The Right Reverend James Edward Lesslie Newbigin C.B.E. (December 8, 1909 – January 30, 1998) was a distinguished British theologian, missionary, church leader and bishop who served as the last General-Secretary of the International Missionary Council and the first Director of the World Council of Churches' Division of Mission and Evangelism (1960 to 1965). From 1936 he was a Church of Scotland missionary in India, where he was consecrated as a bishop of the new Church of South India in 1947. He returned to India in 1965 as Bishop of Madras, retiring in 1974. However, retirement for Newbigin included five years teaching at the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham and seven years ministering to an inner-city congregation. His prolific writing earned him six honorary doctorates; his own Church elected him national Moderator in 1978, a one-year office. The state created him a Companion of the British Empire in 1974. Newbigin was one of the most influential British theologians of his era. A strong advocate of visible Christian unity, he saw this as God's will and did much to promote and encourage the move towards reunification.
Despite roots in a non-Episcopal tradition, he became convinced that episcopacy is essential for proper church order, that bishops, symbolizing unity of faith and practice, can gather previously estranged Christians around them into a single, universal community. His writing challenged the church to re-engage with the wider society not only on issues of justice and to achieve global peace but to encourage wholesomeness, that which nourishes human life in all fields of endeavor, such as the creative arts, the media, science and technology. He challenged Christians to see the gospel as public, not private truth. In his extensive writing about religious pluralism, he argued that Christians are obliged to witness to their faith but he rejected the contention that God only saves those who openly acknowledge Jesus Christ as their savior. In the end, mission for Newbigin was not simply about numbers or quantity but about the quality of believers; will they challenge injustice, break down barriers, care for the marginalized? He was also aware that Christians can find allies in the task of making the world a better, more peaceful, compassionate place whose religious allegiance lies elsewhere. Some Christians dismiss this as "salvation by works," claiming that such people think that by doing "good" they earn salvation. Newbigin saw ethical conduct as the fruit of genuine faith.
Newbigin was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumbria. His father was owner and manager of a shipping company who chaired the North of England Ship Owners Federation in 1922. His mother was of Scottish ancestry and both parents were committed Presbyterians. His father was also a pacifist and chose to send Lesslie to a Quaker boarding school where he would not be required to enter the military cadets. Newbigin attended Leighton Park in Reading, Berkshire. He was attracted by Quaker concern for those on the margins of society but was not deeply religious at this period in his life. He went to on matriculate at Queens' College, Cambridge in 1928. He soon became involved in the Student Christian Movement. Attending many meetings, he heard such people as William Temple and John Raleigh Mott speak. Both were pioneers of the ecumenical movement. Archbishop Temple was also a strong advocate for Christian social responsibility. Before he graduated, Newbigin made a profession of Christian faith while working at a camp for unemployed men and also became convinced that God wanted him to enter the ministry. He was conformed at St. Columbus Presbyterian Church, Cambridge. On as soon as the regulations of the Church of Scotland them, which was not until September 1936. They both intended to offer for overseas service. Newbigin was formally accepted as a missionary-designate in late 1935. Newbigin had returned to Cambridge in 1933 to train for the ministry at Westminster College, and in July 1936 he was ordained as a Church of Scotland minister. Helen, also accepted, underwent a statutory year of training and also taught for some time at her former school. Both were designated for service in Madras, India. At Westminster, Newbigin was initially set to take the theology tripos but unearthed an ancient regulation that enabled him instead to pursue a broader course of study since to be ordained he only needed to pass the College's ordination examination. He embarked on a deep reading and study of the Epistle to the Romans, which he saw as the most "complete" statement of the Gospel. After their marriage, the couple embarked for India September 26, 1936. On route, Newbigin wrote his first book, Christian Freedom in the Modern World (1937).
