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Vocations: Mission field has changed, not the call

11 November 2022

How do Anglican agencies understand a vocation to mission, Huw Spanner asks


A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African by Harold Copping 1916, in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room

A Medical Missionary Attending to a Sick African by Harold Copping 1916, in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room

FOR many people, the word “missionary” still conjures up images of doughty Edwardian women in impractical skirts leading hymn-singing in the East African bush. Such notions have long since become obsolete; but what is the true picture today?

The general secretary of USPG, the Revd Dr Duncan Dormor, says: “There are real questions about what an Anglican mission agency is about today.” Nowadays, his own organisation’s approach to mission is “very much about partnership. . . We don’t send people out from this country to other parts of the world, and haven’t done so for a while. Instead, we work to develop and deepen relationships between different Provinces within the Anglican Communion, so that there is a mutual exchange of ideas and resources and people.”

CMS does still send out people who feel called to overseas mission, but it is many years since it called them missionaries. Philip Bingham, the society’s mission-personnel manager, explains: “We prefer the term ‘mission partners’ for those we send long-term. The generic term we use, which also covers short-term volunteers, is simply ‘people in mission’.”

Most agencies use similar terminology, he says. “‘Missionary’ has too much baggage, really. People associate it with colonialism, and trying to civilise the natives.”

CPAS’s director of ministry, Canon Graham Archer, is content to use the old word. “As a patronage board,” he says, “one of the things we are keen to explore, when we appoint vicars, is the extent to which they understand themselves to be missionaries, and also see themselves as equipping their congregations to be missionaries.”

Essentially, he says, every Christian is a missionary. “Every Christian is called and sent, to take good news wherever we find ourselves. I think the Church in the UK has been coming to realise that we pray for people who have been sent to Peru, but we don’t recognise that there’s a group of Christians working at the office or factory down the road who are called to be the light of Christ in their working environment, too.”

Captain Neville Willerton CA, the director of mission operations for the Church Army, is happy to describe its evangelists as “missionaries”, with some qualifications. The traditional conception of a missionary, he explains, “certainly in the 19th century”, was of someone sent overseas to communicate not only the gospel, but also certain cultural expectations that went with it.

The Church Army sends trained evangelists to “the margins of society” in Great Britain and Ireland, usually to tough estates where existing models of church are struggling. Unlike the overseas agencies, its emphasis is not cross-cultural. From the very outset, Captain Willerton says, its founder, Wilson Carlile, “had a driving passion to see what he would term ‘people from the gutters’ come to Christ, and for them then to become evangelists. And we’re really passionate about giving away the gospel without strings attached, without expectations.”

All four agencies emphasise a conscious rejection of “power dynamics”. There is still “the colonial heritage” in many parts of the world, Mr Bingham says. “We might now be blind to it, but the people we go to be amongst are not. And there is still a huge disparity of power and wealth. One just has to wrestle with that all the time — there are no easy answers.”


“THE British Empire has shaped Anglican history, geography, and theology probably as profoundly as the Roman Empire shaped early Christianity,” Dr Dormor points out.

“There are imperial origins to our global present, as well as to the challenges churches face today in terms of social justice, the environment, and so on. I think you have constantly to have that awareness of history, and a sense of humility, as you try to build relationships of trust within the Anglican Communion. We need to be constantly mindful of power and all the ways in which power is expressed. There are still very strong ways in which British people are deferred to, which I am deeply uncomfortable with.”

Most mission agencies, Canon Archer says, are conscious of the need for humility, “to say not just ‘What have I got to offer you?’, but ‘What can I learn from you?’

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling that we have something to offer, but the key is that we offer it, as Christ himself did, as servant ministers. You’re not just preaching the gospel, you’re trying to respond to the needs of the people in that part of the world, and to be with them in their suffering, as well as seeking, with them, to find some answers.”

