26 June 2012

‘We have an amazing story to tell ... we are ready to do something big’

Telling the amazing story of USPG FOR Us (from left): Zoe Bunter, Mike Brooks and Leanne Werner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The USPG conference got underway on Monday afternoon [25 June 2012] in the High Leigh Conference Centre on the fringes of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire.

After an early flight from Dublin, I had spent the morning in Saffron Walden in Essex. My initial plan was to photograph some of the wonderful 16th and 17th century timber framed shops, pubs and houses in this wonderful example of an English market town, and ended up being invited to take part in the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, which is the largest church in Essex, celebrated by the Assistant Curate, the Revd Anne Howson.

I spent the rest of the morning strolling through the streets of Saffron Walden, and as the sun warmed and the temperatures rose, it was a beautiful day for architectural photography – the Old Sun Inn, the Eight Bells, the Cross Keys, the Market Place, the Castle Ruins, Castle Street, the Close, the Gardens, and the Rows.

But Saffron Walden is so charming and enchanting that the story is worth telling in full another day. From there, I caught the bus to Bishop’s Stortford, where I hopped on a train to Broxbourne, and after a shirt taxi journey was at High Leigh just in time for lunch.

Saint Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden ... but that’s another story for another day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A major consideration this afternoon was the rebranding of USPG. I have been a supporter of USPG for decades, but I am conscious that the full name, the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, is not only a mouthful for some and a tongue-twister for many, but it demands work in terms of bridging a credibility gap.

Canon Edgar Ruddock spoke in frank terms of the commercial value of Brand, and how there is a critically important interface between the world church and church on these islands. As a mission agency we must not to be seen as something we might have been – or were imagined as being – 50 or more years ago. We need to keep in step with a growing and changing church context in these islands.

The Revd Canon Christopher Chivers, the incoming chair of USPG’s trustees, said the present process is not about who we are, but about how we are and about how we relate: “We have an amazing story to tell.”

We need to communicate about our work, which is fantastic, but the name is part of whole brand. He asked how it can be captivating and exciting, and asked whether we are reaching a whole generation in the Church and beyond the Church.

There’s a vacuum in the Church that only USPG can fill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The CEO of USPG, Ms Janette O’Neill, spoke of a vacuum in the churches and the voluntary sector. Although there are plenty of places to give money, none of those agencies offer an opportunity for people to join in partnership and the engagement. “We are ready to do something big,” she said.

Zoe Bunter, Director for Donor Engagement, said any vision for the future is not just about looking at where we are today. Brand is part of any organisation and gives out messages about us and who we really are.

But she admitted our current brand is a barrier to many people. The onus is now on us to communicate effectively, it is not on people out there to get in touch with us. Speaking of the need to attract new supporters, she pointed out a survey shows 67 pc of current USPG supporters over age of 61.

Name is one of first messages people receive about us, she said. .For those who do not know about the work and history of USPG, the name is a barrier. Propagation of the Gospel sounds outdated, old-fashioned, colonial, insensitive and intolerant. Whether others are right or wrong, these are the perspectives, and by the time it comes to explaining work, we are on the back foot and defensive.

The change that name does not mean we devalue the past. But we can build on the rich history we have. However, the name USPG does it say who we are today and what we are doing.

We say a short film putting all that in context, pointing out that USPG, which was founded in 1702, is older than the UK, but throughout its history has been ahead of its time, fighting slavery and leprosy, supporting the role of women in the church and in mission, challenging racism, and working beyond colonies and empire.

But today we work differently.

The trustees are proposing a new name and a new tagline:

every person
every community
a full life

The panel discussion that followed included Bishop Andrew Proud, trustee Monica Bolley, Zoe Bunter, Janette O’Neill and Canon Edgar Ruddock.

There was an interesting debate, with questions about where Christ is in the name or strap-line, and one suggestion that it could be completed as: “a full life in Christ.”

Earlier in the afternoon, we were welcomed by Canon Linda Ali, the outgoing chair of the Council of USPG, who spoke of USPG as family that is a global family.

Three of the overseas trustees, Bishop Edward Malecdan from the Philippines, Bishop Jacob Ayeebo from Ghana, and the Revd Dr Ian Rock from Codrington College, Barbados, Caribbean, spoke of their formative links with USPG.

As Edgar Ruddock said at the opening of the conference, the sun is shining as usual at the start of Wimbledon week. I hope the sun keeps shining for the rest of this week in the Hertfordshire countryside.

Our other speakers today included the Revd Dr David Evans and Lisungo Nkhoma, national co-ordinator for the Hands on Health programme in Malawi. We heard reports from Bangladesh, Barbados, Ghana, Malawi, Myanmar, Pakistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and of course from Birmingham and from Ireland. And our day ended with worship led by the singer-songwriter Garth Hewitt, who spoke of his passion for justice in Palestine and Southern Africa.

The High Leigh Conference Centre on the fringes of Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, the venue for this year’s USPG conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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