Reflections on the life of Cyril Powles – Companion of the Centre

Cyril and Marjorie Powles
Cyril and Marjorie Powles

On July 26, Cyril Hamilton Powles died in Vancouver, just two days before his wife Marjorie’s 99th birthday. It is almost impossible to reminisce about Cyril’s life without acknowledging Marjorie with whom he was jointly named as Companions of the Centre for Christian Studies in 2003. Together they shared a deep commitment “to ecumenism, to global mission as partnership, to social justice, and to theological education that integrates academic learning with the realities of the world…”

Cyril was born of missionary parents in Japan, and after study in Canada, served with Marjorie in mission in Japan for over twenty years, first in parish ministry, and later at the Central Theological College in Tokyo – an experience that became a crucible of transformation for them both and profoundly influenced their future thinking.

Their friend and colleague Terry Brown described Cyril and Marjorie as being engaged in a “constant dialogue on political, theological, ecclesiastical, and other issues”, often with Marjorie taking the more radical position. “Her forceful critique of Cyril’s thought,” writes Brown, “greatly shaped Cyril’s ministry.” Indeed, Cyril became a feminist before his time, and is still one of the few Anglican scholars I know who wrote – then or now – with a sensitivity to inclusive language.

They returned to Canada in 1970 where Cyril taught Church History at Trinity College, Toronto, and Marjorie began working at the Centre for Christian Studies and became involved in literacy work. They also found a parish home at Holy Trinity, where they “worked locally” while thinking globally. Though I was a theology student at Trinity College while Cyril taught there, I greatly regret that I wasn’t one of his students. I am aware that he had an important influence on many fellow students who went on to make significant contributions in social justice, urban ministry, and cross-cultural learning.

Ann Naylor recalls Cyril’s involvement with CCS students, committees and Council, his participation and leadership in an Institute on Power, the glint in his eye when he was intrigued by someone’s idea, when connection was made, his love of learning, his passion for justice, his respect for others, his reverence for things beyond or greater than himself.

In 1994, Cyril published a slim volume, Interpreting the Present Time , which revealed some of the fruits of his and Marjorie’s struggles and learnings while serving in Japan, and later teaching and working in Toronto. In it, Powles called for a radical re-examination of the assumptions of mission as a specialized vocation, as proselytization, as conversion of the heathen, as rejection of other cultures. He invited his readers to re-think “mission” as a mutual partnership with those whom we encounter, a calling that extends to all Christians, that engages all cultures in the work of liberation and justice, and that involves the discernment of where God’s Spirit is already present and active in the world.

This work built on a simulation exercise that he designed with Rob Nelson in 1973, called Mission Impossible – Unless… , which was used extensively by CCS students and others throughout Canada and the US. There was nothing dry or abstract about his style of thinking or writing. The format for both works indicated Cyril’s desire for others to learn with him in creative and participatory ways.

Cyril Powles articulated and lived the values we claim to espouse at CCS – he was a feminist and an educator, he pointed to God’s liberative action in the world, he lived a theology of justice. We can be deeply thankful for his life – for who he was, how he taught, and what he wrote. We can be thankful for his 67 years of partnership with Marjorie, for their relationship of “enduring love, respect, and tenderness”, and for their shared work for justice and peace within communities, among cultures, and in the world.

Maylanne Maybee, Principal

August 8, 2013

2 Replies to “Reflections on the life of Cyril Powles – Companion of the Centre”

  1. I’m terribly sorry to hear of Cyril’s death. He was an inspiration to me when I was studying theology in the late 1970’s. He was indeed, very supportive of women in ministry. I was the only woman in his Social Action in Canadian Churches in the Twentieth Century class and one of two in his Theology of the Third World class. Both classes were life-changing experiences. I learned a tremendous amount from his gentle presence, great wisdom, and global perspective on economics and social issues. He encouraged dialogue, debate and contemplative thought. My political views are still shaped by what I learned from Cyril Powles. He will be greatly missed.
    Judith Robinson

  2. I think of Cyril and Marjorie with utter respect and great affection. They both played a critical, formative role in my development and learning at CCS. and the Student Christian Movement.
    I have fond memories and remain indebted to their influence on our learning and leadership . Decades later, I recall and ponder topics we discussed in Cyril’s Third World Christianity class at Trinity. Cyril and Marjorie’s analysis lives on as I struggle to make sense of today’s issues. I smile thinking about Cyril’s fierce advocacy on behalf of young CCS women students when we battled our mysogynist Old Testament professor.
    Marjorie and Cyril’s personal kindness to me will never be forgotten. They frequently took me out for meals at the Danish or Chinese restaurant , generous with their time in story telling, and solidarity.
    Marjorie, I send my deepest sympathy.
    Thank you for your sacrificial lives of prophetic ministry and pastoral care . Much love and gratitude,
    Jsigrid Armistead

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