Connected Worship Conference Review

I want you to imagine a pile of crap. On this occasion it can be labelled: frustration, weariness, hopelessness, broken dreams, misunderstandings, doubt, fear, dis-connection, loss and monotony. You are charged with working out what to do with layers of this stuff.

You work out there are various possibilities:

You can get a blunt edged spade and call it a shovel. To brighten it up you might tie some ribbons around it. You can use it to dig a hole to deposit some of the crap in, burning  the rest. Then you might dig another hole to place something new in.

Another approach is to put the junk into a cupboard and pretend it isn’t there as you party on next door.

Alternatively you can examine how others have dealt with this junk and come together to discuss this before going away and disseminating your knowledge to others.

Then you could always acknowledge the crap. You could give stories of situations where this crap has somewhat miraculously disappeared in the past. Then you can return to having a party, after you’ve put barriers up to keep people away from the reality of the offending mess.

There is a final option left open to you. You might get a team together and resource them with good quality cleaning materials. They can approach the crap carefully and gently from different angles seeking to remove that top layer to reveal and restore what is underneath.

The team who put on Connected Worship an event primarily aimed at local preachers and worship leaders within the Methodist Church decided to take that last option.

There were various things about Connected Worship which made it different from many if not all of the various Christian conferences I’d been to over the years and these are the things which reflected how and why that last approach is discernibly different.

The first was the conference wasn’t at a conference centre or site where we came together to communally live. Rather whilst the majority of the event was held in two venues within Warrington we were required to get our own accommodation sorted and engage, however briefly, with the city beyond the conference both physically and economically. This was refreshing and whilst I know there are negatives to this way of doing things as well as positives I found it, on this occasion, helpful.

The second aspect which was discernibly different was the way those attending the conference were valued as people rather than as consumers and potential purchasers of product. There was only one person noticeably promoting his books and even that was done in a low key, “they’re here but they are discounted” way.

We were given “goody bags” when we got there as our conference packs and it has to be said they were random, surreal and useful in equal measure. Beyond the usual programme, map and so on Fair Trade chocolate and cereal bars mixed with mountains of stationary and resources from the local council and crematorium. By the end of the weekend Co-op funeral care bingo dobbers were floating around too.

Friday evening began with worship. Contemporary music and more traditional hymns mixed with gentle liturgy and in your face reflection, poetry and narrative, visuals and silence within the worship sessions. Carefully planned and curated but infused with integrity rather than fake energy. By the end of the weekend the need for sleep was being acknowledged from the stage as well as the seats.

The food was incredible and whilst we’re used to church people doing food well what we consumed in the venue can only be described as extreme church catering. Don’t know if it’s a wonderfully northern thing or what but it was also good old fashioned plain but tasty grub being provided which meant even fussy eaters such as myself were able to over indulge.

Friday evening continued with Sheridan Voysey , an Aussie writer and broadcaster now living in Oxford doing a session on listening to the soul of community. Now I have to admit that Sheridan is obviously a Mac guy and one of the social networking i-pad types who normally I have a mixture of respect for and irritation with. However, he did a good presentation and has gone to the trouble of putting up an area of his web-space linked to the Connected content with resources to help people explore the themes he was talking about further. My conclusion on him was surprisingly that he was a great guy and somebody it was a pleasure to connect with who God is using in a particular way.

The evening finished with more worship and what Karl later told me was something called Compline which the Anglicans use. I thought it was cool.

Saturday was a packed day, with perhaps a little too much in. That said it was all great content as we found our souls being restored. First off worship, then into the first of three workshop sessions. Karl went off to the much praised preaching sessions with Ron Willoughby. Apparently they were brilliant being insightful and useful and with all of the sessions dealing with people where they were.

I was engaging with the world outside and found myself listening to Jonathan Green who is one of the chaplaincy development officers for the Methodist Church and the person who had put together the Chaplaincy Everywhere course I had recently reviewed on here. He started off overly apologetic at stepping in at short notice and so not being as prepared as he might be…although he felt that might be useful. What he actually did was provide space for alot of people who were already practitioners to share. I knew a few people in that group and there were deacons, lay children’s and youth workers, prison chaplains and presbyters all present. What we found ourselves receiving was space to think and talk as people who were already engaging in our various ways with life and communities beyond church. Going back to the cleaning/ restoration analogy it was interesting to see the dirt being loosened during the first session and then to see the hope gleaming through by the last of these workshops.

