Spreading the good news

Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799-1999
December 1, 2000

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) began life on April 12 1799 as an evangelical Anglican mission agency. This book is produced to mark its bicentenary. Its centenary had been marked with a multi-volume history, followed by another bringing its history up to 1942, but for the bicentenary the decision was made to forgo an institutional history and instead to produce a collection of essays examining the past, but also analysing some of the issues raised today by the whole notion of “mission”. Thus the volume under review contains both case studies (of the CMS and the churches it founded in Nigeria, New Zealand, Persia, India and Kenya) and reflections on the theology of mission.

The CMS was one of the earliest Protestant missionary societies, and over its 200 years has sent out an estimated 7,000 missionaries. This book is not hagiography (the word “failure” can be found in not a few places, and two essays chart its tardy acknowledgement of the equality of women members), but the influence of the CMS has been considerable. It has undeniably been a remarkable body, not least because of its leaders, of whom Henry Venn (secretary 1841-72), Max Warren (1942-63), and John V. Taylor (1963-74) are the best known. These leaders were continually reflecting, learning from experience, and pushing forward the boundaries of missionary thinking. Venn was famous for his goal of establishing “self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating” churches, with the consequent “euthanasia” of the founding mission. Warren and Taylor chartered new ways of thinking about Christian mission in a world of many faiths.

The CMS has seen the British Empire come and go. Most of its personnel have inevitably been linked with an English form of Christianity (although one essay here treats of the 102 Basel-trained German-speaking Lutherans who worked for the CMS from 1819-58); but anyone thinking that the CMS enterprise was an inextricable strand of British colonialism would find little comfort here. The CMS was determined to found genuinely national churches rather than transplant English Christianity, and distinguished carefully between the colonial church and the “native” church. Thus, for example, in 1902 when the Maoris were at their lowest level of about 42,000 and colonists numbered 700,000, the CMS left New Zealand, their second area of activity, since there seemed no chance of a genuinely native church. However, as Allan Davidson’s essay shows, the CMS thinking has since borne fruit with far greater recognition today of the Maori element in New Zealand’s Anglican church.

The CMS has been a major player in ensuring that churches that might have been outposts of English Christianity in former English territories overseas have in the past 50 years become a worldwide communion of independent and thoroughly localised non-European provinces of the ecclesia anglicana .

The CMS was also one of the first mission societies to widen its remit to take in its own country of origin. Changing its name to the Church Mission Society in 1995 to indicate that its object was to assist the wider church in mission rather than just to send missionaries somewhere, it has since 1980 had about 50 partners working in Britain itself, both among African and Asian immigrants, and more widely in educating the Church of England about issues of mission. Influence on English Christianity has also been exerted through personnel returning to England, some to positions of influence. Not the least among these is John V. Taylor, who after his period of CMS leadership became bishop of Winchester and chairman of the Church of England Doctrine Commission.

It is difficult in such a short review to single out individual essays; all are of a high standard — open, self-critical, accessible (many with photographs from CMS archives). The editors have produced a fitting bicentennial tribute to one of the most influential agencies involved in the expansion of Christianity and in the creation of its many localised appropriations.

Paul Gifford is reader in African Christianity, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Mission Society and World Christianity, 1799-1999

Editor - Kevin Ward and Brian Stanley
ISBN - 0 7007 1208 9
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 382

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