Changing People, Changing Places [*]

Article excerpt

ANDREW PORTER [**]

Today's commemoration is designed to mark the bicentenary of the Church Mission Society. (CMS), the 'Society for Missions to Africa and the East' as it was originally and, with its geographical pointers, somewhat unusually called until 1812. Today's theme, 'changing people, changing places', is sufficiently ample-- or perhaps conveniently ambiguous -- as to allow for almost any survey of past achievements and future prospects both appropriate to such a celebration and in keeping with many earlier May meetings. And its setting, here in Holy Trinity church, cannot but prompt recollections of the striking continuities which, quite as much as change, have marked the relationship between Cambridge and the CMS ever since the Society's formation. The university, the town, and the surrounding region have always been linked in a host of institutional and familial ways.

Looking back for a moment to 1899, it is difficult not to be struck by the contrasting character of events then and those of today. We are told:

The Centenary was a busy time...as a whole week was filled up with meetings and gatherings. There was a United Service at Great St Mary's, when the Bishop of Ripon...preached a sermon of riveting eloquence. The Mayor and Corporation attended in state. The Mayor...gave a reception in the Guildhall before the great evening meeting, and at the concluding service in Ely Cathedral there was large congregation, including a strong contingent from Cambridge, the preacher being [the] President of Queen's and Hulsean Professor of Divinity. The Master of St John's gave a Breakfast to a large company of University guests; and a crowded service in Great St Mary's for children gathered from all the Parochial Sunday Schools in the town marked the Sunday afternoon. The Centenary Fund amounted to [pounds]560.[1]

Consider 1999. There is still the civic presence and evensong in Great St. Mary's. But now there is also a tent on Clapham Common, a perambulating camel, and here no sermon, only an address, and that from no preacher or theological scholar. Indeed, CMS might seem to have forgotten its first centennial encounter with King's College, London. The Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at King's, the Reverend Charles Hole, commissioned eight years in advance to produce a centenary history, had by 1898 completed his study only as far as 1814. As a result the Society had to turn to its own, calling its Secretary, Eugene Stock, to its rescue.[2] Hole's embarrassment, Stock's monumental achievement (eventually running to four volumes), and a further two volumes from Gordon Hewitt covering the years 1910 to 1942, are each in their different ways testimony to the difficulty of doing justice to the Society's past. [3]

In such circumstances, with Ward's and Stanley's bicentennial book almost upon us, to invite not one of King's theologians but its Rhodes Professor of Imperial History even to speak, might seem quixotic. [4] Cecil Rhodes - diamond digger, opportunist politician, unscrupulous financier, overgrown schoolboy, charismatic visionary or megalomaniacal rogue according to taste - was, even as son of the vicar of Bishop's Stortford, somewhat unorthodox in religious outlook. Appropriating missionary rhetoric about civilization, he equally readily exploited missionary contacts for his own plans to change people and places. He was reported as saying:

If there be a God and He cares anything about what I do, I think it is clear that He would like me to do what He is doing himself...to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible, and to do what I can elsewhere to promote the unity and extend the influence of the English-speaking race. [5]

I can only reassure you and provide perhaps some slight safeguard for today's proceedings by saying that holders of the chair carrying his name are not required to submit to any of his religious tests.

However, in at least one respect, the outlooks of Rhodes and many a nineteenth-century CMS missionary seem all too similar. …