Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
One of the most beloved John Wesley quotes for many of those engaged in international Methodism is “I look upon all the world as my parish,” which is often recast as “The world is my parish.” The quote continues, “Thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”
I recognize that this is me being contrarian, but I think there are issues in the unreflective use of this quotation, and I want to explain why.
First is the issue of historical intent. The line comes from a letter by Wesley, excerpted in his journal in an entry dated June 11, 1739. The full letter and the context of the journal entry make it clear that Wesley is trying to justify to himself and the recipient of the letter his irregular (by Church of England standards) practices in service of leading the Methodist revival movement, most notably his decision to preach in parishes where he was not the priest in charge. Despite some rhetorical references to other areas of the world, Wesley was not at all talking about international mission.
Actually, other than his very early and rather painful experience in Georgia, Wesley was not that interested in international mission. He was focused on the revival in England. He was initially reluctant to send preachers outside of England. He was skeptical of the international missionary enthusiasm of Thomas Coke, the real father of international Methodist mission.
And that’s okay. We don’t need Wesley to have been a strong supporter of international mission to see that practice as genuinely Methodist. We certainly don’t need to take Wesley quote out of context to feel that there is value in international mission connections among Methodists today.
But the real issue I have with the quote is not the way in which it is used outside of its historical context. The real issue I have is in how the possessive pronoun used – my – has the potential to reinforce some unfortunate tendencies among US Methodists.
Put succinctly, if the world is my parish, then my understanding of the world is centered on me, my ministry, and my actions. It is a view of the religious landscape of the world in which I am the most important actor.
This sort of attitude on behalf of Western Christians is exactly what colonial mindsets are made of. If Western Christians regard their own ministry as the most important thing about global Methodism, if the rest of the world is just a screen onto which to project their own proclamation of the gospel, that ignores and devalues the deep and real faith of non-Western Methodist (and other Christian) leaders and church members. Westerners thinking of the world as their parish perpetuates notions of Westerners as the heroic saviors of the rest of the world.
That does not necessarily mean that there is no valid insight from or application of this Wesley quote. Wesley was saying that mission ultimately overrides structure. This is a point that I wholeheartedly agree with, and this blog has posted numerous articles that make that point, both by me and by others.
But if we accept that mission trumps structure, then we must ask “whose mission”? Here, I point to the slogan Thomas Kemper popularized among United Methodists: “Mission is from everywhere to everywhere.” In this day and age, mission cannot be just regarded as the mission of Westerners or of US Americans.
Nor should it be thought of as an individual’s mission. Mission is God’s mission, which God calls Christians to participate in as a body, not merely as individuals. We each have unique roles in God’s mission, but mission as a calling is shared.
Therefore, if we are going to talk about a world parish, we should say, “The world is our parish.” Yes, let us lift up the value of international mission connections. Let us affirm that mission is more important than structure. But let us recognize that God’s mission is one to which Christians from around the world are called to participate in together.
And, we can also look for other quotes to inform our understanding of and imaginations about our participation in God’s mission. The quote from early Methodism that I most like to use for mission is from Thomas Coke, the person most responsible for early international Methodist mission efforts. He said, “Oceans are nothing to God, and they should be nothing to his people, in respect to the affection they bear one another.”
This quote is perhaps less snappy than “The world is my parish,” but Coke was actually talking about international mission here. Moreover, this quote emphasizes mutual love and affection among Christians, rather than centering one’s view of the world on one’s own sense of ministry. Affirming that “Oceans cannot limit the affection we have for one another” emphasizes the relationship and mutuality that is at the heart of modern missiology.
Ultimately, a good Methodist understanding of mission goes beyond any quick slogan. It looks to inspirations from our Methodist heritage, including the ministries of the Wesleys, Coke, Asbury, and other early leaders, but it also takes seriously what Christians collectively have learned about mission in the several centuries since. Nor does it need to collapse our contemporary understandings of mission with that of our eighteenth-century predecessors. It recognizes that God’s calling continually pushes our understandings of church practices in new, more expansive directions, which after all, was Wesley’s point, wasn’t it?