Hallo again to all.
One of our regular activities when traveling in places where Anglican missionaries have in the past done significant works of grace and mercy is to find their graves. When we do—as we have done throughout North America and the West Indies, as well as in Japan and Korea—we brush off from them the dirt or dust or moss or pine needles or decaying leaves with which they are almost invariably covered. We read (sometimes decipher) the careful inscriptions in limestone, bronze, copper, or marble in which the bare facts of their lives are set out. We speak their names aloud and imagine the labours of teaching, preaching, planting, healing, and building that were the fruit of their good lives. If no one is looking, we kneel and say a simple prayer, asking God to make us more like them.
Three times out of four—and this may be an accident of our travel experiences—these venerable missionaries were men born in England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. They were sent from metropolitan dioceses of the Church of England to 'foreign parts', generally but not always colonies of the growing British Empire. They more often than not died far away from the familiar places and climate of their birth and education. And they were almost all sent by an extraordinary organisation called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
Known quite exclusively to its three centuries of members and contributors as 'the Venerable Society' or just 'the SPG', this sending-and-forming agency is one of the major shapers—along with the Church Missionary Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge—of Anglicanism as it is lived and constituted today. There are simply no rivals for comparison to the SPG, the CMS, and the SPCK in the creation of the Anglican world.
If you've ever visited our humble dwelling, you'll know that our daily awareness of the SPG is quite strong. Our fireplace mantelpiece has two mission-mite boxes for the use of our guests—one for the SPG and one for the CMS. (The SPG box is pictured below.) Some of the treasures of our e'er-growing ecclesiastical ephemera collection are maps showing the missionary dioceses, out-stations and institutions of the never-quite-at-war SPG and CMS in India, China, Japan, Canada, Australasia and sub-Saharan Africa. Much of our understanding of current divisions within Anglicanism is informed by the markedly different emphases of the SPG and the CMS during the long nineteenth century—the former more clearly sacramental and the latter more expressedly scriptural.*
From its foundation in 1701 the Venerable Society has adapted in wonderful ways to the changes and chances of the world it has served so well. In 1965, for example, it became the USPG through a merger with the [Cambridge and Oxford] Universities' Mission to Central Africa. A further major change was the incorporation of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi under the USPG umbrella in 1968. Whilst mite-boxes and promotional literature now said USPG instead of SPG, Anglicans the world over knew that this change was an expansion and amplification of the Venerable Society's life.
So it was with no small dismay that we read at the end of June that from the end of this year, the good and old [U]SPG had made a decision to rebrand itself:
We are in entire sympathy with the USPG's good and worthy aims to bring 'the knowledge and love of God, and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord' to the world in fresh ways. The goals
seem especially inspired to us. But to do so under the upper-case name Us strikes the lower-case us as a bizarre and upsetting disruption of Christian language and Anglican heritage.
To speak plainly, we find it terrifying that church money and Christian energy should be spent in any significant ways on branding or rebranding—or what may in time be a subsequently 'necessary' re-rebranding. (You will remember our softspoken and white-hot wrath some years ago when the Episcopal Church in the United States spent astonishing amounts of money on litigation and in Patent and Trademark Office fees in order to re-brand itself as The Episcopal Church or TEC; we have never used this term to refer to the Anglican province headquartered on Second Avenue on Manhattan Island, and with God's help we never shall.)
Us will undoubtedly continue to form, teach, send, heal, build, and change the world in the name of Christ. But the awkwardness of the foregoing grammatical construction underscores the Orwellian nature of this more-than-a-logomachy change of name. This very skilful animation notwithstanding, we need a Christianity whose name is never, ever Us. Was there no consideration of the painful similarity between Us and US—the United States of America—and how this may impact the reception of the work of Us in places where the US is not understood to be benevolent?
We doubt not that the rebranding effort is a fait accompli, but Us shall ever be for us the Venerable Society or the SPG. The Gospel must be the Gospel, and its omission seems a kind of scandal. It is true that Propagation has too many syllables for sound bites, but we're unaware of that having ever hindered the onward life of the people of God. And for every serious inquirer who has ever been turned away from Church life because of a sense of clubbishness or exclusivity, we cannot imagine a worse name than Us to improve the spiritual vitality of people throughout the world.
See you next week.
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