Outreach and Christian Identity

19th April 2018

As a small child, Charlotte Bannister told everyone she wanted to be a missionary when she grew up. Now she is the Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker, Director of Outreach for The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. So, it seemed particularly appropriate that she should give the last Diversity Lecture of the 17-18 academic year on 'Outreach and Christian Identity' on 17 April. From the outset, she made it clear that her biblical principles of successful outreach were derived from her personal experience in a lifetime of working with development and outreach organisations.

Clearly, Ms Parker had known the love of God from her childhood as a 'cradle Christian' and had always had a strong sense of 'shared humanity'. She described her experience working in India reporting on the lives of women and campaigning to get women's concerns incorporated in the political process. Subsequently she worked in Mother Teresa's community in Calcutta and prayed to develop the ability to look anyone in the eye and see Christ – whether they were Christian or Hindu, orphan, dying or destitute. She developed a belief in 'the principle of charity in a fragmented world'. "Lord, open our eyes that we may see you in our brothers and sisters", she learnt to pray with Mother Teresa. The work confirmed her in her Christian faith. Her first listed principle for mission was "Be honest to your roots."

Her second principle for mission was to "put global social justice at the forefront of mission." It's important to "see what God values through the eyes of Christ and look at social justice without demonising the financial structures of the world" she said, quoting Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In her 20s, while working in Kenya raising funds for the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, Ms Parker experienced a spectacular intervention in her life. With a group on a snorkelling expedition on Christmas Eve, she was shipwrecked in shark-infested waters by a 30-foot wave. Hanging on to a plank for five hours during the night, the group, after several disappointments, finally reached the coral reef where they were rescued. "My life was saved by a Muslim", she said. Not surprisingly, her third principle for successful outreach was "Humanity unites and divides us – we need to understand, admire and appreciate people of other faiths."

During her five years, as The Bishop of Oxford's Advisor for Overseas Projects, she was sent by the bishop to work at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, on developing an HIV/Aids project. After initial misgivings, she learnt her fourth principle of outreach – "Don't make assumptions."

Ms Parker's life in Africa alerted her to the importance of young people in mission and outreach. She presented the startling statistic from the UN in 2015: by 2030 - 42% of global youth will have lived in Africa. Her fifth principle of outreach: "Listen to the youth."

Finally, Ms Parker described to her audience her response to the war in Iraq and images of prisoners in Basra. Feeling totally horrified, she approached the imam at the mosque near her church in Oxford. "If we walk to the mosque from the church, will you welcome us, can we come in?" she asked. Thus was born the Interfaith Friendship Walk which now includes Jews, Sikhs and people of other religions. "Communities matter," said Charlotte, referring finally to the African principle of Ubuntu and quoting Bishop Desmond Tutu, "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. A person is a person through other persons", she concluded.

Inevitably, the rich Q&A session included questions about the difference between inter-faith conversations and conversion targets and about 'the danger of ending up in 'wishy-washy religion' by doing prayers with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs etc.'. Charlotte maintained, "I just became a richer Christian by others asking me questions about what I believe and letting them share with me their perspective on what I believe." Another person asked whether it was possible to share faith without being oppressive or colonising. In Charlotte's experience, it had been in many places, she said, especially in India where she believed that there was a legacy of educational empowerment. When someone asked her, "What do you think about Seventh-day Adventists?" whom she had rarely met before that evening, she answered, "I'd like to get to know you better!" 

The full lecture can be seen on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page


[Helen Pearson]

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