24 June 2019

Listening to the ‘Prophetic
Voice of the Church’ at
High Leigh with USPG

The High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddeson … the venue for the annual USPG Conference this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying at the High Leigh Conference Centre on the edges of Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire for three days, taking part in the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

The conference theme this year is The Prophetic Voice of the Church, and this is linked to the USPG Bible study course with the same name.

I arrived on early morning flight from Dublin to Stansted, in time for breakfast in Cambridge, and visits to Sidney Sussex College to see the last of this summer's wisteria and to some of the bookshops in the heart of Cambridge for a little browsing.

After a meeting of trustees and with volunteers, the conference opened this afternoon [24 June 2019] with welcomes and introductions from the chair of the USPG trustees, John Neilson, who spoke about exciting developments this year, including the move to new offices at 5 Trinity Street, the Rethinking Mission conference in Birmingham Cathedral in March and the international consultation two week ago in Barbados.

We marked the Feastday of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist in our opening worship this afternoon, which was led by the Archdeacon of Worcester, the Ven Robert Jones. Today’s feast and celebration had added meaning for me, for on this day 18 years ago [24 June 2001] I was ordained priest by Archbishop Walton Empey of Dublin in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Later in the afternoon, the general secretary of USPG, the Revd Duncan Dormor, presented a review of the past year, challenging us to ask ourselves, ‘What does it really mean to be the body of Christ?’ and the deeper meaning of the Greek concept of φῐλοξενῐ́ᾱ (philoxenia), which goes beyond hospitality to delight and openness to encounter. He highlighted USPG’s participation in Greenbelt last year, partnership with the Independent Philippine Church in the face of human rights abuses, a celebration at All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London, a major Anglican East Asia regional meeting in Korea, promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Bray Day celebrations this year, the discussions at the Rethinking Mission conference in Birmingham, the international consultation in Barbados, and next year’s Lambeth Conference.

Our speaker after dinner this evening is the Right Revd Dr Probal Kanto Dutta, Bishop of Calcutta and Deputy Moderator of the Church of North India, who is offering a North Indian perspective on the Prophetic Voice of the Church, and we end the day with night prayer.

We begin the day tomorrow [25 June 2019] with the Morning Eucharist celebrated by the Very Revd Dr Gloria Lita D Mapangdol, President and Dean of Saint Andrew's Theological Seminary in the Philippines, who is leading the Bible studies at the conference this week.

Tuesday also takes the form of a one-day conference, and the principal speaker tomorrow morning is the Right Revd Dr Victor Attae-Baffoe, Bishop of Cape Coast.

Later in the morning, we have a migration panel, presented by Nadine Daniel, the National Refugee Welcome Co-ordinator at the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England. The speakers and guests include:

● the Revd Canon St Obed Arist Kojo Baiden of the Anglican Diocese of The Gambia;

● the Revd Dennis Obidiegwu, chaplain of Saint Andrew’s Church, Morocco;

● the Revd Canon Kirilee Reid, chaplain and refugee officer in Calais.

We also hope to hear snippets and stories from people who have returned from ‘Journey with Us’ programmes in Tanzania, St Vincent and elsewhere.

The trustees and the senior management team meet after lunch, and in the first afternoon session our speakers include the Right Revd Calvert Leopold Friday, Bishop of the Windward Islands in the Church of the Province of the West Indies, and the Right Revd Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of Central Tanganyika in Tanzania.

Later in the afternoon, there is a choice from five workshops to choose from:

● Mission stories from North India (with Bishop Probal Kanto Dutta of Calcutta);

● Going back, going forward, what is home? (with a Migration Panel);

● Engaging Church and Community in Global Mission (with Davidson Solanki and Fran Mate);

● The Prophetic Voice in the UK and Ireland (with the Revd Duncan Dormor and the Revd Evie Vernon O’Brien).

● Journey with Us (with Habib Nader).

Before the end of the day, there is also a meeting of the USPG Council, closing with night prayer.

On Wednesday, the day begins again with a Bible study led by Gloria Mapangdol from the Philippines, and morning discussions on Speaking Truth to Power, led by Cathrine Fungai Ngangira from Zimbabwe, who is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham University, and on the 2020 Lambeth Conference, led by Canon Richard Bartlett.

The celebrant at our closing Eucharist is Bishop Calvert Leopold Friday from the Windward Islands. The preacher was supposed to be Bishop Ossie Swartz from South Africa, but instead Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland has been invited to preach.

These are three days with inspiring speakers, interactive workshops and opportunities to meet old friends and hear new voices engaged in mission. Join me over the next three days as I reflect on this conference with USPG in High Leigh.

The weather is hot and sultry, but if it remains dry I may be back in Cambridge on Wednesday evening to return to those bookshops.

The last of the summer wisteria in Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The scenic route to
ordination was
long and colourful

Inside the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield … the beginning of the road to ordination (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was ordained priest 18 years ago today, on the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist [24 June 2001], and deacon 19 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

These anniversaries coincide with the Festival of the Birth of Saint John Baptist (24 June), one of the few birthdays of a saint commemorated in the Book of Common Prayer (see pp 20-21).

As I reflect on these anniversaries this morning, I recall too how my path to ordination began 48 years ago when I was a 19-year-old in Lichfield, following very personal and special experiences in a chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

It was the summer of 1971, and although I was training to be a chartered surveyor with Jones Lang Wootton and the College of Estate Management at Reading University, I was also trying to become a freelance journalist, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, and staying at Wilderhope Manor, I had returned to Lichfield.

I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield, and I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled in that chapel out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of an old church or chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.

I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was late afternoon, so there was no light streaming through the East Window. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.

This is not a normal experience for a young 19-year-old … certainly not for one who is focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.

But it was – still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my ‘self-defining moment in life.’ It still remains as a lived, living moment.

My first reaction was to make my way on down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and Lichfield Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.

It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-1980), then the Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972) and later Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop at Lambeth. He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.

All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.

With Archbishop Walton Empey at my ordination as priest in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 24 June 2001, and (from left) the Revd Tim Close and the Revd Avril Bennett (Photograph: Valerie Jones, 2001)

However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then then Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.

My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

While I was working as a journalist, I also completed my degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in Lichfield Cathedral was gnawing away in the back of my mind.

Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.

I return to Lichfield regularly, two, three or more times a year, and slip into that chapel quietly when I get off the train. That chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But the traditions of that chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; and the liturgical traditions of the cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.

That bright summer evening left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.

As priests, we normally celebrate the anniversary of our ordination to the priesthood and reflect on it sacramentally. This morning, I am at Dublin Airport on my way to the annual, three-day conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) at the High Leigh Conference Centre near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire.

This week’s conference theme, The Prophetic Voice of the Church, is linked to the USPG Bible study course of the same name. I hope to hear many prophetic voices this week that remind me of the priorities and promises of diaconal and priestly ministry in the Church and in the world today.

With Archbishop Walton Empey at my ordination as deacon in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 25 June 2000 (Photograph: Valerie Jones, 2000)