Monday, 3 October 2011

Where are all the diocesan Bible conferences?

Saturday saw the eleventh Chelmsford Anglican Bible Conference, with over three hundred people from churches across the Diocese of Chelmsford gathered at the Central Baptist Church for a day of studying the Bible. (If you’re asking, “Why the Baptist church?” it’s in the centre of our cathedral town and is an excellent conference venue — if a bit hot on that particular day in this particular October.)
This venture started as an initiative suggested at the Chelmsford Diocesan EvangelicalAssociation, to put Bible teaching at the heart of our diocesan life. It has been a long, and at times up-hill, road, but given that we had about 1% of the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ for the diocese in attendance on Saturday, I do believe we are beginning to get somewhere. Roll on the 2% level!
During the day, I bumped into an old Chelmsford clerical colleague who has now moved to another diocese. He came especially for the day and told me he wouldn’t miss it! He also told me that he was thinking about organizing a similar event in his own diocese, which was great news.
However, this raises the question that often occurs to me as to why there are not similar conferences in dioceses the length and breadth of the country. They are not really that difficult to organize in principle, although our administrator, Carolan Casey, will tell you there is a huge amount of detailed work that has to go on behind the scenes.
Ultimately, however, all you need is a venue and a speaker — that and, as we have discovered, a good administrator. So why aren’t evangelicals everywhere running such conferences? After all, we’re supposed to believe in the power of God’s word and its importance to the church, and we all know that the standard of Bible-teaching and the attitude to the Bible in the Church of England could do with considerable improvement. So where are the conferences?
Talking to my friend, I said there are four essentials he must stick to.
First, keep the organizing committee small and select. We started off with an enormous and broad organizing committee and it became quite difficult both to hold meetings that everyone could attend and to come to agreement when they did. The aim here is not to allow everyone a voice but to get something done. At the moment, we have six people on our committee and that is the biggest it has been for years.
Secondly, do not aim for breadth in the speakers. When we started out, I received an e-mail from a colleague saying that they hoped we would aim to have the different ‘wings’ of evangelicalism represented on the platform. That is a piece of advice I ignored and we paid a price for it in the early years. But the point is, once again, this is not about hearing different opinions. It is about teaching the Bible faithfully and effectively — and actually to a largely lay-audience, most of whom have no idea what the different wings of evangelicalism stand for. The crucial question about the speakers is their competence.
However, thirdly, arising from the above, all the speakers must be theologically conservative and pastorally evangelical. Please note, this is not the same as being a conservative evangelical! Maintaining the quality of the product is essential. This is about feeding Christ’s sheep who belong to the Church of England, not airing personal ideas. Moreover, it is about applying the Bible to life — bringing the word of God, which ultimately is the gospel of Christ, to bear on our daily circumstances in the church and in the secular world. This is why I say speakers have to be ‘evangelistic’. They must be practical, gospel-minded, people.
Fourthly, be patient and faithful. We started big and then for five years got smaller, to the extent that at one stage we were debating whether to shut down entirely. Organizing a Bible conference like this, as something for a diocese, but not run by the usual diocesan bodies, is bound to be controversial. It may even be seen as an aggressive action, especially when one takes into account the policy on selecting speakers and that can cost in terms of friends and support.
In short, it can — and probably will — be tough because of the ‘internal politics’ of the Church of England generally and evangelicalism in particular. But it is worth it!
The principle to bear in mind is Mark 6:34: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
To teach is to pastor God’s people. To teach the Bible is to make God’s voice heard. Yet this is so lacking in many of our dioceses. If you can organize for this to happen where you are, then surely you already know what you ought to do.
John Richardson
3 October 2011
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  1. CABC 2011 was just awesome! Thank you so much to John and his team! Speaker John Lennox was on twinkling, sparkling form.

  2. Our church prefers to work in a ecumenical setting as our vicar is the Chairman of the Northwest Partnership. So we do have conferences, very similar I would guess to your diocesan one, except its for all conservative evangelicals both inside and outside the CofE. Usually the speakers are Anglican but we've also had Tim Keller, Don Carson and Mark Dever! There is an active DEF which has meetings but it is smaller, at least in attendance!

  3. Ian, thanks for your encouragement. Mike, the response I would make is that this is about strategy - something which, regarding the Church of England, evangelicals have lacked in the last forty years.

    We decided early on to call it the 'Chelmsford Anglican' Bible Conference to make it clear that our target was the Anglican diocese. Our aim has not just been to bring people in from the diocese but, by doing this, to promote change in the diocese.

    Thus whilst conferences amongst evangelicals are one of the 'strings to our bow', I would strongly advocate events like our own.

    I have covered this more in the new book I'm about to bring out (but now I'm sounding like John Lennox on Saturday ;-) ).

  4. Thanks John, and I do agree with your aim. It's frustrating when evangelicals abandon the CofE and go off and do their own thing and I've certainly felt something of that! I guess some evangelicals though have felt they've put a lot of effort into the CofE structures with no visible effects!

  5. I was about to write the same as mikegprint before I saw his comments... In the North West, anyone who's interested in this sort of thing would go to North West Partnership events and the Northern Men's/Women's Conventions. The market niche is already taken.

  6. To anonymous - the point is, as Mike says, the Northwest Partnership activities are not at all in the same 'market niche' as the Anglican Bible Conference.

    The NWP activities are for conservative evangelicals from various denominations and is presumably aimed at strengthening their existing ministries. The ABC is for Anglicans and is aimed at transforming the local diocese.

    Whilst I would not want to put anything in the way of these partnerships, there is still a great big Anglican hole out there are far as I can see.