In the cause of emphasizing inclusivity USPG has changed its name to Us – yes, that’s right: simply Us, as in the accusative case of the English first person plural pronoun. As in, “Someone sent us a package.”
My reflection on the USPG name change comes into the category of “I could be wrong but . . .” I could be wrong, but the change to Us raises a number of questions related to history, theology, missiology, media, politics and sheer practicality.
First, though, a heartfelt caveat: As an Anglican missiologist and missionary I have for many years had great respect for what is often termed the oldest missionary society in the Anglican Communion. What was initially known as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was founded in 1701 by members of the Church of England who were concerned about the state of Anglicans in the American colonies. It secured a royal charter, but it was an entirely voluntary society in membership and income, and during the 18th century its work spread to various parts of the Americas, Asia and Africa. Its mission work continued to grow in the 19th century, albeit exceeded by the work of CMS, the Church Missionary Society, founded in 1799. In 1965 SPG merged with the UMCA, the Universities Mission to Central Africa, which was founded in 1857 as a response to the mission appeals of David Livingstone, and became the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. For much of the current century the agency billed itself as USPG: Anglicans in World Mission.
Moreover, I have had much personal dealing with USPG over the years. SPG was largely responsible for the establishment of Anglican work in what is now Zimbabwe, where Jane and I spent three years as missionaries with our children. Both there and in subsequent scholarship I have had occasion to pore over many SPG records. Through various mission consultations a number of people associated with SPG have become colleagues and friends – Mano Rumalshah, Edgar Ruddock, Michael Doe and Chad Gandiya among them.
In short, I’m fond of the society as well as respectful of it. I speak not only as a missiologist always concerned about the terminology and theology of mission but as someone who has a collegial relationship with the organization. The critique in my reflection concerns only the implications of the name change, and I honor and celebrate the vision and dedication of the Us leadership and the organization as a whole.
So, the name change. The news story relating this shift and its official promulgation was posted on the Anglican Communion website on 22 November 2012, and you can find it here.
Let’s take it from the top:
Years of traditional mission activity have helped us to realise that there is no ‘us and them’ only an ‘us’. This was the message of the Revd Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who preached at a special service to launch the renaming of the 311-year-old mission agency USPG – now known as Us. He was speaking at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on Tuesday 20 November. Mr Wells said: ‘In the good old days, we used to think being a missionary was about recognising a difference between us and them: “us”, who had resources, skills, and the gospel, and “them”, who had hunger and not much else.’
There are lots of historical and anthropological problems in this series of statements and implications. The notion that it is only in the 21st century or only in, say, the last 60 years that mission-minded people in the churches have realized the common humanity of all human persons is not only false, but it is profoundly unjust – a calumny perhaps – to generations of missionaries – many SPG, UMCA and USPG missionaries among them – who ministered out of a deep recognition of the common humanity of all persons. It was precisely that recognition that all are created in the image of God that prompted them to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and to minister in healthcare, education and economic empowerment.
I don’t claim that this recognition was always foremost from the earliest days, nor that there were no exceptions. For instance, SPG was in grave error when it countenanced slavery for 150 years on the plantation in Barbados that it received by bequest in 1710 and that became the home of Codrington College. The SPG-sponsored first bishop of Mashonaland, George Knight-Bruce, had fairly shocking views of the Shona people in the 1890s. However, by far the greater portion of SPG history – and that of other missionary societies as well – was premised on the common humanity of all persons.
“Oh yes, we realize they recognized a common humanity,” Us might respond, “but we mean that they thought in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, whereas we’re emphasizing that we’re all together as us.” Well, that’s a distinction without a difference. Yes, missionaries carried out the ministries they did because they perceived there were needs among other peoples and they felt called to respond to them. Yet if they had not recognized that “those people out there” were deeply connected with “us people back here” through sharing in God’s very image – that they all shared a common humanity and were equally precious to God – they would not have undertaken the strenuous and often perilous ministries they did.
Let’s move to the supposed differences between “us” and “them” that Sam Wells went on to critique:
Mr Wells said: ‘In the good old days, we used to think being a missionary was about recognising a difference between us and them: “us”, who had resources, skills, and the gospel, and “them”, who had hunger and not much else.’
