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Teapots and DNA: The Foundations of CMS (Issue 22)

By Philip Mounstephen (CMS UK)

This article is a summarised version of the talk given by Philip at the Our Story Hui last year.

If you were to sit at my desk in CMS House in Oxford and look at my computer screen you would see that my desktop wallpaper is a picture of a silver teapot. It was around that very teapot that a group, known as the Eclectic Society, gathered one day in March 1799. The question up for discussion that day: “What methods can we use more effectually to promote the knowledge of the Gospel among the Heathen?”

The answer they came to was to form a society. It wasn’t formed for itself but for the sake of others, and formed indeed for the sake of the Lord. This new society was first called “The Society for Missions to Africa and the East instituted by members of the Established Church,” but (thankfully) it was eventually shortened to the Church Mission Society.

This new society was in many ways the brain child of the remarkable group of friends who lived together in the village of Clapham under the guidance of the Rector of Clapham, John Venn. The best known of this group 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.


Not always right, but not always wrong

The great missionary enterprise of the 19th and 20th Centuries has often been criticised – frequently out of ignorance. We certainly didn’t always get it right, not by any means. But today we should also remember that many 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 with cultural sensitively and frequently stood in the gap between those cultures and the often brutal machinery of European imperialism. That was true in New Zealand and it was true elsewhere too.

Over the 216 years since our founding some 10 000 people have crossed cultures and continents to share the Good News of Jesus through CMS. It’s no exaggeration to say that the face of the Church in Africa, in Asia and South America – and in other places too – is substantially different because of the long-term, committed, faithful, sacrificial work of CMS Mission Partners.

My favourite quotation about CMS comes from a man called S.C. Carpenter, Dean of Exeter. Writing in 1933 he said “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.

So what is the DNA of CMS? What defines us as a Society?


The Four strands of CMS

All 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.

That’s why when we (CMS UK) 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.


Persistence. What made the early people of CMS so remarkable? It’s hard to overlook their sheer dogged persistence. They were so steeped in the Scriptures that they did not doubt that it was 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 would not give up. Would we have done the same? I fear not. We are too easily put off by difficulty and discouragement, presuming it’s a sign that we’ve missed God’s will.


Holistic Mission. We’re committed to holistic mission because Jesus Christ is Lord of all. 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. In fact, CMS and the movement for the abolition of slavery share common origins. Because they so rejected any sacred/secular divide, freedom from slavery and freedom in Christ were all of a piece in our founders’ minds.

Our founders in the Clapham Sect were not only 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!


The priority of Mission. Over the last few years the Church of England has 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.

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.

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.

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.


For Discussion.

Which of the ‘four strands’ stand out to you the most and why?

How can you live out this CMS DNA in your own contexts?


Originally published in Intermission (Issue 22, May 2015)