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Not all those who wander are lost

Not all those who wander are lost

The Revd Canon Philip Mounstephen

22 August 2018 12:11PM

Does the Church today need mission agencies, like CMS, USPG and Mothers’ Union (to name but three amongst many)? Isn’t the amazing growth of the Church in the global south both eloquent testimony to the success of mission agencies - and evidence that they’re not needed anymore?

Recently I joined the ‘Navigators of Faith’ for one leg of their sea voyage around Britain. The aim is to follow in the wake of the Celtic saints who did so much to spread the Christian faith around the British Isles and beyond. These saints tended to be monks who were sent out on mission from their communities to take the gospel wherever the wind (and the wind of the Spirit) took them. Inevitably it was not a wholly organised enterprise, but dependent on much that was outside their control, the wind and the tides not least.

That came home to me forcefully as I sat in the cockpit of the ‘Rival Star’, some 17 miles off the North Yorkshire coast, when a bee alighted on my yellow jacket. I was rather surprised to see him so far from home. 'Tough luck, chum,' I thought to myself, 'you're not going to last long out here.'

But he seemed quite unconcerned with what I took to be his fate. In fact as he sunned himself on my jacket he took time and trouble to preen and clean himself, busily putting two of his six legs to good use. And a few seconds later off he flew, I know not where. But he was not, I suspect (and as I had thought) lost.

Others were busy too, that sunny, still afternoon. Gannets flew purposefully and beautifully overhead. A seal snorted, startlingly, behind me, studied me and went on his way. Puffins whirred past. And a lone minke whale arched its back, several times as it surfaced for fresh lungfuls of precious air.

'Not all those who wander are lost' says Gandalf in Tolkein’s 'Lord of the Rings', and our afternoon companions didn't seem lost either. The Celtic monks in whose wake we sailed 'wandered for the love of God'. And they were not lost either. They may not always have known where they went. But they always knew why they went: to make the good news of Jesus Christ known.

We in the West live in a society which can be very focused on direction, but have little clue as to purpose. How much better to be confident in purpose even if the direction isn't always clear – like my friend the bee, and, indeed, those ancient Celtic monks.

And there’s a lesson in that for the Church of today. We still need to be ready to be taken where the wind of the Spirit leads us, always ready to surrender our sense of direction to the greater purposes of our God. At our best the mission agencies have done just that, being ready to be led onwards and outwards by the Spirit, in a way that is often harder for the Church in its more institutional and settled form.

The Western world of today is not so far removed from that of the 6th and 7h Centuries. Indeed post-Christian Europe is in a very similar situation. We need today what my predecessor, Max Warren, called, ‘The Spirit of Iona’, and it may be that pioneering spirit is best expressed through the mission agencies. Indeed for Warren, ‘The Missionary Societies of the Church are the true safeguard and citadel of the spirit of “Iona”.’[1]

In that there’s a challenge to us in those agencies; a challenge to ensure that we keep the flame of that spirit burning bright. But there’s also a reminder to the church in its more settled form: to learn afresh how to ‘wander for the love of God’, with a clear sense of purpose, even as we wait for the wind of the Spirit to make our direction plain. And we in the mission agencies may be best placed to help the wider Church do just that.

Canon Philip Mounstephen is Executive Leader of Church Mission Society

[1] p.21 Max Warren Iona and Rome CMS, London 1946