But, over the years, this picture has changed, he said. So much so that we came to realise that ‘there is no longer a them, there is only an us’. And the final irony, he said, was that ‘if we’d never accepted the call to be a missionary, we’d probably never have found all that out’.
This is a remarkably uninformed view of the human community and mission history. The fact is that the human community is replete with differences – always has been and is today. The field of anthropology developed as an effort to think systematically about differences among human cultures, asking such questions as: What does the tremendous diversity among people groups mean? In what ways do cultural groups differ in their approaches to such matters as social organization, family structure, love and intimacy, child nurture, adulthood, death, religion? Are similarities among cultures real or only apparent? Is it possible for an outsider to truly understand the practices and viewpoints of people in a different culture – and, if so, how?
The notion that missionaries of earlier eras reduced the vast array of human differences to the “us” who had resources, skills and the gospel and “them – who had hunger and not much else” is breathtakingly inaccurate. What of the missionaries who learned local languages and then found them so fascinating that they compiled dictionaries, grammars and collections of proverbs and then wrote poems and essays in those languages? Henry Martyn (1771-1812), the first English CMS missionary, was an outstanding example of a missionary linguist and translator. What of missionaries who committed languages to written form for the first time, a process that takes years, as the continuing work of Wycliffe Bible Translators attests today? What of the missionaries who adapted to local customs and defended the lifeways of peoples against the depredations of imperial rule and trade? Arthur Shearly Cripps, an SPG missionary in Rhodesia, was one of these, and he was not alone. The founding principal of Edwardes College here in Peshawar, J. M. Hoare, was a CMS missionary who designed the first buildings not in English collegiate style but with the arches and cupolas of the Mogul period. What of the missionaries who didn’t want to go home, so in love were they with the people to whom they went?
On the specifically religious side, where many assume missionaries had no appreciation for indigenous religions, Kenneth Cracknell’s study of missionary attitudes in the 19th century found it so otherwise that he named his book, Justice, Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions, 1846-1914. In India Thomas Slater of the London Missionary Society explored the relationship between Brahman, or divine essence, of Hindu thought with the Logos, or divine Word that Christian thought identified with Christ. In the 20th century Murray and Mary Rogers, initially of CMS, established an ashram in Uttar Pradesh that fused Hindu and Christian spirituality. The Daily Telegraph said that the late Kenneth Cragg (1913-2012) “more than anyone else in the 20th century, helped Christians to a deeper understanding of, and a wider sympathy for, the religious faiths of Muslims and Jews.” His classic The Call of the Minaret was published in 1956 – not yesterday. Cragg began as a missionary with the British Syrian Mission and took his inspiration from two earlier CMS missionaries in Egypt, Temple Gairdner (1873-1928) and Constance Padwick (1886-1968).
One of the tendencies of uninformed people who suddenly presume to speak about mission historically is that they slip into imagining that all involved in mission before themselves were benighted with prejudice and ethnocentrism. The attitude actually echoes the “old missionary” views they are critiquing, only now applied just as sweepingly to the “old missionaries” instead of to indigenous cultures – as though they themselves have breathed in the fumes of the censorious attitudes they imagine all “old missionaries” to have had. Such unfortunate stereotyping is common enough among the general public, but it is irresponsible and egregious when theologians and others within the church indulge in it.
Culturally the extensive ethnographic work of missionaries has been useful to anthropologists. Conversely, anthropology has become prominent in missiology through the work of Paul Hiebert, Louis Luzbetak and others. The predecessor journal of Missiology, prominent in the USA, was the journal Practical Anthropology, founded in the early 1950s. Probably the most prominent aspect of mission training today is the orientation of outgoing missionaries to the issues they will face in experiencing cultural difference.
