Building on a great heritage

January 12, 2009

The road winds through English woods and fields in the countryside north of London, and eventually circles in front of the grand entrance of a sprawling red-brick country mansion. A forest of chimneys and turrets sprouts from its steep shingle roof. At first glimpse I thought, thank heaven I’m not responsible for the maintenance of this place!

No doubt countless horses and coaches had trotted around this driveway to deliver members of the aristocracy. For today, All Nations Christian College occupies what used to be the country house of Sir Thomas Buxton, scion of a leading evangelical family. The Buxtons were brewers from a time when drinking water was scarce, and beer was a healthier alternative to the cheap whisky that blighted the lives of the working class.    

Buxton was one of the so-called Clapham ‘Saints’, those members of the British Parliament who supported William Wilberforce in his fight against the slave trade and for the reformation of social morals. In 1824, 17 years after he had won his battle against the buying and selling of humans, the aging Wilberforce asked Buxton to take over the leadership of the Abolitionist Movement, to see all slaves in the British Empire become free men and women.

Sir Thomas and other distinguished family members still watch over the sitting room of the manor house as larger-than-life portraits on the walls. I imagined the discussions which had taken place in this room preparing for debates in parliament to make Britain a kindler, gentler place. Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry could well have sat by that fireplace in one of those deep leather chairs urging Buxton, her brother-in-law, to champion the prisoners’ cause.

Transformation

The Clapham ‘Saints’ were part of an evangelical movement which combined spirituality with socal action. They embraced Wilberforce’s passion for the transformation of a society rife with corruption, coarseness, cruelty, injustice and infidelity-from the ruling classes down.

Through parliamentary debate, the publication of books, plays and tracts, the establishment of charitable societies promoting hospitals, education, prison reform, relief for the poor and vulnerable, and for banning child labour, this broad evangelical partnership created a culture of philanthropy and volunteerism still characteristic of English society today (see The Wilberforce Connection, Clifford Hill).

Their social concern did not stop at England’s shores. Within a few years of the building of this manor house, members of the Clapham movement founded the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the African Education Society, not to mention ‘The Society for Religious Instruction to the Negroes in the West Indies’! Mission for the Clapham movement integrated spiritual and physical, soul and body, evangelism and social action.    

Partnership

Last week, a group of 35 Evangelical leaders of (mainly British) mission organisations met under the same chimneys and turrets at All Nations, to consider the future of mission in Europe. The world has changed drastically in the intervening 200 years. Christianity has become a world religion in no small part because of the mission agencies championed by the Clapham movement.

Yet, despite much progress, our world remains a mission field. One major difference is the recognition of Europe as a particularly difficult field with its challenges of secularism, Islam, migration, new spirituality and the sex-slave trade. Like their predecessors, these mission leaders gathered to consider partnership towards change, physical and spiritual.  

One leader from the still-active Church Missionary Society told me over lunch of their innovative engagement at body-soul-spirit fairs. Evangelical relationships with the Roman Catholic Church-‘the question is not ‘whether’, but ‘how’ we should relate’-was a focus of both plenary and small group sessions. (Claphamites, in their day, pressed for the political emancipation of English Catholics.)  

Dr Darrell Jackson, director of the Nova Research Centre at Redcliffe College in Gloucester, shared about how the centre’s comprehensive study on migration in Europe can inform mission in Europe today. For example, Pole to Pole maps the presence of a surprising half-million Polish migrants in England alone (see www.novaresearch.eu).

As with the ‘Saints’, partnership and cooperation remain essential for evangelicals today working for transformation.

Next week, I’ll give details of this year’s Heritage Trip (25.6-11.7), which Redcliffe list as one of their five European Studies modules, in partnership with our Summer School of European Studies.

Till then,

Till next week,


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