Saturday, September 29, 2007

Meribah in Bethlehem

We had the annual diocesan conference this morning at a large evangelical church conference centre in the countryside north of Bridgend - Bethlehem Church Life Centre. It was a very plain and functional sort of place, like a big warehouse kitted out to support people events, but not terribly inspiring.

The reasons for choosing such a venue when we have some large church schools, not to mention a fine cathedral as possible meeting places is a mystery to me. The only positive reason wouold be relative ease of parking. The conference no longer spans morning and afternoon with a lunch intervening. I guess that saves money. Everything is packed in between 9.30 and 1.30, including the Eucharist.

It's not so much a conference these days, more a series of presentations with little time to reflect or discuss or interact. All three presentations suffered from the inadequate mastery of display technology meant to assist the speaker, rather than embarrass. The quality of the humour in the face of this adversity demonstrated that we didn't really need to be dazzled or irritated by gizmos anyway. Why bother?

It was sad, but inevitable that Barry our Bishop should want to apologise for being away on Anglican Communion business so much in this time of threatened schism, as a trusted broker on behalf of Archbishop Rowan. I was so glad to hear him praise the much maligned American church for its relief efforts in New Orleans. Their justice agenda is far broader than mere matters relating to sexuality. For a host of different reasons, everyone seems fed up about this seemingly intractable state of affairs. And it is having an impact on our life as a diocese, when so much change needs working on at a leadership level here at home. The diocese pays the price for Barry's external diplomatic role in every sense. It's wholly understandable that he should be asking the Province to re-consider the appointment of an Archbishop who is not also a diocesan Bishop, as happens in other parts of the Communion. We need to ask what this solution will do to deepen 'bonds of affection' between Wales and other Anglican Provinces that cannot be achieved by other means. The ratio of prelates per head of faithful members keeps increasing, as the church continues to shrink.

The annual report of the diocesan standing committee attracted just three formal questions. I'm afraid I lost my concentration until I was forced to sit up and take notice when Bob Capper, an outspoken evangelical critic of some current church leadership and policies, stood up and asked why the dissolution of the Rectorial Benefice of Central Cardiff had not been reported as discussed by the standing committee. He'd approached me beforehand and asked if I'd noticed. I said no, I didn't really care.

It turned out that for the sake of economising on paper, the standing committee published report was less than full, economising in its reportage. Bob was not quick enough to ask a supplementary question about editorial criteria used for assembling the report. I noticed that the closure of St James' was also not reported - a potentially major community development project failing for lack of support from church or city. Well, the morning's presentations highlighted inspiring community development successes. Nobody cares to take note of failures which could teach us how to avoid squandering time and energy on things that have no chance of success.

It was a cheerless airless artificially lit gathering. The sense of depression that haunted our clergy chapter meeting on Wednesday afternoon seemed also to lurk in this massive assembly of over two hundred people, clergy obliged to be there outnumbering lay representatives by two to one. Was it just me? Or was it to do with the design of the event leaving so little room for interaction and discussion that it seemed to be designed with only passive acceptance in mind? Have we got to the stage of fearing that free discussion will overturn the boat? Are we giving sufficient time to really examining, all together the way we operate? Or are we sliding fast into a culture of producers of consumers of religion?

There was a time when having a conference Eucharist in the place where all the business was done, the decisions were taken etc, seemed to have a certain incarnational relevance and quality to it. When we came to the Eucharist this morning I wished we could have moved somewhere with fresh air and beauty to commend it, that maybe might lift my spirits. It was nice to sing Taize music, together in worship, but even the ugly barn of a church in Taize is embellished by prayer and decoration in a way that mark it out as sacred space. The Bethlehem people warehouse left all to be desired, to my mind.

At least for sports addicts, it was over in time to get home and watch the Rugby international match. Pity Wales lost. That will depress morale even more. Let's hope that the diocesan prayer vigil in the Cathedral from Sunday evening to Monday evening will prove to be an antidote, a ray of divine light in present gathering gloom.

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