Saturday, 20 October 2012

Wanted: more diocesan Bible conferences

‘Putting God’s word at the heart of the diocese’ has always been the declared aim of the Chelmsford Anglican Bible Conference, and by the end of the twelfth annual conference today I found myself believing that might just be beginning to happen.
The whole thing started about fourteen years ago, whilst listening to people at a meeting of the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association committee voicing their views on a recent diocesan conference. All were agreed it was very well organized, but most felt the content to be lacking.
“Instead of just complaining,” I said, “why don’t we organize something ourselves?” And so, after canvassing evangelical opinion in the diocese, CABC was born.
To begin with, the plan was for a weekend residential conference like that run by the diocese itself. Fortunately the people I approached at the first choice of venue suggested we start smaller and see how it went. Our first conference therefore took place at the Cathederal in 2000. Attendance was encouraging, but the venue was very difficult, lacking sound equipment, staging etc. The second and subsequent years, therefore, were at other venues.
However, after our initial success, something of a decline set in. Members of the organizing committee began to drift away, attendances fell and support from evangelical churches was generally lacking.
The original proposal had been to run the conference for ten years. Yet by five years into the project, the remaining organizers were asking themselves whether to wrap the whole thing up early. Then we began to turn a corner.
We discovered a great new venue, in the shape of Chelmsford’s Central Baptist Church. This made setting up and taking down much easier. We also gained an administrator, Carolan Casey, who gave the running of the conference a much more ‘professional’ feel. We were also helped by the commitment of David Hawkins, the Area Bishop of Barking, to come along and open every conference. 
Since then the conference has grown steadily. Last year we sold out the venue when we had John Lennox speaking on Genesis, and this year we almost sold out again with the much less well-known Andy Mason (sorry, Andy) on the perhaps less immediately popular topic of Daniel. Interestingly, the balance of male to female attendees has also changed so that last year, about 45% of those present were men. Like the growth in numbers, this has been a gradual but consistent development.
Three years ago we took the decision to aim at another decade, and we are already making plans for 2013. However, as I announced from the platform today, the time has come for us to engage more deliberately with our own diocese.
It is not enough to be an ‘oasis’, or just an occasion to meet our friends and be entertained by a speaker. We have to start encouraging people who have a confidence in, and love for, the Scriptures to full participation in the life of the denomination at every level. If we are to see the word of God proclaimed in society, we must first see it honoured in the Church. My hope, therefore, is that this deliberate engagement will itself become part of future conferences.
Meanwhile, I continue to wonder why this is the only project of its kind in the country. Admittedly there are some dioceses were something like this is organized at an official level — I think of the ‘Bible by the Beach’ project in Chichester, for example. But I would love to see the idea being taken up elsewhere.
All that is needed is some people ready and willing to take on the organization (I notice I have used the 'o' word a lot in this short article) — that and a small financial ‘float’. (We got £600 from the Diocesan Evangelical Association, which has long since been repaid. We now run each year at a profit which helps in preparing the subsequent year’s conference.)
Evangelicals of all people should be those who believe in the centrality and the power of God’s word. It is surely time that we acted more deliberately across the Church for the sake of the nation.
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  1. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' And in the Eucharist, Jesus is always 'among us' and can be accessed at any time by faithful disciples of Christ. The Words of scripture point to none other than this 'Word-made-flesh' - the Incarnate Word in Christ - Whom alone we should worship.

  2. Agreed, Fr Ron, though I should point out for other readers of this blog who may not be aware of it that the means by which the benefits of Christ are apprehended in the Sacraments is the same as through a sermon, namely faith in the word, for as a sermon explains the word of God to us, so Baptism and the Lord's Supper hold out to us, in the word that makes the elements 'sacramental', the promises of God fulfilled in Christ, which we receive by faith.

  3. I wonder whether it would be worth inviting people that might be interested in setting these things up in other dioceses could be invited to come and see next year's CABC to try and enthuse them into action? This year was an excellent experience for me (blogged about here and one that I hope to repeat in future years. The more people see this as a model to work from the better for the future of Anglicanism.

    One other possibility could be getting curates and ordinands involved, so that when they move out of the diocese they are already thinking about how they could look to set it up in their new diocese. I would mean a certain amount of turnover in planning team membership, but this would also mean frequent fresh enthusiasm from new blood.
    Just a thought.