Episcopal Missionaries: serving the church and the world

October 10, 2007

The rich mission history of the Episcopal Church owes much of its success to two things: opportunity and innovation.

After the American Revolution, the church faced the same dilemma as the new country: how to establish itself as separate from England and still maintain its traditions. A daunting task. The American church had to set up a workable structure and constitution, craft a new prayer book, institute a process of selecting its own bishops. Yet, the call to mission was clear from the beginning.

The church of the early 19th century took on missionary work on the American frontier as well as overseas through education and medical care. In 1829, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society appointed the church's first foreign missionaries to Greece. By mid-century, the church had a missionary presence in Liberia, China and Japan. In comparison to the other Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church got off to a slow start with its missionary efforts, but the 1835 General Convention came up with two innovations that had enormous impact.

Convention declared that the church didn't just do mission, it was mission. By making the once-voluntary Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society synonymous with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, church leaders made a ground-breaking statement regarding the role of mission in the church.

The second innovation, and one of the greatest contributions of the Episcopal Church to Anglican mission history, was the creation of missionary bishops. U.S. Episcopalians were the first to combine the office of bishop and active mission work, providing a structure for church planting, clergy education, and outreach efforts in mission areas throughout the world.

Episcopal women were the primary source of financial support for the church's missionaries, including the missionary bishops. Woman's Auxiliary members, organizing parish-level efforts, sent supply boxes to all missionaries and raised money to fund life insurance, educational scholarships, and widows' benefits. In 1889, their support efforts became the United Offering, forerunner of today's United Thank Offering.  At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Woman's Auxiliary in 1921, the church's Department of Missions noted that the Woman's Auxiliary had given $14,000,000 for the church's mission over the course of its history, which included over $2,000,000 from the United Offering.

Nineteenth-century Episcopalians laid the groundwork for the boom in Episcopal foreign mission outreach during the first part of the 20th century. Concern with poverty, health and education led to greater mission activity worldwide, and the Episcopal Church was uniquely positioned to take a leadership role. The blend of Anglican tradition and American social and political values at the height of the Progressive Era was an asset to the church as it looked for new ways to live out its commitment to mission. However, mission-minded Episcopalians brought their own cultural baggage that at times showed a lack of sensitivity for the people they were trying to serve.

The 20th century witnessed growth in new missionary districts -- Puerto Rico, Philippines, Brazil, Alaska. Work in the more established mission areas of China, Liberia, and Japan continued to thrive. During the early decades of the century, more than 400 Episcopal missionaries served outside the United States at any given time, concentrating their efforts on education, hospitals and Anglican worship. New ways of funding and supporting mission emerged, including a unified national program under the Presiding Bishop and an every-member canvass, giving Episcopalians at every level of the church opportunities to do missionary work.

During the second half of the century, the Episcopal Church became a significant leader in inter-Anglican work, influenced new and better ways of coordinating mission across the Communion, and offered financial support to emerging autonomous churches in the Anglican Communion. The old colonial-based missionary model gave way to one of mission partnership.

Today, the Episcopal Church sends more than 200 missionaries through half a dozen mission-sending organizations, diocesan and parish efforts and the Episcopal Church Center's Anglican and Global Relations office. AGR has more than 90 DFMS missionaries in 36 countries, including 11 Young Adult Service Corps volunteers. To find out more about these the DFMS missionaries, visit www.episcopalchurch.org/mission.

"Missionaries of the Episcopal Church continue to undertake primary evangelism, but they have an increasingly important role as ambassador and partner in mission," says the Rev. David Copley, mission personnel officer for the Episcopal Church.