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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
On a mission for the 21st Century
By Georgina Pattinson
BBC News

Richard Sudworth
Richard Sudworth wants to "earn" his right to be heard
Doughty, formidable and full of conviction: the image of a missionary is, for many, rooted in the 19th Century.

The Victorian missionary can be a source of inspiration to some - but today's missionaries are a different breed.

They are as likely to take the message of the gospel to Birmingham as Botswana.

Only last month, missionary Mark Berry made the news when he moved to Telford.

His remit was to encourage more people aged between 20 and 40 to come to church, after it was discovered that less than 1% of Telford residents regularly worship.

Modern missionary

The organisation behind him, the Church Mission Society (CMS), is a voluntary association of people rooted in the Anglican Communion.

It was founded in 1799, and now has 150 mission partners in 26 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Richard Sudworth is one modern missionary now working in Birmingham. Before joining, he worked for a large, multi-national financial group.

He jokingly refers to his move as the "Christian equivalent" of buying organic farm in Herefordshire - but is equally aware of what he calls the "baggage" of the past.

Richard Sudworth
People would talk about faith and want to know my opinion
Richard Sudworth

"I'm not sure I like the label missionary," he says.

"I wouldn't call myself one - I work full time for the Church Mission Society.

"For me, all of us who profess to be Christians have a task in the world to bring about a difference."

It seems as though the tables have turned - and it is secular Britain that is in the church's sights.

"The notion of bringing missionaries here is becoming more and more obvious," says Canon James Rosenthal at the Anglican Communion.

"It happens more regularly than people realise."

He cites a recent visit by members of the Melanesian Brotherhood - whose mission serves the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

They have been in the UK since April, performing interpretations of Biblical stories.

Huge challenge

Richard Sudworth calls it a "two way thing", pointing out that many of the communities missionaries once travelled to are now vibrant places of worship.

"We as a western church are on the margins. We're not in the position where we shape society - there's a huge challenge to work out what the Christian faith means now."

The Melanesian visitors performed the gospel story of the Prodigal son
The Christian message is being brought back to Britain by those who once received missionaries

Canon Rosenthal talks about the difference between African churches - where up to 10,000 people worship together - and poor attendance at UK services.

"I'm not saying it's the same circumstances - you've got to be realistic - but it's getting so bad here it's an embarrassment," he says.

And the very notion of what a missionary does has changed. Mr Sudworth sees his job as honouring another way of life, not imposing on it.

"I love travel, love languages and meeting different people and tasting different cultures. I want to make my faith relevant to another culture," he explains.

Relevant faith

Now 36, married and with two small children, his mission took him to north Africa, where he lived alongside Muslim neighbours. Evangelism by example was his creed - a far cry from the aggressive proselytising of the past.

"People would talk about faith and want to know my opinion," he says.

"Evangelism should be explanation, rather than proclamation."

Of course, missions to dangerous parts of the world still call the faithful - and it can be a dangerous job. Attacks against Christian missionaries in India are not uncommon, for example.

We ask for no special favours: we want to avoid the mistakes made in past years. All we ask for is to come to the market place
David Kerrigan, BMS

In early June, two preachers, K Issac Raju and K Daniel, were found dead after going missing in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh capital. In 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his two sons were burned to death by a mob.

A mission will never disguise its faith, but missions are charitable enterprises too, says David Kerrigan, the director of mission for BMS.

Sharing faith

"We will be in some places and the primary task will be one of evangelism; in some places, the primary task will be feeding."

And he is firm in his view of what a mission means.

"From a western secular perspective, an evangelical agenda is anachronism," he says.

"It's not to most of the world. I include Muslims and Buddhists, who would seek to share their faith. That's what we believe in - the right to share our faith.

"Who has the right to say that in this market place it's a voice not allowed to be heard? We ask for no special favours: we want to avoid the mistakes made in past years. All we ask for is to come to the market place.

"We would say we've every right to shape the values and decision of our own society and those around the world."

Missionary sent to 'secular' town
27 Jun 05 |  Shropshire


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