By Rev. Dr. Collin Cowan, CWM General Secretary (2011-Present)
On Tuesday 16 May, I had the honour and privilege of spending a good part of the day with the Rev. Dr Stephen Tan, a former trustee of Council for World Mission and one who bears witness to the 1975 consultation that was held in Singapore to pave the way for the 1977 birth of this partnership of churches in mission, now celebrating 40 years. Dr Tan reminisced on the journey of struggle and triumph for those who discerned the times; named courageous companions on the journey with him who responded to the call for a shift of tradition in doing mission that was almost always from the global North to the South; and told numerous stories of how they laboured together to cross challenging frontiers in search of a mission paradigm that could embrace the diversity that defines us today.
As we launch this 40th anniversary in worship and celebration, it is fitting that we salute the pioneers and beacons of hope and faith in action whose labour of love paved the way to the birth of CWM 40 years ago. We salute the enduring labour of the London Missionary Society (1795), the Commonwealth Missionary Society (1836) and the (English) Presbyterian Board of Missions (1847), through whom scores of men and women – mere vessels of clay, faithfully surrendered to their convictions – crossed lands and oceans, often carrying their coffins with them, fully committed to live and die for the sake of the gospel.
We salute the courage of our fore bearers, who courageously steered the ship across changing landscapes to pave the way for Council for World Mission as we know and celebrate it today. From the illustrious list of those who served at the governance level, I celebrate the leadership of Aubrey Curry, who served as treasurer at a time when it was necessary to demonstrate that money as the definition of power has no place within a Christian mission organisation. At the management level, I call attention to Rev. Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, the first General Secretary from the global South, who led the organisation to make the connection between the mission imperative of the Council and the strategic place of the member churches and local congregations in exercising that mission. It is most fitting that Christopher should be preaching at this anniversary thanksgiving service and we accord him our heartiest welcome and honour.
Among the earliest pioneers and champions who are who are present at this service, are Rev. Dr Stephen Tan, a revered leader of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, a former president of the Trinity Theological College and a former trustee of CWM with a passion for the long-term financial sustainability of the organisation; and Professor Roderick Hewitt, an ordained minister of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, who served as staff under the leadership of Rev. Dr Duraisingh and presently chairs the Programme Reference Group of CWM. Roderick has also served as Moderator of CWM during the tenure of my predecessor, Rev. Dr. Desmond van der Water, who is also present at this service. There are many other trailblazers who led the way for CWM, too many to mention; but some of you will cherish names such as Rev. Bernard Thorogood, Rev. R. Yvette Rabemila, Rev. Lee Ching Chee, Rev. Dr. Maitland Evans, Rev. Oka Fau’olo and Ms. Jet den Hollander (who is present in this service). We also think of those called to higher service, such as Rev. Barrie Scopes, Rev. Philip Wade, Bishop M. Azariah and Rev. Earl Thames (all of blessed memory). CWM’s greatest asset is its people, men and women, who have given and continue to give of their best to the mission field. This 40th anniversary is a time to celebrate our leaders and their obedience to God’s call and to give thanks to God for this rich and Godly heritage.
Today, after forty years, we pause not only to celebrate the journey over which we have come but also to commit ourselves to charting the course of the future. Ten years ago CWM wrestled with the question “Work in progress or mission accomplished?”1 This was a pertinent question then as CWM was still working through some of the teething pains of growing up, maybe still hesitant to act on decisions, such as relocation, taken in 1977. However, I suggest that the question, at age forty, is neither about work in progress nor mission accomplished. To make those questions the focal point of our reflection and discernment, at this time, is to unwittingly hold on to a legacy that might be best celebrated for its own place in history and left as lessons from which to draw insights.
Today the agenda is different. It is estimated that more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation, drought and food shortage; and in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, millions of children are feeling the effects of food shortages. Already almost 1.4 million children under the age of five are severely malnourished. 2 In contrast, a sobering Oxfam report highlights 8 people laying claim to as much resources as 3.6 billion (or 50%) of the world’s population combined. The question is what system there is that would enable this contrast; and if it is true that food distribution, and not food shortage, is the real issue, why is so little being done to ensure a more equitable and fair distribution of the world’s resources?
A world that is infested by “thieves and robbers” where systems and structures perpetuate greed; and where both the economy and the environment, meant to sustain life, are being destroyed, as a consequence, the mission of CWM calls for a different question. Every season is a moment in time, a Kairos, for the Christian community to read the “writing on the wall” (Daniel 5:25) and to discern what the God of life may be saying to us. The question for today, I suggest, is rooted in our vision statement of “fullness of life through Christ for all creation”, a counter culture to the life-denying forces of empire, the hope for life-giving alternatives. So, in this death-dealing context, marked by excessive greed, dishonesty and a lust for power, what might fullness of life for all creation look like and what is the role of CWM in such pursuit? The death-dealing systems and structures, designed to serve empire have resulted in poverty of inordinate proportion, conflict and violence of the most heinous nature; and a society on the brink of hopelessness and despair, starved of the good news of Christ of Nazareth and without the spirituality of resistance to imagine an alternative.
My colleagues and I, both at the governance and management levels, who are given this charge for such a time as this, accept this mantle with humility. We are committed to read the signs of the time, discern the mind of God and engage in radical and transformative praxis in faithful obedience to the God of life. Working with 32 members in forty-two countries, and in partnership with the ecumenical fraternity around the world, CWM believes that an alternative social order is necessary and we are committed to join Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, who declared “life in fullness for all creation” (John 10:10) as the mission for which he came and to which he dedicated his life, even unto death.
May this thanksgiving service inspire us to hopeful action as together we pray for God’s intervention in “Healing the broken Body: Hope for Renewal”. Shalom!
“Work in progress or mission accomplished?” a special publication for CWM 30th Anniversary by Rev. Dr. Des van der Water, London, June 2007
According to the WCC “Fact Sheet”, prepared in support of their call for a Global Day of Prayer to End Famine, 21 May 2017