October 27, 2012 marked the 90th anniversary of the launch of the Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society (BCMS), now called Crosslinks.
This is a landmark shared with the FIEC. As we look back with thanks to God, it is also salutary to ponder the continuing need for such a society.
Actually 1922 was not the year that the story of the society began — for that we have to go back to the closing years of the 18th century and the founding of what is now known as the Church Mission Society (CMS). The story begins in a London coffee house on April 12 1799. Gathered together on the 12th, in a room on the first floor of the Castle and Falcon in Aldersgate Street, are a group of 16 Church of England clergymen and nine laymen united in their shared commitment to the cause of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
They had come together, under the chairmanship of John Venn, Rector of Clapham (others present included Charles Simeon of Holy Trinity, Cambridge), after four years of deliberation, to form a society dedicated to proclaiming the gospel beyond England to the ends of the earth: the first resolution they adopted was: ‘It is incumbent upon every Christian to endeavour to propagate the knowledge of the gospel among the heathen’, and they set about sending ‘missionaries to the continent of Africa and other parts of the heathen world’. Under God, the gospel did indeed go out to the farthest corners of the earth and it is moving to hear Christians around the world acknowledge their debt to these men and women.
Responding to liberalism
In the early years of the 20th century, the church in Britain found itself subjected to a wave of theological liberalism that threatened to overwhelm it. Evangelicals and the CMS were not immune from this.
In 1910 in Edinburgh, a world missionary conference had met under the banner ‘the Evangelisation of the world in this generation’, but ‘no resolutions would be allowed involving questions of doctrine or church polity with regard to which the churches or societies taking part … differ among themselves’; now some in the CMS felt that there was less need to be so rigid about beliefs and practices of would-be candidates, provided they had a zeal for serving abroad. The authority of the Scriptures was at stake and so, after failed attempts to agree a way forward, a small group under Dr. Daniel Bartlett (Vicar of St. Luke’s, Hampstead), felt that they had no alternative but to launch a new society that adhered to the original principles of 1799. It was launched as the BCMS in Bedford Street, London, by a group of clergy and laity meeting ‘with bowed heads, and hearts trusting only in God’.
The new society set about gospel initiatives abroad confident that God would provide the resources. Early endeavours were in the Canadian Arctic, India, China and Burma. Later, work was begun in North Africa and Iran. In 1931, shortly after prompting the BCMS to open mission stations in what is now North West Kenya, North East Uganda and South Sudan, the pioneer missionary Alfred Buxton challenged the BCMS about Ethiopia, writing: ‘It would seem sound policy to stimulate and help this ancient church to carry out, as far as possible, her own proper share in the task of evangelisation’ and so was begun the work of bringing biblical reformation to the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, a work that continues to this day.
BCMS also worked in the United Kingdom and Ireland, opened BCMS theological colleges in Bristol to train men and women in biblical convictions for gospel work, and contended for the doctrines of The Book of Common Prayer (1662) against the proposed theologically revised one.
Today, after changing from BCMS to Crosslinks in the 1990s, the society is defined not by geography, but by gospel need and so supports work in Europe, Africa, Asia and increasingly in Latin America, as well as continuing with camps in Ireland, and church planters in England. While we rejoice in being a recognised society within the worldwide Anglican Communion, we work with Christians and churches of all denominations who share our gospel convictions (our basis is evangelical rather than Anglican in its distinctive).
It has sometimes been suggested that Crosslinks’ time has passed, but the contemporary struggles within the Anglican Communion, a crisis over ethical and moral issues stemming from a loss of confidence in the authority and sufficiency of the same Scriptures for which BCMS had contended, would suggest that our stance is not out-of-date but very relevant.
The same question as to the relevance of Crosslinks, or other missionary societies, is raised because no such organisations existed for the early church — and mission seems to have progressed pretty well without them!
The apostles and others preached the gospel, planted churches and relied on active partnerships with those churches to sustain them and carry the work forward. So why should it be any different with us today? The same could be argued, of course, about theological colleges and denominations, which are also not found in the New Testament, yet we recognise their value. Church history, however, shows us that without the vital stimulus of such men as William Carey and his book An Enquiry into the Obligation to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1792), the modern Western missionary movement would not have been launched, and, without the persistent activity of mission societies such as CMS and the China Inland Mission (now OMF), the need for millions of people to hear the gospel would otherwise have been overlooked or neglected.
The default position of churches is ever shrinking horizons, and it was only the holding of the Great Commission before the gaze of churches that our forebears began to get their act together to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Now, as then, with ministry resources under pressure, the temptation is to cut the budget for wider mission activity. Tragically, this almost always proves to be self-defeating, because it is through our engagement with God’s worldwide mission that we keep our focus sharp, and priorities clear, nearer to home.
While churches in Britain and Ireland still have much to do in considering how to be generous with the resources that God has endowed us with, in the support of indigenous mission endeavours where financial resources are much more limited, there is still ample room for the sending out long-term of godly men and women, both within and beyond these islands. The cost of doing this is, however, so significant (especially if married and with a family) that few churches can contemplate doing so independently of others, and that is where a mission society can help in forging the necessary partnerships, alongside providing cross-cultural expertise, financial and other organisational facilities.
Rob Scott, writing as International Co-ordinator of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, says: ‘It is currently popular in some Christian circles to feel that mission agencies have had their day and that churches can fulfil their role… While it sounds attractive to cut out the middleman of the mission agency, it is easy to underestimate the work involved in doing so.
‘Some churches try acting as mission agencies for their mission partners [but] It is a huge amount of work… we certainly struggled with complex financial issues of secondment, pension, National Insurance and tax, both here and abroad…
‘Another problem can be cultural incompetence and offensiveness. This is a particular danger if a church does not invest time in understanding the local culture their mission partners are joining. This takes the time and experience that mission agencies have built up over a number if years. Without these a mission partner can be a liability to his receiving church and country.
‘So, mission agencies often provide the wisdom and expertise we lack. They give the logistical support, ease the cultural adjustment and set up the placement in ways we could not do. This is not to deny the local church’s responsibility in sending and supporting its mission partners, but to say that mission agencies play a vital role in helping churches fulfil their mission mandate.’
Andy Lines is Mission Director of Crosslinks (http://www.crosslinks.org).
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)