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Episode 39
Cathy Ross from CMS: Women on the mission field

Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted podcast.


This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity and purpose.


I'm your host, Catherine Cowell.


CC: Thank you very, very much, Cathy Ross, for joining me today.


You are from CMS.


Do you want to just introduce yourself a bit and tell us a little bit about what CMS is, what it stands for, what you do?


CR: Thank you, Catherine.


Thank you for having me on the podcast.


So yes, I work for CMS, Church Mission Society, which is an Anglican mission organization.


It was founded in Britain in 1799, with the intention of sending mission partners all around the world.


I am originally from Aotearoa, New Zealand, and in fact, have been a mission partner with New Zealand CMS in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.


Moved to Oxford in 2005 to join CMS in the UK and started working about 12 or 13 years ago with Pioneer Leadership Trainings accredited through Common Awards in the University of Durham.


We train people who are called Pioneer Leaders, which means people who work on the edge of church or outside church, trying to establish faith communities with those who perhaps are unfamiliar with church or don't find church particularly appealing.


CC: Hmm, I know somebody who's trained with you who does lots of sort of pioneering stuff, and I think she's found it really supportive to have that space to study and train and get support for what she does.


CR: Yeah, it's a great space.


We offer courses through from certificate to doctorate.


We also have an African Christian Theology stream in our master's program, so it means it's quite diverse.


Studying together is great for diversity.


And as you can imagine, there's some rich and interesting and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.


And I feel like that's how it should be.


That's a really good model, especially for the Church of England at the moment that's struggling to hold it all together.


We on our program have to learn to live together with difference and tensions and ambiguity.


But because we're all one in Christ, and because love is the most important thing, we somehow managed to hold it together in Jesus, I think.


CC: Yeah, no, that's brilliant.


So how did you get started with CMS? You obviously were involved in mission work, and I'm wondering what brought you to CMS rather than anywhere else?


CR:  Okay, well, this is back when we're in Aotearoa, New Zealand, we had just got married, I had done a master's in French and German, then I met my husband, who is a doctor.


And he's always wanted to be a missionary doctor.


So we combined his medicine with my French and we looked to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which in those days was called Zaire.


And we applied to various mission organizations in New Zealand at the time.


And the only mission organization that was interested in both of us was CMS, because everyone else is very interested in Steve because he was a doctor, and they all love missionary doctors.


But CMS was the only one that had application forms for both the husband and the wife.


This is so hard to believe in the 20th century.


So that's how we actually ended up going with CMS.


CC: Wow, so they won?


CR: Yeah, I mean, my husband isn’t from an Anglican background, and we are quite, you know, interdenominational ecumenical, so we tried a few mission agencies, as I said, but landed on CMS.


So they were very supportive.


And as I said, they were interested in both of us and could have roles for both of us, not just Steve.


CC: Wow.


So the others were simply assuming that you would just be the wife tagging along?


CR: Yeah, basically, yeah.


Which, I mean, I don't mind being a wife, but I did want to do something.


CC: I guess you wouldn't have got married if you did mind being a wife.


CR: I felt that I wanted to teach.


We ended up studying at All Nations Christian College.


I did a diploma through Cambridge University in theology, and I always wanted to teach theology, which is what we ended up doing at Congo and CMS were very supportive of that.


But the other mission agencies were not interested.


CC: That's really interesting, isn't it?


And when abouts was that?


CR: Mid 1980s, not the 1880s, the 1980s.


CC: Yeah.


CR: I mean, we were shocked because New Zealand is very progressive when it comes to women.


You know, we had plenty of women prime ministers, we were the first country in the world to give women the vote.


So I was quite shocked to see that there was still this very old fashioned attitude towards sending mission partners and what the roles would be.


CC: And what was your experience of missionary work in terms of sort of being a woman on the mission field?


CR: It's a good question, because it really does depend on the culture and context.


Often I think that the Western women in certain mission contexts, particularly in the majority world, are seen as a kind of third sex.


