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Our Story: the DNA of CMS

By Philip Mounstephen. 

Below is the transcript of Philip Mounstephen's talk at the Our Story Hui.


If you were to sit at my desk in CMS House in Oxford and look at my computer screen you would see that I have as my wallpaper a picture of a silver teapot. The teapot itself is safely stored in our archives. But it was around that teapot that a group of people gathered one day in March 1799. These people were members of what was known as the Eclectics Society and they met regularly to discuss topics of mutual interest: the question that day was this: "What methods can we use more effectually to promote the knowledge of the Gospel among the Heathen?"

The answer they came up with to that question was to form a society: which they did almost straightaway, in fact the very next month: it was a society not formed for itself, but formed for the sake of others, and formed indeed for the sake of the Lord, to love and to serve his world; the society which was first called ‘The Society for Missions to Africa and the East instituted by members of the Established Church’, but which today we call rather more simply the Church Mission Society.

This new Society was in many ways the brain child of the remarkable group of friends who lived together in what was then the village of Clapham, to the southwest of London, under the guidance of the Rector of Clapham, John Venn. The best known of this group of friends was William Wilberforce, the leading light in the campaign to abolish the slave trade, but in truth it was a gathering of many quite remarkable people. Their detractors labelled them, rather derisively ‘The Clapham Sect’ but it’s a name that stuck and by which we will still refer to them – but now with great affection.

Today however I want to highlight their connection with another place. It’s not quite on the edge of the world as is New Zealand (and I apologise if that’s a very European perspective). But this place is definitely on the margins in UK terms. Many of the people gathered that day in London, or who were involved in one way or another in the founding of CMS, had strong connections with the Yorkshire port of Kingston upon Hull – usually called just ‘Hull’ for short.

A few months ago I was in Hull to give thanks for 200 years of the Hull and District Association of the Church Mission Society – another significant bicentenary - and a wonderful time we had. Hull is a very significant place in CMS story because as I say almost all our founders in the Clapham Sect had some connection with the city – either because they came from there or because they married into Hull families. Indeed they all came from Hull trading families and I think that’s significant because I believe as a consequence they had a naturally global instinct. Hull may be a long way from anywhere else in England but if Wilberforce wanted to be globally connected all he had to do was walk out of his back gate on the High Street and go straight down to the ships moored on the wharfs along the river Hull – ships that traded into the Baltic, up to Russia, and across the world.

The Hull connections are many and varied - and lead us in fact directly to here, to New Zealand. Let’s start the journey with William Wilberforce who was undoubtedly the city’s most famous son. He was educated at Hull Grammar School, where he struck up a lifelong friendship with his Headmaster, Joseph Milner. It was Milner’s brother Isaac who was later instrumental in Wilberforce’s powerful and life changing conversion – his conversion to Christian faith which became the mainspring of all his subsequent activity.

But among Joseph Milner’s other pupils at Hull Grammar School was a man called Samuel Marsden: Samuel Marsden, whose name you’ll already know very well. In 1793 Samuel Marsden, on Wilberforce’s recommendation, became the second chaplain to the penal colony in Botany Bay and then subsequently, eleven years later, was sent by CMS to bring the gospel here to New Zealand, in 1814 – the event of course which we are gathered here to celebrate.

So you can see that there is a direct connection between the city of Hull, where CMS really has its roots, and the first preaching of the gospel here through Samuel Marsden. In this talk today I want to bring out and help us reflect on some particular features of CMS early mission, including that mission to New Zealand, in the context of the truly remarkable global movement in mission that took place in the 19th Century and beyond.

The great missionary enterprise of the 19th and 20th Centuries has often been criticised, frequently out of ignorance. Now we certainly didn’t always get it right, not by any means. But today we should reflect too that many of those people who followed the call to mission left their homes with their possessions packed in a coffin because they had no expectation of returning. Often as not they respected the cultures they found, expressed the gospel sensitively in the terms of that culture and frequently stood in the gap between those cultures and the often brutal machinery of European imperialism. That was true in NZ but it was true elsewhere too. We didn’t always get it right, but we often did, and at great costs to those who undertook the endeavour Over the 215 years since our founding some 10,000 people have crossed cultures and continents to share the good news of Jesus through CMS, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the face of the Church in Africa, in Asia and in South America – and indeed in other places too – is substantially different because of the long-term, committed, faithful, sacrificial work of CMS mission partners. From Hull and Clapham such incredible influence flowed. It flowed in every direction, around the globe and back again, so that now I’m delighted to say that we have wonderful mission partners, Chris and Anna Hembury, doing fantastic work back in Hull itself.

