More than 1,200 people from parishes across the diocese attended six seminars run by the Bishop of Connor.
This is the second year the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy has run his Lenten series ‘Equipping the Saints.’ Numbers were up on last year and he is already planning next year’s series.
Two seminars on the topics of Worship and Suffering were held in St Peter’s Parish Chrurch, Belfast; Antrim Parish Halls and Church and the Dunluce Centre, Bushmills. An average 160 people attended each seminar with 230 attending the first seminar in St Peter’s.
The final seminar took place in Bushmills on Wednesday April 1, with 180 people attending.
It has been a gruelling schedule for Bishop Alan, on top of his regular duties, but the annual series is something he places high value on: “I believe that one of the key roles of the Bishop is to teach the faith. It is very important that I do that, teaching in the sense of establishing relationships with people across the diocese,” he said.
“I hope those who attend are getting a sense of support and encouragement for their own faith generally and they are being allowed to ask questions and not always get answers, but still believe.”
He said the large numbers attending the seminars had been ‘affirming.’ “People seem to enjoy the talks. More came this year than last year and people are already asking about next year,” Bishop Alan said.
The Bishop’s first seminar addressed the topic of Worship, asking the following questions: What is worship? Why do we worship? What is Anglican worship? It also looked at different forms of worship.
The Bishop spoke about the worship ‘war’ between the contemporary and traditional. He reminded everyone of contemporary culture, and the issues that face us today, before looking at worship itself in its many forms.
During his second Seminar on Suffering there was total silence in the hall as Bishop Alan gave examples of suffering he has encountered in his ministry. Personal suffering, he said, was very difficult because it was so personal and painful. To use clichés when comforting a bereaved person only insults the pain.
He said the church must answer difficult questions with honest and integrity and stressed: “Our God does not exist because of the evil, our God of love exists despite the evil.”
The Bishop focused on the Book of Job which, he said, was not a book to help us through suffering. “It is a wonderful spiritual truth. Job has the most awful, terrible, unfair things happen to him, but nevertheless he believes. That’s what Job is about,” he said.
Bishop Alan said suffering was not always the result of sin, but people who are suffering should be allowed to be angry with God. “One of the things we need to realise is that we belong to each other and we need to carry each other. Job was lonely and isolated dealing with his suffering because no-one else seemed to grasp what he was going through,” he said.
The Bishop admitted he found more of God in people’s pain than in their joy, and said a touch or a hug often speaks more than words when dealing with suffering. “We need to learn to value and affirm those in our community who have suffered because they can teach us a lot about what real faith is,” he said.
In his conclusion, the Bishop said the ultimate moment of suffering was when Jesus, on the cross, cried out “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”
“At that moment God the father and God the Son are disconnected . I cannot think of anything more spiritually, emotionally or physically painful,” he said.
The Bishop finished with a message of hope. “One day all this pain will be gone. The hope is our’s in Jesus.”
Following all the seminars, Bishop Alan took questions from the floor. There was also an opportunity for tea and fellowship midway through each seminar, which the Bishop said was an important time for bringing people from different parishes in the diocese together.