Because local women may not be permitted to do certain things culturally, but Western women are because we're foreigners.


So that's slightly uncomfortable.


And takes some navigating, I think, because you don't want to charge in and change the culture.


But on the other hand, you might think, well, there are certain things that the gospel might challenge about the culture, but actually in the end, it's up to the locals to figure that out.


So you do have to be quite careful as to how you navigate this.


I mean, having said that, and we were in Numbabashi, the bishop was very happy for both of us to be involved and to teach and yeah, we had a great time actually.


I mean, it was a tough time, but in terms of women, there weren't any issues for me.


Looking at some of the other missionaries that were there from different mission organisations, it's much more conservative about women and what women could do.


CC: What were some of your experiences of that?


Are there particular incidents that stand out?


CR: Some of the women from the United States who are there with other mission organisations basically just supported their husbands.


Some of them never even learnt the local language.


Some of them, they lived at a pretty high standard of living.


I mean, I can remember being amazed that some of them had washing machines and dryers.


I mean, you really do not need a dryer in the middle of Africa because it's quite hot.


And they would get food sent to them.


So there wasn't… there didn't seem to be much willingness to engage with local local products or local food or local ways of eating and doing things.


So yeah, that was quite shocking to us.


I mean, the CMS approach is to identify as much as possible to be alongside the locals, to live with the locals.


We live just in a street where, you know, local Congolese were living to, obviously we're different and obviously we have a kind of security that they don't, but we try to just emulate what they did as much as possible.


CC: As you're talking about that, I was thinking about your comment about almost being like a third sex as a, as a Western missionary woman, alongside that desire to sort of live as part of the culture and living alongside people.


And I wonder what challenges that brought up for you in terms of how that worked, that sense of being sort of a third sex.


CR: Well, it was pretty uncomfortable.


I was thinking of a different experience now in Uganda in 2005.


Because it's such a hospitable culture, just overwhelming hospitality, especially to the visitor, to the guest or the stranger.


They always want to honour you and put you in the seat of honour.


So that's quite difficult when you feel like you're being honoured when you just want to be there as an ordinary person.


And then always been given the best food, been given the best seats, always treated like royalty probably.


So you kind of have to accept that because that's their way of showing you hospitality and appreciating you.


And it's also something I think we could learn from.


I mean, they really do treat the guest very well.


There's always plenty of food, there's always more than enough.


I guess in terms of women, so being a woman, I would experience and be exposed to and receive things that Ugandan women wouldn't.


So that just makes you feel slightly uncomfortable.


But if it's part of the culture, you just have to kind of go with it.


You know, I would be allowed to preach, for example, where women may not, or I would be sitting at the best place in the church or the meeting or the conference or wherever where women would be at the back or separated.


So you felt very different.


CC: Was there a level of isolation that came with that?


CR: Well, to a certain extent, but because we spoke the language, French, and we learned Swahili.


I mean, you're always isolated to a certain extent because you are different, you're a foreigner, you're different.


And obviously you have resources beyond their wildest dreams, even when you're trying to live simply.


But they were very gracious and very loving and we made some good friends.


So yes and no, there is a level of isolation, but people were just very accepting.


CC: And what brought you to England to your current role?


CR: So after our time in Congo, we went back to New Zealand.


We were on leave actually, and then civil war broke out so we couldn't go back.


So we stayed in Aotearoa, New Zealand for a while and then came to Oxford in 2005 to work for CMS.


I'd been teaching theology in New Zealand, ready for a change.


So we came here.


So been here quite a while now and worked for CMS, had a couple of stints briefly away, but basically worked for CMS ever since.


And this current role for about the last 12 or 13 years, heading up the Pioneer Leadership Training Programme.


CC: And what drew you to that?


CR: Oh, because I love teaching and I love mission and it brought the two together.


CC: We had a conversation a couple of weeks ago and you mentioned some of the research that you'd been doing looking at records of previous missionaries in years gone by and noticing sort of the unmentionedness of the women in those records.


