We meet the new man at the helm of one of Britain’s oldest mission agencies
By Colin Blakely
One of the oldest Anglican Societies in the world has a new leader, the Rev Duncan Dormor.
He says that his new role as chief executive officer of USPG is the fruition of a life that has been focused on mission and development. Having spent almost 20 years at Cambridge, he is quick to stress his real passion.
“I don’t see myself as an academic, I am a priest.” But his new role is rather different. “It is not the change that it might appear to some people,” he says. “To be honest, this is what I thought I would do when I was 20. I studied anthropology as a student, went to Kenya, did a Masters at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, so I fully expected to go into this sort of work in one way or another.” And the former Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, has come full circle.
“In many ways this is probably me resolving those issues because it was ordination that took me away from development work as a career choice. But the language of discernment and vocation is central to how I think, so this is a bit of a resolution to the two.” While he may not see himself as an academic, he did teach the anthropology of religion at Cambridge, “so I have been looking at a lot of the sets of questions that arise in a really practical way now.”
Just before we met he had meetings with two Archbishops from countries in which USPG is active. One of the areas of discussion was on how Islam interacts with them.
“Those conversations for me are informed by some of the texts and conversations I have had in the academic contexts.” And he says this is an ‘interesting marriage’.
“In the world of mission what I bring is a whole set of questions, and that is what I am really enjoying. Seeing what the answers might be, if the answers I get don’t seem to make sense.”
And now he is leading an organisation that was founded by Thomas Bray in 1701 (SPCK was another of his inventions).
“For me, we are all participating in the mission of God: we are all pilgrims, stumbling along in our own ways to discover what God’s mission is today.
“We use the language of partnership quite a lot, which does have its limitations but I really appreciate the way USPG think about this: we are always working alongside the local churches, that is fundamental to the way we try to work.” So fundamental that USPG recently changed its branding from the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to ‘United Society Partners in the Gospel.’ And since the days of Thomas Bray, mission, and in particular world mission, has changed dramatically.
‘Relationships are key’, and it is this partnership with local churches that is a mark of modern mission.
“But that involves understanding the context and how we really listen to what our partners are saying and this brings us to the question of money and power.
“Power, power, power. That inevitably tends to corrupt things. We have to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. My message here is that we must think about power the whole time because if we don’t get that right we are not going to get anything right.” And it is here that his theological formation directs his thinking in terms of mission today.
“If you are following Jesus Christ, the powerless one hung on a cross who empties himself, not clinging to equality with God, if that is what we are trying to follow then we have to model it in our thinking and actions as much as we possibly can.”
This has practical applications.
“I completely dissent from glorious mission,civilising mission, that sort of triumphalist Christianity that is associated with the imperial ambition of Britain. That is the antithesis of Christianity.
“And its not a new view, you can find it in Studdert Kennedy, who has some acidic words to say in the context of World War One about crackling priests and about Christ being raised high.
“The abuse of power by Christians is there all the way back, but there have been those in history who embraced that and some who fought tooth and nail against it who were seen as radicals and heretics. “I have a huge amount of sympathy for those in the second camp.”
But he admits that the British public is pretty divided on this issue.
“Some are proud of the British Empire. They think it was tremendous success and a jolly good thing, of course others see the problems with colonialism. “When I have preached on these issues criticising the colonial approach criticism doesn’t usually come from a British national!” So how deep are these questions about the legacy of imperialism?
“We don’t send people overseas in that sense. Some missions do, and I have no doubt they do that in a different way to how they did it in the past. An unthinking approach to that is another matter, but there is a real role for intercultural exchange, so it is mission from everywhere to everywhere.
“We all have things to learn,” he observes. And he points out that those who do go, and have any ‘sensitivity of receptivity’ then they come back saying they have learned ‘way more’ than they were able to give. And he concedes that Britain’s imperial past is a complex issue.
“It was a mixed bequest and there are many things under that which were utterly appalling, but on the other hand there were schools set up, hospitals set up, many of the emergent national leaders in Africa emerged out of missionary schools. The imperial enterprise is a complex enterprise and one has to be discerning.”
And that sense of discernment also influences his thinking on the establishment of the Church of England.
“What would disestablishment look like?” he questions. He points out that people who advocate the Church’s disestablishment usually mean they want to remove the bishops from their seats in the House of Lords. Or the monarch being the Supreme Governor.
“Any move in that direction would be a partial disestablishment. Bishops in the House of Lords are very strongly valued. It is a simplistic culture that thinks two houses of elected representatives are going to solve all your problems, because they ain’t.”
He admits that the Church’s establishment is something of an anomaly, but he warns:
“People have to be mindful of history when it comes to reform because of the unintended consequences of those changes.”
It is this sense of discernment that has seen him involved in a number of strategic roles in the Church. Apart from General Synod, he has been on the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England. He is also on the Governing Council of Westcott House, a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee, and a Trustee of the Churches Conservation Trust. But he attributes his outlook to his first job after University. He worked with the noted psychiatrist and theologian Jack Dominian on the One Plus One charity.
“I learned a tremendous amount. Much of it formed who I am. Jack was a great inspiration. I learned a lot about the importance of stable relationships, and what makes that important. It has also shaped my thinking about relationships more generally.”
