Taking the Plunge Together: Thoughts on the Bath & Wells Clergy Gathering

Another clergy conference under my belt. Except this time it was called a ‘gathering’. I’m not sure of the difference. It was absolutely exhausting, both mentally and physically. I was so busy I only made it to the bar one night out of three and I was still up every night until 1.00pm working. And I have gripes, oh yes, there are bits and bobs I would love to have a moan about. And I probably will. But not yet, because…

…much of the four days was thoughtful, challenging, generous and invigorating. There were presents, including a smidgeon of mead and a medieval pudding (with no cooking instructions – not sure whether to steam it or use it to stuff a serf), which were kindly meant and much appreciated (despite my cranky comments). There was wine, courtesy of the Bishop of Taunton. There was a selection of paintings from the Methodist Art Collection, which was glorious to behold. A labyrinth that traced an Advent journey was both sensuous and sensitive, questioning and questing. There was something called a ‘Saunter’, otherwise known as a ‘Saun-terre’, which involved trees and which I didn’t get at all but which many people found illuminating, meandering, hopeful and helpful. There were little pieces of imagery and symbolism at almost every turn that gave a jolt, or asked a question, or made connections. There was a conference site cat, which is always a good thing, and chocolate which is a very good thing indeed. But above all there were some excellent speakers – people who were gentle with us but who pushed us, opened out our thinking, affirmed some of aspects of our ministries but challenged us to be more daring with others.

Timothy Radcliffe at times seemed quite Nouwen-esque in his groundedness about what it is to be a truly human member of the God’s creation. He had a gentleness that belied his deep wisdom. I need time to mull over the notes from his talks. My hazily remembered impression was that he was charging us to be the people, the community that God created us to be – we are created to be like Christ. Our bodies, the human body is a gift, to be loved and to be given. We were born into the same form as Christ – that is a privilege which bubbles over with divine delight. His view of ministry used our whole bodies, from head and eyes to hands and feet and even the parts in between – the bits which may bulge and fall with age.

John Bell was quite a revelation. He was nowhere near as abrasive as I was expecting. Witty and insightful, with an earthed, but not especially earthy, sense of humour he summed up the week with poignancy and affirmation. Even the singing stuff was bearable – not as much as I was expecting to be inflicted upon us – and it was good to hear the whole gathering come quickly together in harmony, even if I could never manage it myself.

Ann Morisy was, well, Ann Morisy. As wonderful as ever. Practical and passionate, brimful of ideas for getting out into the world and building a community model of ministry that a.) involved the whole community and b.) meant ministry to, with, and for everyone, not just a committed few. She survived with aplomb the impositions of a flash mob and kept us on the edge of our seats with the excitement of possibilities for our churches and our neighbourhoods.

A multi-sensory Eucharist was offered to us as part of a wider rhythm of worship. Much of the worship was true time apart with God. The multi-sensory Eucharist was both exciting and disengaging. Perhaps I found more help in the idea of it than the actual execution. It was offered by two highly skilled outsiders. And that was the problem, apart from dated music and a potentially invalid consecration (only a small amount of bread and wine was on the altar to be consecrated, the majority of the gathering received bread and wine which had been brought at communion from another table in a different part of the room). The multi-sensory Eucharist team had not been part of the ongoing conversations and the talks which we had been engaged in over the past few days. They gave us the Gospel reading for Christ the King, with its beautiful emphasis on the compassion of the crucified Christ’s words to the penitent thief. However, only hours before both Ann Morisy and Timothy Radcliffe had been arguing that we should move away from such a strong focus on the last days of Christ’s earthly life and look more at the activities of the rest of the Gospels. What they gave us was professional and borne out of years of experience, but could it have been created more appropriately by an in-house gathering team?

It wasn’t all big group stuff. There were many, many conversations both in confidential ‘gathering groups’ and all over the site, which gave people hope and humour and a sense of what was possible and how we could work together. There was also a poet in residence, Matt Harvey, who used words and images in a simple, humorous and yet perceptive way to tease us onto another level of thinking about the ordinary and the mundane.

And the gripes? Well, there’s not much. Only one after dinner speaker who told old jokes in a rather prosaic way and the blue lanyards. No matter how egalitarian a gathering tries to be there is always some way it demarcates between those in the know and those who are not.

As for work. Well, I sold several hundred books. I gave 120 away free – and that tells me that less than half the delegates visited my bookstall. Which was a little disheartening. Either they have their own ways of purchasing resources, which is understandable, and if they are supporting their own local independent shops, laudable. Or they don’t read. And that, for me, is deeply saddening.

But that’s not the end. The end should be the final Eucharist, a veritable feast of symbolic action, with renewal of baptismal vows, asperges, sharing lighted candles, anointing each other with oil. It should have been liturgical overload, but somehow it was not, it felt enlivening and affirming, a sending out with a shared purpose, shared goals, shared experiences, shared humanity, episcopal humility and a sense that yes, when it comes to ministry, we are taking the plunge together, and together we can warm up the water.


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