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The faith abroad, by John Davies (book review)

30 May 2012

The Faith AbroadThe Faith Abroad by John D. Davies

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In some ways it seems strange to be reading a book published 30 years ago for the first time, and more so because I know the author, and he used a story that I had told him in the book. Perhaps he told me about it and I forgot, or perhaps he forgot to tell me about it, because if I’d known about it I would almost certainly have cited it in my Master’s dissertation and my Doctoral thesis.

At the time he wrote the book John Davies was head of the College of the Ascension in Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK. Its task was missiological and missionary (we would now call it “missional”) training for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), one of the bigger Anglican missionary societies. It worked together with other colleges in Selly Oak, sharing resources and providing a wider experience for students. Originally the college was intended for training British missionaries to prepare them for work overseas, but John Davies and others shifted the emphasis so that a good proportion of students came from overseas for training.

John Davies and his wife Shirley had also worked in South Africa for 12 years, as missionaries of USPG. They worked in a variety of seetings, including the Afrikaner mielielande around Evander, and Empangeni in Zululand, and finally as Anglican chaplain of Wits University from 1963-1970.

Shirley Davies once explained to me that they were “missionaries”, and I said something like “aren’t we all?” And she said no, they were the old-fashioned kind; they had been sent by USPG, and were expected to send USPG an annual report of their activities. And that revealed to me one of the big differences between Anglican conceptions of mission in Britain and South Africa. In Britain, in the 1960s, “missionaries” went “abroad”{ (hence the title of the book) whereas in South Africa mission was what the church did when it wasn’t sitting in its pews. A former Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, told me that it was precisely for that reason that he had invited John Davies to come to Johannesburg in 1958.

And in his book John Davies explains the implications of some of these things. Missionaries who went from the UK to southern Africa in the second half of the 20th century were not, for the most part, engaged in primary evangelism. For the most part they became part of the local church and took part in its activities. John Davies does mention an exception to this – Ronald Wynne, who planted a church among Humbukushu refugees in Botswana. But for the most part the churches were already there and planted, except when the ethnic cleansing under apartheid got going. Then both the local-born clergy and the “missionaries” from overseas were for the most part caught flat-footed.

In the UK, before coming to South Africa, John Davies was involved in a revival of parish life, and the sense of the parish church as a “mission station” in the parish of Halton, in Leeds. This is described in The parish comes alive by Ernie Southcott. It pioneered house churches, not as an alternative to the parish church (as they tended to become in the 1980s) but as an integral part of parish life.

In all this I have been talking about the author, and not said much of the content of the book, though some of these things are mentioned in the book in passing.

To me the book was well worth reading, and I’d be tempted to quote the whole book, given half a chance. But after seven years as a university chaplain (in which his bishop told him he was the most expensive priest in the diocese) and then as head of a missionary training institution, John Davies had some interesting reflections on academia and academic teaching, on scientific objectivity and the disinterested search for truth, which are worth repeating:

A church which is motivated by mission will be cautious about the academic claim to be disinterested or value-free. It will recognise that such a claim is a necessary aspect of academic freedom, with an importance which will be obvious to anyone who has seen what can happen when a university becomes merely a servant of a national ideology. But the ideal of a “value-free” or “scientific” pursuit of truth can also encourage people to be refugees from the world of struggle and commitment. Christian faith has to insist that the search for truth is not isolated from the needs of those who most need the changes which truth should bring — those for whom the structures and habits of the present order are a lie and a denial of the truth. A church which is motivated by mission will ask in whose interest the university exists; it will try to discover whether its presence is truly to the advantage of the poor or whether it is concerned primarily with the interest of its own minority. Particularly in the area of theology, a church which is inspired with the vision of the Body will ask whether a university’s theology is contributing to the power and prestige of an “expert” class, or whether it is contributing to the enabling of the whole people of God.

And, as an Orthodox Christian, I found it interesting to see how what he wrote was so relevant to Orthodox missiology, expecially the relation between mission on the one hand and liturgy and worship on the other. Near the beginning of the book he remarks that there are three parts of the mission process, or functions in the operation of the church:

  1. Healing, reconciliation, boundary-breaking, an overthrow of forces that obstruct God’s design in creation (Acts 2:1-13)
  2. The communication in words (Acts 2:14-39)
  3. The formation of the community (Acts 2:40-47)

And then he says of worship:

Any consideration of mission must give major consideration to worship. But worship is not a fourth function to be tacked on to the other three. At every point it enables and underlines the other three. To fail to acknowledge this would be connive in one of the greatest causes of weakness in the church, namely the separating off of function from function, and the isolating of worship as just one among several options. Worship is the fundamental affirmation of the values which underlie all the programme: worship itself is turned into a self-justifying hobby unless the connections are stressed. And the rest of the programme grows weak in motivation unless the underlying values are renewed.

And again, towards the end of the book, he notes that mission is thankfulness (ie eucharist), not so much thanks for the things that distinguish us from others, for blessings like health, sanity or success in exams, but for the things we have in common with them.

The great thanksgiving in the eucharist requires us not to be thankful for the things which distinguish us from others, but for those things we have in common with others, our createdness at the hand of God, and the action of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit towards us and towards the whole human race. The Eucharist is a disciplining and a training of our motive and our self-image so that we find ourselves able to say, and to mean deeply, the simple prayer of Thomas Merton, “Thank God that I am as other men are.”
The eucharistic thanksgiving depends entirely on the nature of God as disclosed by Jesus. It is an approach to the Father through the Son.

And when one hears the Liturgy of St Basil, that is exactly what it is.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 May 2012 2:00 pm

    Thank you for this post. Great to remember an Anglicanism in its finer moments…as well as some of its weaker (the flat footedness of mainline protestantism in the 1960’s was more or less universal I suspect). The inward turn toward renewal thereafter somehow intent on removing the stain from the sinner instead seems to have removed the concept of sin – since its easier to separate the sin from the sinner if we don’t see it in the first place. Suspect that our resulting blindness… has left a whole generation or two like the man born blind… and ourselves like his parents… doing the dodge. The notion of this generations imperviousness to the Gospel probably has less to do with reality than our own discomfort, sloth, etc. And so a return to rediscover what we can about mission seems a really good idea.


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