Tuesday, November 16, 2010

hospitality as mission: an intriguing take on church’s response to Constantine

An intriguing thought occurred as I read And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. It is an fascinating book, as it collects early Christian writings on hospitality. Diaries, letters, instructions, sermons, travelogues, community records, all grouped together. I love that mix of ancient paper, of historic wisdom, helpfully tied together with concise summaries.

Chapter seven is titled “Building a place of hospitality: Forms of institutionalization” and the book argues:

“As Christianity became more structured in the fourth century we see the rise of Christian institutions under the authority of the stage.” 215

It looks as roles – the development of bishops responsible for administering hospitality and buildings – lodging places for pilgrims, hospices; hospitals; almhousese “whose missions focused on hospitality, emerge as dominant forces by the early fifth century.” (215).

It was that sentence that made me sit upright. Earlier, the book had argued that Christian life must be rooted in otherness and that hospitality was a key way to understand one’s own marginal position. In other words, as you practise hospitality you are being formed spiritually in what it means to care not for yourself but for others, on what it means to be vulnerable.

So here’s the intriguing thought. When Constantine comes along, the church is welcomed into the centre of the empire. What if the church was aware of the danger – of power, of self-interest, of losing vulnerability? What if they responded by creating structures – places of hospitality and leaders in hospitality – in order to keep vulnerability, marginality at the core of their DNA? (How well they succeeded is another question)

It reminds me of the quote by Graham Ward in Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice

There is then a twofold work for those projects involved in developing transformative practices of hope: the work of generating new imaginary significations and the work of forming institutions that mark such significations, (146)

This is what excites me about cultural change. There is the tasks of dreaming, and then of generating, and finally of forming institutions that mark the changes. These were hospitals in the 4th century. And job descriptions for leaders that include mission (as I blogged about here).

And in the twenty-first century? For me, they include the Fresh expressions movement, or the new Missional Masters degree here at Uniting College, or the change of structures so that Uniting College has a missiology stream.

Posted by steve at 09:58 AM


  1. http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/10420

    Comment by Isaiah — November 22, 2010 @ 3:49 am

  2. Sorry I meant to say more with my last comment.

    I wrote that article quite a while ago, but I think it might be an interesting read for you.

    Comment by Isaiah — November 22, 2010 @ 3:50 am

  3. Thanks Isaiah. It’s an interesting post and I appreciate the link.

    My initial comment would be that it does seem a long way from an experiential story from the 20th century to what happened in the 4th. Might there be other factors involved – cultural?


    Comment by steve — November 22, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

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