Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Roland Allen


I have been listening to a sermon by Nicky Gumbel, Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton recently and in it he recommends a book he was reading called "Missionary Methods, St. Paul's or Ours" by Roland Allen an Anglican priest who served oversees in China and Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The premise of the book  - written in the early 1900's - is that we need to go back and look more closely at St. Paul's ministry and methods and learn the lessons he left us and which were so successful then. Allen conjectures that we have so overlaid mission with all kinds of institutional prerequisites, ceremonies and an imposed western understandings of church and Christianity that the failure to take into consideration the different context in which the Gospel was preached has led to a weak indigenous church and a poor model for further mission and growth.

In the introduction written by Henry Madras (a bishop from India?) he sums up St. Paul's methods and principles as follows:

1, He had no preconceived plan of campaign but went where the Spirit led, seeking for open doors and choosing the centres most suitable for the gathering of converts and the propagation of the faith. He definitely aimed at converting men and women.
2. Then he planted churches which rapidly became self-supporting and self-governing. In about 6 months he founded the church, taught the converts the necessary elements of the faith, ordained a ministry and made provision for the administration of baptism and Holy Communion before moving on.
3. In his teaching Paul was content to lay simple and strong foundations. There was no elaborate teaching. In terms of discipline he strove to inspire a spirit not to enforce a law.
4. Then lastly his ideal of unity was essentially spiritual and not based on organisation but on life. There is no centralized organization or expected obedience to a common authority but "by the power of one spirit and one life."

But what do we know of Allen himself? Here is a brief outline of his life:
He was born in Bristol, England, the son of an Anglican priest; but was orphaned early in life. He trained for ministry at Oxford and became a priest in 1893. He spent two periods in Northern China working for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The first from 1895 to 1900 ended due to the Boxer Rebellion. After a period back in England, he returned to North China in 1902, but was forced home due to illness. These ‘early experiences led him to a radical reassessment of his own vocation and the theology and missionary methods of the Western churches’.

Allen became an early advocate of establishing Churches which from the beginning would be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing, adapted to local conditions and not merely imitations of Western Christianity. These views were confirmed by a trip to India in 1910 and by later research in Canada and East Africa. It is with this background that Allen wrote his book Missionary Methods (above) which was first published in 1912.

Allen’s approach to Mission strategy for indigenous Churches is based on the study of Saint Paul’s missionary methods as he is convinced that in them can be found the solution to most of the difficulties of the day. He believed it was the recognition of the church as a local entity and trust in the Holy Spirit’s indwelling within the converts and churches which was the mark of Paul’s success. In contrast was Allen’s belief that the people of his day were unable to entrust their converts to the Holy Spirit and instead relied in His work through them.

His views became increasingly influential, though Allen himself became disillusioned with the established churches. He spent the last years of his life in Kenya. Near the end of his life Allen wrote The Family Rite. In this essay Allen advocates that the family again becomes the centre of the Christian church and its ministry. Allen died in Nairobi.

I note from this account several things of interest:
First his experience at the coal face where he saw what worked or more appropriately what did not work.
2. He, like Paul, believed that God is a missionary God and that our work is to follow where he leads rather than vice versa. The leading of the Spirit is key to this.
3. He became disillusioned with the established church. This last point is a pertinent one for me as I have heard recently of two fairly newly ordained priests who have left the Church in Wales, disillusioned with the confining and stultifying restrictions of the Church in Wales and its obsession with form and ceremony. In addition one other young priest of my acquaintance is suffering from the same degree of frustration. All he wants to do is preach and share the gospel but his church is singularly ill-equipped to do so and, worse, is so in love with High Church paraphernalia that it is killing faith, both its own and his.

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