More than 170 people attended the first of the Bishop of Connor’s Lent seminars on the topic of Gospel and Culture in St Peter’s Parish Church, Antrim Road, Belfast, on Tuesday February 28.
In his introduction, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy said that in thinking over his vision for the future, the word that slowly emerged over the past two to three years was ‘disconnections,’ in particular disconnections with the local community.
He recalled growing up in East Belfast, when each activity outside of school, be it scouts or football, was linked to the church. “My whole life revolved around the church, but over these last few decades that has begun to disappear,” he said. “Something has happened in churches and society that has caused this disconnection.”
Bishop Alan outlined the three strands that had emerged from the recent survey of parishes in Connor Diocese, which had achieved a 93 per cent response rate.
The first of these was the need to engage with culture. The second was empowering ministry. “Ministry needs to be developed, enriched and encouraged and we need to take seriously the idea that ministry is not just for those who are ordained,” he said.
The third strand was effecting change. “This is one of the most difficult but the one that most excites me,” he said. “Something has to change. We cannot just go on doing what we are doing, but we are also terrified of what that might mean.”
In the seminar, which the Bishop will also deliver in Antrim and Bushmills, Bishop Alan said he intended to ‘unpack’ the issues around the first strand, engaging with culture.
“We are trying to understand what is going on around us in the society in which we live and the context in which we are trying to do church and talk about Jesus,” he said.
Bishop Alan when on to talk about what he called the ‘backclothe’ to present day culture, the fact that things do not work the way they once did and that there are many people who are spiritual, but not religious.
He spoke about how people today are fearful, how they are suspicious not just of the church but of other institutions, and how so many live with a real sense of hopelessness.
He talked about the issues affecting communities – urbanisation, pluralism, the environment, technological advances, the immediacy of everything today, and the increase in individualism and fragmented communities.
Bishop Alan also looked at the image of the church, expressing concerns that people considered it to be irrelevant, confused and self–righteous. Other words were inward looking and apathetic, and functioning in survival mode, he said.
The Bishop was asked by the Rev Mark Taylor, rector of Whitehead and Islandmagee, how the church can deal with this ‘fear’ of change. “Most of us are happy to move along with society, but people like the church to be as it was. It is the only constant in their lives,” said Mr Taylor.
Bishop Alan replied that he worried that often there was too much thinking about ‘church.’ “We are here to do the mission of God, to present Jesus and incarnate His presence. If our focus is always the church we fail to do what Jesus wants us to do. Often we find Jesus outside the church,” the Bishop said.
“We are here to extend God’s kingdom and church is an instrument and vehicle by which we do that.”
Following a break for tea and fellowship, Bishop Alan concluded his seminar by looking at ways the church can reconnect with culture and community.
“We need to find connections so we can incarnate the presence of Jesus into the cultural mess that we live in, and that is very exciting,” the Bishop said.
He said people needed to rejoice in suffering, to accept that everyone is vulnerable and that everyone needs to face conflict. And he spoke of the importance of story tellers.
Bishop Alan’s next seminars takes place in Bushmills Parish Centre on March 8 and in All Saints’, Antrim, on March 26. Both seminars begin at 7.30pm. Places should be booked by contacting the Bishop’s Secretary Mrs Rosemary Patterson on 028 9082 8870 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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