Monday, 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

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.

Pursuing hope and seeking reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka ... an island of serendipity or an island of hope?

Patrick Comerford

The place of reconciliation, peace and justice in the mission of the Church is the main theme of this year’s conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. USPG – Anglicans in World Mission is meeting at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, and the conference opened this afternoon with a keynote address on conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

This afternoon we were to have been addressed by Bishop Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo. However, events in Sri Lanka in recent weeks means he has been unable to join us this week, and instead we had a very moving description of con flict in Sri Lanka and the prospects for reconciliation from Dr Shanthi Hettiarachchi. In his keynote address he spoke of how his native Sri Lanka has been torn apart for generations by armed conflict, ethnic and religious divisions, and faces tough challenges when it comes.

An island of unique beauty

Through history, Sri Lanka has been known by different names: Thambapanni – the land of copper, Serendip – the land of the Cosmos, and Ratnadeepa – land of gems and precious stones. It was known to the Greeks as Taprobane, to the Portuguese as Celoa, while the British named it Ceylon. Since independence in 1948, it has been known as Sri Lanka, but those marketing the island for tourism refer to as a “Taste of Paradise” or as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”

We were told how Sri Lanka is an island of unique beauty, a land of enchantment and enticement. Since an early phase of its history, it has been predominantly Buddhist, and Marco Polo brought it back to the attention of Europeans when he visited it in 1271-1298 and described it as the“finest island of its size in the world.”

Sri Lanka is 65,000 sq km in size – making it slightly smaller than Tasmania, and about the same size as the Republic of Ireland. The 19.4 million people of Sri Lanka have a diverse ethnic composition: Sinhalese, 74%; Moor and Malay Muslims, 7%; Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils, 17%; and others (2%) others, including local indigenous people, and people of Portuguese, English, Scots and Dutch descent. They have diverse languages, with Sinhalese spoken by 74% of the people, Tamil by 18%, and other languages accounting for 8 per cent, with English serving as a link language between the two main groups.

In religious affiliation, the people include Buddhists, 69% – Sri Lanka’s Theravada Buddhism is similar to the Buddhism found in Thailand and Burma; Hinduism, 15% (mainly Saivite Hinduism); Christianity, 7% (Roman Catholic and Protestant); Islam, 7%; and others, 2%. All Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese, while all Hindus are ethnic Tamils. Christians come from both groups; Malay and Moor Muslims speak both languages.

Buddhism arrived in the third century BCE and is interwoven with the history identity of the majority Sinhalese. In the past, Sri Lanka has had three European colonial powers: the Portuguese arrived in the 14th century, the Dutch in the 17th century, and the British late 18th century. Independence was achieved in 1948, and Buddhism is protected by the constitution and in law.

Ethnic division and conflict

The pan-national politics of the pre-independence and post-independence 1940s eventually gave way to ethnic politics in the 1970s. The constitutional changes introduced in response to a southern revolution led to the alienation of the minority Tamils and separatist parties started to emerge in the 1970s, followed by the emergence of the Tamil Tiger militants and their campaign of violence.

After riots in the capital, Colombo, in 1983, the Tamils felt unsafe in the own land of their origin, and “Black July” in 1983 marked a watershed, leading to long years of migration to South India.

The territorial demands of the Tamil separatists included two-thirds of the island’s coastland. The LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, devolved a violent strategy for his separatist dream that included suicide bombers – who could have taught Hizbullah and Hamas more than they ever knew – child soldiers, and committed guerrillas who went into battle with cyanide capsules around their necks. Early training was provided in south India. When the Tamil Tigers splintered into over 14 groups, the LTTE was ruthless in killing off its opponents and so became the sole voice of Tamil separatists.

The counter-terror agenda of government, which claimed it represented a unitary state, was strengthened by the events of 9/11 and 7/77 and the subsequent “War on Terror” gave the government a new confidence.

Efforts to bring in Norway as a “third party” honest broker failed, and the conflict intensified, so that by late 1990s 60,000 people had been killed on both sides.

Further disaster hit the island in 2004 when 30,000 people were killed by the tsunami that hit in north-east Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the LTTE underestimated a new strategy and the increasing military capacity of the Colombo regime, and the LTTE suffered another major setback when its arms depots and supplies off the coast of Malaysia were destroyed in 2006.

This was a forgotten war in international eyes, and the final phase of the military offensive hit the headlines in an unprecedented way as the LTTE taken aback. The Tamil Tigers lost their de facto state of 15,000 sq km, which shrank back to 16 sq km, then to 14 sq km by the end of April, and to 11 sq km by 4 May. Between 14 and 15 May, the last exodus of people from LTTE area saw 75,000 people walk out into an army-cleared area. By then the surviving 15 to 18 key Tiger leaders and a small group of cadres were cornered in little strip, fighting their final battle. The final assault was lethal for both sides, and the 26-year Tamil Tiger uprising came to an end.

