Modern Church conference 2015
by Julian Wood
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015

I thoroughly enjoyed this event. It was my first Modern Church conference, and I was excited about the prospect of meeting many new people interested in progressive Christianity, as well as engaging with the topic of learning from other faiths.

I refer people to the Modern Church website for more information about the speakers - I am offering my personal response to the conference as a whole.

About 90 people attended the conference. This was great, as I had the opportunity to meet so many new people, most of whom were not attendees of Progressive Christianity Network (PCN) local groups. The conference is a real community, with Modern Church members coming back year after year. As a result, the event felt like being with a family, and I was made to feel very welcome.

I enjoyed the chats between the sessions as much as the sessions themselves. The conference was a co-operation between Modern Church and the World Congress of Faiths. It felt like a very equal partnership, with both organisations (and individuals) keen to learn from each other.

On the first evening, we were treated to a very hands-on exploration of spirituality from Justine Huxley from St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. She argued that the younger generation want to build a better world and that religions and dogmas are much less important than action and communication.

The second day started with a discussion on 'Revelation and Scripture in Abrahamic Faiths', with much common ground between the faiths. Revelation was also explored and questioned.

Dr. Elizabeth Harris gave us a personal story of her encounter with Theravada Buddhism during her ten-year stay in Sri Lanka. She reminded us that Buddhism has many forms and that she deeply experienced only one strand of this philosophy and religion.

Dr. Nikki Singh and Revd. John Parry's Sikh-Christian dialogue was very warmly received. We saw how lived experience of religion leads to deep commitment to a spiritual path, and to deep respect for other people's paths and communities of faith.

Day three started with a lecture by Dr. Perry Schmidt-Leukel entitled 'Religious Pluralism in 13 theses', which was a philosophical lesson in the logic of plurality which was very positively received. It was a reminder that even though we all shared a passion for progressive Christianity, what engaged some people at the conference did not engage others. A good reminder that unity does not require conformity!

There were a number of workshops in the afternoon, which helped us get to know each other a bit better. I would have enjoyed more opportunities to interact  with each other in the sessions. A Hindu-Christian dialogue took place in the late afternoon, but I needed a break so missed this, unfortunately.

The final day brought the faith stories together by looking at the issues that affect all of the world religions. We looked at the role religion plays in the violence and conflict of contemporary society from Dr. Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi. Finally, Harriet Crabtree, Director of the UK Inter-Faith Network, gave us an overview of the development of inter-faith dialogue in the UK in the last 25 years, and then looked ahead to future challenges and opportunities.

Throughout the conference, there were plenty of opportunities to worship together. Again, this had a multi-faith emphasis. A body meditation preceded each morning prayer, and elements from the different world faiths were threaded into the Anglican worship. I really appreciated the shared worship.

A few personal reflections on the conference:

  • It is inspiring to meet people who are seekers, and open to learning more
  • I felt a lot of gratitude for the clergy who serve (or served) in their local churches, sometimes with great opposition
  • High Leigh is a beautiful and inspiring place to spend time reflecting
  • As the prayer goes, 'Seek first to understand, rather than to be understood'. This is a real strength of Modern Church
  • Above all, meeting other people, and building relationships was key to me.