My favourite quotation about CMS comes from a man called S. C. Carpenter, Dean of Exeter. Writing way back in 1933 he looks back at the history of CMS and says this: ‘CMS was at times limited, at times injudicious, but always full of life; a guild with its own peculiar vocation within the life of the Church’. I love that. I think it captures something of the adventurous ambition of the Society. I don’t mind us being limited, as long as we limit ourselves to mission; I don’t mind us being sometimes injudicious, because we always want to take risks in mission; but I do want us to have that sense of being a guild, a family, a community – think of those friends gathered together round the teapot – with a sense of our own particular calling within the life of God’s church: a calling to long-term, committed, faithful, sacrificial global mission.

But let’s now focus our thinking more specifically on some of the key features of that early mission, not least as it was expressed in mission here in NZ. The title of this talk is “Our Story: the DNA of CMS” – so let’s try and identify just four strands of that DNA.

Here is the first. Our mission has been and always will be about people. Our mission has been and always will be about people. It sounds deceptively simple, but actually it’s fundamental. Mission is about people. It’s not about technique or strategy – at least not first and foremost. First and foremost it’s about people relating to other people and discovering in the encounter their true humanity in Jesus Christ. In the bicentenary service in Hull, Chris Hembury was interviewed and was asked what he and Anna do, and he said, ‘Well I can tell you about the different activities we organise, but it’s what happens between those activities that really counts’. And of course he meant by that the relationships they build, the trust they establish, with the people with whom they work. Because it’s in those encounters, in those gaps, that Jesus is shared and lives are changed. Indeed it was wonderful to meet Lee that weekend – a young man from the area where Chris and Anna work, who Chris brought to faith and who is now bringing other young people to faith himself: Chris’s spiritual grandchildren. It’s all about people.

And of course this is deep rooted for us. Way back at the beginning John Venn, Rector of Clapham and one of our founders, enunciated the foundational principles by which we work. It’s worth listing them all, though I want to focus on the final one. We call them the Venn Principles and they read as follows:

Follow God’s lead
Put prayer first, money second
Begin small
Rely on the Spirit of God

And the fifth was this: ‘Success will depend on the kind of men employed.’ We’ll forgive him the gender specific language of his age, but we won’t be fooled by the deceptively simple language. It really is all about people – and about the quality of people we send. It’s not about technique or strategy – at least not first and foremost. First and foremost it’s about people relating to other people and discovering in the encounter their true humanity in Jesus Christ. That’s why when we today articulate our four values we don’t talk about four detached adjectives: pioneering, evangelistic, relational and faithful. We say rather that we are people who are pioneering, evangelistic, relational and faithful. It’s all about character and being formed in the likeness of Christ and displaying his character to the world.

Getting people to go at the start was something of a struggle. In fact it took years to get anyone to go at all. Indeed at the beginning the first people we persuaded to go weren’t English Anglicans at all, but German Lutherans. But go they eventually did, in their thousands, often as I say with no expectation of returning. One of the first things I did in my time in office was to visit the grave of Bishop James Hannington behind Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala. Hannington was martyred bringing the gospel to Uganda. And he wasn’t alone in meeting that fate.  And I am constantly challenged and awed that such a sacrificial spirit of service lives on.

Of course that sacrificial spirit was made manifest here in NZ too. It was no small thing at the start of the 19th century to come over here from the other side of the world. The majority of people who came never went back. I’m enjoying learning more about Samuel Marsden in my time here. But he does seem to me to have been a remarkable man – alongside many other remarkable people, both men and women in this story we’re re-living over these few days. And can I just acknowledge the fact here that the people I’m highlighting today are men, because their stories are better known. But the truth is that the majority of people who have served in mission have been woman – and some truly remarkable women at that. But Marsden too was remarkable not least in his faithfulness. As we shall see in a moment he simply would not give up even though he had good reason to more than once. But this remarkable man’s faithfulness would eventually lead to great fruitfulness. And it is remarkable people, much more than policies or strategies, who mark so much of the early years of CMS – and they challenge us to be remarkable in our turn, the Lord being our helper, and above all to manifest, to embody, in ourselves, by his Spirit, the likeness of Christ.

