CANON Chris Neal, who died on 8 February, aged 71, was Director of International Mission and Community for the Church Mission Society (CMS) during a changeful period from 2003 to 2012.
Paul Thaxter, Debbie James, and others write: Chris encouraged us at CMS to think about what might be rather than settle for what is. He collaborated on the report Mission-shaped Church, published in 2004, and was instrumental in enabling CMS to become an acknowledged community of the Church of England. Looking to the future, he saw the importance of connecting older monastic communities with new forms of Church, and was active in promoting small missional communities, which he was passionate about.
Chris was a great ambassador for the CMS pioneer-leadership training that Jonny Baker developed. His zeal was evident, but he never forced his faith upon others. He inspired and challenged, encouraging his listeners to further their discipleship, whatever stage they had reached on their journey.
After retirement in 2012, he continued to advocate a more missional mind-set and praxis among UK Christians. Most recently, he developed a daily discipleship resource, “Apprentice”, to help people live in such a way that their whole lives reflect their commitment to God’s mission.
Chris’s life touched many around the world. While his conviction and message never changed or waivered, he understood our ever-changing world, and how the relevance of Christianity and the Church is, for millions, ever harder to equate with 21st-century living.
Canon Robert Crossley adds: Chris was an impressive ordinand in his final year at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, in early 1972, when I was appointed Chaplain there. We quickly became friends.
In 1975, soon after I became Vicar of St Paul’s, Camberley, I invited Chris to take up a second-curacy post at the daughter church, St Mary’s. He was finishing his first curacy in Addiscombe, Croydon, but I was happy to wait a year for him. So began ten years of collaborative ministry and friendship that were invaluable to me and the church.
It wasn’t long before Chris was saying that “daughters” needed to grow up. In 1983, we formed a Team Ministry, in which Chris was Team Vicar of St Mary’s; so my wife, Barbara, and I had the enormous benefit of Chris, his wife, Val, and their growing family working alongside us.
St Mary’s grew and flourished; the church was reordered and impressively extended; and the ministry of discipleship, evangelism, and stewardship grew. Although Chris left for Thame in 1986, the “Chris Neal era” is still recalled and is part of that church’s vision.
Some years later, we invited Chris to speak at a St Paul’s weekend away. Referring to minimal, illegibly scribbled notes, he was captivating, inspiring, and transformative. Barbara and I will never forget him telling us of his enthusiasm for the gospel when he became a Christian, and how that remained with him.
The Revd Ian Mountford adds: Chris was my boss for the first three years that I was a Team Vicar in the Thame Valley Team Ministry. In reality, he felt more like a senior partner in ministry. After Chris moved on to CMS, he remained a mentor and a friend.
Chris was full of energy and vibrancy, a constant joy to be around. It was as though his mind was always shooting out new ideas, and being on his staff was never boring. It felt that we were always on the cusp of the new, and of something that was going to change the world — and that feeling has never left me.
He seemed to see into the future with startling clarity — particularly the future of the Church and its mission. As a leader, he articulated that vision in an inspiring and challenging way; but he was also caring and kind, wonderfully pastoral, tremendous fun, and an easy person to relax with.