Readings for the feast day of Roland Allen, Friday, June 8, 2018:
In our Gospel parable today about the sower and the seed, we are reminded that we are not in control of the outcome of the seed that is sown, yet we are to sow it anyway–and we may not yet have discovered all the places mission strategist Roland Allen might have cast seed that fell on fertile ground.
Although Roland Allen’s work had only minimal effect on the missionary societies and churches of his day, he is one of those folks who keeps getting re-discovered. Seeds he cast long ago and believed dormant still sprout once in a while. Chances are, if you participate in some form of multicultural ministry and outreach, or attend a church where the priest’s formation is an alternative to the residential three year seminary experience, you are nurturing a seed Roland Allen had sown. I wonder if he’d even be surprised himself how far some of those seeds were flung!
Roland Allen was the fifth and youngest child of an Anglican priest, born in 1868. Although orphaned at an early age, he benefited through scholarships, and was able to attend both Oxford and the Leeds Clergy Training school. He was ordained deacon in 1892 and priest in 1893. By 1895 he was already headed to the mission field, going to China under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He had served missions there twice before he resigned in 1907 in protest. Missionaries were expected to baptize any child presented to him for baptism, whether the parents were Christian or not. Allen strongly felt this was a paternalistic attitude on the part of the church, and he was beginning to rebel against the idea that English missionaries knew more than the indigenous people in a region on how to structure their churches. He would spend the rest of his life as a “free range missionary priest” making a living by writing and speaking on the lecture circuit until his death in Kenya in 1947. Contemporaries found his methodologies controversial (and some of the controversies still remain), but time has shown that some of his ideas had more value than originally thought. Despite the controversy, he remained thoroughly Anglican, insisting on Anglican ecclesial oversight of mission churches and faithfulness to the creeds and sacraments.
Yet at the same time, some of the tenets of Allen’s mission strategy methods have become a part of our 21st century church. Roland Allen believed that imposing English liturgical form in the mission field was a mistake, and liturgy should be adaptable to local cultural conditions. He believed the Holy Spirit was just as likely working through the local people just as much as through the missionaries, and he advocated raising up locals to eventually lead and sustain the church. His methods are why we presently are beginning to experience greater diversity in worship in the various cultural expressions of the Episcopal church today, and part of how we are forming priests outside of a three year residential seminary experience. As one of those priests who was formed with a combination of online seminary courses, local formation, and diocesan formation, I am personally grateful Roland Allen pushed the envelope a bit, and poked at a few sacred cows!
Whether one agrees with Roland Allen’s methods or not, one thing is sure–he was a tireless proponent on always leaving room for the Holy Spirit to do her thing.
How might we leave a little more room for the Holy Spirit in our worship communities and in ourselves?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri as Interim Pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd and Chaplain of the Community of St. Brigid, both in Town and Country, MO.