A tribute to Canon Cecil Wilson
CMSI's former General Secretary, Canon Cecil Wilson, died on 20th February after a short illness. Current Mission Director, Jenny Smyth pays tribute to a visionary leader who was 'adept at cajoling people beyond their comfort zones. Jenny also shares words of tribute from around the CMSI family.
CMS Ireland was a hugely significant part of Cecil’s life and ministry, and of the life of his family. Cecil, Barbara and the family have also been hugely significant to the development and flourishing of the society. Indeed, even after his so called ‘retirement’ Cecil and Barbara continued to be very supportive of the staff and the work of the society, maintaining a keen interest and attending many of the events both online and in person. It was always a pleasure when Cecil would ring the office or when they both dropped into the office for a chat and catch up leaving us all feeling cheered - and with a few more things on our ‘To Do’ lists!
Cecil joined CMS in 1975 as a Youth Officer. This was a pioneering role at that time within the Church of Ireland, and many people look back to the time when they attended youth camps and events as highly significant in the development of their Christian faith. While at camp many people sensed God’s call to ordination or to service across the global Church. Many dioceses across Ireland also caught the vision for the youth officer role sparking numerous youth orientated events and developing Bible study materials focussing on children and young people.
After five years as Youth Officer travelling the length and breadth of Ireland, Cecil progressed through the ranks, eventually becoming CMS Ireland General Secretary. In this role he was able to put his visionary ideas into practice and forge new pathways in mission. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Cecil was always trying out new ways of doing things, prepared to take risks and encourage others to step out in faith. Under Cecil’s leadership CMS Ireland developed its own unique ways of inspiring global mission, working collaboratively with other CMSs around the world.
I first met Cecil when I was a mission partner in Uganda with CMS Britain. We worked closely with the CMS Ireland partners. In fact I am a casualty of CMS – otherwise known as ‘Cecil’s Marriage Society’ - as I met my husband, Billy, in Uganda. There are several other people who also met their partners through the youth camps, during mission partner training or service or at CMSI events!
Cecil will also be remembered for his ability to persuade. He was adept at cajoling people beyond their comfort zones by drawing alongside and having a quiet word in the ear. He would ask ‘Have you ever thought about…?’ Thus planting a seed which might eventually lead to full-time Christian service, joining a team visit to the global Church, becoming a parish representative for the society or taking on a fundraising challenge. I remember an occasion when Cecil invited Billy and I to lunch. ‘How kind’ I thought. I should have known! Very casually he dropped into the conversation that he was planning to bring the then Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames and his wife to visit the Sudanese refugee camps in Uganda. ‘I am asking you to sort out the logistics in Kampala’. This proved to be quite a task, involving the Irish embassy, security concerns, complex travel, accommodation and so on. In the end it all worked out well, was a very meaningful visit and set CMSI on a course of deep involvement in Sudan forming partnerships that are still flourishing today.
A couple of particularly significant contributions that Cecil made to the work of the society are worth noting. As the youth work developed, Cecil instigated a partnership with Kilbroney Parish and the Diocese of Down and Dromore resulting in the birth of the Kilbroney Centre. The parish offered land and a great fundraising effort was championed by CMSI and the diocese to build and equip a Christian outdoor activity centre in the stunning surroundings of Rostrevor. The centre, now running as a successful independent business, has challenged and supported many young people through the years to engage in new outdoor pursuits and wrestle with the claims of the Christian faith.
In crossing cultural and geographical boundaries, Cecil expressed a deep concern for Christian unity. He was openhearted and willing to work with people across divides, searching for common understanding and purpose. One project in particular that was close to his heart was an ecumenical vocational training centre. Established in North West Uganda, it was co-founded by the Anglican and Catholic Dioceses of Yei in South Sudan and the Anglican and Catholic Dioceses of Madi West Nile in Uganda. Opening its doors to Sudanese refugees and local Ugandans, it was a place of opportunity for people whose lives had been disrupted by war and displacement. The vision of this centre was a clear demonstration to churches across Ireland that in Christ we can cross divides and stand united in faith.
