Sabbatical Report #10: Residential Conference

Over the long weekend (May 26th – 28th) Marci and I attended the residential conference of the Anabaptist Network. The conference was held at Barnes Close, a conference centre which is also the headquarters of the Community for Reconciliation. The building used to be the country home of the Cadbury family, makers of famous chocolate; it is set in idyllic countryside, with the rather glaring exception that a very busy motorway runs about half a mile from the back garden, in full view down the slope of the hill, its noise always in the background whenever you are wandering the grounds!




The speakers at the conference were Alan and Ellie Kreider from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Alan was the director of the London Mennonite Centre for many years, and he and Ellie were instrumental in the journeys of many people in England toward an Anabaptist view of Christianity. They are obviously well-loved; many people at the conference knew them and there were lots of hugs and ‘catching up’ type conversations going on all through the weekend. Alan and Ellie have a wonderful teaching style; most of their talks are given jointly, with each of them chipping in, and Alan also explained to us how they develop the content together.





This conference had a sensible schedule: breakfast at 8.30 a.m., first activities at 10.00 a.m., lots of time for breaks and conversations. This was important, as someone told me that they saw the residential conference as ‘more of a family get-together than a conference, really!’ It was good for me too, as I had the opportunity to get to know some of the people who make up the Anabaptist Network around the country. This included the opportunity to have some serious conversation with Stuart Murray Williams on the subject of interactive preaching, and (as I mentioned in my last post) the opportunity to meet fellow-bloggers Graham Old and Richard Gillingham.





Worship at this conference was a great joy. For the most part it was not liturgical (with the exception of one Evening Prayer using the new Anabaptist daily office materials), but neither was it the usual ‘contemporary’ mass of emotional choruses repeated ten times over (all about how I feel about Jesus). It had real content – readings, thoughtful contemporary songs, broad intercessions – and was capably led by Sian Murray Williams.





The theme of the ‘conference’ part of the weekend was ‘Worship and Mission after Christendom’. Stuart Murray Williams explained to us that Alan and Ellie are writing a book on this subject for the ‘After Christendom’ series, and were using this conference as an opportunity to test out some of the material. Some of their main emphases were:





Mission and Worship are locked together. It isn’t that church services are intended to be evangelistic events (they aren’t – they are primarily intended to worship God and build up believers). Rather, genuine worship transforms the worshippers so that we go out to take our place in God’s mission in the world. Also, God’s mission has as its goal cosmic reconciliation and universal worship – the whole creation joining together to worship the one true God – and so worship leads to mission which leads back into worship.





Mission in post-Christendom is changing its focus. In the ‘classical missionary tradition’ the church sent full-time, trained, specialist missionaries from Christendom to far-away places – heathendom – with the intention of saving souls and building up the church. In post-Christendom we are recovering the sense that we all participate in God’s mission, which is not just about saving souls but restored relationships – with God, with one another, and with the creation. This goal is portrayed in Isaiah 11:1-9. In this ‘Missio Dei’ (‘Mission of God’) approach, God is the one who sends, and he sends all his people – not just full-time, trained specialists – to every place where brokenness exists. Every Christian is involved in this and most of us will participate in it in our place of work. This involves learning to ask the question ‘Where is what I am doing leading? How is it contributing to the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11:1-9?’





Story is tremendously important. God’s story is a big story in five acts. Act 1 is the Creation, Act 2 the rebellion, Act 3 the story of Israel, and Act 4 the story of Jesus. Act 5 is divided into four scenes: Scene 1 is the rest of the New Testament, scene 2 the story of the church, and Scene 4 is the future. We are in this story; we are helping to shape scene 3!





Biblical worship takes story seriously. Stories of worship in the Bible are full of narrative: the worship service on the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus 15, the Passover story in Exodus 12, the historical psalms, the gospel stories which were probably told and retold in New Testament worship before being written down, sermons which consist largely in telling stories, and rites like Holy Communion and footwashing which also tell stories.





The biblical story seems ‘odd’ to modern people, firstly because its values seem upside down (God works through marginal people), and secondly because it assumes that God exists and does things. So we need to be socialized into a society which is shaped by God’s story. God’s story also has a hook in it – the ‘motive clause’: ‘As God has treated you, so you are to treat others’. We tell God’s story preeminently in worship – in sermons, in stories, in pictures, in drama, and through the church year – and in this way worship shapes the community.