Sri Lanka has its friends and its foes on the international scene. Its friends include China, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Russia and Japan. Neighbouring India had adopted a stance of unhealthy neutrality following the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by Tamil Tigers. That murder has haunted India ever since and there has long been a love-hate relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

In addition, relations have been soured with Norway, whose efforts at brokering a ceasefire failed, and relations with Britain and the EU, and the West in general are poor. Between March and May 2009, all EU, UN and Indian diplomatic missions aimed at securing a ceasefire were refused entry by an obstinate Colombo government.

Hope for the future?

Now, what are the hopes for a post-conflict Sri Lanka?

There have been about 20,000 civilian deaths in past three months. Today there thousands of soldiers with permanent disabilities, there has been untold damage to property and the country’s infrastructure, there are 300,000 displaced people living in camps, and resettlement has been slow. There are strong anti-government feelings throughout the island, press freedom has been curbed and is limited.

Yet there is a sense of relief after years of fear, lack of movement and suicide bombings. A new phase is emerging with confidence. Iran has pledged $1.9 billion, while Iran and other countries are promising $1 billion for reconstruction. The UN appears to be supporting the government, but there are demands for an inquiry into allegations of war crimes by the government, and the international community appears divided.

China now wants Sri Lanka’s government to focus on national reconciliation, while the US has spoken about the need for devolution.

Meanwhile, the paths to reconciliation face new challenges. Suspicions, hate, and the refuelling of memory by the distant diaspora make reconciliation difficult. Those difficulties are compounded by the Sacralisation of ethnic identity and the demonising of the other. Can the government be a liberator while it is a perpetrator?

Decommissioning poses a challenge to the government, and the all-party conference must resume. There is a need to examine a possible amnesty for low-ranking Tamil Tiger cadres, some of whom are as young as 13 or 14. And there should be reasonable autonomy for Tamil affairs.

Sri Lanka is a battered nation after three decades of violence. The majority can rule, but it cannot dominate. The majority may be powerful, but it must also be just and honour the rule of law. At the same time, there is a challenge to minorities too. They are a fact of life, but how can they understand and live with that without being isolationists? Minorities are a healthy sign of democracy, but they must engage with every single aspect of national life and they must voice their views. Any return to violence would be futile over time, with a very heavy loss.

Challenges facing the Churches

Dr Hettiarachchi then turned to the challenges facing the Churches. They make up 7% of the people, and include seven Roman Catholic dioceses and two Anglican dioceses – Colombo and Kurunagala.

The Churches face serious challenges. They are part of the national religious fabric, and they hail from both ethnic groups. But can they provide a glimpse of reconciliation?

The Churches need time to heal ethnic strife, which has also crept into every single congregation. The Church must be part of the struggle for justice and a harbinger of hope.

He spoke of the primacy of embrace, and asked: When the enemy is the victim, how do we do that? This is a Christian calling and challenge.

Propositions for reconciliation

Dr Hettiarachchi offered three propositions for global and local Christian agencies.

They must have international sensibility. There is nothing global that does not affect the local. Therefore, those agencies must have an ability to analyse events in a way that goes beyond media reporting. There is no nobility in violence, as it only begets more violence. The perpetrator/victim is a cyclic paradigm, and it is hard to determine who is right in a conflict when facts are filtered and blurred, even manipulated.

They need theological imagination that is firmly rooted in the Christian kergyma and catechesis. This involves creatively reading the context in the light of the text, in order to be relevant in discerning the changes that need to be adopted in the light of hard realities. There is a need to transform ill-will into good-will with a prophetic imagination.

They must complement leadership witness in politics while being linked to grassroots and activism, encouraging a sustained leadership for political renewal. A prophecy of witness demands fidelity to the Gospel, winning the opponents and numbing those who are negative.

Democracy must be elevated, focussing on justice without losing the enemy, because for some the enemy is my brother or my sister. They must create a moral compass to which parties and warring factions can subscribe to.

And he asked: Is giving and forgiving a possibility? He suggested that this is a moral test for the whole nation, and a spiritual dilemma.

What is the mission of the Church in the midst of this? Relief work is easy with funds and support. But acceptance of the minority position and the majority role is hard and tough to deal with. Giving is easy, forgiving is hard, forgetting is difficult.

He concluded by saying Sri Lanka is a hopeful nation with friends. But there are big questions to be answered, and big issues to be addressed. He said prayers would help to take the troubled nation to the stage where it would see that reconciliation is a journey, and to realise that no one single step is easy. The Tamil and Sinhala people need to journey together towards the new nation ahead of them, and to make it a land for all with peace and justice. Then it might be as beautiful as the descriptions we heard at the beginning of this keynote address.

Later in the afternoon, we heard about experiences of conflict and reconciliation from friends of USPG who are present from a range of counries, including South Africa, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines, Malaysia, Ghana, Ireland, Zimbabwe, the Middle East, Sudan, India, New Zealand and England.

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

A few days in rural Hertfordshire

High Leigh ... venue for the annual conference and council of USPG this week (Photograph/orangejack)

Patrick Comerford

I’m in beautiful English countryside this week, attending the annual conference and council meeting of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG – Anglicans in World Mission) at the High Leigh Conference Centre, on the edges of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, half-way between Cambridge and London.

