Think, Speak, Act Conference Review

The cynical might have described Think, Speak, Act as a Christian Guardianista day out to whinge about Coalition. The cynical would have been wrong about this conference organised by the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT).

True the first key note speaker was Giles Fraser, a Christian contributor to the Guardian and there was literature and comment about the immorality of the forthcoming benefit changes, especially in relation to housing and the bedroom tax floating around but it was about far more than that.

Giles Fraser, who it had to be said looked a little like the accused prior to the event – sitting on the side seats with loosened tie making notes and looking uncomfortable in the shirt and tie he had on with his jeans, was talking on ‘Theology in Action: St Paul’s and Occupy’.

This title led to the best comment I heard all day. The lady behind me was looking at the programme before the kick off and turned to her husband and asked in all innocence, “where is St. Paul’s and Occupy? I’ve not heard of that church.”

Anyway back to Giles Fraser. It was primarily an intelligent and thoughtful critique on the philosophy of perpetual economic growth. It was linked to this recent Guardian article he has written.

Within his talk Fraser explained the Church has something distinctive to offer to the debate on this issue. The distinctive messages we have to offer are (i) the idea that what we have is a gift entrusted to us and (ii) there is such a thing as having enough. He used the picture of the manna given to the Israelites in the desert during the exodus.

He also argued the church has generally had a bad theology  of economics, despite it being the main moral issue addressed in the bible.

Two striking sound bites within his talk were “money is the sacrament of seriousness” and “the best way to tell our attitude to money is to look at our bank statement.”

The film shown during the plenary session with a variety of delegates saying what was most memorable illustrated the impact these two soundbites had had on many of those present.

In terms of the whole Occupy thing relatively little was actually said. What Fraser did say was often framed within a “us” and “them” language, as was some of the comment made on where we go from here. This was something I picked him up on within the q&a which followed his presentation. His response recognised something of the real complexity of the situation, but I still felt he was too focused on emphasising the institutional nature of the church.

If, as I’ve said, Fraser looked a bit like the accused sitting there uncomfortable in his shirt and tie then Martyn Atkins looked like he might be the solicitor representing him. The differences in appearance reflected something of the differences between the talks.

Where Fraser had been the streetwise vicar reflecting on what he’d heard and experienced Atkins approach was much more academic and book based.

Using scripture from Jeremiah and John he reflected on a range of images and motifs of what being a Christian is like. These ideas were taken from books by Margaret Myers(didn’t catch title)  and Donald Messer  (A Conspiracy of Goodness).

For me the first two motifs of Myers he used were the most striking. The first was ‘resident alien’ and the second was ‘the pilgrim’.

In regards to the ‘resident alien’ he made the point we need to work out what justice is in a complex world.

When unpacking what it means to be a pilgrim he focused on how pilgrims don’t travel alone, they are partnered. He said we need to be partnered ecumenically and with others outside of churches who are ahead of us in reflecting God’s values. Within this part of his talk he emphasised the need to learn from and partner with those who can show us how to embrace inclusion through their equality and diversity practices. He also said we need to partner locally, not seeking superiority because our buildings or staff may be involved.

He finished his talk, which was the last of the afternoon, by reflecting on how in the past evangelicalism and social action were seen as separate but now they’re not. He explained the importance of taking a holistic approach.

The keynote speech was interesting and I agreed with what was being said but I did wonder how this would all work out in practice, particularly the partnering and speaking out. Methodism is to some extent constrained by what Conference have and haven’t said and done. The inability of the denomination to respond to the parts of the same sex marriage consultation which related to gender identity because there was no mention of the subject in the CPD illustrates the constraints the denomination faces.

Beyond the keynote speakers were workshops which we’d previously booked into. There was lots of group work involved in the workshops which sometimes worked well and at other times not so well in the sessions I was in.

The morning workshop I went to was on ‘what does my local area really need’. It was an ok seminar, but within a few minutes I realised that it was wrong for me as it was about things with which I was somewhat familiar.

The afternoon session on preaching and praying for justice was fantastic though. It was focused and Janet Morely facilitated us very professionally as we identified the key aspects of good and bad practice in preaching for justice and praying for justice and fed back. This was workshop that I would recommend for any conference aimed at preachers or worship leaders. (If Connected Worship were being repeated I would highly recommend considering booking Janet).

All in all a good conference but one I felt could have been improved by having an activist session led by the JPIT themselves. I think it would have been useful to discuss how we campaign alongside them on global and national issues as well as locally in our contexts. Groups like this have a key role in connecting the hyper local with the wider networks and national/international campaigns they feed into. This is something I think would have been good to explore further.

That last bit said it was good and the JPIT had worked hard putting it together, as they do on everything – it is no suprise this conference was a sell out.

They are an important resource to the Baptists, URC and Methodists who they represent and this needs recognising more widely than I think it sometimes is. Hurrah for the JPIT.

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