On Mission All Hinges

Rev Dr. Leao NetoRev Dr Leão Neto is from Brazil, and came to the UK to serve as a Mission Partner in Luton. He studied at the Urban Theological Unit in Sheffield and is now minister at Hinde Street Methodist Church, London. He has a passion for Brazilian dancing and football.

In order to pay tribute to this year’s Centenary Celebration of the Edinburgh Conference the place to start ought to be the idea of Ecumenical Mission. However, with so many ups and downs in the ecumenical movement where should one look for inspiration? I’d go back home, to the Base Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, known by the acronym, CEBs.
Is there anything new in Liberation Theology and the CEBs? Research focused on their National Gatherings reveals that Liberation Theology has moved on from a theology concerned preferentially with the poor into new areas, chiefly diversity and affirming of differences. The CEBs have grown ecumenically within Christianity and beyond Christianity.

The CEBs, a Roman Catholic movement, have invited representatives of the Protestant Churches and of the Indigenous (Ava) and African Traditions to take part in their National Gatherings. Ava and Afro representatives took part in the debates as well as in the liturgical celebrations at the CEBs’ Gatherings, including Eucharistic Celebrations. It was remarkable that in defiance of all restrictions imposed by the Vatican the CEBs managed to take Ecumenical Mission into a new phase.

Their ecumenical practices could be compared to a hinge. They come together for particular purposes, allowing slotting in, articulating themselves with others to make things happen. Having done the mission work together, campaigning, or serving, or worshiping, then they slot out.

I would call this sort of ecumenism: Ecumenism of Permeability. Like a hinge it allows for movement and still preserves the identity of each side. It is porous and invites a relationship, but without saturation. It is not about syncretism. It does not intend to dilute and to seek a common denominator. Rather, it is geared towards a missionary task.

Interfaith Cricket

The experience of the Grassroots Ecumenical Programme, in Luton, could be explained in the terms of the Ecumenism of the CEBs. Through Grassroots ecumenical activities, Permeability is at work. The task at hand is to facilitate the building up of plural and multi-religious communities. Yet, it would be unfortunate if that meant an effort to bring all that amazing diversity of faiths and cultures into a common denominator. The opposite, facilitating mission in Luton is to encourage slotting in and out of different traditions in order to enhance the life of the community.

For example, sport brings people together, inter-faith cricket. Whilst enjoying a game, people get to know each other, conversations happen, networks are formed. Once closed networks of faith, by this simple slotting in and out for a cricket competition, are made porous, open networks. Beyond sport, Grassroots has managed to gather communities together around the idea of making Luton a Fair Trade Town. They articulated themselves and campaigned until they achieved it. Interfaith pilgrimage and welcomes in different temples have been part of its ministry from the beginning.

The English Defence League has quite a different proposal. They want to obliterate the different and insulate the walls. They want to make it impermeable. Of the four national leaders of the League, two of them are from Luton.

There are also the fundamentalist religious representatives, who in their own unpleasant manner want to achieve the same, purity and isolation. They are small in number but they are a very noisy minority within other minorities.

The scene is set. Is Luton/England/Europe to become a battlefield of ghetto communities or is it to become a rainbow town/country/continent? Some permeability would allow differences to be celebrated and identity to be accrued. All depends on a hinge effect.

Could Permeability be an instrument of Evangelism?

The hinge imagery and the Permeability effect could explain the way the Church seeks to share its faith with others.

The church where I work, in Central London, has a ministry to homeless people. Through its missionary work I have made many friends. One of my friends is a pilgrim. Every year he sets out on a long walk. At the beginning of his journeys, around twenty years ago, he just went along the road aimlessly. But as he walked something started to happen in his heart and old wounds started to be healed. Meanwhile, he developed friendships with those working with the Mission. The pilgrim discovered churches to visit, places of pilgrimage, and books to read. He discovered space for shared reflection and questioning. He found in that long pilgrimage that a faith was growing inside him. The journeys became pilgrimages to holy places: Rome, Santiago de Compostela, and the Gothic Cathedrals of France. All on foot.

A similar experience of Permeability brought another homeless friend to ask to be baptised. Just an embryonic seed, surrounded by doubt and problems, found space to be and grow. The baptism happened in my little office away from the gaze of the wider congregation. When the faith was a little firmer, confirmation and membership followed in the presence of the congregation.

That was possible only because these individuals are able to slot in and out and feel accepted. Now there is a small group of people with no fixed abode who are members of the church.

A hinge effect brought us to that point as the Church offered support and the homeless people offered their amazing life stories.

On Mission all hinges, and in Mission all is about a hinge effect. That is the way to serve the present age.

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