Wednesday, 23 September 2020

A day of missed flights,
exploring East End streets,
and indulging in wanderlust

A missed opportunity to explore a little of the East End today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I ought to have been in London today at a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

I spent much of the day at that meeting, but it was a virtual meeting hosted on Zoom rather than a ‘corporeal’ meeting, because of Covid-19 restrictions on travel for all of us.

I have not been on a flight or in London since a meeting of USPG trustees on 4 March, and today I missed not only the train journey from and to Stansted Airport through the countryside of East Anglia, but also the opportunities I take before and after these meetings, as I make my way from Liverpool Street Station to the USPG offices in Trinity Street in London, to explore Wren churches or the streets of the East End.

Of course, most of all, replacing these face-to-face meetings of trustees with ‘virtual meetings’ means the opportunities are lost for building trust and relationships with other trustees and with staff members.

Zoom meetings are very efficient, but no matter what organisation is hosting them – and there have been many over the past six months – they can never replace the spontaneous, one-to-one contacts that are made, the friendships that are nurtured, and the ideas that are given time to grow and develop on the sidelines and the margins.

Instead of wandering the streets of Southwark or the East End before or after the meeting, I enjoyed the autumn sunshine in the rectory gardens throughout today’s meeting.

As the meeting began, we were invited to reflect on a New Testament passage that recalls Saint Paul’s first missionary journey to the continental Europe, when he heard the call of a man in Macedonia, and travelled with Silas and Timothy to Samothrace, Neapolis and then Philippi, and then met Lydia of Thyatira, an interesting woman’s voice in the mission of the Apostolic Church (see Acts 16: 6-16).

Of course, the passage also reminded me that I had planned to be north-east Greece at the end of last month and the beginning of this month (24 August to 4 September), and later in the day, as we heard reports from USPG’s engagement with the wider church, I thought of a planned but cancelled visit to the Anglican Church in Myanmar earlier this year (23 March to 1 April), a cancelled retreat in Lichfield, and the cancelled USPG conference in Swanwick in Derbyshire (20 to 22 July).

The conference in Swanwick gave way to another Zoom meeting of USPG trustees on 23 July, but yet another opportunity for a return visit to Lichfield was lost to what John Crace refers to in the Guardian today as ‘Boristime’ and ‘Coronatime’: ‘In Boristime, years become months, months become weeks. Meanwhile Coronatime has the last laugh of turning each of his strategies from months into weeks, and weeks into days.’

There were reminders too today of great SPG and USPG missionaries in the past, including Arthur Shearly Cripps (1869-1952) in Zimbabwe and Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940) in India, and of the priest-poet Geoffrey ‘Woodbine Willie’ Studdert-Kennedy (1883-1929). In our closing prayers, we remembered members and friends of the USPG family, including the Revd Edward Thompson, and the Very Revd Ken Robinson, a former Dean of Gibraltar.

All this reminiscing and wanderlust reminded me that no matter where we live, as Christians we are sojourners. We heard from the second century Epistle to Diognetus [Πρὸς Διόγνητον Ἐπιστολή], probably the earliest example of Christian apologetics, defending Christianity from its accusers. The unknown writer says:

‘For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of [humanity] either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life … But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and other arrangement of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign … Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.’

The Very Revd Ken Robinson was the Dean of Gibraltar in 2000-2003 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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