Last weekend I attended an “inquiry” entitled “Courage, Conscience and Conviction”, which was a joint activity of the URC and the Congregational Federation. Almost all those who attended did so because it was a compulsory requirement on them as part of their training or education, It was the summer school both of the Federation’s Integrated Course and of Education for Ministry in the URC.
The involuntary nature of their attendance probably accounts in large part for the very negative reception it received from most of those to whom I spoke while there. As I will outline below there were some things about it that were unsatisfactory but for me there was also a good deal that was positive.
One of the best aspects of the experience, for me, and one I will look to bring back into my ministry, was the organisation of the 100 or so participants into circles (or cells) of 8. We began with a semi-formal process of sharing stories in these cells and periodically we returned into them. This worked very well indeed. Even in the short time we had sufficient trust and connection was built in these groups (at least it was in mine) to make it a kind of “home” within the event and a space in which real reflection (and prayer) was possible.
Within the group I was in our discussion in the last session deepened and broadened my understanding of a theme I’ve been exploring anyway, of story telling and of listening to stories as essential to the development of discipleship. It was very powerful for me and will be a blessing on my ministry, I’m sure.
This process also reminded me of the profound importance of encounter and relationship. I had some conversations and meetings inside and outside our circle which, in a variety of ways, refreshed and invigorated my faith and my vocation.
The experiments with form throughout the weekend were often (but not always) very helpful. The “fishbowl” style of interaction with an expert speaker (in this case they were designated “provocateurs”) worked better than it has when I’ve encountered it before (I suspect there’s an optimum size of group for it which we were close to). The two sessions I attended were both interesting and lively and gave two slightly different examples of how this form can work and its particular strengths (and weaknesses).
However there were some things about the weekend that I reacted less favourably to and they’re also worth noting and reflecting on:
- the event lacked cohesion, direction and purpose and this was not well dealt with
- this accentuated a uniformity of “tone” and “orientation” that became rather frustrating to one for whom it was dissonant
As we left we were asked about continuing “this inquiry” and there were many people who came out saying “inquiry into what?” This was completely unclear from the beginning to the end of the event. There was an implicit claim that the two organising bodies (the URC and the CF) had a common identity beyond their somewhat uncomfortable common history (the origins of the Federation lie, after all, in the rejection of the URC, something never acknowledged or confronted during the weekend). What this common identity might be was never the explicit topic and this meant that there was a huge gap where the centre of the inquiry would have to have been.
This meant that an actually existing common culture was quite prominent but never spelled out. I can only speak about the URC but my impression from the weekend was that the (smaller) central apparatus of the Federation shares an orientation with that of my denomination. This is marked by a particular combination of theological “liberalism” and political “progressivism” which puts struggles for “justice” at the heart of the gospel and is uncomfortable with talk about Jesus as God, about the atonement and about personal sin and salvation.
I’ve written elsewhere about my (to put it mildly) discomfort with this form of Christianity (here) and will not dwell on it again. On this occasion I was not, mostly, too upset by it, but I did feel excluded and marginalised a lot of the time and I strongly suspect I was not the only one. This feeling reached its apogee at the Saturday evening Room 101 session. When the things people want to consign to this outer darkness consist so largely of vague political constructs (“the status quo” and “There Is No Alternative” were two of the 10 and there were others along the same lines) something has gone seriously wrong (in my view().
This kind of reminder that the denomination(s) is (are) not entirely hospitable to those of us of a more “conservative” (or “orthodox”) orientation is no surprise but nonetheless is never welcome. This does not mean, though, that this was not a positive experience. The value and nature of story-telling and of personal relationship, the possibility and value of a variety of styles and voices in communication were demonstrated effectively.
It would just have been good to see both more acknowledgement and evidence of our diversity and a more courageous confrontation of our difficulties and problems.