Together in mission
Collin Cowan, General Secretary of the Council for World Mission, talks to Stephen Tomkins
As General Secretary of the Council for World Mission (CWM), the Revd Dr Collin Cowan leads a partnership between 32 Churches spread across the world from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands in the west to Samoa and American Samoa in the east. Through CWM, these Churches share money, people, skills and insights to help each other carry out Christian mission.
The organisation has deep roots as well as a broad reach. Although it was founded in 1977, it grew out of earlier organisations, particularly the London Missionary Society, which dated back to 1795. But where earlier mission societies aimed to take Christianity from Britain to ‘unreached’ nations, including colonial subjects, CWM has developed a very different understanding of what Christian mission is about today.
Reform talked to Dr Cowan at the United Reformed Church General Assembly in July, where he was a guest speaker.
When you were appointed in 2011, you had difficulty getting a visa to work in the UK. Was that part of the reason CWM moved to Singapore in 2012?
It made it more urgent. I started working in Jamaica and came here once the visa was granted. Shortly after that, the decision was made to relocate the organisation to Singapore and that was my first task. But the decision was already made in 1977, when CWM came into being, that we should find a new home that was more suited to the ideological shift in our understanding of mission. We never did anything about it, but it was part of our strategy that we consider the relocation question.
In October 2010, we decided we should remain in the UK, but in February 2011 we discovered that with the influx from eastern Europe, the UK had changed its immigration practices and I got caught up in that. We already had this strategy that our staff should be drawn from across the regions of the organisation, and the UK was no longer viable.
In 2016, the board of directors took a very freeing decision to say, given the nature of immigration today, we should consider having three offices, rather than one global international office. We have agreed to retain an office here in the UK, establish one in South Africa and keep the one in Singapore. This gives us quite a bit of leverage – talk about dancing in Babylon! This is one of those dances where we can continue to operate, notwithstanding some of the challenges that we’re faced with.
The question of immigration has been very much in the news here as we’ve heard about the treatment of people from the Caribbean and elsewhere.
For me, the Windrush question is one of justice. People who came here in the 60s came to support the economy and maybe did not do the paperwork because they thought they were already at home here. Now, to be told that you have no home, no status, is not only an affront but an act of injustice.
I think this has to be one of the issues about which the United Reformed Church concerns itself. The United Church in Jamaica and the Guyana Congregational Union need to be talking to the URC about: ‘Together, how might we address this injustice?’
So it’s not just about the UK Church speaking out.
That’s right. Join hands together. Those who are recipients of what’s happening need to be part of the conversation.
Immigration, though, is becoming a much bigger issue than just the UK. Even in Singapore we are experiencing some of these challenges. We have to ask: Is there a platform where international immigration policies and practices are addressed? In India, we could not hold our board meeting recently, because too many of our directors did not get visas. I could not get a visa for our annual meeting in Calcutta and had to join them electronically. In the US, they are separating families. It’s a big issue…
This article is an extract from a longer interview published in the September 2018 edition of Reform magazine. To read the full article, subscribe to Reform