Missionary Methods (20)

(The Euthanasia of a Mission, The Views of Henry Venn)

In order to appreciate the views of Henry Venn one must understand something of the environment in which he worked. Venn was appointed secretary of The Church Missionary Society in 1841. The Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) was a denominational society of the Church of England (Anglican). John Venn, Henry’s father and one of the founders of the C.M.S., characterized the Society as “Church but not High Church.” (Cf. The Responsible Church And The Foreign Mission, Peter Beyerhaus and Henry Lefever, p. 25.) John Venn and his colleagues who founded the C.M.S. were decidedly low church and staunchly evangelical. However this may be, they were members of the Church of England and that communion existed wherever there were Anglicans within the British Empire. Wherever the first missionaries of the C.M.S. went, they found that the church had preceded them, if only on paper. They found themselves in an Anglican diocese, even though only a very few of the inhabitants could properly be called Anglicans, and that too in an area often many times the size of all of England. The bishop was there. From the very beginning of the work, therefore, there was the question of the relation between the bishop and the C.M.S. missionaries working in his diocese. 

In the early years of the C.M.S. this question posed no real problems. The C.M.S. was generally well received within the Church of England as a voluntary organization of members of the church. Henry Venn, as Secretary of the Society, expressed its position as being: “in subordination to Church authority but upon the basis of voluntary action” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; p. 26). The potential for tension and even conflict between church and society is all too obvious. 

As the C.M.S. grew in strength and in the scope of its operations, it became crucial to find a solution to the problem of how the Society and its mission work could be fitted into the Church of England at home, but more especially in its colonial branches. The urgency of finding a solution to this problem was made all the greater by the rise of what some called a “militant clericalism,” represented mainly by the High Church movement. Henry Venn began his work as Secretary of the C.M.S. during this head-on collision of Evangelicalism and High Church Anglicanism. 

When Venn assumed his duties as Secretary of the C.M.S. he immediately concentrated his efforts on resolving this conflict. Under his leadership the Society limited itself to what may be called temporal or lay functions. These functions Venn listed under four main headings: “1. The collection and administration of funds for the work; 2. the selection and training of missionary candidates; 3. the sending of ordained missionaries to mission stations, and 4. the supervision of the missionaries in their work among non-Christian people. The spiritual side of the work, that is, the arrangements for worship and pastoral care, and, as time went on, arrangements for the building up of an indigenous ministry—in fact; all that in the admittedly narrow sense, might be called “church-work”—is handed over to the local bishop” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; p. 26). 

These distinctions made it possible for the bishops to accept the Society as a voluntary organization co-operating with them in their work. This also implied that the C.M.S. was merely the servant of the church, and that, as the church grew, the work of the mission might very well change or (as Venn himself thought) come to an end altogether. Venn considered the goal of missions properly to be the creation (or better, gathering) of an indigenous church. The native church must be completely responsible for all pastoral duties, the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, discipline, and its own support. The missionaries would then be free to evangelize among the unconverted and unchurched heathen. Venn stressed this as the goal of missions not to relieve the C.M.S. of financial burdens but because he firmly believed the indigenous church principle to be biblical. The development of the indigenous church ought to be promoted in order that the native church and its ministry might be, for its own spiritual well-being and financial security, made free, as far as possible, of foreign support over which it had no control.

Concerning these views (remarkably similar to those of John L. Nevius) Peter Beyerhaus and Henry Lefever correctly observe: “Venn saw, decades before it was at all widely appreciated, the essential evil of missionary paternalism which in the name of affection, actually thwarted this development (the indigenous church, R.D.D.). All this led to his epoch-making aim, formulated as Point 10 of his Memorandum of 1851: ‘the settlement of a Native Church under Native Pastors upon a self-supporting system.’ Venn realized that the ‘native church,’ on this basis, was still a distant goal, but he was to be disappointed that even his very modest expectations were not realized. His plans were frustrated by this very missionary paternalism which we have already mentioned, so that, ten years later, in 1861, he issued another Memorandum embodying stricter instructions to missionaries and a more fully worked out program of church-development. Missionaries, he says, are to limit themselves to evangelistic work, and are not to become involved in church-administration—at least once the native church is established” (The Responsible Church And The Foreign Mission, p. 27). 

The first calling of missionaries, as Venn saw it, was to organize converts into groups which he called “Christian companies” rather than churches. At this stage the work was still part of the mission work of the C.M.S. The next stage is reached when these Christian companies are transformed into churches. This step is reached when the missionary considers the group’s contributions sufficiently high to support a native minister. At this point the missionary raises the group to the status of a “Native Pastorate under an ordained Native, paid for from the Native Church Fund” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; p. 28). The native minister is still responsible to the missionary as long as the native church fund is administered and subsidized by the C.M.S. The final phase is reached when groups of these “Native Pastorates” meet together regularly in a District Church Conference. The missionaries are to attend this Conference along with the native pastors but, says Venn: “when any considerable District has been thus provided for by an organized native Church, the foreign agency will have no place in the work and that District will have been fully prepared for a Native Episcopate.” Further, Venn says: “If the elementary principles of self-support and self-government and self-extension be thus sown with the seed of the Gospel, we may hope to see the healthy growth and expansion of the Native Church” (Beyerhaus, Lefever; p. 28). At this stage the missionary will be able to give over all pastoral work into the hands of the native pastors and their congregations. The missionary will also be able, according to Venn, to relax gradually his “superintendence over the pastors themselves till it sensibly ceases” (cf. Beyerhaus, Lefever; p. 28). At this point the missionaries of the C.M.S. are to be transferred to other unevangelized fields of labor. As far as the former field is concerned the work of the missionaries is finished. In Venn’s words “the euthanasia (painless putting to death, R.D.D.) of the mission” has taken place. 

Venn’s methodology, revolutionary in his times, is certainly commendable in many ways. There is much that we of the Protestant Reformed Churches can learn from it. We are still in the “pioneering stage,” at least as far as foreign mission work is concerned. The gathering of an indigenous church ought to be the goal of mission work. The church must be native to its own land, have its own pastor, elders, and deacons. The new church too is called of Christ to “go into all the world” preaching and baptizing, making disciples of all nations. The “native church” must support itself and it must govern itself in obedience to the teachings of the Word of God. Venn’s warning against “missionary paternalism” is also to be heeded. That, is a sore evil under the sun and, perhaps more than any other single factor, hinders the establishment and growth of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Apart, therefore, from the obvious differences we would have with Venn, especially in the area of Church Polity (Venn was Anglican), there is much we can learn from him. 

There are weaknesses in Venn’s methods. There are many or at least several questions left unanswered. When and how is all of this to be implemented? Just what are the criteria for the organizing of a “Christian company” into a “Native Church”? Is it merely the fact that the group is able to support itself financially? What is the relationship between the “Native Church” and the sending church? With these questions we shall deal, D.V., in the next article.