Nick Brotherwood cautions against a fresh expression of amnesia.
If we are to become a church shaped by and for God's mission in this world, the last thing we need is a fresh expression of amnesia.
Two hundred and thirty three variations of the word 'remember' appear in Old and New Testaments. As poet and philosopher George Santayana has it: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' So as we immerse ourselves in talk of being sensitive to the multiplicity of different contexts and cultures around us, and of the need to connect appropriately with those contexts and cultures, it is salutary to be reminded that we haven't always thought, much less acted, in this way.
History is replete with examples of a dominant group misguidedly imposing its own cultural perspectives on another, while being ignorant or simply dismissive of those of the other.
A notable exception to this is Robert McDonald, the nineteenth century missionary, and translator, of the Yukon.
Born of mixed parentage - his maternal grandmother was Ojibway (Gerald H Anderson ed, Biographical dictionary of Christian missions, Grand Rapids, 1999, p.447) - McDonald travelled extensively, visiting native camps throughout the area. He had a natural empathy and respect for their culture and concerned himself with teaching them to read in their own language so they would have access to the teachings of the Bible during his absences. Two years after his arrival at Fort Yukon, he baptised the first Gwitch'in converts. Over the course of his 42 years in the North, he baptised 2,000 adults and children.
In North America, the confluence of First Nations people with the Christian faith has produced some distinctively First Nations expressions of the faith. One example is the continuing American Indian hymn sing tradition, in which people gather towards dusk for a communal meal, followed by storytelling and hymn singing which could continue far into the night.
Bishop Mark McDonald tells us these have often been looked at by some white Christian leaders as being inferior or inappropriate expressions. This propensity to judge one cultural expression of Christianity by the standards and through the lens of another is a danger that will need to be avoided if fresh expressions of church in all cultures and contexts are to flourish and to receive the respect which they deserve.
The apostle Paul offers us this model for a different way of proceeding:
'Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process.' (Philippians 2.5-17, The Message)
We are being offered the exciting opportunity of engaging with God's mission in a post-Christendom context, but this will only be realised fully if we have the courage to face the mistakes of the past, taking appropriate responsibility for them, and taking great care not to repeat them.