Monday 9 May 2011

The Return of the Mission

I met a distressed vicar yesterday. The source of his troubles was not guilt or doubt or the approach of the rapture: the terror facing this particular vicar was that this week he has to write a Mission Action Plan.

The management jargon shuddered on the preacher's lips like a blasphemy. He had to write down goals and objectives and mission statements and feed forward his blue-sky ideas from outside the box. That's what a Mission Action Plan (or MAP!) is.

He asked me whether I would write it for him, assuring me that it would be a work of pure fiction anyway. I refused because I am lazy. But as I wandered away from God and towards the pub, it occurred to me that the word mission has come full circle. The primary meaning of mission, as defined in the OED, is:

In Trinitarian theology: the sending into the world of the Son or Spirit by the Father, or of the Spirit by the Son, esp. for the purpose of salvation.

This is the sense that the word had in 1530. Mission was a solely religious word for the first hundred years of its existence in English. It's from the Latin misso, meaning send, and is, or was, the exclusive preserve of missionaries. It wasn't until 1626 that Francis Bacon invented the idea of godless, diplomatic mission, and it wasn't until 1910 that anybody had the idea that soldiers might be sent on a mission. The missions impossible and accomplished of soldiers and spies are a twentieth century invention.

And shooting people, as everybody knows, is cool and efficient. So it's the military sense of mission that was eventually stolen by business-speak and by management consultants. The modern Director of Regional Sales no longer has a job, he has a mission, just like a soldier, a mission that he must complete at all costs (or, preferably, minimum cost).

And guess who appropriated the word mission from the horrid world of management jargon and gibberish? That's right. The Church of England.

So mission has come full circle: from theology to diplomacy, to the military, to management-speak and back at last to its true home in the church. It is the prodigal son of the language, sleeping among the swine.

Indeed, I think the story of mission has already been described in the Ecclesiastes:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

And that is, of course, the origin of the phrase nothing new under the sun.

I cannot believe that this graph exists

P.S. Yes. There will be a post on the missionary position some time later in the week. I may have to do some research in the British Library.

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