Within the context of overseas mission, the term "comity" refers to arrangements mutually agreed upon by the mission organizations working within a given area or country. These agreements specify where each group is to carry out its ministries of witness and service.
Some advantages in such agreements are immediately evident, e.g., the dialogue and mutual respect inherent in the process of establishing comity arrangements; the distribution of missionary personnel and witness over as wide an area as possible; and the avoidance of overlapping and competition between several missions in a given area.
Comity arrangements, however, have also on occasion had some negative dimensions. They may foster an "empire mentality" with regard to a specific area and ethnic population which have become the exclusive domain of ministry for one particular mission. Comity arrangements may also facilitate the uncritical reproduction of a Western form of Christianity which, in a context of isolation, makes comparison and challenge difficult. They may leave people in the area little choice as to the Christian tradition they wish to adopt or follow.
Large scale inter-mission comity arrangements were largely characteristic of the era before World War II. Typical examples were China, India, and a variety of countries in Africa. By 1960, in Zaire (Belgian Congo), for example, there were more than 50 different Protestant missions at work, each with a separate and agreed-upon area of ministry within the country.
With the transition of leadership from missionary personnel to national pastors, however, comity arrangements have been by and large considered as a feature of the missionary era and no longer relevant or helpful for the church in its work. It is particularly in the rapidly growing overseas urban centers that denominations have quickly multiplied as church leaders have sought out fellow believers in the cities and encouraged them to meet and organize into congregations. A variety of Protestant denominations, which in large part reflect the different missions which have been at work in the country, are now usually found in the cities. It is in the rural areas where the impact of comity patterns are still often found. This is not due to commitment on the part of national church leaders to respect them but is simply the legacy left by missions which evangelized significant blocks of rural populations and planted churches of their denomination or tradition in the absence of any other denomination or confession.
There seems to have been a correlation between the presence of active interconfessional Christian councils and fairly detailed comity arrangements. The lack of such arrangements also seems to correlate with the absence of strong councils. It seems clear that comity arrangements have been born of active interdenominational cooperation and not vice versa.
Mennonite mission boards which have fielded personnel in areas where there were active Christian councils with comity agreements in place have generally respected them and have consulted with mission and church groups on the scene regarding their new areas of work. Roman Catholics have typically ignored Protestant comity arrangements they have found around the world. Protestants have usually returned the favor. This course of action has often lent itself in the past to competition and heated confrontation. With the transition from expatriate to national church leadership in more recent years, the interconfessional relations have tended to be less volatile in a number of areas of the world.
Malagar, P.J. The Mennonite Church in India. Nagpur : National Council of Churches in India, 1981.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 169. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bertsche, James E. "Comity." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C6535ME.html.
APA style: Bertsche, James E. (1989). Comity. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C6535ME.html.