A Review of
Gathering at God’s Table: The Meaning of Mission.
Katharine Jefferts Schori
Reviewed by Amy Gentile.
Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Gathering at God’s Table: The Meaning of Mission in the Feast of Faith is a helpful introduction to the Anglican understanding of “mission” with a strong focus on being participants in the work of God’s Kingdom. Overall, the book has helpful stories and anecdotes and offers much room for reflection, though it has a few weaknesses in certain sections.
One of the first things I noticed in reading this book was its structure. There are five major sections which correspond to the five marks of mission for the Anglican Church, and within each major section there are very short “chapters.” Each “chapter” is only a few pages long, and they read comfortably, like a personal reflection. Jefferts Schori interweaves anecdotes in with her thoughts, and her passion for justice and seeing healing in this world comes through clearly on every page. At the end of each “chapter” are a few reflection questions. They’re simple, but cause the reader to pause and make connections between the reading and similar situations in their own life. I enjoy when books ask us to pause, to chew over what we’ve read, to reflect on things and make connections—this is an essential part of good learning. The questions work especially well for this style of book, making it seem more like a devotional than a theological text. There are a little over forty chapters in this book, and while I don’t think it’s specifically written with this in mind, I could imagine reading this throughout Lent, absorbing a little each day and centering my thoughts on the Kingdom of God, on the anticipation of Christ’s resurrection and eventually, in the fullness of time, our own. The structure was a little unexpected at first; there was nothing (at least not that I noticed) in the promotional materials or the introduction that indicated this particular format, and it took some getting used to for me as I don’t often read devotionals, but it seemed to fit with the author’s pastoral heart.
The five major sections of the book each have directly to do with an aspect of “mission”: proclaiming the good news of the kingdom; teaching, baptizing, and nurturing new believers; responding to human need with loving service; seeking to transform unjust structures and society; and striving to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. I had never previously thought about all of these things specifically being different aspects of the word “mission”. It seems to flesh out and expand upon the famous St. Francis quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words,” by connecting concrete actions in varying sorts of relationships—self, neighbor, societal structures, creation, this is a much fuller and richer understanding of “mission”. Likewise, the author also rightly points believers to a deeper understanding of the “good news” and the “kingdom”, not just a mere escape from hell, but a renewed relationship with God and others. This is an important understanding that I fear is all too often lost in many churches today.
That being said, there were still some sections which seemed underdeveloped. Despite the fact that the book was arranged into five sections, there was no introduction for each section explaining its unique importance to the Anglican concept of “mission”, nor was there a deep contextual/historical understanding of each of these aspects. There was a slight mention of these things in the introduction, but only very slight, and while I could see why most of the chapters fell in the sections they did, it wasn’t always clear and it felt like some sections spilled over and dominated others, most notably the section on justice. The book as a whole seemed connected by themes of justice and the social components of the gospel more than the Anglican understanding of mission.
The most disappointing section for me was “Part II: The Second Mark of Mission: To Teach, Baptize, and Nurture New Believers.” Perhaps this is because I’m passionate about doctrine and theology myself and think there is a dangerous dearth of theological knowledge in many parts of the church today, but I expected much more content in this section. This section was primarily about progressive leadership, it didn’t really retain a focus on teaching the doctrines of the faith, or mention teaching new believers at all. I expected this section to be more aligned with a traditional understanding of “mission”—where people go forward and preach the gospel [in its fullest form], though perhaps encouraging us to do so in new forms.
Jefferts Schori describes the ideal “leader” in this section as one “who can envision a new or different future and motivate others to go with them.” (67) There is nothing inherently wrong with this definition, this is absolutely a necessary skill of any leader, and is perhaps especially needed in the present day, when many people feel that the institutional Church is antiquated, dated, irrelevant. However, I think there’s an important balance here that is missing, from this chapter and from the book as a whole. There is a necessary balance between being connected to the past, rooted in firm doctrine and the traditions that have been passed onto us, and the ability to discern the present times while looking ahead to the future. In a brief essay, James Davison Hunter once aptly described these as the “orthodox” and the “progressive” impulses. One looks to right doctrine, to authority, and gives moral guidance; the other parses out what the old things look like in a new time, culture, and place. This section would have been the perfect place to really discuss foundational doctrines and teachings necessary for our work in mission, for bringing people into communities of faith, but these were overlooked here and in the book overall.
This book excels in the progressive impulse—calling us to look forward to God’s kingdom, to make things right with our neighbors and ourselves, and especially to care deeply about justice. It speaks to modern situations, calling people to evaluate issues like illegal immigration, world hunger and poverty, and stewardship of creation (though this is occasionally done in ways that would alienate conservatives as opposed to engaging them). My own faith was renewed and my passion ignited when I learned about these things in college, and grew in my understanding of how the gospel was meant to impact all of life—and the Anglican understanding of mission is equally full-fledged. Yet we must also be careful to keep the social justice aspects of mission in balance with doctrinal ones, to learn to live rightly as well as to love well, to remember that there is a distinction between the first and second commandments—to love God and to love our neighbors—though they are most certainly interconnected. That caveat aside, this book is a wonderful addition to the continuing conversation about faith, and a helpful contribution to the understanding of “mission” which is often so narrowly focused in many books today. This new book by Katharine Jefferts Schori helps all people of faith understand how they can participate in “mission” work in their own way.