09 June 2010

Witnessing to Christ Today

Patrick Comerford

I am in Derbyshire this week for the annual conference of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission. I had an early morning flight to Birmingham this morning, and the conference, which begins at 11.30, is taking the theme “Witnessing to Christ Today.”

USPG – the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – is one of the oldest mission agencies in the Anglican Communion, dating back to 1701. “Witnessing to Christ Today” has also been the topic for a major conference that ended on Sunday in Edinburgh, marking the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference that took place in 1910.

The keynote speaker this afternoon is the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, and the panel discussion this evening includes Bishop Schori, the South African Primate, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, and Canon Mark Oxbrow, the international Director of the Faith2Share network. Mark and I worked together in CMS some years ago and travelled to China as part of a delegation organised by the China Desk of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba is also speaking tomorrow morning on “Mission Realities for Southern African Anglicans – and their Wider Implications.” Later in the day I am leading two interest groups or workshops on the topic of “Spirituality and Mission.”

Our reflections on Friday morning will be introduced by the Revd Rachel Carnegie, International Development Secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Cape Town is presiding at the Closing Eucharist later on Friday, and preacher is the Revd Dr Evie Vernon, Director of the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies.

A key aim of the USPG conference this year is unpacking a new strategy for USPG’s engagement with mission. In a move that will massively reduce administration costs in London, USPG is phasing in a sharper focus in mission that will concentrate on two major strands of work: church growth and healthcare – two areas that USPG’s world church partners are describing as their key priorities.

The conference is taking place at the Hayes Conference Centre, which is situated in the Amber Valley in the heart of picturesque Derbyshire, an area that is rich in history and heritage, tranquil villages and bustling market towns.

Signs and relics of the Fitzherbert Wright family abound in the Hayes, the house they built in Swanwick in the 1860s as a wedding present (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Hayes has been a Christian conference centre since 1911, and I first attended a conference here in 1976. The house was built in the 1860s by the industrialist Francis Wright and his wife Selina (Fitzherbert) as a wedding present for their son, Fitzherbert Wright (1841-1910), and named Swanwick Hayes. Fitzherbert Wright was the managing director of the Butterley Company and maternal great-great-grandfather of the Duchess of York, who was back in the news recently for accepting royal backhanders.

In 1910, Henry Fitzherbert Wright (1870-1947) sold the estate to the company that turned the Hayes into a conference centre. During World War II it was used as prisoner-of-war camp for German and Italian prisoners. One Luftwaffe officer, Franz von Werra, escaped from Swanwick but was recaptured at nearby RAF Hucknall while he tried to steal an aircraft. His exploits inspired a movie, The One That Got Way, starring Harry Kruger.

Nearby Swanwick is an old Derbyshire village, lying about midway between Ripley and Alfreton, and with a population of about 5,000. Saint Andrew’s Church, the Church of England parish church in Swanwick, was built at the village crossroads in 1860 to a design by a Derby architect, with most of the funding coming from the Butterley Company. The tower was added in 1903 as a gift from Fitzherbert Wright when he was retiring as managing director of the Butterley Company.

Beyond Swanwick, the local tourist attractions include the Midland-Butterley heritage railway line and Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, a member of the board of USPG Ireland and a member of the council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

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