The Church of England’s latest vision document has faced criticism, but it has also given us a long-overdue reminder of the ‘Five Marks of Mission’. The Bishop of Ely considers their provenance and impact, and argues that they are far more profound than any strategy.
The foundations of the new vision and strategy for the Church of England are the ‘Five Marks of Mission’ (https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/marks-of-mission.aspx). It’s about time! We took the Five Marks to heart in the Diocese of Durham in the 1990s when they were brought to us by our Local Mission Adviser, Janet Hodgson, a white South African. They were published by the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984 and were substantially the product of the lived experience and reflection of African bishops in Kenya and Nigeria. When I moved to Salisbury, I worked with others to bring them into the centre of our diocesan vision. As was originally conceived, they provide a holistic understanding of the Church’s mission, which does not separate evangelism from the pursuit of justice, or Christian nurture from the cherishing of creation.
You can go to the link for the full text of the Five Marks; but I find it easier to remember their force and focus by using the five ‘T’s: Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform and Treasure. I do not know how I came by these, but I am sure someone will let me know. We tell out the greatness of the Lord with Our Lady. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we form disciples through teaching, prayer and fellowship. We are called to tend the weak and the stranger. We are called to transform unjust societies as active citizens, standing in solidarity with those who are poor and oppressed, helping them to find their own voice. We are stewards of the earth and are meant to treasure all of creation, working for climate justice even if this means real sacrifices in terms of our quality of life in the rich West so that poorer countries can avoid inundation and desertification.
I had a frank conversation about the Five Marks at the end of a study day I led in Weymouth about twelve years ago. I had push back from a passionate young evangelist who thought that I was seeking to water down the primary apostolic demand upon Christians to proclaim to people the good news of salvation in Christ alone so that God might convert them. I sought to explain that this was not the case at all. If we take a determinedly relational approach to evangelism, there are many ways to encounter people and win their trust.
In one Wiltshire village there was a man who was both evangelist and ecologist. He got a group of disparate teenagers across a few villages interested in a pond reclamation project in order to preserve the habitat of some crested newts. That project was for a time a fresh expression of church and a number of the young people came to faith. As a curate in Gateshead I was encouraged by the parish priest to spend a good deal of my time on the poorest estate in the parish which always missed out on house improvements and play facilities for children who were, therefore, getting into trouble with the police. I helped local women press for a play house and external play area. The housing department eventually agreed and general housing improvements followed. Many children and a few adults were confirmed, and I am still in touch with them.
It is often when we are alongside people in local battles for justice and well-being and in peaceful campaigns for climate justice that we earn their trust and they become curious about our motivation. When we say that we are engaged for Jesus’ sake, the opportunities are often there to tell people the good news. How many times have we persuaded reluctant teenagers to serve at Mass who have been converted by their participation and service? I have lost count of the number of people I know who have come to faith through being tended lovingly through their grief after a loved one’s funeral.
What is particularly special about the Five Marks is their provenance. The five ‘T’s trip easily off our tongues. Yet they were conceived in Africa. Parts of the continent are areas where Christians are targeted if there is any suspicion of proselytising or teaching the faith. Imagine the fate of those who tend and protect those on the run from wicked and violent regimes. We can all think of instances of the suffering of Christians who have sought radical transformation of societies through non-violent protest in South Africa and the United States in our lifetime.
This means that the wonderful, albeit late in time, adoption of the Five Marks of Mission should not be allowed to become platitudinous. These are African beatitudes, borne out of taking up the cross without fear. The Five Marks are not so much a strategy at all, nor do they envision or anticipate one. Rather, they are descriptions of a disposition of self and of the Church towards neighbour, community and world. They are meant to shape us, like the Beatitudes of Jesus himself, into the character of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. Like the Beatitudes of Jesus, they assure us that God’s blessing is not postponed.
The Right Rev’d Stephen Conway, Lord Bishop of Ely