January 30 – Lesslie Newbigin

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

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Lesslie Newbigin, Christian thinker

The Right Reverend James Edward Lesslie Newbigin, CBE (1909-1998).

Newbigin was born 8 December 1909 in Northumbria (North Britain) to a devout Christian family. This was not a faith he shared, for during his time at boarding school he had “abandoned the Christian assumptions of [his] home and childhood.” This changed when he attended Cambridge University and became a member of the Student Christian Movement. At the end of his first year of study Newbigin spent his summer at a Quaker service center in South Wales, one that catered to the miners of the region. In the midst of the hardship he witnessed, Newbigin had a vision,

“a vision of the cross, but it was the cross spanning the space between heaven and earth, between ideals and present realities, and with arms that embraced the whole world. I saw it as something which reached down to the most hopeless and sordid of human misery and yet promised life and victory. I was sure that night, in a way I had never been before, that this was the clue that I must follow if I were to make any kind of sense of the world.”

Though a long quote, this vision became the central point of all that followed in Newbigin’s life and work.

Upon graduation from university, Newbigin became part of the SCM staff and here he met and married Helen Henderson (they would have three children). He would train for the ministry within the Presbyterian Church before becoming a missionary to India (1936). He served as a “district missionary” in Kanchipuram for the period of WWII and was instrumental in working towards the creation of the Church of South India. In 1947, he was appointed Bishop of Madurai and Ramnad.

Newbigin was instrumental in the ecumenical movement, working as General Secretary of the International Missionary Council (IMC) and drafter of many ecumenical statements. He was responsible for overseeing the integration of the IMC and the World Council of Churches (WCC). At the conclusion of his secondment to the WCC, Newbigin returned to India, and served as the Bishop in Madras until his retirement in 1975.

After returning to England, Newbigin taught theology of mission and ecumenical studies along with Hinduism at Birmingham University. He transferred his ordination to the United Reformed Church, and in 1980-88 became the minister of the URC, Winson Green, Birmingham. This church had had no minister for 40 years and was housed in a building that had stood condemned for 30 years. The neighbours were from the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies, and the church stood opposite the gates of HM Prison Birmingham. This experience confirmed for Newbigin the missionary context of western society.

Newbigin was the keynote speaker and bible study leader at the first (and only) National Conference of Australian Churches held in Melbourne February 1960. 350 attended the 10 day conference and 175 participants (46% of the total number) were members of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational denominations in Australia. The conference signalled a renewed emphasis on the mission for the local congregation. In his closing remarks Newbigin stressed that the ecumenical encounter was, “for the sake of the gospel and the witness that you have to bear to the Australian nation.

The conference was timely and influenced the work of the Joint Commission on Church Union formed by the three denominations. The November 1962 report, The Church its Nature, Function and Ordering was a key document that led to the formation of the Uniting Church 15 years later. Members of the Joint Commission and participants in the conference included Alan Watson, J. F. Peter and John C. Alexander (Presbyterian), Frank Hambly, Hubert H. Trigge, and Bertram R. Wyllie (Methodist) and J. D. Northey (Congregational). Colin Williams and J. Davis McCaughey were also involved as conference members lived in at the 5 denominational colleges within the University of Melbourne. Harvey Perkins was conference secretary and with others continued to provide leadership in the ecumenical movement in the following decade.

Proposals for the united church included the recommendation that ordained ministers be named Presbyters, leadership to include bishops and that the consideration be given to forming a concordat with the Church of South India. It could be that Newbigin’s role as Bishop of the Church of South India contributed to this proposal. After further debate and consideration each of these proposals were not agreed to when the Basis of Union was adopted.

He initiated The Gospel and Our Culture Movement in the early 1980s, which would become better known as the missional church movement in the USA. Newbigin died in 1998, as one of the key and most creative ecumenical and missionary thinkers of the twentieth century. A prolific author, a good number of his books have stood the test of time, but if I had to recommend one as compulsory reading it would be his 1953 “Household of God.”

Rev Dr John Flett / Dean Eland