CR: Indeed, the invisibility of the women.




My PhD research was about all that actually.


So I discovered this, that the CMS missionary wives in the CMS register, where they keep very meticulous records of who's been sent where, in the 19th century were not even mentioned.


So they'd put, for example, “Reverend Alfred Brown, comma, M,” which stands for married.


So they didn't put Reverend Alfred and Charlotte Brown, they just put Reverend Alfred Brown, M.


I thought, this is ridiculous.


This is completely unfair because these women were part of the story.


They went with their husbands and in fact, some women intentionally got married so they could be missionaries because in the 19th century, many mission organisations would not send out single women.


They'd only send out married women.


So I thought this was pretty unjust and having been a CMS missionary wife myself, I thought I'd like to research what these women did.


So I picked four CMS missionary wives to New Zealand in the 19th century, two that came with husbands from Britain and two that were born of missionary families in New Zealand and just told their stories.


You know, and it's incredible because although they were not paid by CMS and were not considered as missionaries, they absolutely did missionary work.


I mean, they'd learnt the language, they're involved in teaching, they're involved in advocacy, they're involved in Bible translation.


I mean, my whole thesis was that the CMS mission in New Zealand would have been very different without these women.


I mean, it's hard to prove this, but there are theories that it was the women, the wives, that often wrote the reports that were sent back to CMS because the husbands were travelling so much and were away, often the wives had to deal with all sorts of things.


So they were certainly missionaries in their own right, but were not considered as such and were not even named.


So I wanted to tell their story.


So that was how I got into it, the injustice of it.


For CMS, it wasn't until the second half of the 19th century they began sending single women.


I mean, it was partly, I think, issues to do with safety, but also how they considered the whole issue of family life and domesticity, which was actually the more important issue.


CC: So how does that sort of play out?


CR: They wanted to send out couples or families to model Christian family life, which, you know, I mean, on one level sounds fair enough because you're going to countries where there might be polygamy or there may be a different value system.


But of course, Christian family life meant the husband was the head of the house and the wife supported the husband and they wanted to model pious domesticity.


So there was this whole theory in the 19th century called the angel in the house, which came from a poem by Coventry Patmore.


So the angel in the house was the wife who kept the home fires burning, who modelled pious domesticity.


There was also this theory that the husband would go out to the sort of dirty evil world of work, but can come home to home and hearth, which is the acme of pious domesticity.


So the wife has been at home keeping it clean and keeping her virtue.


Somehow or other her piety rubs off on him.


This was a whole big theory.


And that theory was taken up into mission.


Dana Robert, who's a missiologist in Boston, writes a lot about this.


It's an Anglo-American thing.


So it was modelled by missionaries from the United Kingdom and also in North America.


Families would go and model this to the various places to which they went.


Which, you know, isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is one way of understanding what a family is and how to express that.


So very influential and a stated strategy of many mission agencies.


CC: Yeah, that they would want this sort of pious domesticity played out abroad.


It sounds like on the mission field that what they thought they were sending out was often not what they got in that often the women, from what you're saying, were a lot more active abroad than they might have been back home.


CR: Yeah, I think it's definitely the case.


I think that's a good point.


And you know, it's interesting, isn't it, that for some types of Christianity, for example, in Britain and the United States, where women still are not allowed to preach or teach, it's okay to send them overseas where they preach and teach.


So how come it's all right to send women overseas to preach and teach in Africa or Asia or Latin America or Oceania, but they're not allowed to preach or teach back in the UK or the USA?


I mean, that's just blatant.


CC: Yes, yeah.


Part of one of the things that makes it fairly evident that this chopping up of gender roles on a practical level doesn't really work, because my observation is that as a woman, you're allowed to go and teach foreigners overseas and you're allowed to teach children.


We're not going to limit Sunday school teaching to men, partly because that would be regarded as lower status and they wouldn't want to do it.


CR: I know, which as you say, is completely absurd, as the Jesuits say, give me a child until the age of seven, you know, and they're trained forever.


