January 29, 2009

“Mission Partners”

I love language. I can’t get enough of words. I love the challenge of figuring out how best to express myself and articulate my thoughts and ideas with the precision that language offers us. I like how language use shapes reality and words have meanings that can be contested. I like how meanings of words change over time. I just read a quotation from the 16th-century where “ecumenical” was a term of opprobrium.

It is this love for language that explains one of the big hurdles I had to cross before I decided to become a missionary. Some of you might recall that the word itself - missionary - was an obstacle for me. There were too many negative connotations I associated with the word for me to want to describe myself with it. Nor could I let myself brush off the word lightly and pretend it didn’t really apply to me.

Needless to say, I overcame that hurdle by wrestling with the word and learning more about the theology of mission that underlay it. That process was healthy and helpful and led to a deepening of my faith and the opportunity to think about some issues I had never seriously considered before.

Well, my feet are about to be swept out from underneath me and that process is about to be rendered moot. I learned last month the Standing Commission on World Mission wants to change all references in the canons from “missionary” to “mission partner.” It will be voted on at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July.

I think this is a misguided proposal. My understanding of the rationale is that the new phrase better reflects what missionaries actually do and are. Of course partnership is a part of mission. But so too are eight gazillion other things, some of which I’ve written about on this blog, like reifying, teaching, relating, learning, playing, sharing, dancing, driving, advocating, and on and on and on. I just saw a draft document of some new mission promotion materials and the words used there to describe missionaries included partner but also ally, friend, companion, pilgrim, supplicant, builder, listener, witness, co-traveler, advocate, and many more.

Sure, sharing is part of partnering but isn’t partnering part of teaching? Isn’t partnering part of companionship? Friendship part of effective listening? Witnessing part of standing with? Calling us “partners” privileges one part of mission at the expense of all the others. Why not call us “mission learners” or “mission sharers” or “mission relaters” or “mission pilgrims” or “mission supplicants”? The advantage of the term missionary is that it encompasses all the attributes of mission doing and mission being.

Now I admit that missionary is a contested word. The idea of mission I just sketched out is probably not shared by everyone in the Episcopal Church and definitely not by all Christians. But the response to a contested word is not run away from it but grab hold of it and wrestle with it. That is what I sought to do when I realized I would be a missionary if I came to South Africa. The word missionary truly and honestly describes what I am. I don’t want to run away from that.

I don’t know why I remember this but when Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication of his library in December 2004, he kept using the words “progressives” and “progressivism” when he was obviously talking about liberals and liberalism. Apparently to his mind the “l-word” had been so debased by conservatives he couldn’t use it anymore. It was a contested word. But rather than using the word proudly and reclaiming it, he ran the other direction to a new word that described the same ideas he has always promoted.

I can’t help but think that is what the Church wants to do with the move to “mission partners,” ceding “missionary” to, among others, our more evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. The Episcopal Church - as I learned when I wrestled with “missionary” - has some very good theology of mission and ideas about being a missionary that I would like to see spread far and wide. But we won’t spread our ideas anywhere if our first step is to give up the necessary vocabulary.

Language and word choice matters tremendously. “Missionary” - underlain by strong missiology - is a good and accurate word that deserves to be retained.

UPDATE: Just as I was posting this, I received an e-mail from the Church Center with a further defense of the term. It reads in part,
"It is probably easier to change a name rather than a cultural mindset at this point." It is no doubt easier but I still do not believe it is the correct decision. "Mission" and "easy" have never gone together in my mind.


Rev. Linda said...

Jesse, Thank you for this great summary of why it is so important not to cede language. There are so many words like this - you pointed to the word liberal. Evangelism is another word. Jesus is another. Feminism is another. Anyone who is baptized is ergo a missionary - someone called and named to carry Christ into every part of life - dancing, partnering, cooking, teaching, etc etc. Thanks again for your words.

Shelly said...

Jesse - It's Shelly, here, from the Church Center, who sent out the in-progress materials. I'm going to respond to this in more depth in an e-mail to you, but wanted to make this part of a public conversation. Are there words that you would *not* reclaim? Are you invested in "reclaiming" the word "Republican" because Abraham Lincoln was one? Would you reclaim "conquistador", knowing that people had come to physical and spiritual harm because of that word? (Because that's, in essence, how a LOT of missionaries worked and saw themselves for a long, long time.) I'm really interested in this discussion about ceding territory, in part because part of the reason I state for not leaving the Episcopal Church altogether sometimes is that I don't want to cede the territory to those who are misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, classist, etc.

Kai Harris said...

Jesse, thank you for this great post. As you know, I also feel strongly about our identity as missionaries. God invites us to be part of His mission in the wold - if we accept, we are baptized into new life and called to serve this mission. What does that make us if not missionaries?

Shelly, look for an email from me as well. I'm very heartened that the Church Center is reaching out publicly. As a church founded as The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, The Episcopal Church needs to be part of the Christian conversation about what it means to be a missionary. I believe that will be very difficult if we purge the word from use.

Janet said...

Jesse - love the ideas about missionary that you bring up and for the 3 responses that I've read, so far.

Just as long as one of those terms isn't:
"mission impossible".

Are you going to speak, then, at General Convention about this "convention" of terminology?

Janet Smith Coyne

Shelly said...

Shelly again - just wanted to make clear that these e-mails that are coming from me and that I am writing on behalf of the Mission Personnel Office are *not* policy documents. I am merely a seminarian intern who is assisting David Copley with some of the work preparing for General Convention (visual displays, documents that tell the story of the Episcopal Church's mission personnel in better and better ways, etc.). I put the question about about comfort levels with the term "missionary" just to get the lay of the land, so to speak, and sent out a test brochure to see if people felt they were well represented by it. There has been wide and varied response - beautiful writing and deep thought. It has been and continues to be an amazing, amazing conversation. I just want to be clear that this conversation is not policy-making or legislative or any such thing. Thanks again to everyone who continues to dialogue!