15 February 2021

Pastoral care at a distance
has always been a challenge
for USPG and the Church

‘Pastoral Care across space and time’ … the theme for this year’s Bray Day organised by USPG and SPCK today

Patrick Comerford

Bray Day – the anniversary of the death of Thomas Bray on 15 February 1730 – is marked as Founder’s Day by the two Anglican agencies he was instrumental in founding: USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and SPCK (Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge).

Bray Day is being marked by both societies this evening (15 February 2021) with an online Founders Day organised by USPG and SPCK.

Over the last year, churches have wrestled with the question: How is pastoral and spiritual care given remotely, at a distance? It’s a question that has been asked before. Indeed, it lies at the heart of USPG and what it means to be a global mission agency.

This Bray Day, USPG is releasing a digital archive, an online exhibition of sources and letters from the time of the society’s foundation. This is the result of work undertaken over the last year by USPG in collaboration with scholars at the University of Leeds, exploring themes of pastoral care in USPG’s archive.

This work focusses on letters exchanged between missionaries in North America and the Caribbean and the society’s headquarters in London. It sheds light on the concerns and issues of pastoral caregiving in the society’s early work as SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel).

Pastoral caregiving remains a critical part of the global work of USPG particularly in the context of Covid-19. This evening will provide a rich exploration of the connections between the past and the present.

The speakers this evening are:

● Bishop Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury
● Dr Alison Searle, University of Leeds
● Dr Jo Sadgrove, USPG

The Revd Thomas Bray (1658-1730) … founder of SPG (now USPG) and SPCK, died on 15 February 1730

The Revd Dr Thomas Bray (1658-1730), an Anglican priest who spent time in Maryland as a missionary, was the founder of both the SPG (now USPG) and SPCK, is commemorated on 15 February in the calendar of the Church of England and several Churches in the Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church.

Thomas Bray was born into a humble Shropshire family in 1658 in Marton, near Chirbury, the son of Richard and Mary Bray. The house on Martin Crest is now known as Bray’s Tenement.

The local bishop took notice of young Thomas and felt that with his bright mind he should receive a good education. The bishop sponsored him and paid for his education. Bray was educated at Oswestry School, matriculated at All Souls’ College, Oxford, as a ‘poor boy’ on 12 March 1675, and graduated BA in 1678. He later received the degrees MA (1693), BD and DD (1696).

Thomas Bray was ordained priest in 1682, and he was curate at Bridgnorth before becoming a private chaplain and then Vicar of Over Whitacre and, from 1690-1695, Rector of Saint Giles, Sheldon, in Warwickshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield. There he wrote his Catechetical Lectures, which was dedicated to William Lloyd, Bishop of Lichfield. While he was in Warwickshire, he married is first wife, Eleanor.

Bray appears to have been widowed by 1695, when the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, appointed him as his commissary to organise the struggling Anglican presence in the colony of Maryland.

But his visit to Maryland was long delayed by legal complications, and during that delay, the widowed Thomas Bray married Agnes Sayers of Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn, in 1698.

Bray eventually set sail for America in 1699 for his first and only visit. Although he spent only 10 weeks in Maryland, Bray was deeply concerned about the neglected state of the Church in America and the great need for the education of the clergy, the laity people and children.

He radically reorganised and renewed the Church in Maryland, providing for the instruction of children and the systematic examination of candidates for pastoral positions. He also took a great interest in colonial missions, especially among the Native Americans.

At a general visitation of the clergy in Annapolis before his return to England, he emphasised the need for the instruction of children and insisted that no clergyman be given a charge unless he had a good report from the ship he came over in, ‘whether … he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechise and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses, I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.’

As a result of his visit to Maryland, he proposed a successful scheme for establishing parish libraries in England and America. Bray’s vision was for a library in each parish in America, funded by booksellers and stocked with books donated by authors. These libraries were to encourage the spread of the Anglicanism in the colonies, and were primarily composed of theological works. It was a major endeavour, as at the time the only other public libraries in the American colonies were at a small number of universities.

Back in England, Bray raised money for missionary work and influenced young Anglican priests to go to America. But his efforts to secure the consecration of a bishop for America were unsuccessful.

In England, he also wrote and preached in defence of the rights of enslaved Africans, and of Indians deprived of their land. He worked for the reform of prison conditions, and establishing preaching missions to prisoners. He persuaded General James Oglethorpe to found a colony in Georgia for the settlement of debtors as an alternative to debtors’ prison.

In response to his experiences, Bray was instrumental in establishing both SPCK in 1699 and SPG in 1701.

From 1706 until his death in 1730, he was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, where he continued his philanthropic and literary pursuits. He served the parish with energy and devotion, while continuing his efforts on behalf of African slaves in America and in founding parish libraries.

By the time he died on 15 February 1730 at the age of 74, Bray had succeeded in establishing 80 libraries in England and Wales and 39 in America.

Writing in the current edition of the USPG Prayer Diary, Dr Jo Sadgrove, one of this evening’s speakers, says pastoral care remains ‘a critical concern to USPG.’
She writes: ‘Examining the connections between the original SPG story and the present work of the Society reveals a continuous thread of innovation in pastoral caregiving. This influences USPG’s thinking about its unique mission and role in a global crisis, and ensures that the founding ideals of Thomas Bray and his contemporaries are kept alive.’

Thomas Bray was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, from 1706 until his death in 1730 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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