Recently I was touched by the account of the death of a classmate’s father who had been a lifetime missionary in northeast India. On his deathbed in the USA he was singing the hymns of the tribal Christians among whom he had ministered for several decades. Was that a sign of an invidious bifurcation of “us” and “them”, as between the haves and the have-nots? Scarcely. Instead it was a sign that his spirituality and musicality – and maybe even his theology – had been affected profoundly by “them.” He was celebrating “them” and his life with “them.” Yes, he and they had marvelously become an “us” or, better, a “we,” but this was the result of long living and struggling in the crucible of the encounter with difference. It did not arise from shortcutting that process with a facile declaration that we are all one. There is no authentic realization of shared community without the hard work of coming to terms with difference. In this perspective, there is no need to apologize for using “they” and “them”: these pronouns acknowledge undeniable difference and respect a different group as having its own cultural identity and integrity.
Wells’ critique of assumptions about resources and skills cuts in a couple of ways. On one side, his choice of items to critique does not so much reflect the priorities of missionaries of the past as it does the emphases of today, when the mission efforts of some churches have been reduced the single theme of what is termed “development,” a term that actually smuggles in most of the old assumptions of colonial “civilizing” efforts. On another side, the provision of resources and skills continues to be a justifiable emphasis of USPG-renamed-Us just as much as it has ever been, as an inspection of the Us website will demonstrate: resources and skills for workshops and training sessions, resources in the form of skilled personnel who do this or that around the world, and so on. Does it help anything or anyone to insist that it is not the case that Us is an organizational form of a “we” in London who are going out to do something with various groupings of “them” around the world? No, because it flies in the face of facts.
Us Chief Executive Janette O’Neill is quoted as saying, “USPG changing its name to ‘Us’ is a statement that everyone is included.” The missiological problem with Us’s discourse is that it marginalizes the constitutive role of difference in mission. In light of one now well known understanding of mission as “ministry in the dimension of difference,” it is clear that USPG’s defense of its name change distorts the very nature of mission, which is to bear witness to the triune God in word and deed over socially identifiable boundaries of difference. (For a biblical, historical and theological explication of the definition, see my 2010 volume, Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference.)
Even if Us does not subscribe to this view of mission – and my guess is that it does not – the notion that the name Us as a declaration of inclusion helps anyone address the ever intensifying differences and divisions of the contemporary world seems naïve and even faddish. It reminds me of how some people today still use the 60s term “global village” despite the fact that the world’s ever increasing interconnectedness through travel and electronic communication is producing at least as much polarization among groups as it is community. Just look at the 21st century. Muslim-Christian tensions are higher than they have been since the 15th century, as experienced in France, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, among other places. Numerous countries have split over issues of political, ethnic and religious identity – USSR, Timor, Sudan, Yugoslavia – and a number of new secessionist nations are predicted in the future over similar issues. Slavery in the form of human trafficking is epidemic in many parts of the world, as is violence against girls and women. Given the problem of enmity over difference in today’s world, Us as a name seems out of touch with reality.
Then there’s the justice problem of the name Us. USPG-renamed-Us is in London, which is located in the One-Third World of privilege and wealth that includes Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and maybe Japan. The Two-Thirds World is so named because it includes two-thirds of the world’s population and landmass, located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Obviously, it is also includes the poorest proportion of the world’s population. There’s a problem with a 1/3 World agency that has been primarily engaged with the 2/3 World calling itself simply Us (or We). Is this an attempt to efface the vast and growing disparity between the rich and the poor? Is it an attempt, albeit unconscious, to slip away from the justice issue? Given the record of USPG over the years and its current leadership, I know that cannot be so, but the new name could raise such questions in the minds of those less familiar with the agency.
Within the 1/3 World, the Occupy Wall Street Movement popularized the designations of the 1% versus the 99% with reference to the fabulously rich of Wall Street, Los Angeles, the City of London, Frankfurt and so on whose greed resulted in the world financial crisis of 2008. If some good-willed group of 1%-ers were to found a charity called Us or We, my guess is that there would be howls of protest from the 99%: “What do you mean, Us or We? We know who you are, and we know who we are, and you are not we! There is a big difference between you and us, and you should be doing something about it!” They might even echo John the Baptizer, “Bear fruits that befit repentance!” Hence I worry about whether the name Us will wear well in the organization’s traditional 2/3 World constituencies – and whether it should wear well.