In the past, he says, there was “a latent sense of respect” for clergy. “People recognised the uniform and naturally looked to you in times of marriage or bereavement, and so on. Now, our training and developing of clergy emphasise that you have to earn respect, through loving service and through being people of integrity.”

Because the Church in Britain “has lost so much prominence and so much influence”, Captain Willerton says, the way in which the Church Army approaches evangelism has changed. Incarnating the gospel is essential, he explains. “That line from John’s Gospel, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ [John 1.14, The Message], is really important.

A Church Army evangelist chats with a homeless person in London

“Part of sharing God’s love is actually listening to the needs and the aspirations of the community we’re reaching.” One common pitfall, he says, is “to make assumptions about what good news looks like for that community and tell them what it is.

“When you’re working with profoundly vulnerable people who are homeless, who are self-harming, who have got multiple addictions or mental-health issues, the way you communicate God’s love and acceptance to them has got to be really thought out, so there is no imbalance of power.”


PEOPLE in mission today come in all varieties. “Originally, I thought that missionaries were doctors or teachers, or maybe engineers, and that as an accountant I wouldn’t be wanted,” Mr Bingham recalls. “But, when I approached CMS 30 years ago, they said: ‘Actually, we could do with a few more like you.’”

God calls people from a huge range of backgrounds and with a huge variety of skills, he says. “They may use those skills where they’re going, but actually their attitude is more important. There was someone with CMS who taught arts and crafts, but when she [went overseas] and looked around and listened to the Holy Spirit, she found herself led to do prison ministry, particularly among expats who had fallen foul of that country’s drugs laws.”

CMS sends people of all ages, single or married, and with or without families (although the proportion of unmarried women going out has fallen, Mr Bingham says, since the Church of England began ordaining women). “We probably have more go out in their thirties and forties, having already gained some life experience; but some go out in their twenties, and some in their sixties; they may have come to the end of their career in the UK, but be thinking: ‘I’ve still got half a dozen years left in me, and I’d like to offer that.’”

Some people still go out “for life”, but others go out for two or three years, “though they may end up being there for a dozen”.

A key thing for CMS, Mr Bingham says (“and I’m sure other mission agencies would say the same”), is “to be clear with people that this is not a job: it is very much something that God calls people to do. Some people may not be comfortable with a word like ‘vocation’, but they have had that really strong nudge from God that they know they have to obey.”

Captain Willerton echoes this. “We get people coming to train as evangelists with Church Army who are in their twenties, and people in their fifties, but, either way, it’s a calling. The closest parallel in the Anglican Church is the call to ordination.”

Cross-cultural outreach has always been at the heart of overseas mission, and Dr Dormor sees “massive benefit” in this still. It is not a major element of USPG’s own activity, but the society is involved in moving people around the world. For example, under the programme “Exchanging Places”, it has had a priest from the Philippines working in Morocco, and a South African priest working in the Caribbean.

“Different cultures throw different things into relief. For one thing, it gives you a perspective on your own culture: am I being Christian, or am I being British half the time? If you’re being informed and challenged by different contexts, I think that works in all sorts of directions.

“If I can be slightly brutal,” he says. “I think the Church of England is one of the most insular Churches I know.”

Matt FowlerThe Revd Esther Prior and three members of her congregation at St John’s, Egham, signed up for CPAS training in evangelism last year

Traditionally, Mr Bingham says, cross-cultural mission involved sending people out from Europe and North America, “but now the biggest sending nations, I believe, are Brazil, India, and South Korea. Those of us from [the global North] now find ourselves a small cog in a much bigger wheel — which is to be celebrated.”

Many mission agencies, including CMS, he says, “are supporting either local people in mission or people who are called to go from, say, Latin America to North Africa, quite as much as supporting Brits or Americans going overseas”.

A few, he says, have “really significant programmes” of people coming from overseas to do mission work in Britain cross-culturally. “CMS has done it in the past, but not so much now, partly because you’ve got to be really good on the visa system.”