So probably the most important years of which to be training girls and boys.


But that can't be given to men, because men, somehow or other, are more important.


I mean, it's all deeply ironic, isn't it?


It shows you how ridiculous it is.


CC: It is completely ridiculous.


So of these women who you studied, I'm wondering if there's one that you'd like to sort of just share a bit about what she got up to, what she did.


CR: Oh gosh, yeah, I mean, I think these stories are amazing.


I'll just briefly tell you about two actually.


Kate Hadfield, that's a well-known name in New Zealand for mission.


She was born in New Zealand of a missionary family.


She ended up marrying Octavius Hadfield, who was a CMS missionary from the Isle of Wight.


He was going to be sent to India, but his health wasn't good enough, so he was sent to New Zealand, ended up outliving his wife actually.


So New Zealand obviously agreed with him, and he also ended up becoming Archbishop.


But before that, and he was a real advocate and friend of Māori, the local people, Octavius Hadfield.


He was loved by the Māori.


And the land wars happened during their time where the Brits came in and basically nicked a whole lot of land.


You know, the same story over the world where the Empire came in.


Unjustly took a whole lot of land, started wars, sent warships to places, bombed local communities, had a strategy of attacking the Māori on Sunday because they knew the Māori would be at church.


It was all horrendous.


And Octavius Hadfield was very much an advocate for the Māori.


But one of the things that Kate did was translate into Māori some of the leaflets that Octavius Hadfield was writing and actually sent them to CMS and to the colonial secretary in Britain to show the injustice of these wars.


So she was what we would call today, I think, a radical activist or a protester and an advocate for justice around issues of land.


So I mean, she was pretty radical, I think.


You know, the mission in New Zealand would have been very different without them and without her in particular.


As well as teaching, she taught, you know, she looked after the mission station when Octavius was traveling.


You know, these were robust, resilient women.


And she had 13 pregnancies and 11 children survived.




CC: Wow.


CR: Makes you feel tired thinking about it.


CC: It does.


CR: She was amazing.


And then Elizabeth Colenso is a much sadder story, but in some ways, I think, is just interesting for in some ways how contemporary it is.


So she was born again of missionary parents.


She basically married William, who was a CMS printer who came from Cornwall, to escape her family because her father had become an alcoholic.


He was a missionary, but he'd become an alcoholic.


So it just shows you we're all not perfect.


And because she wanted to be a missionary and she couldn't unless she was married.


So that's why she married William.


She was fluent in Maori because she'd grown up in New Zealand.


So she was better at Maori than William.


Anyway, they eventually ended up going to a pretty remote part of New Zealand, Gisborne, for anyone who knows us, on the east coast of the North Island, which at that stage was very remote.


And she was a schoolteacher.


She basically taught in the school.


But the story, the plot thickens.


William fell in love with their house help, a Maori woman.


And I think from reading his diaries, he genuinely loved her because William and Elizabeth's marriage was basically marriage of convenience.


I'm not sure if William actually loved Elizabeth, but I think it was convenient for him to marry her and leave where he'd been working up north and go and have his own mission station.


You know, he wanted to run something, he wanted to be a man in power.


So they ended up in Gisborne.


He fell in love with Ripeka.


He had a child by her.


Elizabeth and William already had two children at that stage.


She ended up bringing up the three children.


She left William, which I think was pretty unusual in those days because she left William and somehow she managed to keep the support of the missionary community.


It was probably quite unusual for her, firstly to leave.


Secondly, she took her two children, in the end Ripeka married and took her child with William away.


And Elizabeth still was involved in missionary work.


That's the most unusual thing, I think.


She ended up still being able to be, as a separated woman, a missionary.


And not only that, she travelled to Britain and she observed what was going on in Britain.


She was very influenced by various organisations in Britain.


Then she came back to New Zealand and then she went and worked in Melanesia and she translated the Bible into the local Melanesian language as well as the prayer book, I think.


So she did a lot of mission work for which she must have been paid, I assume.


