both employed and volunteers) are supported professionally and spiritually.

The Revd Hans-Hermann Pompe, The Recovery of Mission at Parish and Regional Level in Germany: Mission is back on the agenda, but there is still denial of its importance and urgency. This paper looked at some of the challenges to a recovery of mission and the implications of effective mission for the shape of the church.

The Revd Dr David Holgate observed the impact of mission thinking on the training of clergy and church leaders and called for  ‘robust theologies of culture’. In a changing world the church needs to get to grips with new demands and fit its leaders accordingly. (This followed an earlier contribution by Canon Dr Vernon White in which he described the changes in ministerial training and formation in the Church of England in the last thirty years or so.)

Canon Professor Paul Avis, Toward a Missiological Ecclesiology: The conference concluded (in my absence) with a paper that drew on the 1910 Edinburgh Conference and the emphasis on unity that ran through it. There is an “inseparable biblical and theological connection between unity and mission and … this deserves to be recognised in theological study, ministerial training, church policy and pastoral practice”.

So, there it is. Far too long a ‘digest. And I didn’t mention the worship, the pub, the meals or the fact that the conference was excellently chaired by the Bishop of Guildford, The Rt Revd Christopher Hill and Professor Dr Friederike Nüssel from Heidelberg.

You really had to be there…