A Catholic Church for a Global World
Every Sunday in church, Episcopalians affirm that we belong to a church that is, among other things, “catholic.” It is basic to the understanding of who we are: the Christian church is universal—the root meaning of the word “catholic”—and so spans the world. It is the catholicity of the church that positions it so well to respond to the unique nature of the twenty-first century world—and short term mission is one of several channels for this response.
It is a cliché to say that in the twenty-first century we live in a global world. Global trade networks mean that our clothes, food, electronic devices and much more come from all over the world. The spread of Internet access means that we can communicate (and miscommunicate) as easily with people in another country as we can with the person next door. It is the nature of our time that each of us, whether we like it or not, is part of a network of global relationships.
There are many benefits that come from living in such a connected world. One of them is, indeed, short-term mission itself. Advances in air travel mean that it is now easier than it ever has been to take a group of people to a distant location and to do this repeatedly, over the course of many years.
But it also clear that living in a global world comes with its own set of problems. It is the nature of a global world to bring us into ever-closer contact with people from different cultures, contexts, and backgrounds without at the same time giving us the means to encounter this difference in a constructive and healthy fashion. We live in a world in which we can purchase the inexpensive clothing produced by laborers in Asian factories without at the same time giving serious thought to the conditions in which the clothes were produced. In the twenty-first century, it is true to say that we live in a world of global relationships. But it is also true to say that we live in a world of broken, global relationships. If globalization is the nature of the twenty-first century world, then division, discord, and fracture are its shadow.
And this is the opportunity for the church. The catholicity of the church is a kind of anti-globalization. In its universality, the church responds to local contexts and pressures while also showing forth the good news of Jesus Christ across the world. Through baptism, Christians around the world are connected in different kinds of relationships, ones that are whole, humble, and open and in which all people are engaged in relationships of mutual giving and receiving. This is a far cry from the kind of relationships the world is familiar with now. By living in these rich, full, and global relationships, the church can say, “We’ve got this great thing going on over here. Come join us.”
Yet this can seem like a tall order. The tendency towards division in the world is strong and, as we have seen in recent years, is not absent from the church. Equally, there is a strong tendency, particularly in our North-Atlantic culture, to be oriented not around
relationships but around projects and be driven by the need to do things. Short-term mission trips often become defined not by the relationships that are built through them but by the projects that are to be completed.
But some of the most encouraging short-term mission trips I’ve encountered are rooted in relationships between churches. A local parish in an American diocese, say, connects to a local parish in a diocese somewhere else in the world. In the patient work of listening to one another, praying and reading the Bible together, and celebrating the sacraments, these Christians come to build relationships that challenge the dominant model of global relationship in our world. Oftentimes, those deep, holy relationships do lead to projects that transform all parties involved. But the relationship between Christians in a catholic church is always the first step.
In one of our Eucharistic prayers, Episcopalians pray that God may “reveal” the unity of the church (Prayer D, BCP, p. 375). The choice of verb is apt: the unity of Christians is a gift from God that is waiting to be revealed by our life together as a church. By revealing that unity and demonstrating a new model of global relationship based on our common bond of baptism, Christians have the opportunity to be a powerful witness to a divided world.
What this world of broken, global relationships needs to see is a network of rich, whole relationships. In other words, it needs to see the catholic church being truly universal.
Jesse Zink is a priest of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a former Young Adult Service Corps missionary, and the author of two books about mission and the world church: Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century (Cascade, 2012) and Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity (Morehouse, 2014). More information is at www.jessezink.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.