What is Mission?
Then: ‘Dedicated Christians, Bible in hand, going to far-away places to preach the Gospel.
Now: ‘Overseas work is still important, but the approach is different. What is more we live in a missionary situation here at home’.
The text above, which was extracted from a 1982 pamphlet published in the Diocese of Croydon, provides a succinct appraisal of the nature of missionary work at points in time some hundred years or so apart. In doing so, it sums up rather well a century-long transformation in missionary thought and endeavour which can be charted in fine detail in the recently completed catalogues of the archives of the Board for Mission and Unity (BMU) and its predecessors.
Dating from the formation of the Board of Missions of the Convocation of Canterbury in 1884 and concluding in 1991 when BMU was subsumed into the Board of Missions, the archive documents comprehensively the Church’s reappraisal of the notion of missionary work. Once considered best left to brethren of somewhat idiosyncratic societies, despatched to distant lands to ‘spread the word’, the more modern, broadened concept of missionary work saw matters closer to home come into focus, whilst the work overseas moved into the area of ‘World Development’.
Operating as an Advisory Body to the Church Assembly (later General Synod), the ‘Board’ underwent a number of name changes over time to reflect its changing responsibilities and re-structuring within the Church. After the initial Board of Missions came the Central Board of Missions (1908), Missionary Council (1921) and Overseas Council (1951). In 1949 a Council for Ecumenical Co-Operation was also formed, and in 1963 this would join together with the Overseas Council to form the Missionary and Ecumenical Council, which then became the Board for Mission and Unity in 1972. Totalling around 600 boxes of material, the archive records the central role played by the BMU (in all its incarnations) in the Church’s efforts to move away from the inherited usage of the term ‘missionary’ and the undertones it carried, and encourage clergy and laity alike to view missionary as more than ‘something we do somewhere else’ and an ‘optional extra’.
As the name Board for Mission and Unity makes clear, mission was not the only area of concern for the Board, with the ‘recovery of Christian Unity’ being an equally important part of its remit. The linking together of mission and ecumenism was an initiative at which the Anglian Church was at the forefront, particularly in the latter half of the 20c, as it reached out ecumenically to Roman Catholics and Methodists amongst others. The work of BMU would be central to this aim, as Conversations, Consultations and Conferences were all serviced by BMU staff, while the Committee on Roman Catholic Relations, an advisory body answerable to the BMU and the Archbishops, was set up in 1972 to continue work began by the Commission on Roman Catholic Relations as part of the Council of Foreign Relations.
On matters of both mission and Unity the Board acted as a conduit between General Synod and the dioceses, carrying communication in either direction: directives from Synod were carried out in the parishes and deaneries, and reports on these were transmitted back through BMU to Synod for discussion and evaluation. Further areas of work of BMU staff included maintaining close relationships with the Missionary Societies which had paved the way in the missionary field, being the principal channel of communication between General Synod and the World Council of Churches, British Council of Churches and other bodies, and keeping abreast of theological Faith and Order issues raised by the search for Unity.
In 2003 the successor to BMU, Board of Missions, was amalgamated with another General Synod body, the Board for Social Responsibility (BSR), to become Mission and Public Affairs. As part of a 16 Project made possible following the award of a generous grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation via the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives, both the BMU and BSR archives have been catalogued. They can be consulted at the joint Church Of England Record Centre / Lambeth Palace Library electronic archives and manuscripts catalogue entering either BMU or BSR as the OrderNo field.