23 November 2018

How USPG volunteers are
‘a way of … inviting other
people into our mission’

The statue of Bishop Charles Gore outside Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham … the venue for today’s workshop for USPG volunteers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have spent much of today [23 November 2018] at a regional day for volunteers and supporters of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham.

The day began with Morning Prayer at 8 a.m. in Lichfield Cathedral with the Bishop of Lichfield, Michael Ipgrave, and the Dean of Lichfield, Adrian Dorber, and a short visit to the chapel of Saint john’s Hospital in Lichfield, which helped to shape my faith when I was in my late teens almost 50 years ago.

The USPG volunteers at today’s meeting in Birmingham came from dioceses throughout the Midlands, including Lichfield, Coventry, Derby, Birmingham, Southwell and Nottingham and Worcester.

This year, USPG has organised regional days like this in Carmarthen, Manchester, Peterborough and Birmingham, and there are more workshops early next year in London, Bishop’s Stortford, Bicester and York.

Today, USPG has about 50 trained, volunteer speakers. Dioceses and parishes have had 91 USPG speakers this year, and while 24% of these engagements were met by staff, 76% of speaking engagements were met by volunteers.

This is a turnaround from two years ago, when the percentages were the other ay around, which just goes to show how important volunteers are in the work and mission of USPG.

During the morning, Rebecca Woolgar, USPG’s Volunteering and Stewardship Manager, introduced a number of aspects of USPG’s work, highlighting the latest edition of Transmission, including its pages on ‘Out and About in Britain and Ireland,’ the Prayer Cards for Advent 2018, legacy giving, and the opportunities for experience of USPG’s work through two programmes: Journey with Us offers an opportunity for from three months to a year, followed by reflection weekends and opportunities to share their experiences; while Expanding Horizons includes short-term opportunities for priests and others.

She also updated us on USPG’s work with the two Anglican Churches in the Philippines – the Independent Church of the Philippines (IFI) and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines.

Church leaders in the Philippines are facing threats, intimidation and imprisonment in a climate of fear, and Bishop Carolos Morales has been jailed because of his involvement in the peace process.

Short film presentations depicted the threats facing children and their families face in the Philippines, where the IFI is standing with these people and highlighted the plight of the Lumad people in Mindanao.

Under the Dutente regime, Lumad schools are attacked regularly, 53 schools have been forcibly closed, 12 have been destroyed, and teachers and students face illegal arrest and trumped-up charges. Their plight goes unreported in mainstream media in the Philippines, and they struggle to have their voices heard.

Earlier this year, Father Chris Ablon spoke at Greenbelt about the work of the IFI, with oppressed minority group in the Philippines.

Rebecca Boardman of USPG’s Global Relations spoke of USPG’s work with the Diocese in Europe as it works with migrants and responds to changes in migration, focussing on this work in Greece, France and Morocco.

As she pointed out, migration has always existed, and the Bible is a story of people on the move. It is not a new trend in Europe, but since 2015 received major attention in Britain and Europe.

Today, in 2018, an estimated 68.5 million are forcibly displaced worldwide, including migrants and refugees, and this figure may be underestimated. Often they are forcibly displaced because of climate change, crop failure and an increasingly hostile environment.

Nor are migrants always crossing national borders. Of the 68.5 million people, 40 million are internally displaced, meaning almost 60 per cent of migrants remain in their own country, and many unwilling to leave their own country.

Germany hosts about 1 million, but Turkey hosts 3.5 million refugees, while UNHCR figures show that at the end of last year [2017] there were 121,837​ refugees in the UK, 40,365​ pending asylum cases and 97 stateless persons in the UK. In the 12 months prior to June 2018, the UK received 27,044 applications from main applicants, a 1% drop from the previous year.

In 2015, the year the photograph of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach woke Europe up to the plight of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. That year [2015], about 1 million arrived in Greece, mainly on the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos, from Turkey. By 2018, the number of people moving through Greece has fallen to 17,000, even though the same problems remain in Syria, Afghan, Iraq and other countries.

Many people are prevented from moving on from Turkey because of the impact of an agreement between the EU and Turkey. Borders across Europe have started to shut down, barbed wire fences have gone up, and there is a knock-on impact.

There are common European asylum agreements about redistributing people across Europe, but Britain has opted out of all these agreements, has its own legal framework.

The number of people crossing into Greece dropped significantly in 2017, and more people are crossing into Italy, and now from Morocco into Spain. The route is moving from the East Mediterranean to the West Mediterranean, and the routes have become more dangerous, with people taking more risky and dangerous journeys, and reports of people trafficking, sex trade and slavery in Libya, Turkey and other countries where people are held back.

The Diocese in Europe works in 40 countries, from Morocco in north Africa through Europe and Turkey into the former Soviet Union. Many of the churches are small chaplaincies, with few people able to give substantially, and USPG is engaged with a number of critical locations in the diocese: Athens, Calais, and Tangier and Casablanca.

The numbers travelling through Europe rose rapidly in 2015, and Father Malcolm Bradshaw, then the Anglican chaplain in Athens, saw tents appearing in the main squares close to Saint Paul’s Church. The Diocese in Europe responded by calling on USPG to work with the Anglican presence in Greece.

