Mission and ecumenism belong together. But the search for common witness, rather than division and counter-witness, has proved long and tough over the past 100 years.
Among its fruits are the unprecedented sharing of ideas and resources among Christian traditions that were once mutually exclusive. The difficulties have included the periodic domestication of the mission impulse as ecumenism struggled with institutional politics and ecclesiastical joinery.
The Churches’ Commission on Mission (CCOM), an ecumenical alliance of the major mission departments and agencies of the national denominations in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, was originally founded as the Conference of British Missionary Societies (CBMS) in 1912, in the immediate aftermath of the Edinburgh 1910 international missionary conference.
By 1982 CBMS had become a division of the British Council of Churches, the Conference for World Mission (CFWM). This created a positive partnership between the voluntary mission societies and the denominational mission structures.
Then in 1991 CFWM became part of the new Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (today CTBI – Churches Together in Britain and Ireland), as the Churches’ Commission on Mission.
The designation is significant. Mission is seen as the primary responsibility of the churches, and it constitutes almost a quarter of the activity of CTBI’s work.
CCOM is a broad alliance – Anglican, Catholic, Free Church, Orthodox and Evangelical. Its function is to open up possibilities for practical cooperation, theological dialogue and mutual encouragement among its member churches and societies.
CCOM is an ecumenical space where the concerns of mission, development and Christian engagement with global society meet.
In the tradition of missio Dei, CCOM believes that mission across six continents is indivisible, that witness to the redeeming life offered to all in Jesus Christ is central, and that mission is not primarily a set of discreet activities.
Rather, mission is the challenge to reshape everything the church says, does and is so that it bears faithful witness to God’s gift of the coming kingdom.
CCOM is small. It has six staff and a budget of under £300,000. The core of its work is a set of world region forums that bring together specialists involved with mission and development across the globe.
CCOM’s 33 members have become involved in three major areas of endeavour over the last 15 years: support for the fast-growing church in China, changing patterns of missional church, and the engagement of Gospel and culture.
The China work arises from historic commitments, and from the need for cooperation among churches and agencies given the complex post-denominational situation of both the Protestant and Catholic Chinese churches.
The CCOM China desk supports theological education, church formation, youth and women’s programmes set up between partners in Britain and Ireland and their counterparts in China. It also assists inter-church relations, produces The China Study Journal and participates in dialogues on issues like religious freedom.
Meanwhile the CCOM Building Bridges of Hope (BBH) programme has been concerned with renewing the missionary shape of the churches in Britain and Ireland and northwest Europe.
Originating in dialogue with German churches, BBH has sponsored detailed research on different patterns of local mission. Out of this has come the piloting of seven key ‘learning indicators’ across 27 different contexts.
The major emphasis is now practical ‘mission accompaniment’, a long-term befriending process involving elements of consultation, mentoring, coaching and facilitating.
The theological dialogue about the Gospel in culture and society has also been strengthened by CCOM. It publishes the journal Connections. It has an important mission series (with present and future books including Changing Churches, Changing Communities, Changing Mission and Changing Evangelisation).
CCOM also supports mission studies locally and internationally, and jointly runs the Mission Theological Advisory Group (MTAG) with the Church of England.
MTAG recently has published high-profile reports on The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church (evangelism in a plural society) and Presence and Prophecy (mission as the basis of theological training).
It is now working on materials for local churches using the senses and the body as a way of exploring Christian belief with those outside the household of faith.
In view of its impending 100th birthday (2012), CCOM has recently established the Edinburgh Centenary Mission Fund to put back around £250,000 of legacies into the task of reformulating mission as a global task on the cusp of a new era.
The difficult news is that with the continuing financial constrains of the denominations and the desire to re-engineer the ‘ecumenical architecture’ for cooperation among the churches in Britain and Ireland, more change is on the way.
CCOM is currently transitioning towards a ‘global mission network’ – a new kind of ecumenical body based on networking rather than bureaucracy, and upon reformed partnerships between voluntary mission societies and church mission departments.
That involves some tough pruning. But in the long run we believe it will enable the re-visioning of mission as the core ecumenical challenge.