His voice may have been hoarse after a tough schedule of Lenten seminars on top of his usual workload, but his words were no less powerful.
More than 120 people packed into the Comfort Hotel in Antrim on Tuesday March 4 for the Bishop of Connor’s Prayer Two seminar, part of his Equipping the Saints Lent programme.
They listened intently as Bishop Alan Abernethy opened his heart, speaking of his own journey in prayer as he encouraged others in theirs.
Prayer is keeping company with God. Prayer is being, not doing, the bishop said. Looking at some of the different traditions of Anglicanism, including pentecostal, evangelical, community and Catholic, the Bishop said: “We are so blessed as Anglicans to have such a rich tapestry of spirituality at our fingertips.”
He spoke of the importance of knowing the scriptures. “A key part of prayer is to read the scripture as part of that prayer,” he said.
Recalling a visit to an African parish, the Bishop recalled the rhythm, music and dance as a whole body of people processed into a church. “There is something about the joy of the Lord that is not just about what you say. It is about how you say it. It is wonderful to have freedom to express ourselves,” he said.
Speaking of the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, the Bishop said one of the most important services for God’s people was the breaking of the bread. “It is scripturally based therefore the emphasis on sacrament is very important,” he said. He spoke of the signing of the cross. “There are symbols in other traditions that you may not be confident with or used to but I have learned in my journey that sometimes they can be a great help,” the bishop added.
He urged his audience not to be nervous Christians, but to allow themselves to relax. “In our faith and our desire to keep company with God sometimes we set ourselves impossible targets. God calls us to relax. It is His Kingdom, it is His Church,” the Bishop said.
Prayer is about God, not about how holy one can be. It is God’s gift, he added.
Following a break for refreshments, the Bishop focused on ways of helping prayer. Silence, he had found, was much more helpful than noise. “Scripture is full of the word that God is most often at work when there is silence,” the Bishop said. “Learn to be at rest in God’s presence and be at peace because that way he can do something with you.”
Meditate on the scripture and allow scripture to change your life, the Bishop said. “You are trying to get the scripture embedded so deep in your mind that when you are in a place were you are distressed and anxious that scripture will come back to you as a resource and as a way of dealing with different problems and issues.” He quoted: “I am the Lord that healeth you.”
He described journaling as having ‘your own personal book of Psalms.’ Journaling helps to remember that God is with you, and a journal is also an admission or confession, he said, admitting that his journal has at times been an ‘angry, argumentative discussion with God.’
“When I look back on mine I find myself smiling because God is having to teach me the same thing over and over and over again,” said the Bishop.
Before closing the seminar, and despite a sore throat, the Bishop responded to a series of points and questions, and promised there would be another Lent course in 2009.
This was the second of two seminars which the Bishop held at three locations in Connor – Belfast Castle, Antrim and Portrush. The six and final seminar will be held on Monday March 10 in the Royal Court, Portrush. Many of those who attended the seminar in Antrim had also attended seminar one. They were all very positive about the impact the seminars had had.
Nancy Givens, from Greenisland Parish, said they had been brilliant. “They have been very informative and made me realise I am in the same boat as everybody else,” she said.
Alec McKay from St Patrick’s, Ballymena, said he had found the seminars very challenging. “I attended another seminar last night and the same message is coming through to me in a different way. Instead of excluding people we should be embracing all people and all forms of worship,” he said.
Reg Haslett from Glenavy described Bishop Alan as “a wee mighty man of God.” He said: “He is really inspirational and speaks from the heart, imparting life to his listeners. There were no superficial answers, and sometimes no answers, but he accepts that tension in the Christian faith. It is part of the mystery of God.”