I mean, there's no records of this, but she must have been paid because how else would she have got around the place by herself?


So I think that's a very interesting short story that although we say on the one hand, you know, the mission society is really conservative and they only want married couples and they only support the husband, here's an example actually that was very different.


And she lived to quite a ripe old age.


She came back and lived in New Zealand and died in New Zealand.


But she and William never saw each other ever again from the time they separated.


He never saw his children again, which I think was very sad.


He asked CMS if he could come back to Britain and they wouldn't let him.


They basically sacked him because he'd been a naughty boy.


And he ended up publishing books on botany.


He was a very keen observer of New Zealand, nature, fauna and flora, and a politician.


So I think that's quite an interesting story of how, you know, you can have this theory about pious domisticity and missionary family life, but actually, as you say, when the women get out there, they do more than the mission society bargains for and life happens, doesn't it?


They, you know, here's a tragic story in a way that Elizabeth ended up living a long life as a missionary.


She was the one who ended up being the missionary.


William ended up being a politician.


I mean, not that that's necessarily, you can be a Christian politician, but his life certainly didn't pan out the way he expected.


CC: It really sounds like she had a deep calling to mission.


She used the societal situation and her marriage to him to get to where she felt she needed to be.


CR: Exactly.


Well, I think women are good at this.


We have to be creative and subversive because so much of the system is stacked against us.


I think women know how to be creative and subvert and just make things work.


And certainly these four women that I looked at were incredible women.


You know, they had a calling.


They wanted to be missionaries.


One of them that I haven't talked about, she definitely married her husband to be a missionary.


And then sadly she came to New Zealand and died probably of breast cancer after five years in New Zealand.


But it was she that talked the husband into coming to New Zealand.


And I love those stories.


It's just they're inspiring.


They make you see that if you have a bit of creativity and with trust and prayer and the inspiration of the Spirit, anything is possible.


CC: The fact that they end up as just as an M in the register is ludicrous.


CR: Absolutely ludicrous.


And none of their stories are told.


And you read the serious reports, it's all about the men.


I mean, not that that is unusual in the 19th century.


All history was like that.


We're realising this now that history was told by, you know, the great actors striding across the stage were all men.


And there's a real interest in women's history and social history and the stuff around the edges and the more kind of day to day normal stuff that most of us, men as well, men and women, would identify with.


But honestly, the CMS records, yet all the stuff is there.


I mean, I did have to find four women who had enough letters.


I got all this from their letters and diaries.


So you have to, I had to find women who'd written enough.


But the 19th century, they were letter writers.


They wrote a lot.


So there was a lot of material.


CC: Yeah, you were talking about your own experience of observing a pious domesticity type thing that really feels very much like what the more conservative evangelical churches would promote.


CR: Yeah, definitely.


I mean, when I read about it, which is quite a few years ago now, it's like, gosh, this is where it all comes from.


It's kind of like the penny dropped.


CC: Yeah.


CR: Now I can see where this comes from.


And I mean, one of the supporters of this, which is kind of depressing from a CMS perspective, is William Wilberforce, peace be upon him, because, you know, he was one of the abolitionists.


And he's one of the CMS founders.


And, you know, many ways a great person.


And it just shows you doesn't it?


We're all glory and grime.


We're all mixed people.


But he was definitely one of the supporters of this, what was called the reformation of manners.


So it was wider than just this pious domesticity.


But he definitely was in line with all of this.


And it just made me think, yeah, this is where evangelicals get it from.


This idea that the woman has to be at home, looking after the house and bringing up the kids and the man goes to work.


It doesn't have to be like that.


That's one model.


And if women want that, that's fine.


But if women don't want that, there are other ways of being a family and being involved in mission and God's work and witness.


CC: I wonder whether some of the ways that roles of women, certainly in the UK, was influenced after the war was because women had gone and worked and then there was a real push to get them back into the home being the housewife.


CR: Yeah, exactly.


I mean, I think there's been quite a bit of research on that.