I was last in High Leigh three years ago, when I was invited to be the chaplain at a conference organised jointly by the China Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and the Friends of the Church in China.

High Leigh is set in the heart of the Hertfordshire countryside and stands in 40 acres of lawns, parkland and woodland. Local historians say the earliest house at High Leigh dates back to 1403. In 1851, it was acquired by Charles Webb, a gold lace manufacturer, and two years later he started building the main part of the present building.

Robert Barclay from a banking and missionary family bought the place in 1871, and named his house High Leigh. When he died in 1921, the estate was bought by First Conference Estate Ltd, a company founded in 1909 and of which Robert Barclay had been a director, to provide affordable conference facilities for any and all Christians.

Since then, High Leigh has been expanded extensively. The centre offers residential conference facilities for up to 220 guests, along with a self-contained day conference facility, and hosts over 450 Christian, missionary, business, educational and charity conferences each year.

First Conference Estate also owns the Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick, in Derbyshire, which opened in 1910 and where USPG met last year.

The charms of Hoddesdon

The War Memorial in Hoddesdon town centre (Photograph: Chris Hunt/Geograph)

This morning I had coffee in Hoddesdon and had a stroll around the town. Hoddesdon (population 20,000) is the nearest town to High Leigh. It a charming Hertfordshire town in the Lea Valley, close to Cheshunt and a few miles from Bishop’s Stortford.

The name Hoddesdon derives from a Saxon or Danish personal name combined with the Old English suffix “don,” meaning a down or hill. The earliest historical reference to the name is in the Domesday Book.

From an early date, a large number of inns lined the streets of Hoddesdon. A market charter was granted to the lord of the manor, Robert Boxe, in 1253. By the 14th century, the Hospital of Saint Laud and Saint Anthony had been established in the south of Hoddesdon. The hospital survived the dissolution of the monasteries but ceased to exist by the mid-16th century. It is commemorated in the name of Spital Brook, which divides Hoddesdon from the neighbouring town of Broxbourne (population 13,000).

The town was considerably enlarged in the reign of Elizabeth I, and a number of inns in the High Street date from this time. She granted the town a royal charter in 1560, giving the town its own council, with a bailiff, warden and eight assistants. The charter also set up a free grammar school on the site of the former hospital. Neither the borough council nor the grammar school flourished, however, and they had ceased to exist by the end of the 16th century.

In 1567, Sir William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, acquired the manor of Hoddesdonsbury and two years later Elizabeth I granted him the neighbouring manor of Baas. In 1622, Sir Marmaduke Rawdon built Rawdon House, a red-brick mansion which still stands. Rawdon also gave the town its first public water supply, flowing from a statue known as the “Samaritan Woman.”

The Cecil family maintained its connection with Hoddesdon in the centuries that followed. This link is preserved in the name of the Salisbury Arms (anciently the Black Lion Inn) – the family has held the title of Marquis of Salisbury since 1789. By the late 18th century, Hoddeson had become an important coaching stop on the route between Cambridge and London, and at its height, more than 35 coaches a day passed through Hoddesdon.

In 1803, William Christie established a brewery in the town. The brewery was a major employer and one of the largest breweries in England until it closed in 1928. By the mid-19th century, the town still consisted principally of one street, and had a population of 1,743. Malt was produced and sent to London on the River Lee.

Trade in Hoddesdon centred around the weekly hops market each Thursday. Later, as more and more hops were carried on the river rather than the roads, the Wednesday meat market took predominance. This Wednesday market has survived in Hoddesdon and it was joined in the late 20th century by a Friday market.

After World War II, Hoddesdon became more of a dormitory town. The opening of a by-pass in 1974 changed the nature of the town, with a noticeable drop-off in through-traffic. Hoddesdon saw a boom in the mid-20th century as gravel was extracted from the area. But the gravel supplies ran out by the 1970s, and the lakes and water pits left behind have since been adapted as local leisure facilities.

Today, Hoddesdon has a little light industry but it is mainly a London commuter-belt town. Much of Hoddesdon High Street is pedestrianised. At the north of the High Street, behind the Clock Tower, is the Tower Centre shopping centre, while Fawkon Walk stands to the west of the High Street. The town now forms three wards of the Borough of Broxbourne – Hoddesdon North, Hoddesdon Town and Rye Park – and is twinned with the Belgian city of Dinant.

Hoddesdon’s famous residents

Richard Rumboldt (ca 1622-1685) was one of the Cromwellian conspirators in the Rye House plot.

The missionary and author William Ellis (1794-1872), missionary and author, lived in Hoddesdon from 1844, and was a minister to an Independent congregation. The Anglican theologian William Josiah Irons (1812-1883), was born in Hoddesdon.

Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour (1848-1930), Conservative politician and British Prime Minister (1902-1905), went to school at the Grange Preparatory School, Hoddesdon, along with his younger brother, Francis Maitland Balfour (1851-1882), comparative embryologist and morphologist.

The road-builder and engineer John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), who gave his name to tarmacadam, lived in Hoddesdon from 1827. The singer Lena Zavaroni (1963-1999) also spent some of her final years here.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College.