The agency Echoes of Service began life as a magazine produced to publish letters from independent missionaries working in the field. The inspiration for such a magazine came from an earlier publication The Missionary Reporter produced by James Van Sommer between 1855 and 1862. In 1872 the idea was taken up by Henry Groves and J.L. Maclean in The Missionary Echo, which became Echoes of Service in 1885. The magazine, produced from the Echoes headquarters in Bath continues to be published monthly along with an annual Echoes Daily Prayer Guide, listing those working abroad with whom Echoes is in contact.
Over time the role of the editors of the magazine expanded, and they became a focus of contact between assemblies at home and missionaries working in the field. However, the editors, firmly rooted as they were in the Brethren tradition, had no intention of becoming a formal missionary society in the manner of the Anglican Church Mission Society. The autonomous, independent nature of the Brethren movement meant that they eschewed any thought of centralisation and control of missionary activity. Instead they saw their main functions as:
- to act as a conduit for money from assemblies and individuals at home
- to publish information about work in the field
- to exercise what was referred to as a ‘caring ministry’ for those abroad
The ideal to which they aspired was a direct link between the assembly and the worker, and their role was to facilitate and encourage this link. There was a strong belief in the principle of ‘living by faith’, whereby the Lord would provide for those doing his work. Consequently Echoes did not make formal appeals for funds. It was felt proper that assemblies should raise their own money, should decide who should be sent into the field, and that the money should be passed to the individuals in question with minimum intervention and without deductions for office and other expenses. The editors did this work without remuneration, and became trusted and respected figures in the Brethren movement.
When missionaries in some countries were told they could not legally own property, Echoes took on the responsibility of holding both property and money for their use. To ensure that these continued to be used for their intended purposes, the editors set up private companies: the Continental Lands Company in 1895 and the Stewards Company in 1898. In practice they often had to play a more direct role, channelling funds and providing help to missionaries in the often complex and difficult situations in the field. As a result, at various points in their history accusations were made that Echoes was becoming a de facto missionary society. At times this led to controversy and criticisms, and a minority of assemblies refused to take advantage of their services. In the 1940s and 1950s, many missionaries returned home prematurely, and a more direct approach developed, whereby local assemblies were expected to correspond with the Echoes editors before commending people for service abroad. More recent times have seen a return to the earlier focus on commendation being primarily the responsibility of local assemblies.
In general, Open Brethren missionary activity has been disproportionately large as a percentage of the British missionary presence. In 1976 for instance, of the 5,862 missionaries listed in The UK Protestant Missions Handbook, 565 were from the list provided by Echoes of Service. Towards the end of the twentieth century Echoes produced a small booklet All About Echoes of Service which contained a list of the kinds of activities and work they undertook on behalf of missionaries. This provides a useful summary of their role:
- Publication of regular news from missionaries in Echoes magazine or on Telephone Echoes, updated regularly.
- Regular contact either by letter, telephone, fax or visits both to the field or from missionaries who visit the office at Bath.
- Forwarding of gifts both designated and those from discretionary funds.
- Provision of any necessary certificates for government and other authorities.
- Advice and counsel over a wide area of missionary life and service, including any emotional and doctrinal matters.
- Health care, including the provision of regular medical checks for missionaries and their families.
- Advice on education of children.
- Allocations from Special Funds held by Echoes of Service.
- Acting as agents for the missionaries’ pension plan
- Half-yearly houseparties held at Bath.
- Payment of National Insurance on behalf of missionaries.
- Re-settlement and retirement assistance.
- Research facilities in the office both from missionary records and a wide selection of study books
- Provision of booklets and display material for missionaries who are taking meetings whilst on furlough.
- Procurement of goods, obtaining information, etc.
Today, Echoes of Service continues to carry out these and other activities from its offices in Bath. In recent years, declining interest in mission has meant that they have added to their list of functions ‘stimulating interest in mission’, and the editors provide conferences, seminars and talks as well as producing up-to-date web pages relating to their activities.