LATELY, the financial crisis, the climate crisis, and the pandemic have all accelerated the trend for mission agencies to focus more on supporting local people in mission, Mr Bingham says, “although the growth, and growth in strength, of the local Church around the world was already making that happen”.

Another recent development is the increase in online mission, particularly in the Muslim world, as people come to faith either through television programmes beamed in from abroad, or because they have seen a vision of Jesus. The latter, Mr Bingham explains, has been a growing trend for several years, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa (“It might be elsewhere, I really don’t know”). There are ways in which people can get in touch with Christians by phone or online (through chatrooms and other means), to explore the faith anonymously and to be mentored and discipled.

TLG ChurchA CMS mission partner, Alison Giblett, helps her Kyiv church restore to ruined buildings in Ukraine

CMS supports some people who are involved in this, Mr Bingham says. “I remember one of them saying, in late 2020, when Covid had really taken a grip on the world: ‘We can’t cope with the demand, there are just so many people getting in touch wanting to know about following Jesus.’”

“Mission” is not confined to evangelism, of course. USPG’s approach has always been holistic, Dr Dormor says. “For example, one of the things we’re in partnership with the church in Zimbabwe on, is reducing the stigma of HIV/AIDS. That has a clear community-health focus, but it also has a missional dimension, because the Church is reaching out with the clear message: ‘You are accepted and included’.”

Evangelism is “the main thrust” of the Church Army’s work, Captain Willerton says, “but it looks different in different contexts. The Church Army’s vision is ‘for everyone everywhere to encounter God’s love’. For somebody who is sheltering in one of our hostels, that is how they encounter God’s love. A youngster who’s on the edge of gang culture can encounter God’s love being mentored and supported away from that kind of lifestyle. Practical action often speaks louder than words.”

CPAS, Canon Archer says, “would affirm the Anglican Communion’s ‘five marks of mission’ – proclaiming the gospel, discipling Christians, providing social care, challenging unjust social structures and safeguarding God’s creation – and would also affirm their order.

“The Church has done an amazing job in recent years of responding to the needs in society with food banks and debt centres and street pastors and so on; and the way in which through the pandemic some churches have seen themselves as servant-missionaries in their community has been really impressive.

“However, the specific call that we feel at the moment is that there is a bit of a disconnect between how we are serving people physically, and whether we are giving people the opportunity to respond spiritually to the call of Christ to come and follow him.”


“THE fields are white unto harvest.” Is there a shortfall between the needs that mission agencies see, and the resources, both human and financial, that they have?

“I would use the term ‘opportunities’ rather than ‘needs’,” Mr Bingham says, “as that word feeds into the sense of power.”

There are still many places where the name of Jesus is hardly known, he points out. “We’re sure that God is still calling people to serve him cross-culturally. Globally, I think, the number of people willing to do that has grown, but in this country fewer people are coming forward, if only because there is now greater awareness of the need for mission here — which in itself is a good thing.

“It’s easy for all our current preoccupations — and, of course, there are many at the moment in our country — to crowd out God’s calling, but I would say to anyone: If you sense the nudge of God, however uncomfortable it is, it’s worth following. Any responsible mission society would talk it through with you carefully rather than trying to push you into something you shouldn’t be doing.”

Canon Archer says that CPAS is finding it difficult to appoint people in some parts of the country. “We really need that mission-hearted spirit that says, ‘I know that we have ties here, and the children are happy at school; but if God calls us to go to another part of the country, we’re willing to go there.’”

Captain Willerton echoes this. “All mission agencies are now finding it very difficult to balance the books, but the other pressure point is finding people ready to serve.”

In the past two years, he says, the Church Army has created a resource that it calls Envoy, “which is about training people in evangelism as a way of life, which predominantly we do online over 24 weeks. Increasingly, we’re providing resources like this as a free gift to the Church, to help equip ordinary people in the pew to share their faith with confidence.”


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