One of the surprising things he learned during that time was the degree by which people are driven by non-rational factors.
“That is quite deeply embedded in my psychology, so I don’t assume that people will do what they say they will. I don’t assume that what they say is what they mean. Those are not assumptions that I habitually work with.”
And that perception plays into his thinking about the recent scandals that have engulfed the charity sector, with Oxfam, Save the Children and others sparking concern. “Anyone who looks at the world squarely in the eyes will see that these issues have always been there. People who wield power always have the risk of abuse. “These things have gone on because they are part of human nature.
“I have mixed feelings. What happened with Oxfam has been appalling but there have been people who are too quick to stick the knives into the charities. And some of that has been a bit unseemly. There have been similar or worse scandals.”
He hopes that one outcome will be that people “might think harder about the nature of relationships and what they are giving to. And my instinct is that people who give money to charity do think quite hard about what is being achieved by their donations.”
USPG has been spared from the negative headlines because of the way it works. Although they do have procedures in place, he says:
“We are in a different place because we don’t send people overseas. We are always working with local partners and it is a quite different context.”
When he took up his post at USPG in January he said that USPG was ‘faithful to its history, radical in its proclamation’. So how will he make it radical? “I think some of that comes back to relationality. It comes back to power, how we negotiate going forward when our history is so tied to colonialism. That is a fundamental aspect of USPG’s history and identity. Our challenge is how to model the weakness and vulnerability of Christ as agency that has the sort of history that we have.”
He wryly observes: “I sometimes look at USPG and think it is a mixture of deep establishment and liberation theology.”
His main aim is to increase USPG’s strategic capacity to serve its partners throughout the world.
“There is a fundamental need for rethinking. Paul talks about being transformed by the renewal of your mind. There is a sense in which we are called to do that, and to be that. “If you think about the dynamic between Christ and culture there is always a tendency for Christianity to become a culture, to solidify into something and then for Christians to identify with that.
“There is a sense in which there has to be an ongoing dynamic and a sort of messiness about the Christian life because it is open to the work of the Spirit.” He has personal mission too. “I am really interested in facilitating and supporting developments that extend contextual theology. “We have the Asian Theological Academy, a sort of peripatetic academy. We support that and want to support existing initiative to indigenise and contextualise the faith.”
One of the key roles held by the Rev Duncan Dormor is membership of the AnglicanRoman Catholic Committee.
He thinks that complete unity between the two Churches is unlikely, but is pleased about the ‘good adjacencies’ between the two.
“Pope Francis’s leadership style defines the territory. I can see he has a rapport with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that helps, of course it does.
“We can learn from one other and in practical contextual terms, mission generates unity. When people go out in mission together it brings people together and they grasp each other better. In lots of untidy, messy, practical, grounded ways there are great things going on.
“I have a huge amount of admiration for Pope Francis. He is a charismatic person and they are always going to get more airtime. The distinctiveness is Latin America, liberation theology and being a Jesuit: that is a lot of change for a European-focused Church and it explains why many people don’t ‘get’ Pope Francis.”
However, he also thinks that the Church of England has too narrow a perspective on church unity. “There is a slightly peculiar bit of psychology in the Church of England that always looks up to the Catholics as the big brother, always slightly ignoring our Protestant companions.”
As an example he points to the Porvoo agreement and suggests that these talks ‘don’t seem to have as much energy’ behind them as the talks with the ‘big boys’: the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
“Some of that is about scale and history but Lutherans and Anglicans have a lot in common, so for me there is a slightly odd organisational psychology going on.”
And he argues that the split with the Methodist Church was an ‘historical organisational mistake for us to lose the spirit that Methodism embodies’.
“Look at it globally and then what it has spawned – the holiness movement and Pentecostalism. To my mind this was led by Spiritled energy. My heart would like to see more cooperation and a greater bringing together. But I would be sad if major spokes went into the wheel. “Arguments that say that getting us closer to the Methodists will hamper Roman Catholic relations doesn’t really wash with me.”
At Cambridge he has had overall responsibility for the life of the Chapel and its community. This included the conduct of worship, the work of the Choir and for the oversight of pastoral care within the College community. Music is still very important to him and he believes it has a key place in the Church’s mission.
“At the risk of being hackneyed, I think music really is important in worship. Having spent years in the Anglican choral tradition and then going to Africa even simple church music was fundamental. The styles may be different but the basic activity is not. Music, worship and praise are fundamental to what we are doing. The praise of God is essential.”
And he points out that the five Anglican marks of mission don’t talk about prayer and don’t talk about worship.
“I think worship is fundamental,” he says. And today he reports that the choral tradition is strong.
“It is flourishing. There are more people composing for it, the standards are higher than they probably have even been. More and more people are coming in to sing. “There is a real vitality about it.”
And Choral Evensong is one of the jewels in the Church’s crown.
“Choral evensong gives people a non-threatening space for reflection. That is important for people because there are a lot of barriers about going into church.” He says that many people attend services like Evensong perhaps just to find some space but grow into a mature Christian faith over time. But he is adamant about the music. “It absolutely has to be worship, not just a concert.”