A second stand of DNA I want us to examine follows from the first. These remarkable people we celebrate here were remarkable not least for their sheer dogged persistence. We’ll come back to NZ later, but for the moment I want us to turn to another part of the world to illustrate this. Back at the beginning of October, Bishop David Evans, former Bishop of Peru and General Secretary of SAMS, spent the day with us at CMS. SAMS – the South American Missionary Society – was for many years a separate organization but merged with CMS a few years ago. We merged not least because SAMS and CMS shared so much DNA. Bishop David led us in latin-style Holy Communion and then joined with us in two hours of focussed prayer for South America.

To inspire us for the day we put one or two treasured artifacts from the archives on display – including famous teapot, plus the sextant and diary of Captain Allen Gardiner, the man who was the pioneer of mission in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. He was the pioneer of mission in the extreme south of South America even though he never saw a single convert and starved to death with the rest of his party on a remote beach.

I found it incredibly moving to read his final diary entry, written in his own very frail hand. He wrote this: Great and marvellous are the loving-kindnesses of my gracious God unto me. He has preserved me hitherto, and for four days, although without bodily food, without any feeling of hunger or thirst. And then there is no more.

Allen Gardiner’s story shares a common theme with many other stories of early missionary endeavour. So many of these stories are marked by sheer dogged persistence. These were not in the main stories of triumphant progress, but rather stories marked by much opposition, difficulty and discouragement. The second party that followed Gardiner were all speared to death by the local people. And yet still they came.

And while events in NZ didn’t turn out to be quite so bloody, it still required incredible persistence on the part of Marsden and others to keep going. The mission to NZ was first approved by CMS in 1808 – 9 years after its establishment, and in those 9 years only a tiny handful of people had been sent out. The mission to NZ was approved by CMS in 1808 but it was over 6 years more before Marsden would even set foot in NZ. The conditions were tough and the missionaries were particularly unwelcome in the eyes of the number of renegade European settlers who were already here. In 1822 there was the disastrous incident where Thomas Kendall and two other missionaries were implicated in inter-tribal warfare and became the first missionaries ever to be dismissed from CMS service. And it was a full 11 years after Marsden first preached that the first baptism took place as a consequence of the mission’s work.

And yet... And yet they persisted. They would not give up. Would we have done the same? I fear not. I fear that my generation at least is too easily put off by difficulty and discouragement. If something doesn’t appear to work we presume that it is not the Lord’s will that it should and we move on to something else.

But people such as Allen Gardiner and Samuel Marsden had a different perspective. They were so steeped in the scriptures that they did not doubt that it was indeed the Lord’s will that his gospel should spread across the whole world. They understood that difficulty and discouragement were inevitable companions in mission. They saw things with the faith of Abraham, of whom Paul writes: No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:20-21)

May the faith of Abraham and Allen Gardiner and Samuel Marsden be ours too as we persist, despite the obstacles, in God’s glorious work of mission.

The third strand of our DNA I want to pull out is our commitment to what we call holistic mission. In other words we are committed to mission for heart, mind and spirit, for the individual and for society and for the whole created order. We’re committed to holistic mission because we believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. So we accept no sacred / secular divide. We want to reflect in what we do the commitment of Jesus Christ to the whole person, to the whole of society, to all of creation.

That commitment is very deeply rooted for us. It is no coincidence that CMS and the movement for the abolition of slavery share common origins, for there was no sacred / secular division in our founders’ minds. For them the agenda was clear: their agenda was nothing less than Jesus’ agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind - to set the oppressed free.” Freedom from slavery and freedom in Christ were all of a piece in our founders’ minds, and all of a piece in the minds of many of those set free too. It is no surprise that Sierra Leone, which was itself set up as refuge for freed slaves became a vibrant source of so much wider missionary activity in West Africa, as people went forth from there to proclaim good news for the poor and freedom for the prisoners.

It is no surprise in this context that Henry Venn (the son of John Venn and CMS’ General Secretary) came to articulate the classic principles for the governance of the indigenous churches that they founded. This classic missiological principle is known as the ‘three-self principle’: a conviction that churches founded by these new movements in mission should be self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating. Not, in other words governed from afar, but churches that were truly self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating. And this was not an accidental conviction. It grew directly out of its context in the movement for the abolition of slavery. For churches whose members had known slavery how on earth could those churches be otherwise than self-governing, self-financing and self-propagating? This was Christian politics, Christian civilization if you will, for freed-slave, unshackled Churches. This was how things should be if they were to be genuinely Christian.

