by Christine Alker
from Signs of the Times No 52 - Jan 2014

Readers of this newsletter may feel that every ounce of discussion and insight has already been squeezed out of Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God during its anniversary year. There have been day conferences in Bristol and London, lectures in Cambridge and Canterbury plus special publications of Modern Believing and other journals.

Was there more to explore? Some of us thought there was and Elaine Graham, Grosvenor Research Professor at the University of Chester and a trustee of Modern Church, agreed to chair a conference with the title Being Honest to God..., working with a planning group drawn from both Modern Church and the Progressive Christianity Network Britain. The prospect of these two organisations working together on a residential conference was exciting and the planning group soon warmed to the theme of 'honesty': honesty about Jesus, honesty about the Church, honesty about ourselves and honesty about God.

The resulting conference took place at The Hayes, Swanwick over the weekend of 8th to 10th November last year. It was exceptionally well supported, with 135 people resident and another 15 day visitors. Interestingly, in view of discussions about the timing of conferences, very few people left on the Saturday evening to take Sunday services.

It would be very difficult to summarise the talks but I would like to share with you some of the comments which were made on the evaluation forms. These might give a flavour of the atmosphere over the weekend.

Elaine Graham set the weekend going with a talk about honesty, reminding the conference of the themes of John Robinson’s book. Her listeners found her talk helpful, giving an excellent introduction. Her approach was analytical and theologically practical.

On Saturday morning, Professor James Crossley from Sheffield University gave a lecture entitled 'Being Honest about Jesus'.. James is well qualified to speak on this subject because, as he says on his website, he is working on a book about the life of Jesus without the conventional emphasis on Jesus as a ‘great man’ who effectively caused a new movement and with the emphasis on how Jesus, and the movement that followed in his name, were products of a range of social and economic factors. His talk was long and packed with information. Many of us felt that it will take time to absorb; it was described as amazing, challenging, illuminating and stimulating.

Following James was the Rev Canon Professor Martyn Percy, principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon. Martyn is well known to Modern Church members and will chair our conference next summer. His talk entitled 'Being Honest about the Church' was described as an astute critique of today’s church. His style is attractive and extremely listenable although lay people and non-Anglicans found the emphasis on clergy and the Church of England disappointing.

Simon Barrow, a co-director of the website Ekklesia, was given the title 'Being Honest about Ourselves'; his talk was described as thought-provoking, well-ordered and clear, and well constructed with relevant material.

Finally on Saturday evening, over a glass of wine, the star of the weekend was Richard Holloway whose honesty about God was described as very moving, beyond words, absolutely marvellous, inspiring and spoken with humility.

Worship during the weekend was inspired by the Rev Dr Jan Berry. She led a workshop on worship and miraculously wove together the outcomes of that group into the Sunday morning communion service which was described as moving, simple, reflective, meaningful, refreshingly creative and offering an opportunity for renewal and commitment.

There was also the opportunity to join a workshop on inter-faith issues or to contemplate whilst walking a labyrinth. A final time of sharing was much valued when all five speakers took part in a panel discussion.

We shall be reproducing the texts of the talks next year, hopefully as one or two books in the Together in Hope series (which is sponsored by Modern Church and PCN as well as St Mark's CRC and Free to Believe). There will also be DVDs and CDs of the conference on sale. As a taster and incentive to purchase, we hope to reproduce Richard Holloway’s talk in the next issue of Signs of the Times.

Christine Alker is Modern Church administrator.