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Narrative and Resource


Care at what cost? Narrating and resourcing USPG

One of the profound challenges of the Pastoral Care project has been narrating the Society’s historical and contemporary practices of pastoral care alongside the concurrent brutality of enslavement and the violence and destruction wrought by SPG’s encounters in the colonies and plantations. As a powerful colonial agent, responsible for alienating people from their local spiritual and cultural traditions in the very act of ‘salvation’, missionaries and mission agencies occupy and reflect an unpalatable and brutal history of spiritual as well as material domination. As a slave owning organisation, SPG brands itself as an agent of violence and brutality. How do we understand and narrate this acute tension in SPG’s origins? How can we talk about pastoral care in a context of enslaved persons? How can we make sense of these conflicting narratives and organisational impulses - on one hand to care and on the other to subjugate? Where do we recognise these impulses in the present-day organisation and how can we all adopt a bias against models of care that pose such a high cost to the very people that USPG seeks to serve?

In mapping the discourse of USPG, one of the most confusing and pervasive words is that of ‘partner’. ‘We are partner led’; ‘it’s all about our partners’; ‘our partners define our work’. The ‘partners’ referred to are those churches around with Anglican Communion with which USPG have relationships. Most frequently these relationships are and have been constituted through the funding of community-based work or theological education. The language of partnership remains dominant and references to USPG’s ‘partners’ as critical to the self-perception of the organisation are consistent across the different teams. When once I posed a question about how USPG considered its own role as a partner, I was met with puzzled looks from colleagues. ‘Well, if they are your partners’, I asked, ‘surely you are also theirs? So what does it mean for USPG to be a partner?’ The confusion that greeted this question, revealed, it seemed, profound discomfort with my probing at the gloss of equivalence that ‘partnership’ implied. The real community work went on around the globe, at the peripheries, whilst funds were raised and administered from USPG in the metropolitan centre. The language of partnership suggested a veneer of parity, separating the USPG of the 21st Century from its troubling history. If we are all equal partners, then we are moving beyond the legacies of colonialism and imperialism to a model of mutual mission and care. Yet whilst the machinery for governance, fundraising and administration remains in the global north, it is surprisingly difficult to shift models of engagement to think afresh about working with people in different ways. The operational structures prove highly resistant to change. Whilst there is a genuine desire from many staff for new ways of thinking about global relationships and breaking down the imperial hierarchies of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, the bureaucratic structures of the organisation work powerfully against the realisation of such impulses, leaving many staff members frustrated and considerable gaps between aspirational organisational discourse and action.  

USPG is a chimera – composed of and accountable to the multiple strands of its DNA. It is oriented globally towards the churches of the Anglican Communion, and nationally to UK-based supporters, the Church of England, and the Charities Commission. Being accountable to such a diverse range of groups and structures creates internal tensions between those responsible for caregiving, and those tasked with preserving the economic sustainability of the Society as an institution. Certainly over many years, those staff responsible for maintaining relationships around the Communion have experienced considerable frustration with staff members in fundraising and communications departments who seek to draw on partners’ time and energies in the service of maintaining the organisation, rather than the communities around the world which partners represent. Partners are asked to give their time to USPG in the production of funding reports, promotional materials, articles for magazines, speaking engagements. These outputs serve to draw in funders and to appease donors and (primarily white British) supporters by demonstrating exactly what their money is supporting. USPG also expects additional labour from partners in a kind of performance of gratitude for funds, through the completion of evaluation forms or the narration of ‘success’ stories to USPG. Forms and accounting templates force the representation of work and human experience in often alien ways that not only fail to capture the relational value of work that is undertaken but coerce the articulation of complex experiences into numerical tick boxes. This sits within a long history of bureaucratically structured genres (forms, letters, reports) that shape how missionaries and congregations on the peripheries narrate their experiences and achievements to the metropolitan centre in London.


Royal Charter of Incorporation (click image for details).

USPG maintained slave plantations to ensure the economic survival of the organisation so that it could extend its care to those deemed worthy of it. Capital once secured through the labour of the enslaved on the Codrington plantations is now shored up by the acquisition of partner stories and experiences. Examining these organisational tensions in dialogue with the archive illuminates their persistence over the longue durée; as woven into the origins of the Society itself. Doing so renders conscious what are often experienced by staff as paralysing organisational dynamics. Examining the archival history depersonalises what can feel like intractable internal tensions between those staff working to resource the organisation and those responsible for extending care to communities and churches around the Anglican Communion. Becoming conscious of the organisation’s inheritance - where ‘care’ for one group (supporters/missionaries) can entail the profound failure to care for another (partners/the enslaved) - cautions all who are connected to USPG to ensure that the impulse to instrumentalise and subjugate some in the pursuit of care for others is recognised, actively mitigated, and placed at the heart of conversations about what social justice means.

Dr Jo Sadgrove, Research & Learning Advisor, USPG

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Reflections on the Exhibition’s Archival Research

One of the great privileges of being a historical researcher is the opportunity to spend time in archives, and to view and handle manuscripts and printed documents that are hundreds of years old. Over the course of my work on the project I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in the Bodleian and Lambeth Palace Libraries, where much of the early material in USPG’s archive is kept. On an early visit to the Bodleian I was struck by the scale and complexity of the archive: containing thousands of letters and committee meeting records produced by the hundreds of people who formed part of, or were connected to the Society. I was also struck by the scale and impressiveness of some of the historical items in the archive itself. This was particularly true when I viewed the Society’s original Royal Charter of Incorporation, which was granted in 1701. It’s a physically impressive document which takes up most of a table: each sheet measures 68cm x 83 cm, with the second sheet attached to a solid 15cm diameter wax seal. I was unable to lift this document unaided (and equally, and probably quite rightly, forbidden from standing on a chair to get a better look at it).

I was acutely aware that a photograph of the charter alone could not accurately convey its scale or materiality. Our online exhibition has the aim of making some of the items in the early SPG archive available digitally to a wide audience, but this can never be a substitute for being able to view these items in person. This offers a timely reminder of the barriers to archive access. While the archive holds documents pertaining to the history of a whole organisation, it is not open to all: archive access often requires a defined reason for visiting, as well as specific training. It is also rare, as an eighteenth-century historian, to be working directly with the twenty-first century iteration of an organisation that was established in 1701. I’ve become aware that USPG in the twenty-first century has a range of different stakeholders with different interests, investments in and uses for the same archival material and the narratives that these archives tell. Different narratives can emerge from an archive when you ask different questions of it. Those who have access to this material have a great responsibility, and need to be mindful that they influence how the content of an archive is conveyed to a broader audience.


Royal Charter of Incorporation with seal (click image for details).

Archives are extremely complex spaces which generate multiple overlapping narratives, and there is not one way to ‘approach’ the archive. While archival researchers and archivists have the opportunity to view and handle historic material, they are not the only ones with intellectual ownership of an archive, and are not the only ones who get to speak ‘for’ an archival collection. All those with a connection to USPG’s work, past and present, can be joint custodians of its history. Online exhibitions and digitisation can go some way to removing the barriers of archive access, but researchers have a duty to be transparent about the processes and complexities of archival research. Communicating what an archive looks like: the scale of the thousands of documents, the size, materiality and practical difficulties of handling some individual items, the reasons why some documents have been preserved and others lost or destroyed, helps elucidate some of the decisions that archivists and researchers make. If researchers are transparent about processes of selecting or curating archival material, and how certain narratives are identified, we can facilitate broader conversations about public engagement with archives, and about shared ownership over shared pasts.

Dr Emily Vine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

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