Ok slight aside here….in light of recent events (which I have blogged here) I was wary of these sessions whilst really looking forward to meeting and thanking the person who had sent me a really encouraging direct message after reading the “not getting the job post”. At the beginning of the weekend I kind of felt God/ life force/ a.n.other was taking the piss somewhat by having me sitting through a set of workshops on chaplaincy. At the end of the weekend and after a major 4am argument with God on Sunday morning I was clearer on a whole load of stuff and thankful rather than irritated I’d been in those sessions.

Anyway I digress and this is already too long a post…still I’m indulging and this is a post I want to have there to look back on and reflect on as well as to encourage others with.

Back to the conference. Saturday afternoon involved major input from Jackie Bellfield who was presbyter of the church we were using as one venue and the worship leader, Roger Walton who is one of the most intelligent, gentle and generally godly men it has ever been my pleasure to know and Helen Cameron who in many ways came across as a female version of Roger but with her Yorkshireness being somewhat stronger.

The session where Roger was the main speaker was talking about reflective listening and faithful theology. It was material I was familiar with having read and cherished his book The Reflective Disciple  but material it was good to revisit. The key text they were working from on Saturday afternoon was Luke 2:19, focusing specifically on what it meant/ means to treasure and ponder.

The next part of this was a “New Song Network” experience, which was worship we were encouraged to reflect on whilst participating in. Have to admit I went into participant observation mode and ended up with 8 pages of notes. Sufficient to summarise that this was a community worshipping together using contemporary material which for me moved in turns from feeling like I was at Spring Harvest, in the middle of a Jazz club and that I was in the middle of one of the James Corden worship sketches from the Horne and Corden show a few years back. That said, the thing was this wasn’t cheese there were the whispered “friends” and change of sounds and moods which are part of a particular type of worship leading but it was different. What was most moving was what was said in between particularly and the interaction with the regulars. This included laughter and heckling but also included a note of apology if anybody found a story she had shared painful. Within the formula there was an unusual level of vulnerability from the worship leader. What particularly moved me was singing Carol of the Star by Andrew M Rudd. It evoked the memory of Cambridge Folk Festival fringe tent on Coldhams Common late in the evening when the main music has finished and people sing along together with the talented open mic performers.

Before the last session 115 of us headed off to a local Chinese buffet. If you’re ever in Warrington I can highly recommend the East Orient. This was a genius bit of conference organisation. Again very unusual and highly refreshing part of the planning.

We were encouraged to reflect on what we’d experienced within the Pyramid arts centre venue, (and not just the gorgeous cakes), in the next session led by Helen Cameron - who I’d not encountered before. Beyond this we looked at a poem by Thomas Lux which was called Refrigerator 1957. I found this particularly moving as it took me back to my childhood and a realisation I was part of the last bit of that generation. Karl, who is younger, found it mind blowing what we talking about whilst the other couple we were sitting about could take it back further and put a number of my childhood memories in a wider historical context. It was a special time which God used to make me think back and smile.

Then there was a bit more worship. By this time to put it bluntly everybody was shattered and whilst it was good because we got to hear some of the creative writing project Sheridan had been working on with some participants it was in many ways a session too far. Was moving but slightly ironic moment on the way home when we saw the pub which we’d just heard about Jesus sitting in being raided by the police. Not sure nearly getting run over by a police van and a police car full of men and women who are getting a chance to re-enact the Sweeney whilst raiding a pub which we’d found lovely when we’d popped in for a drink the night before is meant to be that funny.

Apart a final workshop session Sunday morning was, rightly, dominated by worship. There was an initial session and then later a choice of “traditional” and “contemporary” communion services. Karl headed over to Bold Street to listen to the Chair of the Liverpool Circuit preach whilst I found myself deeply moved in the more contemporary worship. It was space to be with God and receive from him. I can’t describe what happened entirely, but it was like I suddenly had space to simply be in an environment which felt like home…..a home made up of elements from various previous “homes”. By that I mean the songs and worship band were reminiscent of the more evo part of my life, the art and prayer station bits were echoes of the more recent past and present. I was in a space I understood and in which I was fully able to simply relax with God. It was special.

The final session was led by Jo Cox and was one of the best concluding session I’ve ever attended. It wasn’t a hyped up session it was another time where worship and conference talk merged with reflection. Within it Jo made the point that the conference hadn’t been intended to be a package deal. Connected Worship was about giving permission to do stuff where you are and to give tools. It was also, as somebody had said at some point in the weekend, about giving hope.

The restorers had cleaned carefully, through valuing us and sending the message that local preachers and worship leaders are cherished and that as we go about our ministries we need to engage with hope as we seek to help the church engage with God and the culture beyond church he and we are also part of. The difficulties faced in our contexts were never minimised and the focus wasn’t on trite answers, it was on valuing us and giving us space to both connect and worship.