21 June 2011

Pushing boundaries ... in mission and in the Middle East

Patrick Comerford with Bishop Mouneer Anis of Cairo at the USPG conference, ‘Pushing boundaries,’ in High Leigh

Patrick Comerford

This year’s USPG annual conference is taking the theme ‘Pushing boundaries’ and is focussing on leadership, development and health, with talks and seminars exploring new thinking in Anglican global mission.

The High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in rural Hertfordshire is the venue for this year’s conference of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.

There were introductions yesterday afternoon [Monday 20 June] from Canon Linda Ali, chair of USPG, and we began with worship and music led by Canon Rob Jones, a council member from the Diocese of Worcester.

The past year has been a difficult, if not traumatic, one for USPG, with upsets, changes and new opportunities, and there was an honest exchange of views when we moved to an open forum on the topic ‘This is USPG.’

Dr David Evans, who has been Director for Health since last September, comes to USPG with a background in medical research, developing vaccines and looking at HIV antibodies. Anthony McKernan has been Director of Donor Engagement since January and he has a background in social research and marketing. Behind them as they spoke was the slogan: “More than an aid agency.”

They spoke of an “Old USPG” that was unsustainable, and that was relying on small “loose change,” and of the “New USPG” that must be sustainable, with larger programmes and attracting larger donations.

What has not changed, however, they said, is USPG’s commitment to “God’s holistic mission.” But this was more than freshening up the image of USPG, and they spoke about a mission agency that must be more collaborative.

Canon Edgar Ruddock, USPG’s Director of Leadership Development, said taking stock over the past year or so involved listening, and facing up to new opportunities in their contexts, with consultations with 16 partners in 10 Anglican provinces or autonomous churches, revising policies and priorities, and developing new relationships.

Later in the afternoon and in the evening, we broke up into interest groups, and I went to hear the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, Bishop of Egypt and President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, speak about the recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa.

He was asked frank questions about the current conflict in Libya, the present state of affairs in the ‘Holy Land,’ and what Anglicans can do.

Bishop Mouneer has visited Libya many times, and in recent years Colonel Gadafy handed over to the Anglican Church “a wonderful 16th century church” in Tripoli that had been renovated at a cost of $1 million.

Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that Jerusalem has been at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict not for the past 63 years since the Israeli state was declared in 1948, but from very early on. Jerusalem is at the heart of the issue and at the heart of the conflict, he said, and we cannot ignore the place Christians either. All three faiths have rights in the city. This is an international city, to which these three main religions should have free access. Both Jews and Muslims want exclusive access to Jerusalem, but a common-sense solution is required, he said.

He spoke openly of the role of Anglicans as a small church in every part of the Middle East. We have a bridging role between the Churches, as is being experienced in Egypt and Jerusalem, and in the Gulf, but also have a bridging role between Christianity and Islam, and he believes Anglicans are the most active Church in dialogue in the region.

He provided an interesting analysis of the different Islamic groups in the Middle East, but pointed out that majority of Muslims in the Middle East are peaceful, peace-loving moderate people, who have co-existed with Christians and Jews in the region for the past 14 centuries.

He offered interesting insights into the recent developments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, and he spoke with compassion and passion of the experiences of young people and of women.

He pointed out that the Coptic Orthodox Church, with 12 million members, is not only the biggest Church in Egypt, but is also the biggest Church in the Middle East. They are paying a heavy price, he said, and they remember that they were martyred in the first centuries and after the Islamic conquest, that they have suffered in the past, and that they have paid the price.

He offered interesting insights into the potential role of Turkey as a good model, influencing many thinkers in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia and pointed out that Islam in Turkey is different, more moderate and more peaceful, Arab countries are watching Turkey, and are thinking Turkey’s model could be a good one, he suggested.

The High Leigh Conference Centre ... the venue for the USPG conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the day we also heard that Clare Amos is moving on to work with World Council of Churches on interfaith dialogue.

After dinner, I took part in an interesting workshop on music and liturgy led by Canon Jones. This morning [Tuesday, 21 June], we begin with the Eucharist, according to the rite of the Church of Bangladesh, celebrated by the Moderator of the Church, Bishop Paul Sarker. Our speakers include Bishop Mouneer and Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana, and there is a meeting of the Council of USPG in the evening.

Five people from USPG Ireland are taking part in the conference. Also here are Linda Chambers de Bruijn and Jan de Bruijn, and two students from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Colin Darling and Iain Jamieson.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a director of USPG Ireland and USPG Northern Ireland. He represents the Church of Ireland on the council of USPG.

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