Discipleship, Evangelism, Mission, Sermon

Failure or Faithfulness? A reflection on the life of Allen Gardiner

A meditation given in Blackburn Cathedral

Colossians 1.1-8; Luke 4.38-end

Today the Church remembers Allen Gardiner, founder of the South American Missionary Society, who died around this date in 1851.

In Colossians 1 Paul is writing to a young church he hadn’t founded – it had been founded by Epaphras, mentioned in v7, who had heard Paul’s message in Ephesus and taken it to Colossae. But Paul has heard great reports about the church in Colossae, and he commends them for their faith, hope and love, a very Pauline trinity of virtues, for their faith in Christ, for their love for all the saints, which comes from the hope laid up for them in heaven. Paul was able to see and rejoice in the fruit not only of his labours, but also of the labour of his disciple Epaphras.

What a contrast with the life of Allen Gardiner. Like St. Paul, Gardiner was a heroic traveller and evangelist, filled with faith, hope and love, who had not three but at least five missionary journeys, but unlike St. Paul he did not live to see the fruit of his labours:

  • He first went to South America as a Royal Naval officer, where the plight of the indigenous peoples, so long abused and exploited by the Europeans aroused a deep compassion and led him to leave the navy and devote himself to missionary work
  • He set out to work among the Zulus in South Africa and set up a chain of mission stations, but (in the words of historian Stephen Neill) ‘he turned out to be better at imagination than execution’, and attacks on the Zulus by the Boers made mission work impossible and he had to give up and leave
  • He then returned to South America, crossing the continent on a mule distributing Scriptures, but he made little headway due to the suspicion of the Indians, who regarded English missionaries with the same hostility as they did their Spanish conquerors
  • So he gave up and set about his next mission to Papua New Guinea, but this time the hostility of the Dutch rulers frustrated his plans
  • So he gave up and went back to South America, and founded the Patagonian Missionary Society, which became SAMS, but the hostility of local Roman Catholic clergy in Paraguay and Bolivia led him to set up a mission to the very far south to Tierra del Fuego. However when he returned to Tierra del Fuego with a team, the supply ship with provisions never arrived, and hostility of the natives was such that not only did this mission again end in failure, but during the harsh winter of 1851 the whole team gradually died of starvation one by one.

When the bodies of Gardiner and his companions were discovered by a Royal Naval ship which eventually arrived four months later, Gardiner’s journal was still in his hands. In his journal, with an unsteady hand enfeebled by starvation he had written, ‘Poor and weak as we are, our boat is a very Bethel to our souls, for we feel and know that God is here. Asleep or awake, I am, beyond the power of expression, happy.’ And he added, ‘Let not this mission fail.’

News of Gardiner’s heroic sacrifice made an impact back in Britain and let to the rejuvenation of the missionary society he founded. However the first-fruits of Gardiner’s mission was only seen long after his death, when 21 years later the first group of Tierra del Fuegans was baptised. And a remarkable tribute to the eventual fruitfulness of Gardiner’s mission is found in a letter by none other than Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to the South American Missionary Society, ‘The success of the Tierra del Fuego Mission is most wonderful, and charms me, as I always prophesied utter failure. It is a grand success. I shall feel proud if your committee think fit to elect me as an honorary member of your society.’

Allen Gardiner died a failure, yet the long-term fruit of his ministry is clearly evident today, in one of the fastest growing provinces of the Anglican Communion, the province of the Southern cone of South America, with over 25,000 members.

What does Gardiner’s example have to say to us today, trying to serve God  in 2017? We live in an age which wants to see instant results, fast food, houses made over in a weekend for TV, crash diets and exercise plans that promise to transform our bodies in weeks. And we live in a church where we can feel under pressure to show instant results, to produce success stories that can be quickly tweeted, whether that’s more converts through Alpha or Pilgrim, increased attendance figures, or more social projects that make quick headlines in the local press.

But the failures and the eventual fruitfulness of Allen Gardiner’s ministry reminds us that the fruitfulness of our own ministry or of Vision 2026 may not be seen in two or three years, or even in our lifetime – it may only be visible years later, and in ways we will know nothing about until we get to Glory.

In the meantime we are called to simply go on doing what Jesus did, following the example of Jesus in Luke 4, who devoted his energies to making disciples, to witnessing through words of proclamation in the synagogue, and through acts of loving service to those in need, to Simon’s mother in law, and to the crowds of sick brought to him after sunset, and to times of withdrawal from the crowds to be with the Father.

Like Jesus, and like his first disciples, we are called to engage with people in witness and loving service, and to spend time apart from people with the Father. I believe that on the last day Jesus will not ask of Allen Gardiner, ‘Were you successful?’ but rather, ‘Were you faithful?’

And that is the same question he will ask of each of us.

A prayer

Heavenly Father, we embrace your call for us to make disciples, to be witnesses and to grow leaders. Give us the eyes to see your vision, ears to hear the prompting of your Spirit, and courage to follow in the footsteps of your Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

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