One of the real heroes of the CMS story is a man called Samuel Ajayi Crowther. The young Ajayi was taken from his village by a slaving party but was liberated from a Portuguese slave ship by the Royal Navy. He was taken to Sierra Leone and subsequently to England and in both places he was nurtured and discipled by CMS. He came to faith, was ordained, and was eventually consecrated 150 years ago this year, at Henry Venn’s instigation, as the first black African bishop of the Anglican Communion. His experience of liberation from slavery and of liberation in Christ, as two sides of the same coin, profoundly shaped him and was the mainspring for his life in holistic mission. His journey in mission led him eventually back to his own country where he worked tirelessly on the Yoruba translation of the Bible; established a cotton industry in Abeokuta to counter the slave trade; engaged in patient and persuasive dialogue with local Muslim leaders; and planted significant churches schools and mission stations all along the Niger. So transformatory was his work, not least in codifying and unifying the Yoruba language, that he is often referred to as the father of the Yoruba people. This was not in other words a narrowly evangelistic mission – though it was certainly evangelistic – but was wonderfully holistic. It was about the establishment of the Kingdom in all its breadth and depth.

There is a tragic coda to Crowther’s life in that he was tragically and shamefully sidelined at the end of his life and died a broken man. Shamefully it was CMS missionaries who did that. And it’s interesting to note that those who did it were heavily influenced by the European holiness movement: in other words they focussed so much on personal holiness that they became deaf and blind to wider issues of justice and righteousness. In other words they bought classically into a sacred / secular divide and did not believe in holistic mission.

The 19th Century missionary movement has sometimes been characterised as being about the three ‘C’s of Commerce, Civilisation and Christianity. And I would say that at its worst that was just what it was about: the unthinking importation of beads and Bibles. Indeed I don’t think Samuel Marsden always got it right, not least in his questionable conviction that the Maori needed to be “civilised” before they could be evangelised. I say ‘questionable’, because there is some question whether Marsden did I fact believe that. But if he did then that belief is at the very least questionable.

But I would also say that at its very best mission was all about commerce, civilisation and Christianity. In other words it wasn’t just about the salvation of souls. It was about the establishment of shalom, the building of the common good, the empowerment of people through the free and fair exchange of their goods and services. It was about the Kingdom of God in all its breadth and depth; it was a broad vision for the transformation of the whole world. Our founders in the Clapham Sect were not a one or two issue group. It wasn’t all about slavery and CMS. They really did want to change the whole world: through things such animal welfare, education, food banks and credit unions – all of which sounds very contemporary. Indeed after the slave trade had finally been abolished Wilberforce turned to Henry Thornton and said, ‘Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?’ To which Thornton replied, ‘The National Lottery, I think.’ Now there’s an idea!

Thinking more positively about Marsden’s mission here it’s worth noticing that the missionaries CMS sent were skilled in a whole range of things: schoolteachers, carpenters, shoe-makers to name but three. In other words this was a broad based and not a narrowly ‘churchy’ mission. Some like Marsden were ordained, but many were what CMS called ‘lay settlers’. Indeed it’s worth noting that the first of what would become hundreds if not thousands of ‘medical missionaries’ was sent to NZ – a man called S. H. Ford in 1836.

This selection of people was not accidental. Marsden’s vision for the Maori was of a trading society, trading freely across these islands and Polynesia and NSW – a society that amongst other things would thereby be protected economically from exploitation by encroaching Europeans: an exploitation of which Marsden was rightly fearful. Marsden’s vision was therefore of a holistic mission, for the whole person and for all of society, a vision of shalom. And as such Marsden’s vision for holistic mission predates that of Crowther and others by several decades.

And this commitment to holistic mission, to the 3 C’s if you like, is an enduring influence on CMS – and needs I think to be an enduring imperative in mission. Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between what we do and what a secular NGO might do. Now I’m not going to knock the excellent work many NGOs do, but I would say that our motivation is entirely different. We believe we have been called to our mission by God; we believe he sustains and supports us it, and we do it for him and for his glory. We believe in fact that because of Jesus we too can say, The Spirit of the Lord is on us, because he has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind - to set the oppressed free. So we rightly resist very strongly any suggestion that we’re involved in some kind of glorified development work: we are engaged in the whole mission of God; the work of Jesus, who is Lord of all, and whose good news is good news for the whole person, the whole of society, and for all of creation – because there is nothing he does not care for and nothing he cannot transform. That is a central theme of CMS Africa’s Samaritan Strategy ministry, which Dennis Tongoi will be talking about later: a ministry classically rooted in the CMS tradition of holistic mission.

