It was a privilege to be asked to attend this forum and it was with an air of anticipation mixed with gentle anxiety, that I boarded the train at Ashford. It had been such a long time, that I had been in so many people’s company or indeed travelled much, beyond the confines of our town.
I needn’t have been anxious for from the start I was greeted with genuine Christian warmth and hospitality. The large building, which forms the Hayes was surrounded by beautiful spring floral glory and the complex at the back forming the accommodation and meeting areas was very comfortable and welcoming.
The general sessions were particularly good, including an excellent one on our role caring for the environment.
The break out (home groups) were a useful way of getting to know a small group of people a little better.
My choice of workshops was perhaps not quite what I expected. Ecumenical framework was really about Local Ecumenical Partnerships and not the wider Churches together in a particular locality issue. The interfaith one was helpful.
The general atmosphere was very relaxed and people mixed freely, despite their different backgrounds. Discussion was largely respectful of views and open.
Archbishop Justin was refreshingly honest about his personal struggles with depression, which were very helpful to many there. He stressed over and over again that it is
- NOT what we believe
- BUT who we believe in
that continues to unite us.
The “what” is so peripheral to the “who”.
Cardinal Vincent had the difficult task of summing up one of the main sessions, which he did with love and humour.
Sadly though, the spring sunshine and the forum were overshadowed by a number of clouds:
- The as yet unresolved issue of same sex relationships, which appears to have inhibited the full quartet of presidents for CTE being consolidated. This is clearly a running sore. As a Methodist church leader told me, if we believe God is love, how can we condemn people, who express love in different ways.
- The COVID pandemic has had and continues to have an effect on church life. People are coming back to physical church; some have used it as an opportunity to have a break and some have taken it as an opportunity to have a change. They may have now found a different spiritual home by “twiddling the dial” as it were. Some have found virtual church safer and more fulfilling, because it obviates the petty human disagreements that exist in all groups (faith and otherwise). Unfortunately, a number of people at the forum went down with COVID and many report that they may have caught it there or on their way back home (the author included). I just wonder if the exuberant joyful singing in a confined space was sadly a contributor.
- There is clearly an undercurrent of discontent and anger regarding George Floyd, Black lives matter and colonialism issues. Coming from a 99% white European area, this was quite an eye-opener and a challenge to my own thinking. Whilst I totally sympathise with all the justifiable discontent, I am not sure how it can be resolved. It calls into question the imagery we use in European churches and reminds us to take care with our language and expressions. I do wonder if our Islamic brothers/sisters have got that right, by not trying to depict God et al in their religious art.
- Obviously, the whole conference was overshadowed by the war in Ukraine and the consequent refugee situation. The forum issued two statements and several out of hours meetings were held to try and ascertain the latest advice on assisting with refugees. We expressed our frustration to the newly appointed minister via a video conference, but bar him listening, we were no further forward.