22 June 2009

This is USPG … but what is the future?

The town centre of Hoddesdon ... the USPG conference is taking place in the High Leigh Conference Centre nearby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The work of USPG over the past year was reviewed this evening at the annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel or USPG – Anglicans in World Mission. But the conference at High Leigh in Hoddesdon was also challenged by the General Secretary, Bishop Michael Doe, and the senior staff and asked to look at the future of USPG under three headings – identity, activity and sustainability

Looking at the identity of USPG, Bishop Doe emphasised “who we are and what we are called to do.” He pointed out that USPG is distinctive from other agencies working in the same areas, because of its understanding of vocation and what God is calling us to do, which is the theological basis of how we understand our relationship with God. This is an understanding of Communion, how the Holy Trinity is in communion, and how God calls us into incorporation with him and calls the Church to reflect that love and communion in the Trinity. This has real implications for what USPG has to say and what it has to do when it comes to engaging with the future of humanity and the future of creation itself.

That has consequences for our relations with one another, in the Anglican Communion and world-wide, and for how USPG helps Anglicans in the four Anglican churches in Britain and Ireland to be part of that Anglican Communion, and how USPG supports other parts of the world-wide Anglican family.

He said USPG has a holistic understanding of mission that is much more than evangelism, and which does not fall back on the easy option of world development. God is concerned with the whole of our human life and the whole of our human community. God is a reconciling God. And that must determine how we interact with each other, he said.

He spoke of how USPG uses its money and is generous in supporting other parts of the Anglican Communion. Parts of that identity can be counter-cultural in the world we live in. “But this is our vocation, this is what we are called to say and to do.”

Improving communications and trust

Turning to USPG’s activities, he said that over the past year USPG had improved communication and trust “between ourselves and with our partners.” The key to that is the principle of mutuality, he said. We belong together, we are called together, and we must resist all the temptations around us to go back to some older form of colonialism and dependence. He identified interdependence and mutual responsibility as the keys to how we understand relations one with another around the Anglican Communion.

Canon Edgar Ruddock spoke about the week-long international consultation last November in the Emmaus Centre near Croydon. This involved listening attentively at a gathering of the global Anglican family. Relationships are at the heart of mission, with shared decision-making and partner-led funding, he said, so that USPG’s funding decisions are partner-led, with USPG listening to what they want to do rather than trying to impose what we want to.

He said three key words – strategic, transformational and relationship – shaped decision-making together. There was a willingness to engage with alternative ways of working, and a longing to remain in relationship. They wanted to put capacity building at the heart of relationships, building the capacity of the local church to build God’s mission.

He described new directions for health, with programmes focussing on primary health care, and saw these as expressions in practical terms of who we are and how we live in dynamic relationships with our partners.

Bishop Doe returned to talk about USPG’s activity within Britain and Ireland, including USPG’s resources and campaigns. The Prayer Diary focuses on a particular part of the world each week. Campaigns include a new Harvest campaign. The work of regional staff is sustained by Associate Mission Advisers (AMAs) and volunteers working with dioceses and parishes, providing resources and speakers.

Good news and bad news

But when it came to sustainability, he asked how USPG can sustain this work. He told the story of the main who inherited an oil painting and a violin from his aunt, and went to an expert who told him he had good news and bad news. The good news was that he had inherited a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. The bad news was that the violin was made by Rembrandt and the portrait was painted by Stradivarius

Turning to the good news, he said the Zimbabwe appeal launched by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had already raised over £300,000.

The Revd Elfed Hughes, who is USPG’s Britain and Ireland Relations Director, spoke of good news and bad news when it comes to USPG’s appeals, campaigns and projects

USPG is currently promoting over 100 projects in 34 countries. To date, six projects have reached their funding targets. Looking at USPG’s campaigns at Lent, Harvest and Advent, he reported that this year’s Harvest Appeal is focussed on a small community in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, where a new Anglican diocese is taking shape and beginning to flourish. Resources for churches and schools are now available at www.uspg.org.uk

The original hope for voluntary income was to raise £1.9 million, but this has been overtaken by economic events, although USPG continues to help and share with partners in other ways, especially in Myanmar (Burma) and Zimbabwe.

Bishop Doe said USPG is not raising the kind of money needed to meet USPG’s commitments. Michael Hart, central services director and Deputy General Secretary, said that donations slipped, even though expenditure was largely within budget and in the black. Donations were slipping and he expected them to slip further, legacies to drop too, and that the news may not be good when it comes to dividends, interest and trust income. Looking at the budget for current year, he hoped for some savings, but said USPG is facing a deficit of about £700,000 to £1 million – and “that is being optimistic.”

Bishop Doe promised a further opportunity to look at these figures at the council meeting tomorrow evening. But he warned that USPG could be finding sustainability difficult. He spoke of the financial pressures on the churches, and said one are the days when the parish treasurer wondered how divide up a surplus. Parishes are facing deficits, and the recession and general economic crisis have taken their toll on general donors, especially those living on pensions or off investments.

Recession-hit churches

Bishop Doe reminded us that many partner churches are suffering much more than the churches in these islands due to the recession.

At the same time, USPG is facing competition from other charities and agencies, mission is raising a complex array of questions, and parishes are facing more and more demands from many charities, which recognise that Christians ought to generous.

Meanwhile, the donor culture has changed, with people who give money wanting more direct relationships with those who receive, and the consequent danger of wanting to own what they support. Whatever we think of this, have to come to terms with this trend, he said.

Describing movements in the wider culture, he said USPG had grown out of a culture where loyalty, tradition, responsibility, institution and inheritance were key values. But the Church is going to look very different in the future because many of those things we take for granted now will not be there in a newer generation.

In the face of these challenges, USPG does not want to become just another NGO or a purely evangelistic mission agency, he said. USPG is a holistic mission agency, but he wondered how this would work out in practice so USPG has a sustainable future?

He asked whether USPG need a new model because the present one is not sustainable, or because it sees a better way to be what it wants to be, what it believes God is calling it to be?

Monday night’s Evening Worship at the USPG Conference in High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The evening ended with an encouraging closing reflection from Dr Jenny PlaneTe Paa of Saint John the Evangelist Theological College in New Zealand and Evening Worship.

Canon Patrick Comerford is a director of USPG Ireland and represents the Church of Ireland on the Council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

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