After reaching India, Newbigin began intensive study of Telegu. He became a fluent, eloquent Tamil speaker and preacher. Early progress, though, was hampered when he seriously injured his leg in a bus accident and after several unsuccessful operations had to return to Scotland for more surgery. It seemed that amputation might be necessary, which would have ended his missionary career. Fortunately, he recovered and by 1939 the couple and their first child born while in Scotland were back in India. For the next seven years they were stationed in Kanchipuram, a city of ancient and beautiful Hindu temples. Newbigin began to attend a study session and discussion held at the Ramakrishna Mission focusing on the Upanishads. Newbigin did not readily see a point of contact between Hindu religious thought and the Gospel; in his view, Hinduism had no room for a Savior. Rather, he saw "the secular experience of human life" as the place where common ground could be found. For this reason, and influenced by the social theology of William Temple, he began to work with the untouchables. As he labored in the villages both in development and evangelism, he became impressed by the leadership potential he encountered. He prepared a great deal of teaching material. By 1946 he was drawn into talks at a national—or rather South Indian level—about unity between three Protestant denominations, the South Indian United Church, already a union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists to which he was himself seconded, the Anglicans and the Methodists.
Newbigin enthusiastically supported the cause of Christian unity and was deeply committed to the process by which the three separated Churches became one. Two fundamental issues were what would shape the united church take and how would three different ministries become one. Newbigin, despite his Presbyterian background, began to see the episcopacy as God's will. He came to believe that this dated back to the time of the apostles. By recognizing the bishop as chief pastor of the diocese, Christians from diverse backgrounds could unite in a common faith. However, he was adamant that ministers who lacked Episcopal ordination would not have to be re-ordained. All would repent for past disunity and for past rancor and mutually covenant together. Future presbyters would be ordained by bishops but at the point of unification all ministers would be recognized. Newbigin was chosen as a bishop-elect, one of fourteen new bishops consecrated on September 27, 1947. The CSI was the first organic unity bringing non-Episcopal and Episcopal churches together. Before he took up his duties, Newbigin went home on furlough. In the United Kingdom, he encountered criticism of the union; Anglicans were upset that ministers who lacked Episcopal ordination would be officiating at the sacraments, which former Anglicans would receive while others, not least of all Presbyterians, were outraged that the united church had bishops. This led Newbigin to write another book, The Reunion of the Church: A Defence of the South India Scheme (1948), which he revised in 1960. Newbigin defended not only bishops as a form of church order or organization but the historical episcopacy, that is, one that can be traced back, bishop by bishop, to the apostolic era.
Newbigin's diocese was in the south east of Tamil Nadu state. Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India and, like Kanchipuram, home to many ancient Temples. He continued to work in the villages and oversaw a growing diocese but by now he was also active on the international scene. His book about the South Indian Church union attracted wide acclaim. He served on the planning committee for the inaugural assembly of the World Council of Churches, more or less drafting what became its "Message." He was appointed to chair the committee preparing for the second assembly, which took place in 1954. Next, he became Vice-Chair of the Faith and Order Commission and was instrumental in making "the nature of unity" a major theme at the third assembly, which took place in New Delhi, India in 1961. By then, he had taken up an ecumenical appointment outside India.
Other international meetings include the 1948 and the 1958 Lambeth Conferences of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which he attended as a personal guest of Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He remained disappointed to the end of his life that that "full communion" was not granted to the CSI. During 1952, Newbigin delivered the Kerr lectures at Glasgow, later published as The Household of God. This reflects his interest in the "nature of the Church." He links this closely with what shape Christian unity ought to take. His Harvard University William Belden Noble Lectures , delivered in 1958 was published as A faith for this One World? (1961). Later, lectures given at Yale University became The Finality of Christ. With reference to the existence of a plurality of faiths, Newbigin began to develop his distinctive contribution in thinking about religious diversity. In this book and in later writing, Newbigin argued that while Christianity cannot claim finality, Christians can and must regard Jesus as God's Final self-disclosure, as the unique agent of redemption as that all history is to be interpreted with reference to God's presence in Jesus Christ. Honorary doctorates began to follow; the first was awarded by Chicago Theological Seminary in 1953, the second by St Andrews, Scotland in 1958 and the third by Hamburg in 1960. Three others would follow. All were the D.D. (Doctor of Divinity.)
