Phil Potter explores 'the art of seeing things invisible'.
Recently, I had the privilege of taking part in the bicentenary celebrations of the Christian gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand.
On the anniversary of Rev Samuel Marsden's arrival there 200 years ago, hundreds of Christian leaders congregated on the beach where he first preached – at Oihi in the Bay of Islands – to celebrate the milestone. They had kindly invited me, as a latter day 'Pioneer Anglican Canon', to bring an appropriate message, saying, 'Essentially, we're asking you to get inside the head of this English missionary. What were his hopes and expectations?'
As I began to delve into the story and the character of Marsden, the familiar traits of a true pioneer emerged, especially the ability to see beyond the present with the eye of faith. Two quotes came to mind: 'Vision', said satirist Jonathan Swift, 'is the art of seeing things invisible' while author Frank Gaines adds: 'Only those who see the invisible can do the impossible'. Every great pioneer, of course, has a tendency to attempt the impossible, a trait summed up succinctly by Hudson Taylor when he said: 'There are three stages in any work for God: impossible, difficult, done!'
So when Samuel Marsden stepped ashore to attempt the impossible, he saw with the eye of faith what God was able to do with a whole nation of non believers over a period of time. He saw for instance what he called a 'superior and civilised people' where others saw only slaves and savages; he saw a nation of converts where others only saw an area inhabited by cannibals. In short, he saw what time can change, what people can become, and what the future can hold beyond our own small horizons. And, although it took another 20 years for Marsden's vision to really take hold, when Bishop Selwyn arrived in New Zealand three years after Marsden's death, he wrote: 'We see here a whole nation of pagans converted to the faith. Thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, have received new hearts, and are valuing the Word of God above every other gift.'
Ten years ago, few people perhaps would have predicted the growth in breadth and depth of the Fresh Expressions initiative, that so many diverse plants would have emerged and so much learned about how to engage in new and helpful ways with the many in our society who have had no experience of church. And few of us would have predicted the variety of partner denominations involved or the sheer scale of international interest. Like every pioneer movement, however, there were those who prayerfully saw 'things invisible', and it is inspiring to see how many more are now learning the “art” as we plan ahead for the next ten years. Coming into 2015, we will see a whole raft of new projects designed to further the vision of taking the 'impossible' through the stages of 'difficult but doable' then 'done'.
Of course the pioneer journey itself is always fraught with difficulties and scepticism along the way, and it will often feel fragile and daunting, even dangerous to some. Recently we have seen this tragically illustrated in the Virgin Galactic crash, and there has been a great deal of debate and comment as a result. One of the big questions about its future is whether the project can survive the relentless scrutiny of inspectors and government intervention, and yet one article pertinently reminded us that the first powered aircraft flight was in fact the work of a pair of brothers with a bicycle shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who succeeded in 1903 where many other professional and government endeavors had failed. In that spirit, and in the evidence we have seen of the imagination, investment and passion of 'ordinary' Christians in furthering the fresh expressions movement, my belief is that they will be the ones who will take us further and deeper into a whole new future for the church.
Canon Samuel Marsden had the humility to see a nation that would be evangelized by the Maori population themselves, and my prayer is that those of us privileged to be leaders in the church in different ways will share the same humility and faith in seeing where, and with whom our future truly lies.