The Slieve Russell Hotel, Co Cavan, was the venue for the Diocese of Connor Clergy Conference from November 6–9.
Around 90 clergy from across the diocese were in attendance, and the guest speakers were the Rev Canon Dr Heather Morris, President Elect of the Methodist Church of Ireland, and the Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.
Both presented stimulating and challenging addresses over the course of the three days. Delegates also enjoyed wonderful worship, music, fellowship and the chance to relax and enjoy a little free time.
Conference opened with a Eucharist Service led by the Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy. Bishop Alan welcomed the guest speakers as well as some special guests from the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, Archbishop Michael Jackson, Dean Dermot Dunne and Mr Michael Webb.
Following the service Bishop Paul introduced the first of three sessions on children’s ministry, linking in with the diocesan vision strategy themes by focusing on engaging with children in our culture, enabling change for children and empowering children’s ministry.
The Bishop outlined his own background, which included 20 years in ministry in different parts of London, including several years as an Inner London Evangelist with the Scripture Union. He was also chair of CMS for three years.
“There are two threads to my ministry,” said the Bishop “One is work with children and the second is a deep conviction of being part of the world’s church.”
In his first session, Bishop Paul painted a picture of the culture in which our children are growing up. He followed this up in his next session with an examination of faith development and the spirituality of children. His third talk looked at empowering children, in this, he said relationships were absolutely key.
“We can run the best programmes in the world, but if we don’t work on relationships, they will fail,” he said.
Other key things when empowering children’s ministry were prayer, committed leadership and finance, the Bishop said. “Most of the children work in our churches is done on a shoestring and relies on people’s generosity.”
During the conference Bishop Paul also had a chance to welcome the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, whose appointment was officially announced on the Friday morning. He urged clergy to pray for the Archbishop–Elect.
In her very engaging, and often amusing, manner, The Rev Canon Dr Heather Morris introduced her Bible Study by telling how Bishop Alan had invited her to simply speak about Jesus. Heather stressed the importance of the old old story, and in her second address spoke of the pattern of ‘dying and rising’ in the life of Jesus. “Jesus makes it clear that at the heart of faith is the pattern of dying and rising,” she said. “There is a cost of discipleship, we have reason to be nervous.”
Heather concluded her three Bible study sessions with a look at how Jesus ministered and how he found the time to do all the things that he did.
“Remember that it is not all about us. It is not all about our effort. That you are not on your own. Jesus is Lord. He is seated at the right hand of the Father. He lives forever to intercede for us,” she said.
On the second evening of conference Bishop Alan took time to update clergy on diocesan issues. But first he told them: “I am only too aware of how lonely and difficult parish life can be. How much time you give to people in pain.
“I value you and I pray for you and I pray that in all you give you also have time to receive. I pay tribute to you in your tireless work and devotion to what can be difficult tasks.”
Bishop Alan spoke about the background to the diocesan vision strategy, how the disconnections he saw in parish and community became the positive word – connections – and how that has formed the basis for this strategy.
“I am convinced that the theological issue that we need to rediscover again is the need to incarnate,” Bishop Alan said. “Incarnation does connect. It helps people realise that this God we love came into the mess of Bethlehem, lived in that mess and has lived in it since.”
He said parishes must look at changing the way they do church, and this must be a ministry of all God’s people, not just ordained clergy.
The role of a Bishop, he said, was to be a permission giver. “I am giving you permission to do this. I will be there to help you and fight your corner,” the Bishop told clergy.
He introduced Trevor Douglas, who took up the new post of Parish Development Officer in August. “I am the dreamer. This man is the detail, he makes things happen,” Bishop Alan said.
Trevor said he had been focusing on connections. “Some parishes are looking at new things and for the first time some of them are looking inwards as well as looking outwards,” he said.
He spoke about encouraging conversations with local government on church in the community, and about his negotiations with the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in relation to the proposed peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze / Long Kesh site.
“They have given us sacred space in the centre and we are looking at a shared chaplaincy. What a joy it is to know that the Diocese of Connor is at the centre of this,” Trevor said.
The Rev Barry Forde, chair of Connor Training Council, said that the three strands of the vision strategy – engaging culture, effecting change, empowering ministry – would be integral to whatever training the diocese offers.
Three diocesan training days, each involving all clergy, have been organised to look at these three areas, Barry said. The first will take place on April 11 next year when the facilitator with be the Rt Rev Stephen Croft, Bishop of Sheffield.
Worshipping together was an important part of conference. Proceedings opened on the Wednesday afternoon with Holy Communion. On the first evening there was an atmospherice Taize service, and on the Thursday evening a service of sung Compline. Music at all services was led by Richard Ryan on piano accompanied by musicians Jonny Campbell–Smith (on a variety of instruments) and Dean John Mann, violin. A number of singers were persuaded to form an impromptu singing group for the Compline!
The beautiful liturgy at each service was prepared by the Rev Canon Peter McDowell.
Before departure, Bishop Alan expressed thanks to Richard Ryan for both leading the music and for manning the very popular book stall along with his wife Julie. He thanked Dean Mann and Jonny–Campbell Smith for their contribution to the music and pointed out that Jonny had had to leave early to travel to Thailand where he is involved in mission work. The Bishop also paid tribute to Peter for the wonderful liturgy, and to his secretary Rosemary Patterson for all her work in organising the conference.
Bishop Alan said the conference had allowed him to sit back and observe. “It has been beautiful to watch and behold the friendship you give to one another,” he told clergy. “It is a real gift in this diocese of very special people.”
The Ven Barry Dodds. Archdeacon of Belfast, extended the thanks of all present to the Rev Canon Dr Heather Morris. “In this time together with your leadership we have seen Jesus,” Canon Dodds said. “You have challenged us wonderfully with your words.”
Extending thanks to Bishop Paul, the Ven Stephen Forde, Archdeacon of Dalriada said that, like that other well–known Nottingham character Robin Hood: “You have plundered a wealth of knowledge and experience of ministry with children and shared it with us.”
Archdeacon Forde also expressed deep gratitude to our own Bishop Alan. “We want to thank you not only for being the permission giver and for inviting us to this place. We have enjoyed being here and what you have done for us but we want above all to thank you for the passion which you hold for us.”
During the conference, the Rev Peter Ferguson of Connor’s Energize Youth Group, spoke to clergy about Family Time, a book by Down and Dromore Youth Officer Andrew Brannigan. The book, he said, encouraged interactive Bible study and prayers in family life. “It has been very well received by families in our church,” Peter said. “The book has promoted lots of family chats.”
The Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev John Mann, reminded clergy about the planned Diocesan Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in November 2013. “A couple of years ago 85 people from Connor joined together for this pilgrimage. It was a marvellous time for all who were involved in that,” the Dean said. He urged anyone considering coming on the next pilgrimage to contact him as numbers will need to be finalised within the next three to four months.
And Canon Sam Wright encouraged clergy to come along to a Festival of Preaching to be hosted by Lisburn Cathedral on March 2 2012. He and Cathedral Curate the Rev Simon Genoe had attended the Chester Festival of Preaching last year, and this had inspired the event in Lisburn. Further details will be made available.
For photos from the 2012 Clergy Conference in the Slieve Russell Hotel, please follow this link.