From Mission to Church: The Heritage of the Church Mission Society

Article excerpt

The Evangelical Revival in England, of which the Church Missionary Society, now Church Mission Society (CMS), was a product, was initiated by a number of clergymen in the Anglican Church, among whom John Wesley was the best known. From different backgrounds and approaches, they challenged the worldliness of the clergy and sought to kindle in the body of the church a sense of sin and the enabling grace of Christ to save the repentant sinner.

Like all revivalists, they had to face the issue of whether to work within the existing churches, particularly whether to work with the existing leaders and liturgies, some of which they criticized and wished to change. Working within the existing structures, they could concentrate their effort on their mission of saving souls and leave the politics of church organization to others.

Alternatively, they could emphasize doctrine, secede from the existing churches, formulate new liturgies, and constitute their followers into new churches. With this approach, however, they ran the risk of losing the momentum of the movement for saving souls and changing lives; they soon might find themselves settling into the routine of church organization.

Finally, the revivalists were also grappling with a problem that is at the heart of evangelization-the relationship between preaching and pastoring, fishing and shepherding, mission and church.

John Wesley himself wished to reform the Anglican Church from within; he refused to secede or become a dissenter. However, by 1791, when he died, three groups had emerged among those referred to variously as Methodists or Evangelicals:

1. The Wesleyan Methodists, who had become a distinguishable denomination, with their emphasis on the singing of hymns, the preaching of the Word, and the simplicity of their places of worship, which had to be licensed as dissenting chapels, distinct from the parish churches of the established church.

2. The Calvinist Methodists, led by George Whitefield, whose powerful preaching and emphasis on the doctrine of predestination brought in the masses, while the patronage of Lady Huntingdon brought in some of the aristocracy and the funds. In spite of themselves, they became known as the Huntingdon Connection-in essence, a branch of the Methodist Church.

3. The Evangelicals, who insisted on operating from within the Anglican Church and within the context of the existing liturgies, episcopacy, and the links of the church with the state. They became known as the Low Church, distinguished from the Anglo-Catholic High Church, and even from the intervening Broad Church that evolved later. This meant that individual clergymen of Evangelical persuasion carried their congregations along and sought to extend the acceptance of Evangelical principles in the church. It was not until 1849with the Privy Council decision in the Gorham case, which ruled that the Evangelical views on baptism were not inconsistent with the liturgy and that the bishop could not refuse to ordain a clergyman on the grounds that such views were unsound-that the Evangelicals were assured that they could not be legally expelled from the church and did not need to secede.

In deciding to work from within the Anglican Church, the Evangelicals weighed the advantages and disadvantages. Knowing they were unlikely to change the whole Anglican Church to Methodism, they were satisfied to have their views accommodated as consistent with the basic principles of the church as enunciated at the time of the Reformation. Where Anglo-Catholic relics of the Reformation proved an immovable obstacle, they fell back on the Bible and the practices of the early church as constituting a greater authority than the compromises made at the Reformation. Once the Evangelicals were found acceptable within the church, they reckoned that they would have the influence of the whole church and its connection with the state to try to change society and that they would therefore be more effective socially than they would have been outside the established church. …