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Report of Council for Mission Conference 2014

A report of the Council for Mission’s conference held at Dromantine, 28 Feb–1 March 2014, by the Church of Ireland Press Officer, which first appeared in abridged form in the Church of Ireland Gazette (14 March edition). The Conference welcomed the Bishop of London and Dr Heather Morris as guest speakers.

Bishop Miller, Dean Poulton, Andrew McNeile
Bishop Miller, Dean Poulton, Andrew McNeile

‘Mission is what we are sent by God to do’, were the opening words of Bishop Harold Miller (pictured right) as he welcomed delegates from across the Church of Ireland to the Council for Mission’s conference held at Dromantine Conference Centre on 28 February–1 March 2014. Bishop Miller continued, ‘It is critical that we become alive to what the Holy Spirit wants us to do in the world of today and to engage in the mission of Jesus Christ.’

The conference was organised to examine how to articulate mission in the range of contexts that exist across Ireland so that all church traditions can embrace, support and enact and bring it to life. Furthermore, the conference asked how more traditional and newer forms of church can enhance and strengthen the life of the Church. The two–day event also allowed for prayerful and practical preparation before further, wider discussions on this subject take place at this year’s General Synod in May. There were presentations from a number of parishes across the island and small–group discussions, facilitated by Dean Katharine Poulton and Mr Andrew McNeile (pictured above).

To help the Church in its thinking, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Dr Richard Chartres, and the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Revd Dr Heather Morris, were invited to share some of their views; their contributions were very warmly received. The Bishop of London spoke of how after the 1960s and 70s the Church of England had become ‘bewildered, confused and fragmented’, resulting in churches being abandoned and a prevailing sense that decline was the Church’s destiny, with the Diocese of London by the 1990s appearing as an exaggerated image of the Church at large. However, he believed passionately in churches being ‘communities in the desert’ and had initiated a process of missional engagement which has now brought about radical positive change in London.

At the core of change, Bishop Chartres explained, is the vital prioritising of a fresh engagement with ‘the symphony of Holy Scripture’ – saying, ‘there can be no renewal without that’—and developing a ‘deep and profound life of prayer’. Engagement and action planning locally are also essential – effective leadership in mission must be relational. Rather than produce big complex programmes, he said, ‘simplicity releases energy’; leaders must point people on a clear direction of travel while at the same time be ‘opportunistic … open to what God might be putting in front of us’.

In London, various elements of elaborate bureaucracy were dismantled while a new college, St Mellitus, was established to prepare Christians theologically for mission ‘with critical and scholarly rigour’ but ‘immersed in prayer’. The Bishop articulated the importance of being ‘utterly serious about our foundation’ – a ‘diversity of styles can be tolerated’ (‘generous orthodoxy’) but ‘whatever happens it is based on our fundamental identity … the Church as part of the holy Catholic Church worshipping the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, proclaiming afresh’. In short, the task was ‘to reduce clutter and create an educational framework for common action where all can work together’.
Starkly, today’s task of mission is huge, and the bishop spoke of ‘the need to face up honestly to what’s happening otherwise reality overtakes us’. There is now a ‘Capital Vision for 2020’ in London, to be ‘Christ centred and outward looking’, distilled into three conversations: Confident (in the Gospel of Jesus Christ); Compassionate (tested by the quality of prayer life and knowledge of the Scriptures) and Creative. He argued that ‘in our axial age where politicians find it hard to create a narrative of hope’ that those Christians ‘who have escaped in–house issues’ can be ‘visionary and enlivening in our own time … We need a deeper sense of now.’

Dr Heather Morris responded to the question ‘What is God doing in Ireland today and how can we join in?’ by acknowledging that she suspected God’s people ‘are a little scared of this new world’ and that ‘in the context of decline it’s difficult to ask the missional questions’. However, she said, ‘If we are going to be faithful we have to get past those fears and trust God’. Echoing Bishop Chartres’ theme, she drew on 2 Kings 6:15–17 (‘Lord would you open our eyes that we might see’) and stressed the essential first–step ‘discipline’ of ‘standing back in order to put aside our many ideas and our many frustrations and dare to ask for eyes to see what God is doing.’ She concluded that, in Ireland today, ‘God is going ahead of us’.

Dr Morris said, ‘As well as preparing to be astounded by what this God is doing, let’s recognise that we will never be able to encapsulate it in an easy list. There will always be an element of mystery, let’s rejoice in that. There is going to be variety. God is going to be up to different things in different places and different things in different people in the same place; there is no competition in that.’

As to ‘how do we join in?’, Dr Morris said, ‘It means that we live in expectation of grace; to wake up in the morning expecting to see God at work today and that our core task is to discern what God is doing.’ She continued by saying that ‘a commitment to mission together means a commitment to appropriate accountability and support. I have been deeply struck by how much it means when we say we have each other’s backs. I suspect we have talked a language of Godly risk and then hung each other out to dry when things haven’t gone well.’

Dr Morris finished on a positive note with the view that ‘God is creating a desire to be engaged in mission’ – introducing a ‘change gene’ across and beyond the traditional denominations, ‘prompting God’s Church and people to cross boundaries’. She feels that there is a generosity of spirit so that we ‘rejoice when things go well for others and bless each other’ and that the Churches are ‘talking about the same things and helping each other out’. Practically, she concluded, ‘Christians need to be willing to share life, open homes, be ready for questions. We need to be disciples and as a Church pay attention to discipleship.’

Paul Harron, Church of Ireland Press Officer

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