The church where I grew up had annual missionary evenings. The first one I attended sticks in the memory not just for the excitement of being allowed to stay up late but because in the church hall a big screen had been erected and we saw a film! It was all about a stunningly colourful island near Africa called Madagascar.

Fast forward half a century and the President of Madagascar is paying an official visit to Britain. The work of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries has borne fruit and he thinks their contribution to the life of his country is so significant that he would like to meet representatives of the Council for World Mission (CWM) while he is here. CWM is very happy to be viewed as the successor body to the LMS but its headquarters is actually now in Singapore not London and a formal reception with the few staff who could be available might not be too exciting.

His Excellency the President of the Republic of Madagascar, Mr Hery Rajaonarimampianina (left) receiving an orchid plate from Mr John Ellis, Treasurer of the Council for World Mission

Some fast footwork by CWM and URC staff, supported by helpful advice from the British Ambassador to Madagascar and enthusiastic co-operation from the President’s staff, and instead of a small private reception we are able to advertise a public service of celebration in Lumen URC in London to mark almost 200 years of Christian work in Madagascar.  The Guest of Honour will be His Excellency the President of the Republic of Madagascar, Mr Hery Rajaonarimampianina.

On the day a fascinating congregation gathered. Some had served as missionaries in Madagascar, some had business links there, some were Malagasy people now living in Britain. The President was accompanied by five car loads of his Government ministers and other official guests from Madagascar.

All the British member Churches of CWM were represented. The service was led by the Revd Barbara Bridges of the Congregational Federation and a Director of CWM and the sermon was preached by the General Secretary of the Union of Welsh Independents, the Revd Dr Geraint Tudur. He reminded us that the first missionaries to the island were from Wales. We heard the story of David Griffiths who sailed there with his wife in 1821 and translated the Bible into Malagasy before a change in the political climate forced him to leave. Undaunted, Griffiths found a way to return as a trader and support the persecuted Church. One of the President’s staff recounted the story of Rafaravavy Rasalama, the first Malagasy Christian martyr; her faith was nurtured in an LMS school.  The present vibrancy of the Church in Madagascar was not won without cost.

His Excellency the President of the Republic of Madagascar, Mr Hery Rajaonarimampianina (left) presenting a token of appreciation to CWM Treasurer Mr John Ellis (right), pictured with CWM Director Rev Barbara Bridges

After the service, the President spoke warmly of the Church’s work in Madagascar and its potential for building a healthy society. We exchanged gifts between CWM and His Excellency. A grand tea followed, to which all were invited. Despite a very heavy schedule, the President was happy to be accessible for a lengthy period to anyone who wanted to talk. Before leaving he expressed himself delighted with the whole occasion.

Reflecting on it afterwards, the General Secretary of CWM, the Revd Dr Collin Cowan, said how much CWM welcomed the privilege and opportunity to receive the President for an act of worship. He added “It is the hope of CWM that this bicentenary celebration will open doors for further conversation on the social, economic and political situation in Madagascar, where the disparities are stark and many of the Malagasy people are living on the social margins.  I have already communicated such hopes to CWM’s partner Church on the island, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar. CWM will be in solidarity with them in the search for reforms that would improve the quality of life for the people of that land.”

John Ellis is the Treasurer of the Council for World Mission and a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church.

This article is reproduced with permission and first appeared in the November edition of Reform Magazine.

Photos by URC.