And there's still around the world, they still say that women do the double shift or the triple shift.


So there's no country in the world, I don't think, even Scandinavia, which is pretty good, where men and women do equal amounts of work because women still do more in the household, keeping the house, so to speak, even if they're working and still do more in terms of childcare.


You know, it's still uneven and unequal and unjust, I think, in that regard.


CC: I think you're absolutely right.


I had a conversation with a young woman and she's just moved into a house.


So in her early 20s, just moved into a house with her husband.


They're setting up home together and she was talking about how exhausted she was and looking forward to the Christmas holidays and then was describing the things that she was doing.


And it was really evident that she's taking on most of the domestic stuff unthinkingly.


And you would really think that in 2023, a young woman in her early 20s would not be as easily sucked into that.


CR: It shows you the power and the longevity of patriarchy, actually.


And I mean, patriarchy is everywhere, but also the power of these role models and how difficult it is to break away from that, to be different.


Patriarchy, which is basically the rule of the fathers, that's literally what it means, is bad for everybody, men and women, because it dehumanises everyone.


But it's just so endemic.


It's the water we swim in and we don't see it and you actually have to call it out and name it to then think, OK, how can I work against this?


CC: Yeah.


Where does this model come from?


Because the pious domesticity thing, somebody made that up.


It becomes very quickly kind of deeply embedded culturally, doesn't it?


CR: It's normalised.


CC: It becomes the norm.


CR: In the West, as a society, we need much deeper and much more difficult, probably, conversations about what it means to be a man and a woman and what that looks like in terms of roles and family life and gender.


I don't think we've really had good enough conversations on that.


I'm talking, I think, something much more richer and deeper than that.


And that, you know, God is a God of love and God, there are many possibilities with God as to how we can live out who we're called to be.


It doesn't just have to be to pick on pious domesticity as an example.


It doesn't just have to look like that.


CC: Yeah.


And life is so much richer and better when you have the freedom to work out who you are and what it is that you are called to contribute and do that without false limitations getting in the way.


CR: Well, exactly.


And I think that feminism has alluded us to this.


Now, I know that feminism is a potentially dirty word in Britain, which I was surprised to discover it's not in New Zealand.


And of course, there's a range of perspectives on feminism, but feminism has definitely alluded us to some of the injustices to women and encouraged women to be who God has created us to be.


We don't have to be limited to the house, we're called.


But I mean, if that's what women want to do, nobody's saying you can't do that.


But there's so much more that we can be involved in.


And we need to be allowed to do that.


I mean, it really saddens me to be at churches where women are not allowed to speak or to be in leadership because, I mean, I just think that's bizarre.


And I think it diminishes the church because they're losing out on the gifts of half the human race.


You know, the richness and the diversity that we can experience if we could just relax and allow ourselves to operate, I think, in a wider arena of who we could be.


CC: Yeah, that's true, I think, for all of us, that having space to think about who you are, not who your culture or your society or your upbringing has suggested you ought to be, but to be much more aware of where those biases are coming from.


Because once you know that there's a bias, then you have the opportunity to sort of step back from it, don't you?


And think what might be instead.


CR: Yeah, the first thing is to be aware of it and to name it.


And I think it's pretty hard, especially for young women in our society today.


There's so much pressure on body image and expectations and cyber-bullying and social media, and you've got to be your best self.


But you know, we can be free from all of that in Christ, I think.


But where are the communities, the churches that are modeling this and offering hope for young women?


That is also a question, I think.


CC: Yeah, I think there are some.


I think there are some, but sometimes harder to find.


Well, thank you very much, Cathy.


That's been really interesting.


CR: You're welcome.


Yeah, I enjoyed it.


Good to have the conversation.


CC: Thank you.


Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast.


If you'd like to get in touch, you can email lovedcalledgifted@gmail.




You can find a transcript of this podcast at


And that's also the place to go if you're interested in the Loved Called Gifted course, or if you'd like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.


Thank you for listening.



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