Founders Day

In 2022, it was the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge's turn to host the Founders Day event. A small, closed service on the theme of resilience was held at St James the Less, Pimlico. The webinar USPG held for Founders Day 2021 can be viewed below.


Past and Present: Pastoral Care across space and time

USPG’s webinar “Past and Present: Pastoral Care Across Space and Time” on 15th February marked the founding of USPG (as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) by the Rev’d Dr Thomas Bray.

The webinar was on the topic of pastoral care across time and space, and launched an exhibition of USPG’s archive, which you may view here.

The Rev’d Duncan Dormor, General Secretary of USPG, introduced the event, welcoming some 300 virtual delegates from 30 different countries. He said, “USPG strives to ensure that what we do takes place in the context of a global conversation, so it’s a real pleasure to have you all with us today. I extend a particularly warm welcome to those joining us from the Caribbean and from the Church of the Province of the West Indies, including the Most Rev’d Howard Gregory, Archbishop of the Church of the Province of the West Indies”.

He said “We mark our founder’s day, the day of Thomas Bray. He was a man of prodigious organisational ability, an educationalist and a man of books. It’s extraordinary that a Society founded by him in 1701 should still be flourishing today. I also extend a very warm welcome to representatives from the leading UK Christian publisher, SPCK - which was founded by Bray in 1698”.

The Rev’d Dormor then introduced the webinar, saying “those who do not learn from the past will repeat its mistakes and those who do not understand history will have little chance of understanding the present. To engage seriously with the past requires close collaboration with academic institutions. The exhibition that we are launching today is the result of a research project undertaken in close partnership between USPG and scholars from the University of Leeds, Dr Alison Searle and Dr Emily Vine”.

Dr Jo Sadgrove (USPG) introduced the documents found in the archive, saying “USPG in the 21st century, as in its 18th century origins, is an organisation whose core concern is that of relationship; specifically relationships across oceans, territories, worldviews and cultures. Relationships across multiple contexts, are highly complex. At the centre of these complex global encounters is a commitment to engage, to collaborate and to care for the bodies, souls and the social fabric of communities around the Anglican Communion, many of which USPG has been in relationship with since the early 1700s”.

Relating the contents of the archive to the present day, Dr Sadgrove added, “Over the past year, the collaboration between USPG and the University of Leeds has explored themes of care in SPG’s archive and in USPG’s contemporary global engagements during Covid-19. This collaboration is an attempt to take the tradition of care, and its failures, seriously, for the bodies and souls that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel pioneered, and of which USPG and other contemporary Christian organisations are inheritors. It approaches the early history of SPG as an innovative, if often morally problematic, vision for the creation of a transatlantic community of care. The project’s aims include not only opening the archival collections to a broader public, but it also considers the nature of the struggles facing the community of SPG in its earliest years and contemplates their connections to present day mission. What was SPG doing in those early years that was distinct and deemed to be of value to those committed to its vision? How should USPG as a 21st century organisation communicate that history? How do the concerns of SPG in those early years resonate with and continue to inform the life of the contemporary organisation?”.

Speaking about pastoral care during Covid-19, Dr Sadgrove said that “Prior to 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, few could have anticipated that questions about care would become the key moral, political and economic questions of the past year around the world. Who is entitled to care? What does good care look like? How should care be given? These questions drove and confounded the early SPG missionaries. Thinking about the contemporary life of an organisation in dialogue with its archives offers us a distinct space through which to reflect on the challenges of relationship over time. It has been a highly productive process of cross fertilisation, which we hope will bring new dimensions to relationships with some of USPG’s oldest Anglican partners”.

Dr Alison Searle and Dr Emily Vine (University of Leeds) spoke about the contents of the archive itself. Dr Searle explained that “the technological logistics of remote care provision generated a large amount of paperwork that was central to how SPG administered pastoral care.” This paperwork comprises the bulk of the archive. Dr Searle added, “These papers make clear the difficulties early missionaries faced in defining who constituted their parish and what kinds of pastoral care they were responsible for providing. Missionaries set down on paper what they had managed to achieve, but they also communicated their concerns and the challenges in confronting them: the act of writing these letters created a critical space in which they could reflect on their pastoral work, the Church of England and the local conditions impacted on their ministry”.

Dr Emily Vine spoke about the relationship between the SPG and the dependents of its missionaries, saying “as well as having a duty of care to support their missionaries, the SPG also had a duty of care towards the wives and families of missionaries”.

Bishop Rowan Williams discussed USPG’s archive with journalist Rosie Dawson. Bishop Rowan highlighted the importance of the archive launch. “When we’re looking at any kind of history, we’re really looking to understand ourselves a bit better – where do we come from? How did we get where we are? And what do we need to learn? Because if we can see how we got things wrong and learn new things in our history, we’re maybe more inclined to learn now. I would approach the archive in that sort of spirit. What was it like? What do they not see? What did they need to learn? What must we learn?”. Bishop Rowan also commented on the two-sided nature of the SPG’s early mission work, saying “there’s something positive in that it says “well, the Gospel ought to be recognisable to people throughout the world””, that “what is Good News for us is Good News for them”. The negative side of it is ‘“we are the answer to their problems”’. As in every mission engagement, there are two sides of the coin”.

