When the Council for World Mission was founded in 1977, the organization held up partnership in mission as the key constituting factor of its identity as a new mission organization. This paper critically appraises the organization's missional journey over three decades, with particular reference to its vocation as a partnership in mission.
Historically, within the context of the global ecumenical community, the term "partnership" was first coined at the 1928 World Mission Conference in Jerusalem, organized by the International Missionary Council (IMC). The adoption of a principle of partnership at the time was motivated to a great extent by the desire amongst delegates from the global South to reject all forms of "religious imperialism". (1) The phrase "partnership in mission" was, however, not formally used until after the 1947 IMC meeting in Whitby, England, adopted the phrase "partnership in obedience" to speak about relationships between churches. (2) Preman Niles (3) points out that V.Z. Azariah of India and C.Y. Cheng of China had already raised questions about being partners in mission, together with such issues as "autonomy in government" and "unity in life", in much earlier times at the Edinburgh 1910 missionary conference. (4)
It was, however, at a 1987 meeting in El Escorial, Spain, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), that the understanding of ecumenical partnership was comprehensively and clearly articulated. One of the important outcomes of the El Escorial consultation was the adoption of a set of "Guidelines for the Ecumenical Sharing of Resources" by the ecumenical organizations and churches who participated in the event. These guidelines have assisted the Council for World Mission (hereinafter referred to as "CWM", "council" or "organization") in its self-understanding and development as a partnership in mission.
A different concept in mission
The London Missionary Society (LMS), CWM's main predecessor, was a pioneering and ground-breaking 19th and 20th century Christian missionary organization. The LMS's approach, understanding and practice of partnership were, however, not free from the influences of colonialism, cultural imperialism and paternalism. With the decline in activity and enthusiasm in the modern missionary era, particularly after the second world war, LMS missionaries began to withdraw from "mission fields", particularly in the light of the call for a missionary moratorium from Africa and Asia in the early 1970s.
As one era in Christian mission declined, a new era of world mission emerged. (5) The growing selfhood of the churches in the two-thirds World, and their desire to engage in mission locally and globally as full partners with their Western European and North American counterparts, marked the significance of the new era. The development of the modern ecumenical movement, commencing with the establishment of the IMC in 1921, also played a significant role in bringing about a paradigm shift in the understanding, agenda and structure of world mission. Fundamentally, world mission no longer meant West European and North American Christian missionary movement to the rest of the world but the participation of churches across the world in mission, with all six continents being the "mission field".
It is within the above global context that the seeds were sown for a reoriented and reconfigured mission organization to be known as CWM and with the concept of partnership in mission as its structural, relational and organizational principle. A consultation held in Singapore in January 1975 proved to be the turning point in this journey of change and transformation and led to the formal constituting of the council two years later. (6) With the formation of CWM, the old missionary society ceased to exist and a new arrangement characterizing itself as a partnership in mission came into being. In the thinking of its founders, the new organization represented "a different concept in mission". The founding document of CWM, Sharing in One World Mission, summed up the shifts in mission perspectives in the following ways:
* At the present time we are seeing a shift in the world church's centre of gravity from Western Europe to parts of Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia and the Pacific.
* We believe that we become participants in mission not because we hold all the answers and all the truth but because we are part of the Body of Christ. All of us are still searchers.
* As one small section of the world church we are indebted to the ecumenical movement for helping us to understand aspects of mission as they become particularly significant at moments of history. (7)
Sharing in One World Mission mapped out the missiological way forward as one that should run along three integrated tracks: a multi-facetted understanding of mission; a notion of the multi-dimensional sharing of material and spiritual resources; an emphasis on the local church as the primary agent of mission. The missional paradigm shift that came with the change from LMS to CWM was also reflected in a new understanding of the New Testament mission mandate as no longer arising from Matthew 28:18-20 but from Acts 1:8, John 20:21 and 2 Cor. 5:18-19. At the heart of the new theological mandate was the conviction that mission was fundamentally the provenance of the Triune God and that the Holy Trinity was in essence an outward movement of God's love towards creation, redemption and consummation. The new emphasis in the CWM theological equation was therefore on the church being drawn into the missio Dei and, as such, being at best only an agent and an instrument in the movement of the Trinity. CWM subscribed to the view that the church was a partner in God's mission and that the new organization represented a partnership of churches in God's mission. The characterization of CWM as a partnership in mission was a logical consequence of the new theological paradigms adopted.
Ten years after: "New shoes or stockinged feet"?
In his critique of CWM after its first ten years of existence, Jan van Butselaar, a Dutch missiologist, asked a question about whether the structural changes that were introduced were in fact "new shoes" or simply "stockinged feet". (8) In other words, he asked whether the new structures had changed anything significant as far as the prevailing relationship dynamics between former constituent churches and former associate churches were concerned.
Before attempting to answer van Butselaar's question, it is appropriate to reflect on the global ecumenical event that focussed on the partnership theme and which took place in the same year that CWM celebrated its tenth anniversary, namely, the ecumenical consultation at El Escorial. As I mentioned earlier, El Escorial influenced the shaping of CWM both in terms of the organization participating in the event itself and also by one of the important outcomes of the consultation. The outcome referred to here is the formulation and adoption of a set of thirteen "Guidelines for the Ecumenical Sharing of Resources" to which the participants committed themselves. These guidelines called for:
* all parties to be accorded the dignity and respect by which they would be recognized and regarded as equal, partners;
* mutual trust, mutual affirmation and mutual accountability to characterize the processes of engagement by parties concerned;
* a shared commitment to a global value system based on social and economic justice, peace and the integrity of creation;
* the engagement in partnership relationships from the perspectives of an holistic understanding of mission;
* the voices, needs and concerns of oppressed, marginalized and excluded groups …