Now regarded as one of the world's leading thinkers on mission and unity, Newbigin was invited by the International Missionary Council to serve as General Secretary. His appointment was confirmed by the IMC's Ghana Assembly in 1958. Newbigin was reluctant to leave India but believed that he had a contribution to make as integration talks between the IMC and the WCC were well in hand. He agreed to serve for five years after which he intended to return to India. Officially, he was seconded by the CSI. The IMC was based in London but Newbigin traveled extensively. In 1960, he toured Africa "visiting 15 countries." 1961 saw him traveling around the Pacific and the Caribbean. Integration was confirmed at the New Delhi Assembly that year, making Newbigin the first director of the WCC's Division of World Mission and Evangelism. He moved, with his wife, to Geneva in 1962; their children were now away from home. The following year he was in Mexico for the Division's first international conference, on "Mission in Six Continents." He was especially anxious to end the old distinction between churches that send and those that receive missionaries; all churches should send and receive, the latter determined according to need by mutual consultation, not by a committee in the "mother" country that planted the daughter church a hundred or more years ago. Newbigin also emphasized and articulated a Trinitarian missiology at this time in his The Relevance of Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission originally published in 1963. Christians must proclaim the Gospel but it is the Holy Spirit that brings people to faith, often in ways that we fail to recognize. Between 1963 and the end of his term in 1965, books continued to flow from his pen. However, Newbigin and his wife were ready to return to India and glad when he was invited to take up appointment as Bishop of Madras.
Madras saw Newbigin enjoying a return to pastoral and Episcopal ministry, although he was still involved in the Faith and Order Commission attending the 1971 meeting. More books followed. Newbigin was now a widely respected theologian, although he had never occupied an academic post. Basel awarded him his fourth honorary doctorate in 1965. In 1968, he was a delegate to the WCC Assembly in Sweden. The diocese had been created as an Anglican bishopric in 1835. One of India's largest cities, the overflowing population had created slums where Newbigin began social welfare programs in addition to serving as deputy moderator of the whole CSI. In 1973 he was at the Mission and Evangelism conference in Thailand. Reaching 65 in 1974, the CSI retirement age Newbigin decided not to apply for a five-year extension but to return to the United Kingdom. He and Helen fulfilled a lifelong ambition by traveling overland, carrying their own luggage. The journey took two months, catching buses. Their route took them through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, the Balkans and on through the rest of Europe.
Newbigin accepted a part-time teaching post in mission studies at the Selly Oak College, a federation of colleges mainly affiliated to British Protestant missionary societies where missionary candidates are trained but also where students from overseas churches could pursue various certified and non-certified courses. Certified courses, which included higher degrees, were awarded by the University of Birmingham. Subsequently, some but not all of the Federation's members formally integrated with the University. Although the Anglican bishop invited Newbigin to serve as an Assistant Bishop, and despite his strong support for episcopacy, he decided to return to his roots. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists had by now united in England and Wales to form the United Reformed Church, of which Newbigin became a minister. He was, though, always referred to as Bishop Newbigin and remained a Bishop of the CSI. In choosing to identify with the united Reformed Church he was returning to and honoring his roots, practicing what he preached about the validity of non-Episcopal bodies and probably believed that he had a duty to try to lead his own tradition into visible union with all others. In 1974, he was honored as a Companion of the British Empire. 1975 saw another honorary doctorate, from Hull. In 1978-1879 he as national Moderator of the URC. More books followed, including several on the question of Christianity's public role and ability to engage with, critique and contribute to public life. Having spent so much time away from Europe, Newbigin was surprised to find that religion had retreated from the public square; it had become private. Newbigin passionately believed that Christians have a right to speak on issues of national and global concern. Several books addressed this, some written for the British Council of Churches. These include The Other Side of 1984, Foolishness to the Greeks and Truth to Tell. As a result, a major initiative called The Gospel and Our Culture, which saw conferences, networks, newsletters, publications, some salaried staff and was soon exported across the Atlantic. The Church has a duty to stand over and against culture and the secular powers, to correct, to criticize and when appropriate to praise. The Church had lost its ability to engage with economics, the arts, the world of sport, the mass media because it knew little about these and failed to utilize the knowledge that many lay members, rather than priests, ministers and leaders, do have.
