The Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick on Imagining Faith (24-27 March 2014) was the first clergy conference the diocese have held for 22 years. Yes, the last one was in 1992.
As one of those – increasingly feeling like dinosaurs – who were present 22 years ago, I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on what had changed. And it does, indeed, feel like that was a world away, a different planet altogether.
The greatest difference this time, of course, was the large number of women clergy taking part, including having a wonderful woman bishop – Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch NZ – as a keynote speaker. Back then there were hardly any women present. No women priests, of course, and not that many deacons either. It was a peculiar atmosphere and mood, and rather like the lepers at the gates of Samaria (2 Kings 7), there were many who were saying, “What we are doing is not right.” It was all too clergy-ish, and just, well, MALE. So it was decided not to have any more exclusively clergy conferences, but to run joint conferences of clergy and laity for the diocese. This was the origin of the extraordinary Bognor Conference in 1995(?) and the High Wycombe weekend a few years afterwards.
But I always felt it was a great loss, not to have the opportunity for the clergy to meet together from time to time. It's such a big diocese, and when we only meet in deanery or even archdeaconry meetings, it's very easy to lose sight of the big picture. The Big Picture is a beautiful one, and as Bishop Victoria reminded us, one of immense wealth of resources.
And the joyful mix of male and female clergy meant that everything that was missing in our mostly male clergy gatherings was wonderfully supplied. It made me think, as I so often have before: How can ANYONE still be against women priests and bishops? Whatever the dogmatic reasons anyone could have had against, anyone who has actually experienced the priestly ministry of women must know that it is blessed by God. Real, effective, God's gift. The priestly ministry of women alongside men, is a whole ministry. At last. It's only taken us nearly 2000 years to get here… And so at last it was possible to say at this conference: “What we are doing is right. Very right.”
As ever I come away from this kind of event inspired, excited, enthused, humbled, energised, feeling completely inadequate among such committed and gifted people, yet also hoping and praying and I suppose knowing at some barely guessed at level, that I share some of those gifts and commitment.
The daily worship – Morning and Evening Prayer, Eucharist and Night Prayer – was a glorious pot-pourri of styles, often deeply moving. The music was of a high standard, as well as deeply spiritual and enabling. The organization was superb and apparently relaxed and seamless. The bishops were (are!) welcoming, friendly, human. The speakers were dauntingly intelligent and erudite. As well as Bishop Victoria talking about how her diocese has dealt with and grown through the disaster of the earthquakes, there were Graham Tomlin, giving the Bible studies, Sam Wells on what the Christian faith is, Graham Ward on current trends in culture and society, and our own Bishop John on The State We're In. The workshops – I co-led one of them, on storytelling – were varied and interesting: my only problem with them was, there wasn't enough time to go very deep. We had fun evenings with Paul Kerensa, and, because one of the planned speakers had had to pull out, a shared viewing of the first of Rev. series 3, with panel discussion after.
So now, the work begins. The work of processing, applying, Imagining Faith in our own places and contexts. I'm praying for us all to have an imagination as big as God's, to work towards his Kingdom futures. And that we won't have to wait 22 years for the next time.