Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and Non-Western Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2010 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting
University of Edinburgh, 1-3 July 2010

Consultation and Cooperation in the History of Missions

Much has been said and written on the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, and more will undoubtedly follow in this its centenary year. The conference reflected dimensions of the Western missionary movement that the inherited structures of Western Christianity did not always easily accommodate: international and (in both senses of the word) the ecumenical.

The Church of the first five centuries was intercontinental, multicultural, and multicentric. To sustain unity it developed mechanisms for consultation on a local, regional and eventually (in principle) worldwide basis. Events in the sixth century split it along cultural and linguistic lines. The course of Western Christian history made the nation, and later the denomination, prime units in the way Western Christians operated. The missionary movement fitted uneasily into this framework. The concept of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was not readily compatible with the earlier expedient of co-opting the Iberian monarchs as the agents of mission. The earliest Protestant overseas mission involved Danish, German, and English agency, and could be claimed as either Lutheran or Anglican. The early mission societies expressed in different ways the conviction that the worldwide proclamation of the gospel was the responsibility of all Christians. The English Baptists urged separate denominational activity to minimize conflict; the London and Scottish societies and the American Board produced new pan-denominational structures; Anglican missions drew on Continental Lutheran personnel. Later the China Inland Mission led the way in designing missions that were international and multi-denominational in composition. The conscious internationalization of the Protestant movement in the early twentieth century owed more to initiatives within student groups than to ecclesiastical luminaries.

The missionary movement also faced issues for which traditional Western Christianity had no solutions and it devised its own mechanisms for considering them. William Carey early conceived of a world conference of missionaries (perhaps meeting in South Africa) to consider common problems. Over the century various consultative devices were introduced: the London Secretaries' meeting. regional meetings of missionaries in India, the decennial conferences in China with their published proceedings. An international missions conference was built round the visit of Alexander Duff to the United States in 1854; a gathering in Liverpool six years later, with lively interventions from an Indian Christian, aired practical concerns peculiar to Christianity in the Non-Western world. By the end of the century, conferences on missions, whether for the inspiration and information of the Western Christian public (three thousand people attended the Mildmay Conference in 1876, and almost as many were turned away), or in-depth consideration of issues arising from missionary work. The student movement conferences combined both elements.

On the field, the rhetoric of cooperation and shared responsibility sometimes sat uneasily with the realities of daily life and personality. Protestants developed the principle of comity, by which different missions were acknowledged to be responsible for specific geographical areas. Comity sometimes reinforced the denominationalism that it was meant to control, especially when mission boundaries corresponded with ethnic or other local differences, and divisions arising from past events in Europe and North America found new life and new rationalizations in Africa and Asia. The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith oversaw a Catholic version of comity, allotting the spheres of the various different orders and societies, not without tensions and difficulties.

But with all the contradictions, missions cooperated to a degree unthinkable for their parent churches in the West. Shared institutions, shared ministerial training emerged. Christian councils in Africa and Asia, given new status with the creation of ythe International Missionary Council, helped missions and churches to address governments, colonial or otherwise, with one voice. Events arising naturally at a missions gathering, such as the doings of the Kikuyu Conference in Kenya in 1913, might prove explosive when news of it leaked out elsewhere. The long years spent in the creation of the Church of South India represented a deliberate attempt to free the Indian Church from the divisive aspects of its Western inheritance. The emergence of that church in 1947 - the year of India's independence -was hailed by some as the dawn of an era of Christian unity, by others as an engine of destruction for historic Christianity. CSI had its emulators; but not all plans of union bore fruit. And in China, Congo and elsewhere, Caesar took a hand with enforced church unions. Meanwhile the movements that produced the World Council of Churches, the Second Vatican Council and the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization reintroduced into modern Christianity different forms of the conciliarity that early Christianity had known, with new ecclesiological puzzles, (as demonstrated in the controversies surrounding the merging of the International Missionary Council into the World Council of Churches). It was the rise of African, Asian and Latin American Christianity that lay behind these processes, and behind that lies the story of the missionary movement. All this suggests that Consultation and Cooperation should offer a fruitful field for our deliberations in Yale-Edinburgh 2010.

We trust that Yale-Edinburgh Group members, whose specializations lie in different regions, centuries, and subject matter, will once more bring their insights for our mutual enrichment at the 2010 meeting. A formal call for papers will be issued in January 2010, with titles and abstracts due by mid-March. Our pattern has been to have each oral presentation limited to 20-25 minutes, followed by discussion. Full papers are welcomed and, if submitted by a deadline determined by the organizers, will be made available on a CD distributed to all participants.