So that our mission in CMS must be as broad as it can be, because there is no aspect of the life of creation that the good news of Jesus does not touch. But our mission in CMS must also be sharply focused. It must be focused with pinpoint accuracy on Jesus Christ. If it’s not about Jesus it’s not good news. It is his mission – his holistic mission - we are called to, and no other.

And so we come to the fourth and final strand of our DNA, and it expresses a fundamental conviction about the priority of mission. My Church, the Church of England, has been through a kind of conversion experience in the last few years and come to the huge realisation that, to quote the words of Tim Dearborn, ‘It is not that the Church of God has a mission in the world; it’s that the God of mission has a church in the world.’ There’s a huge difference between the two attitudes. In the first mission is just one activity of the Church: mission is smaller than the church. In the second it’s the other way round. Mission is much bigger than the Church because it’s not our mission, it’s God’s mission: it’s God’s mission that he calls us to be involved in. Mission is God’s agenda, his heartbeat: the bringing back of the world to himself. If mission is bigger than the church, then it must change our perspective. The Church of God does not set the agenda for mission. Mission sets the agenda for the Church of God. I think this is a perspective that is more readily grasped in the global south than in the north. The church in the global south has grown because of mission – and so mission is a more natural priority for them. In fact the church is always and is only the fruit of mission, so mission always needs to be its primary purpose.

But this conviction about the priority of mission is not actually a new conviction. It’s a rediscovered conviction. Our founders in the Clapham Sect were well aware that the Church of God does not set the agenda for mission but rather mission sets the agenda for the Church of God. That indeed was why they founded CMS. If they had waited for the Established Church to respond to the challenge of mission they would have waited a very long time indeed. But they followed not the Church’s agenda but the mission agenda – and their obedience and persistence in doing so did indeed change the world. And incidentally that’s why I think the church of God desperately needs communities and societies like CMS to help the Church not become fixated on its own institution but to rediscover the priority of mission.

If mission is bigger than the church, then it will inevitably challenge the Church. We do not own mission: it owns us. And as it owns us it will lead us to unexpected places. True mission will always lead us beyond the institution and out to the margins. I believe that God is calling us in CMS to recapture our pioneering instinct we’ve tried to formulate that call as a commitment to the least evangelized and to the most marginalized. We’re working on how we can develop our international strategy more and more in that direction and next year I hope to go to places such as DRC, South Sudan, and the Chaco of Northern Argentine and Paraguay to see how we can practically express that commitment in such places – and other places too in due course.

The great theologian of mission, Lesslie Newbigin, once said, Our business is to go outside the church walls, become aware of what God is doing, and cooperate with Him’. That’s what Marsden and the Clapham Sect did. I think that’s exactly what we need to do too. We need to do it because ironically it’s often hardest to see what God is doing from within the walls of the church. It’s outside the walls of the Church, in the uncomfortable and marginal places, that we rediscover the priority of mission and can engage with fresh energy in the transformatory mission of God.

The history of CMS has always been, at our best, to go from the comfortable to the marginal. The very best way to honour that heritage, that DNA, is to go on making the same commitment ourselves. To help us reflect on that I’m going to close by reading a poem from the Welsh poet R.S.Thomas called ‘The Coming’….


‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand

a small globe. Look, he said,

the son looked. Far off,

as through water, he saw

a scorched land of fierce

color. The light burned

there: crusted buildings

cast their shadows; a bright

serpent, a river

uncoiled itself, radiant

with slime.



On a bare

hill a bare tree saddened

the sky. Many people

held out their thin arms

to it, as though waiting

for a vanished April

to return to its crossed

boughs. The son watched

them. Let me go there, he said.


Where Jesus has gone, may we follow: for his sake, and for his glory. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Our Story: the DNA of CMS

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this message at the Celebration hui. With just a picture of The Teapot on the overhead, this narrative entered my heart and has stayed with me over the following months. Well done Phillip.

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