Even after retiring from Selly Oak, Newbigin, then 72, took over the pastorate of a struggling URC Church near the Winson Green prison, surrounded by people mainly of South Asian origin. The same year, 1981 saw Newcastle University award him an honorary doctorate. He soon invited a colleague from India to join him in his work. Books still followed, including in 1985 the first edition of his autobiography, An Unfinished Agenda (updated 1993) and in 1989 The Gospel in a Pluralist Society perhaps his most important work containing his mature reflection and thinking. He also served as a Vice-President of the Birmingham Council of Christian Churches and as a member of its Free Church Committee. After another five years, Newbigin finally retired. He returned to India in 1988 to join the celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the IMC conference that had taken place at Tambaram, near Madras in 1938. I996 saw him attending the Mission and Evangelism Conference in Texas and visiting Brazil. In San Antonio, he was the older statesman of missions and gave two addresses, even though his eyesight had faded, that for many were the highlight of the proceedings.
In 1992, Newbigin and Helen moved into sheltered accommodation in London. He remained active, still preaching and writing. He died January 30, 1998 and was buried at Norwood. A memorial service was held in Southwark Cathedral.
Lesslie and Helen had four children, one son and three daughters. He was survived by his wife and children.
Newbigin is remembered especially for the period of his life when he had returned to England from his long missionary service and travels and tried to communicate the need for the church to communicate the Gospel anew to the post-Christian Western culture, which he believed had unwisely accepted the notions of objectivity and neutrality developed during the Enlightenment. In his biography of Newbigin, theologian Geoffrey Wainwright assesses the bishop's influential writing, preaching, teaching, and church guidance, concluding that his stature and range is comparable to the "Fathers of the Church." Weston describes Newbigin as "By any reckoning, a giant in ... ecumenical theology and mission thought in the twentieth century." Newbigin was one of the most influential British theologians of his generation. Yet to label him "British" may miss the point; his theology was also very much a product of his years in India. Although he went to India at a time when many missionaries retained attitudes of colonial superiority, despite India's independence. from the outset Newbigin nurtured local leadership. He remained in India because he believed that for some people to gain deep experience in another culture is ultimately enriching for others, when this experience is shared. This was why he returned to Britain while still able to share what he had learned and experienced as a missionary.
His Trinitarian emphasis, his insistence that the Gospel is "public truth" and his ideas about the shape and nature of Church unity represent seminal contributions to Christian thought. His legacy has been explored by several scholars, including Hunsberger, Stults, Wainwright and Weston. His papers are at the Orchard Learning and Resources Centre, Birmingham, the SCM center, Birmingham, the Church of Scotland archives and at the WCC, Geneva. Some papers are also housed at the Bishop Newbigin Institute for Church and Mission Studies, Royapeltah, Chennai, named in his honor. A complete bibliography is available at an internet site dedicated to his life and writing.
Newbigin was disappointed that while churches in India were uniting (the CSI was later followed by the Church of North India, which involved even more denominations) the old 'sending churches" lagged behind. He encouraged the British churches to followed the Indian lead. He criticized what he saw as acceptance of a type of federal unity represented by membership of the WCC. Most Protestant churches now allow intercommunion, which represents a de facto recognition of the validity of each others orders and sacraments. This, though, is not visible unity; the church remains divided, he said. To "speak of a plurality of churches," he said "in the sense of denominations" is "absurd." Christians need to recognize that the WCC is effective in enabling cooperation and conversation but is not an end in itself, it is not a substitute for unity. We can only speak of authentic unity when all Christians in every place share a common ministry and a common confession of apostolic faith. The historical episcopacy serves as a "magnet" around which Christian from diverse backgrounds can unite.