So in the scales of justice, the discourse just needs to be flat-out contradicted: economically there is indeed a them and an us. Doing something about that is one of the primary mandates for the 1/3 World in the 21st century – in collaboration with the 2/3 World. Doing something about that has always been a burden of USPG, and that will doubtless continue under whatever name. But the new name insults the realities. In an instance of 2/3 World reaction, a Pakistani anthropology lecturer here in Peshawar – a Muslim, by the way – wondered whether the new name reflected escapism.
“USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) has become Us,” states the ACNS article, “after research showed that the name USPG – based on a name coined in 1701 – no longer connected with people in the twenty-first century.” It’s unfortunate that “propagation” no longer resonates with CofE church members. Some of us are working on dialogue between Muslims and Christians about the relationship between Muslim dawah, which is most often translated as “propagation,” and Christian mission, and one common element between them is, in fact, propagation of a faith – in a variety of ways, including both word and deed, but nevertheless propagation. In the original 11 November 2012 news release from USPG about the prospective name change (unfortunately currently available only from VirtueOnline), O’Neill says, “‘We realized our name had become a barrier. People thought we were old fashioned and preachy. In fact, we have always been a radical organization – breaking down barriers and taking bold steps together with our church partners.”
There’s no reason to doubt that the term “propagation” and USPG as a name no longer resonate with the CofE constituency. That’s part of the complex of viability issues facing USPG-renamed-Us and other mission societies – diminishing membership and income, other priorities in the church, and the increasing devolution of international mission to dioceses and parishes, what I have called the democratization of mission initiative in British and North American churches, which includes decentralization, deprofessionalization and diversification. In this environment it’s understandable that USPG wanted a simpler name that was less of a mouthful, not an acronyn, and one that did not include a turn-off word like propagation.
One wonders why they could not settle on a name that would recognize the challenges of mission that are both perennial and especially acute in this age of polarization and group conflict, a name that would reflect the radical perspective O’Neill rightly highlights. My own bias would be toward a name that would recognize rather than efface the fact and power of difference and would focus on reconciliation. Words like bridges, community and transformation come to mind, along with reconciliation. Given that mission expresses activism – both God’s and ours – I would have preferred a name with some urgency rather than a vague and misleading statement of identity. I know that solidarity as well as identity is intended in the name Us, but solidarity does not come across without strenuous explanation.
A theme that seems implicit in Us’s self-perception at this point may be a desire to move away from mission altogether as a concept and as its vocation. Us’s Nov. 11 news release is headlined, “A milestone in history – 311-year-old Christian charity changes its name and celebrates a new era in its work,” and begins, “USPG – United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – is derived from a name that was coined in 1701. But it has become clear to the charity that this historic name is not connecting with people today.” The word “mission” never appears in the news release itself, but only in the “Notes on the name change” at the bottom, and then only in derogation of mission:
USPG stands for ‘United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’. The phrase ‘propagation of the gospel’ was coined in the eighteenth century and research found the name does not resonate with church-goers in the twenty-first century. Today, the expression ‘propagation of the gospel’ resonates with colonial and other hierarchical models of mission. This is in no way an accurate reflection of the work of Us. A new name is needed that reflects what the charity is today, rather than dissuading people from getting involved.
So “mission” is mentioned only in connection with colonial and other hierarchical modes of mission, as though to be on mission is to be inevitably colonial and hierarchical. Us clearly prefers to see itself as a “charity” rather than as a mission agency. Missiologically this is disastrous, for it reinforces precisely the “us-them” mentality that Us says it is renouncing. The organizational meaning of a “charity” (as distinguished from charity as a translation of the Latin caritas, or love) is a group that dispenses benefits to people in need. What the organization needs to receive is only more donations to dispense to the needy. Missiology over the past century has been emphasizing mutuality in mission, that mission is a two-way relationship in which both sides are receiving many and diverse gifts – material, relational, spiritual – as well as giving. This perspective has been embraced by most mission agencies in the mainline churches, and many missionaries – often termed mission companions or mission partners – testify to the reality of such mutuality in their mission experience. For Us to renounce a mission identity at this juncture and embrace a charity identity is startlingly regressive.