Cecil was an advocate for those oppressed or suffering. He was not afraid to raise humanitarian concerns to those in power or positions of authority. He would challenge Church leaders to engage with the global Church, often travelling with bishops and archbishops to places of discomfort and insecurity. Working with UTV, the impacts of the long civil war in Sudan were highlighted and prayer and financial support raised. The current leaders of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan credit Cecil for the positive contribution he made to the peace process resulting from the connections brokered through politicians in Ireland with the European Union. Cecil was also an advocate for interfaith dialogue, drawing religious leaders together, encouraging open discussion, collaborative working and mutual respect.
Past and present staff have been sharing precious memories. The longest serving staff member is Anne Buckley. Having served the society for over 30 years she holds more memories than most of us! She expressed her deep thankfulness for the way Cecil encouraged her when still young and inexperienced to step out in faith and how he supported her along the way. Anne found herself part of an extended family in CMS Ireland, and past and present staff would testify to the same.
Cecil’s vision for making connections across the global Church was inspirational. Through people sending and receiving, sharing of resources, praying for one another and through forging partnerships of mutual encouragement, learning and challenge, lives across the worldwide family of faith have been impacted and communities in which they serve, transformed.
We have received condolence messages from all corners to pass on to Barbara and the family. Included here are a few extracts as they express something of the influence that Cecil had across and beyond this lovely island of Ireland and the legacy he has left.
Messages from across Ireland
‘45 years ago as youth secretary Cecil helped shape our faith and develop our interest in mission’
‘Gentle, wise and kind’
‘CMSI youth weekends. A most influential time in my young Christian life’
‘I will always be grateful for his Christlike wisdom, leadership and vision that empowered me and many others for Christian mission and ministry’
‘Cecil’s contribution to mission was extraordinary’
Messages from around the world
Grateful for Cecil’s affirmation and encouragement as well as his global vision. (Mission partners in Burundi).
He was a father figure to me. He stayed discreetly in the background, but we always knew he was there, and his support and prayers were with us. (Isabelle in Kenya)
Cecil was the Lord’s servant and he enabled us to build strong partnerships with the Church of Ireland. We have lost a dear friend. (Retired Bishop Hilary: Yei, South Sudan)
Our sincere condolences. We thank God for his life, he will be greatly missed. (Mary Munyanjagu, Rwanda)
He has fought the good fight and finished the race. Rest in peace, soldier, rest in peace great missioner. (Naftali Lemooke, Kenya).
Cecil was one of my closest friends. We often shared our hearts and things we wrestled with. He was always there to encourage, guide and mentor me. He was exemplary at being Jesus’ hands and feet… his selfless love has helped countless people in Nepal and South Asia. (Tirtha Thapa, Nepal).
My sincere condolences to Barbara and to all family members, also to CMS Ireland for this great loss of the man of Vision and extraordinary courage for promoting the Mission of our Lord Jesus. (Bishop Masimango, DR Congo).
He inspired an idea to establish an Ecumenical Vocational School in Arua. He longed to promote Christian unity. He was always humble and approachable. I have lived to remember Cecil Wilson as a great friend. (Canon Isaac, Maadi West Nile, Uganda).
It is heartbreaking to learn of the death of such an important person who contributed so much to change the lives of hopeless people. We love him, but God loves him more. May God bring comfort to his family. (From a refugee living in a camp in Uganda).
Canon Cecil was our pride and glory in Maridi. He treated me and Mama Rejoice like his own children when we visited them in their home. He is the cause of many blessings in Maridi and our partnership with parishes in Ireland. (Bishop Moses Zungo, Maridi, South Sudan).
We were blessed to serve alongside Cecil. His consistent character in each situation was love, ease, wisdom, and humour. A soft-spoken man who asked difficult questions, but never rushed an answer. He would simply sit, listen, and watch as our hearts and minds opened in South Sudan; grateful to him for leading us far beyond our comfort zones into a place that shocked us, rocked us, and changed us forever. (Rev Patti Johnson and the partners in Albany, Upstate New York).
Canon Cecil was a remarkable and dedicated servant of God whose life was filled with strong hope and faith in God. [He was] dearly loved and admired by the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, a man who had made a great and permanent difference in the life of the people of South Sudan during their dark period of misery and struggles. His life of humility, love and sacrifices for world mission and ministry had greatly encouraged me and strengthened my commitment to the Gospel ministry. Let us not be very much discouraged by the departure of Canon Ceil Wilson. He has fought the good fight; he has finished the race and has kept the faith. Let's therefore celebrate his life. (Archbishop of South Sudan, Most Rev Justin Badi Arama)