I write this after a most encouraging Annual Conference and AGM. After the excitements of last year’s joint conference in Birmingham, with its enormous attendance and stimulating content, some of us were fearful of returning to the conferences of recent years where attendance would sometimes struggle to get into double figures and our doubts about the future of CSCS would consequently be reinforced. We need not have been concerned.
First, and I think significantly, our new venue, the URC headquarters near King’s Cross, not only proved highly convenient but may also have helped to draw in some new attenders from that denomination. As a group which has been a little Anglican-biased for much of its existence, the Committee finds considerable blessing in fellowship with a Christian tradition which seems to be somewhat freer than most from sexual hang-ups.
More important, this ecumenical enrichment continued in our choice of speakers, both deeply involved in our project with theological educators. Brendan Callaghan SJ and Carla Grosch-Miller (the latter herself URC) spoke vividly about their work with ordinands and others and were as attractive in their personalities as in the activities to which both bore witness. I reproduce below Brendan’s handout, and a slightly edited version of Carla’s full talk. Many of the 30 or so people present were clearly personally enriched by the presentations and ensuing discussion. I was left feeling that we might have been even more blessed had the time allowed for us ourselves to go through the processes which our speakers described. And the challenge remains for us, to see how such processes can be “rolled out” (to use contemporary jargon) not just amongst leaders and future leaders in more denominations but also amongst ordinary worshippers.
By coincidence, the Gospel for the following day included the hard words of Jesus from Matthew 5 about adultery and divorce. Listening to a sermon which sought to be compassionate – and to address, albeit not in much depth, the well-known problems about just how to read the Sermon on the Mount – I could not help putting alongside it Brendan’s little story about the fictional Roman Catholic priest “Tom” which was included in his handout. “Tom” is in a sense committing adultery against his Church. Irrespective of the merits or justification of his vow to celibacy, he is breaking that vow in the search for personal fulfillment, a fulfillment which, he believes, enhances his ministry. In his voice, I can hear that of quite a few adulterers in novels, and one or two in real life. For Jesus, it would seem – and for my Vicar, challenging as he did the alleged “epidemic of infidelity” in contemporary society – surely such self-justification must just be a manifestation of sin. Well, is it? And whose sin? Brendan asked us to consider what we would say if brought face to face with such an individual and his story. My Vicar also, to do him credit, made it clear that our task was not to judge but to listen to people’s stories, more particularly in the context of divorce – which is far from uncommon in my own or most congregations (and some of us divorcees, too, can hear Tom’s voice, perhaps very close to home). In the words of Jesus, and the ministry of the Church, there is, and must be, a challenge to the contemporary secular ethic of short-term self-fulfillment above all things and the widespread emphasis on the sexual dimension of that.. But there must equally be a challenge to those forces in Church and society which seem to crush God’s needy children’s search for human and embodied love. And there are many other words in the Gospels – not least By their fruits you shall know them – which point to the possibility that those who “break the rules” (or fail to live up to the ideals, or to fit the framework, or however you want to see them), those who are “deviants” in terms of my last editorial, can nevertheless find blessing and bring blessing to others.
The AGM which followed these presentations was attended by some 20 people including some non-members (who we hope may join us in time). I also reproduce below the Chair’s report and the accounts for 2010. As will be clear, we remain a small and in some ways struggling organisation, but we are still solvent and viable, and the work we are doing with theological educators shows that – because of the many networks into which we are plugged – we can punch well above our weight.
The AGM took one potentially controversial decision – to remove from the Constitution the Statement of Conviction to which all members are supposed to subscribe. That Statement, which especially emphasises the acceptability in Christian terms of same-sex relationships, was felt to be putting off some senior Church leaders, and also some researchers, who could not publicly identify with such a statement without prejudicing their positions. Whilst probably all current members would agree passionately with the original Statement of Conviction, which is based closely on that used by LGCM, it was unanimously recognized that subscription to it was not appropriate in a body dealing with study rather than campaigning.
The existing Committee (Martin Pendergast as Chair, Jane Fraser now as Secretary, Colin Hart as Treasurer, Heather Barfoot, Rosie Martin, Michael Moran and myself) were re-elected, but we do have power to co-opt more people who are interested in forwarding the work. On a mundane level, the loss of our newsletter designer has left me (as will be all too clear from the pages which follow) struggling with the business of formatting material especially where a great deal of scanning of diverse inputs is required; and if anyone would be able to help with that, whether combined with Committee membership or otherwise, I shall be especially delighted to hear from them!