In the media, Us as a name keeps bad company with the narcissistic celebrity pulp magazines named We and Us. Politically the name keeps company with the “US” moniker for the USA, the most unpopular great power in the world. Yes, many who rail against the USA jump at the chance for a visa to go there or a green card to stay there, but the negative side of the ambivalence is omnipresent and powerful. So when I get an email from Us there is that resonance, and my guess is that others experience it as well.
Then there’s the ambiguity between Us as the name to be used and Us as an abbreviation for the actual full name of Us, which is United Society. A note at the bottom of USPG’s Nov. 11 news release, Us further explained, “The full new name is ‘United Society’ – but we will be known as Us. This name is not entirely new. In the years following 1965, when SPG and UMCA came together to create USPG, many people used the expression ‘the United Society’ when referring to the organization.” Google brings Us up fine, and dutifully puts United Society after it, but the Us website itself barely mentions United Society. The fact that the full and presumably legal name of Us is the United Society has, of course, elicited lots of criticism about excising the one part of the old name that cited what the society would actually do and thus excising any emphasis on gospel proclamation. I share that concern, but since Us’s own emphasis is on Us rather than United Society my critique has focused on the ramifications of “Us.”
Finally, there is just the plain grammatical awkwardness of Us as a name. The web address is an ungrammatical tautology that unfortunately sounds self-centered: www.weareus.org.uk. There’s a good quote on the new website from the Supreme Bishop of the Philippine Independent Church: “Our partnership with Us has touched the lives of many people of all political and religious beliefs.” Unfortunately, though, with the name Us it barely works when seen on a page, but if it were read aloud it would provoke momentary confusion: “The Filipinos are in partnership with themselves? – So why didn’t he say ‘ourselves’ – Oh, I see, he’s talking about partnership with USPG-renamed-Us.” Another example from the website: “As a charity, Us relies on the support of people like you,” which immediately creates grammatical dissonance. An oddity is that Us is sometimes but not always followed by a period – in the postal address, in the email sender line, and in the introductory brandings on the website, as in “Us. The new name for USPG”. The top buttons, though, illustrate one advantage of the name (with the period omitted): “About Us / Pray with Us / Travel with Us / Invite Us / Support Us.”
The final paragraph of the Nov. 22 news article is an endorsement of sorts from now retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
Speaking at the launch, Archbishop Rowan Williams praised the new name ‘Us’ as being a ‘wonderfully ambiguous and non-specific title’ which is suited to a world in which boundaries constantly shift because it is ‘very difficult to tell where “us” stops and “them” starts’.
This is praise that is both faint and based on faulty premises. Yes, boundaries shift, but one of the scourges of the contemporary world is that groups aplenty are making it very clear indeed where they begin and other groups must stop. And when it comes to mission activism, ambiguity and non-specificity actually have little to commend them.
Williams’ endorsement in Us’s Nov. 11 news release was much more robust:
In its new form, under the very telling name of “Us”, it will be looking for new ways of taking forward the same vision – the vision of a Christian hope that reaches every area of human life, that values the active co-operation of every human being in promoting their dignity before God; the vision of a self-aware, hopeful, excited humanity, set on fire by the gospel; the vision of a new world, a new human society. None of that will change and, in its new form, Us will take forward that vision to a new generation and, we hope and pray, will inspire and kindle enthusiasm in a rising generation for this work of the kingdom, this vision of humanity.
This is actually an endorsement of Us’s continuing work, which I would share, not of the name Us. Williams does not explain how the new name is “telling,” nor how the good and accurate things he says about the society’s work connect at all with the name Us. My own experience with the new generation of mission activists in the Episcopal Church is that they are much more outreaching in their perspective than people of older generations and rightly suspicious of the self-involved preoccupations and monikers of baby-boomers.
Readers who made it this far may marvel that so much could be said about a name change and about so short a name, but mission in the 20th century, what I have called the Century of of Self-Criticism, and in the 21st century is contested ground. A great deal hinges on perceptions of history, perceptions of one’s own community and other communities, and understandings of what we mean when we say that God is on mission in the world and invites the faithful to join in that mission. So meanings of words and the signification of names are important.
As I said, I could be wrong.
But in any case, I wish Us, all its staff and mission companions the blessings of the missional Christ in all their doings, and I look forward to further companionship with them, under whatever name, in the mission of God.