The context in Greece changed substantially. Many people have been resettled or re-homed and have access to jobs and the opportunities to sustain themselves. The work in Greece has strengthened co-ordination between churches, with long-term key partnership with the Greek Orthodox Church. Working together for the past three years has gone beyond meeting humanitarian and has brought the Churches to work together.

In France, Canon Kirilie Reed has been appointed the chaplain and Refugee Project Officer in Pas-de-Calais, with the support of the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

In Morocco, USPG is supporting Saint Andrew’s Chaplaincy in Tangier, where Father Denis has been seconded from Nigeria to work with west Africans and provide pastoral support and care, as well as working with the Roman Catholic church in Tangier.

Other work supported by USPG includes supporting a church working with Sudanese refugees northern Finland, and a women’s hostel in Istanbul.

Rachel Woolgar also spoke of fundraising as a way of engaging with mission.

USPG’s volunteers are generous, and, as the theologian Henri Nouwen says in The Spirituality of Fundraising, fundraising in the Church is ‘first and foremost a form of ministry’ and ‘a way of announcing our vision and inviting other people into our mission.’

She introduced us to USPG’s Lent Course for 2019, ‘The Prophetic Voice of the World Church.’ This work with the Church of North India and Church of South India includes working with the problems surrounding people trafficking in India, environmental issues in the schools, and oppressed women.

Later in the afternoon, Kate Winser from Norwich spoke of her nine-month experiences in Belize on a ‘Journey with Us’ programme.

The new Crucifixion Icon from Bethlehem seen in Lichfield Cathedral after Morning Prayer this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

(Updated 7 December 2018, with a correction to the statistic quoted)

A walk on a winter night
in the streets of Lichfield

Winter lights reflected on Minister Pool in Lichfield last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Between the two-day meeting of USPG trustees in Roehampton in London on Wednesday and Thursday and a meeting of USPG volunteers in Birmingham Cathedral today [23 November 2018], I have been staying overnight in Lichfield.

It is hard to explain how Lichfield is further from London than it is from Dublin, and after an eight-hour journey by bus, coach and train from Roehampton through Birmingham to Lichfield yesterday afternoon and evening, I am now willing to argue that it might have been quicker – almost – to catch a flight to Dublin and a flight back to Birmingham.

I know from past experience that a flight from Dublin and a train from Birmingham is more efficient and speedier journey, and often a cheaper one, than the way I travelled on Thursday.

The meeting of USPG trustees finished at 2 p.m., and I finally checked in at the hotel in Lichfield at 10 p.m. By then, the hotel kitchen was closed, as were the first two restaurants. But I ought to have remembered I could fall back on that old reliable favourite: Ego Restaurant overlooking Minster Pool, with the dim lights of the cathedral reflected in Minster Pool.

Late-night lights in Lichfield Cathedral reflected on Minister Pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But no matter how long the journey, or how late the hour, it is always a joy to be back in Lichfield. Here my faith was shaped and formed in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital and in Lichfield Cathedral when I was still in my late teens almost half a century ago.

Rather than go for a drink afterwards, I went for a walk along Minster Pool, around the Cathedral Close and back through the quiet, still streets of Lichfield in the late night lights of winter.

One homeless person with a sleeping bag had found shelter for the night in the west door of the cathedral. What does winter hold for homeless and vulnerable people this Christmas?

Samuel Johnson … pensive and waiting for the Christmas lights to be switched on next Sunday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Samuel Johnson looked pensive on his perch in the Market Square last night amid the Christmas lights that are waiting to be switched on next Sunday afternoon [25 November 2018].

Before the Christmas Lights are switched on in Lichfield on Sunday, there will be a special market from 11 a.m. around the city centre selling food and gifts, events at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and children’s rides.

There will also be live music and entertainment on the switch-on stage on the Market Square from 2.30 p.m., and a special performance from the cast of the Garrick Theatre’s ‘Dick Whittington’ at 4.45 p.m. just before the big switch-on. The Mayor, helped by two local school children, will throw the switch and light up the City’s Christmas Illuminations at 5 p.m.

Winter lights in the Cathedral Close last night (Photograph Patrick Comerford. 2018)

During the afternoon, two local bands will entertain people from 2.30 p.m., and the Christ Church School Choir will then lead carol singing on the Square from 4.20pm. We are also expecting a special visit from Santa, who will be arriving on stage on the Market Square immediately after the lights are switch-on.

The lights, provided by Lichfield City Council with the support of Lichfield Chamber of Trade and local businesses, will stay on throughout December from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m.

The Guildhall, Donegal House and the Tudor café on Bore Street late last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But the lights remained off last night as I wandered through Dam Street, Market Street, Bore Street and Bird Street before returning to my hotel.

I hope to visit Lichfield Cathedral and the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital later this morning, before catching a train back into Birmingham for today’s meeting in Birmingham Cathedral for volunteers from the Diocese of Lichfield and neighbouring dioceses organised by the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

The West Door of Lichfield Cathedral late last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)