Bishop Rowan also spoke about the ethical dilemma that missionaries faced, saying “the missionaries are quite obviously scandalised by the treatment that’s given to slaves on plantations, and we might say from the 21st Century perspective, “why are you surprised? That’s how slavery works!”. They still have an idealistic view that there could be a benign, patriarchal form of slavery in which everybody recognised their common identity as Christians, in which masters could treat slaves benignly and give them generous privileges and so forth. They are clearly very critical of the slaveholding culture – what they won’t criticise is slavery itself”.

In addition to this, Bishop Rowan spoke about the Codrington bequest, in which the SPG received two slave plantations in Barbados. He said, “It’s interesting that when you look at the debates in the minutes of the Society about accepting the Codrington benefaction, there isn’t a discussion of the morality of slavery. It’s mostly at a practical level – can we manage this? And it makes me think of the debates that institutions still have today about ethical donation policies. How far do you go in refusing to accept donations from certain quarters? How do you manage your investments? It’s taken quite a while to get people to see that something that appears to be – even if it’s undesirable – something that is in the very fabric of our economic system, and that it could change. When I look back, I think that must be how it felt in the early 18th Century, that the institution of slavery was embedded in the global economy at such a depth, to such a degree, that one could not think past it”.

The interview with Bishop Rowan concluded by him saying “I think the study of the archive really is constructive. We don’t look at past errors and past false starts simply in order to wring our hands of guilt. We look at this and say, “First of all, these were people rather like us, doing what they thought was best in their environment”. And that meant quite a high level of moral unease about certain things which they never quite got to deal with. From the vantage point of 300 years later, we can see more clearly what they weren’t doing, and we can ask what we can do to mend broken relationships and the toxic consequences which came from that denial or ignoring certain aspects of the environment. Then we turn to our own context and say, “Well, what are the areas of damage and toxicity that we’re now involved in?” And what do we do about those?”.

USPG Trustee The Rev’d Dr Turner introduced the panel discussion, saying “I think this is a very timely initiative by USPG. As an organisation, this is a very brave and absolutely necessary step. There are further conversations and initiatives to come, so this conversation is far from over. But the need to tease out history is crucial – we need to learn from the past, to be honest in the present and to enter the future with new understandings for mission and what it means to be church. The USPG is opening this conversation one step at a time”. The Rev’d Dr Turner added, “I welcome this webinar, especially as a priest trained at Codrington College where such a benefaction existed. This is an issue that has shaped my ministry as a theological student then, a postgraduate student and now as a Trustee of USPG.”

The Rev’d Professor Satchell commended the openness of USPG in launching the archive. “The availability of this archive to us in the Caribbean is vital, as there is a lack of local historical sources available here”. He added, “While I applaud the work of the USPG in launching this archive, I am deeply saddened by what the archive reveals of the Society’s past. This webinar is the signal of a start in the right direction”.

Bishop Rose reflected that “if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you won’t know where you’re going. And so, this exhibition has opened up something of the history of the organisation. Today we are still living on the foundation of the past, living in a way that ill-equips us to recognise the pain and the hurt, and to build something new, something that could be life-giving for the next generation”.

The panellists then answered delegates’ questions such as: “Why did the Society not commence the movement towards abolition of the enslaved?” The Rev’d Duncan Dormor responded to the first question, saying “it’s quite clear that the SPG was slow to take this up. There were many dissenting, non-conformist ministers who were ahead of establishment figures within the Church of England. I think the only thing that one can say is that the Church of England was deeply knitted into structures of power and wealth, and into the elites of society. It was unable to separate culture from Christ.”

Another asked “How can we conscientise the Church of England to the aspects of its past?”.

Bishop Rose said, “The Church of England is a sample of British society, so if British society isn’t educated about these aspects of our past, then the Church of England won’t be either. It is a Christian organisation, and so much more is expected. Those of us within the Church of England, have to hope that the Church will be able to see people with brown skin not through the eyes of the history they learnt, but through the eyes of the God whom they serve”.

Bishop Rose drew the webinar to a close with the Franciscan Blessing, saying “May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.”

Speakers included: Bishop Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Alison Searle, Associate Professor of Textual Studies at the University of Leeds, Dr Emily Vine, Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Leeds, and Dr Jo Sadgrove, USPG’s Research and Learning Advisor. The webinar also included a panel comprised of Rev’d Dr Carlton Turner, USPG Trustee and Tutor at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, the Rt Rev’d Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Bishop of Dover and Rev’d Professor Veront Satchell, Professor of Economic and Landscape History at the University of the West Indies.