He spoke about three understandings of what it means to be "church"; there are those, typically Catholic, for whom Church is sacramental, being in communion with those ordained by bishops who stand in apostolic succession back to the primitive church. There are those for whom belonging to the Church is a mater of responding in repentance and faith to the proclamation of the Gospel, a typically Protestant view. Then there are those for whom the Church is the community of those who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, the Pentecostal and Charismatic view. All of these can be argued from and justified by scripture. The problem is that each emphasizes one aspect at the expense of others. True unity balances these. True unity is a single, visible fellowship and a single, universal ministry. Newbigin did not intend one form of church order, such as an Episcopal system, to totally replace forms that other churches have developed, such as congregational autonomy and governance by elders or by elected synods but that aspects would be retained, as they were within the CSI, whose bishops are elected. Inter-communion is not an end in itself but a step towards unity. He was saddened that the Roman Catholic Church would not permit this but understood that for Catholics this would compromise their understanding of what it means to belong to the Church, which is "sacramental participation in the life of the historically continuous church." Union must be preceded by genuine repentance; all orders of ministry and memberships must be accepted as valid. He saw no contradiction between his view that episcopacy is God's will and recognizing the validity of non-Episcopal churches, because validity is experiential and spiritual and depends on God's grace, not on conformity to every aspect of God's will.
Newbigin's mature reflections on pluralism are found in his 1989 book. In this book, he famously critiqued the popular "three paradigms" of exclusiveness, inclusiveness and pluralism that have been used to categorize theologies of religion. The first says that only Christians are assured of salvation, that faith in Jesus is the only way to God. The second says that salvation is indeed through Jesus. However, some who follow other faiths may still be included, by God's grace, in the salvation that is available through Jesus, even though they never make a confession of Christian faith. The third says that all religions are valid but different ways to achieve harmony with the Absolute. Newbigin said that his own position has aspects of all three; Jesus Christ for him is unique, and salvation is uniquely and exclusively through him. However, other people may indeed be "saved" even though they remain outside the Church. This is because an individual's response to God's grace and to the Gospel is something over which Christians have no control; it is a work of God's spirit. His view is "pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of Christ in the lives of all human beings but it rejects the pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God did in Jesus Christ." Some people respond by confessing Jesus as savior and joining the church. Others respond in ways of which we have no knowledge, yet God's grace because of Jesus' redeeming death and through the Spirit yet operates in their lives. Response may be visible or invisible. Christians, though, are obliged to proclaim the Gospel to people of no faith and to people who already have a faith. They must do this with respect, without causing unnecessary offense but as persuasively as they can; if God, creator and sustainer of all ... so humbled himself as to become part of our sinful humanity and to suffer and die ... to take away our sin ... them to affirm this is no arrogance." God's ultimate purpose is to "draw all humanity into Christ as one." Mission for Newbigin, who criticized the "Church Growth" school of missiology, was not simply about "numbers" or quantity but about the quality of believers; will they challenge injustice, break down barriers, care for the marginalized? He was also aware that Christians can find allies in the task of making the world a better, more peaceful, more compassionate place whose religious allegiance lies elsewhere. Some Christians dismiss this as "salvation by works," claiming that such people think "good works" can earn salvation. Newbigin sees ethical conduct as the fruit of genuine faith. A focus on "discipling" without also "perfecting" results in converts who see their task as "replicating their conversion in others" perhaps ignoring "the Gospel command to heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, give sight to the blind, to restore the world to its original perfection (Luke 4: 18-20), for only such as world will be acceptable to God.
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