A woman of principal

Portrait shot of Cathy Ross


When I first sit down in the CMS cafe with Dr Cathy Ross, new head of the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course in Oxford, I admit I’m a bit sceptical about one of her key passions: postgraduate pioneer study. By the end of our conversation, she’s nearly convinced me to join the newly formed PhD cohort at CMS. Turns out, when it comes to pioneering and study, it’s not all academic.

Naomi: With your CV, you could pretty much go anywhere. Why take on this role with CMS?

Cathy: CMS is my natural habitat. I feel at home here. I’ve really enjoyed working with the pioneer mission education team as MA course leader. And the students are so interesting, so committed. That’s life-giving. Here, people are willing to give anything a go. It’s experimental. It’s imaginative. I was recently saying to someone that I think the magic of the course at CMS is the global perspective we bring. I think CMS has saved me from domesticity. Being here just opens you up to the world.

Naomi: When did you get the “pioneering bug”?

Cathy: Funnily, I actually don’t really like the word “pioneering”. Where I come from (Aotearoa/New Zealand), the word reeks of colonialism, machetes, oppressing native peoples. It conjures up images of lonely heroic figures, usually men, striding through the wilderness to impose their will… I think we might need a better term but maybe that’s a conversation for another day. I think people talk about New Zealanders as having an “anything is possible” mentality. A New World mentality. Jonny Baker, director of mission education at CMS, talks about pioneers making a way where there is no way. And I feel like I’ve always instinctively had that worldview, but maybe not the language for it. Which is why I like being here, on the edge of things. I like the questioning and the curiosity and the willingness to, in a way, deconstruct everything. Not just for the sake of deconstructing, but asking why are things the way they are? Is there another way of doing this? I’ve never been one for conformity.

Naomi: One of the things you’ve passionately pushed for is for CMS to start a doctoral programme within the Pioneer Mission Leadership course. Can you explain to me the point of doing doctoral study in pioneering? Doesn’t that seem a bit…

Cathy: Institutional? Counter-intuitive?

Naomi: Well, yes. What’s your reaction to that?

Cathy: So the doctorate is a professional doctorate; it’s designed for people in ministry. Since it’s part-time, it’s not like you go and hide in your room and write 100,000 words over three years. It’s supposed to come out of and feed back into your context. The other thing I like about it is that you are part of a learning cohort. I think PhDs are a bit weird even though I’ve done one, because they can be really lonely.

But with this ProfDoc, the first two years are taught modules, so you’re learning in community. And I do think learning should be a communal experience. It’s not just about sitting in a chamber thinking worthy thoughts – that strikes me as a very Western individualistic enlightenment frame, isn’t it? That’s what’s been so great about leading the MA: that buzz about the place that comes from learning together. So we want to extend that energy into the doctorate, challenging one another in our different areas. My dream is to create a postgraduate community around research and mission, or pioneering mission, or innovative mission or whatever you want to call it. Because there’s just so much more to be learned and challenged and dreamed about.

Naomi: So how much of a role should research play in mission?

Cathy: I think it should be a huge part. Research is dreaming. It’s ideas and it’s having hunches and following them up. It’s trying to find what’s out there and that’s really part of what John Taylor (a mission thinker and former general secretary of CMS) called an adventure of the imagination. I want us to be pioneering in our research.

Naomi: What are the areas within mission that need the most research right now?

Cathy: Probably climate change. Missiologist Steve Bevans talks a lot about the cosmos. What does it mean to do mission in the cosmos, rather than just the world? Economic disparity is another huge topic. Race. Gender. Mutuality in learning across cultures.

Naomi: So the CMS pioneer programme has six doctoral candidates now?

Cathy: Yes. Mostly women. I think we are bucking the trend for theological study in that regard. I’m particularly enthusiastic about harnessing the imagination of women in mission. They will be looking at interesting fields: housing estates, the idea of play, chaplaincy, social enterprise, the book of Esther. If we take on four to six candidates each year, it won’t take long to build up a good community of researchers. Since CMS has such a vast network of people involved in different contexts it won’t be hard to find supervisors for the candidates, which is good.

Naomi: What do you say to people who contend that pioneering is something you do, not something you study? That it should be more about practice than pondering?

Cathy: I think that in itself is a false dichotomy because surely we should be reflecting on what we do? Otherwise, you could be doing stuff dangerously, unhelpfully. You’d never say to a doctor or plumber or electrician that they don’t need to study, just do it all through trial and error.

Naomi: The Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course is now going into its 10th year. Now that you are leading the Oxford centre, what are some of your dreams or goals for the next ten years?

Cathy: We’d like to see more diversity in our learning community, in terms of ethnicity, economic background and age. More diversity means more ideas and that’s a good thing.

There are also quite a lot of people who are into pioneering mission and who could benefit from the education we provide, but who would never come to do a course like ours, so how can we share learning outside “the bubble” as it were? I’d also like to restart the missiologist in residence programme we used to have, with lots of global voices. And, as I said, a good buzzing postgrad community.

Naomi: What are your favourite examples of pioneering that have come out of the programme in its first ten years?

Cathy: Kim Brown and the Upper Room in Cirencester, a community for mostly men with mental health issues. Luke Larner recently did a creative art project around knife crime in Luton. David Harrigan and his new boxing club and Andrea Campanale connecting with steampunks and spiritual but not religious people. Adam Gompertz taking his passion for classic cars and connecting with people through that and becoming chaplain for Aston Martin. Something interesting that a student said to me recently is that when she came here she thought pioneering was all about projects and she’s learned that it’s actually about a way of thinking and being.

Naomi: Can you think of some specific ways that CMS has poured more than two centuries of crosscultural, contextual mission learning into the pioneer course? What are some lessons we learned that are truly relevant for pioneering mission today?

Cathy: Well the idea of mission being about finding where God’s Spirit is at work and joining in. People think of this as newer thinking, but John Taylor actually said this back in 1974 after his experiences of working as a mission partner in Uganda. One of our students is in a traditional parish in Derby. They have a community of ex-offenders meeting regularly. What she’s learned from CMS history and practice is to follow the Spirit’s lead and not come in with a whole bunch of prescriptive ideas.

I think there are things we have learned from years of going into other contexts, like language learning. The whole issue of translation. It’s obvious that when you go to Mongolia or Uganda you should learn the language, and now we can apply that to learning the language of subcultures here: housing estates, steampunks, kids involved in knife crime, Mind Body Spirit festivals. The principles of translation are applicable. Listening to local people, realising that one location can have many different subcultures. We’ve learned much over the centuries about reading culture and being incarnated in it.

We’ve also developed a focus and impetus on living simply and bias towards the poor. Again, when we come back to the question about how to share learning across economic backgrounds and boundaries, we will need to utilise this understanding.

Naomi: In your vast career, what are some things you are most proud of?

Cathy: Well I’ve really enjoyed my involvement in leading the International Association of Mission Studies. And publishing. Jonny Baker and I are really excited about this book about John Taylor we are working on. I’m involved in getting some African theology published, too, and it’s great that this will be more accessible for Africans. Probably the thing I’m most proud of is the students. What they have done, what they will still do. Because it’s all really about people.

Published 4 October 2019
Europe, Middle East and North Africa

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