God also calls us to tell stories of our immediate past – to ‘give testimony’, which Alan and Ellie described as ‘Christians giving reports from the front’. ‘The Church’s task is to collect evidence that God is alive and share it with others’.





Biblical worship is multi-voiced. In a study of 1 Corinthians 14 we examined the ‘pot-luck supper’ style of worship in the early Christian communities, where it seems that everyone was expected to contribute, bringing a psalm, a song, a revelation, a word of prophecy etc. All contributions were weighed and tested, and leaders (if they were there) would need to be skilled in enabling the participation of all. The result is a strong sense of the presence of God (‘Surely God is among you’ – verse 25).





Why do outsiders come to join in worship services that are not designed with them in mind? Three reasons. First, because they are coming with a friend they have learned to know and trust. Second, because the Christians appear to be interesting (the church needs to be a mysterious place where surprising things happen!). Third, because as a result of these first two reasons, people sense that God exists. To sum up: friendship, intrigue, and the rumour that God is there.




I thoroughly enjoyed Alan and Ellie’s presentations and found them very thought-provoking. The idea of ‘Missio Dei’ – the mission of God, in which all Christians take part, whether they are ‘professional’ or not, is one I’ve believed and taught for a long time. Members of St. Margaret’s, I hope, will recognize it! Success in church life comes, not when the pews are full to bursting, but when we all go to work on Monday morning, not just to make a living, but to make a difference for Christ and his Kingdom. This means thinking of so-called ‘ordinary’ Christians as the front line of Christian mission. Clergy, pastors, priests – we’re the support workers, equipping God’s people for their mission in the world. And that gives us an enormous responsibility to make sure that the equipping we do does actually help them live as faithful followers of Jesus in the world in which they live.





Not that this means we never mention anything but professional ethics. As Alan and Ellie said, one of the most important things we do as we worship week by week is immerse ourselves in the big story of God’s love as it has been at work from the beginning of creation until the last day comes. In the Anglican church, I think in some ways we do quite well here. Because we follow the Christian year, we tell the story of Jesus regularly, going over and over the big events of his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Where we fall down, I think, is helping people to connect the little stories they hear in the weekly lectionary readings to the big story, the grand narrative of the Bible. As I’ve presented ‘Christian Basics’ and ‘Growing and Living as a Christian’ courses to people, over and over again they’ve told me that one of the most helpful things has been the overview of the whole story of the Bible, which gives them the sense of where the individual parts fit in.





I love the idea of testimony as ‘stories from the front’, and the idea that the church is in the business of collecting evidence that God is alive and then sharing it with people. We don’t do enough of that in our church. Lately we’ve decided to try to give people more opportunities for sharing their stories, as a way not only of raising our level of expectation in the gospel but also of getting to know one another better. Alan and Ellie also emphasized that we aren’t only sharing personal stories here but also big stories of how God has done the seemingly impossible, such as the ending of apartheid in South Africa without the blood bath that was expected.





I’m comforted by the idea of outsiders coming to worship because they come with a trusted friend, and because the Christians are interesting, and because they suspect that God is real – but a little nagging doubt inside is saying, “Is this based on empirical evidence? Can we actually point to non-churchgoing people who have been attracted to the Christian faith in this way? Or is it just a nice theological idea?’ I’d like to know the answer to that one. I do know of people who were lapsed churchgoers who have joined our church family at St. Margaret’s, despite the fact that we use a liturgy and don’t specialise in seeker-sensitive churches. But I’m not sure if it would work as well for people who have no church memory at all. I just don’t know.





The aspect of Alan and Ellie’s vision that was the mot challenging was the multi-voiced worship as found in 1 Corinthians 14. Our system in the Anglican church is so clerical, even today, even though we have people doing readings and intercessions, lay readers helping to lead the service, and so on. We don’t have the sense that Paul had, that every member is free and expected to contribute a hymn, a prayer, a word from God, etc. I’m not even sure how we would build that into our way of doing Sunday worship – or if people would accept it if we tried to do it. Personally I find it tremendously attractive, and am moving a little in that direction as I experiment with preaching that is more interactive rather than exclusively monologues from the front of the building.





All in all, a great weekend, and much to ponder and be thankful for.





The conference at Scargill, which I was supposed to be attending from May 30th – June 3rd, was cancelled, so I have the opportunity to join Alan and Ellie at the London Mennonite Centre this weekend where they are presenting a Cross-Currents seminar on Spirituality in the Anabaptist tradition. I’m looking forward to that one in a big way!






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