Report from Churches Together Assembly

 Hundreds of tiny pots planted with mustard seeds were handed out to delegates as they left the Assembly of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The seeds were planted in soil which the delegates themselves had brought from all four nations. Then in a powerfully symbolic action the earth had been mingled in earthenware vessels and presented during the opening worship in the chapel at The Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick. The Assembly brought together more than 300 people from 33 member churches from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as delegates from the Conference of European Churches (CEC) and churches in Sweden, Norway and France. Together they explored the theme In Search of Holy Ground. Each day they gathered in the chapel round a centrepiece created by Sr Diane Reynolds (Roman Catholic). The soil was placed in earthenware vessels around which were gradually woven the themes of watering and planting, of new life and fertility, of waste and desecration, of uprooting, of pruning and growth in new places. Each night the centrepiece changed. The river of the water of life, replaced the polluted earth, and by its side grew trees bearing paper leaves on which delegates had been invited to write their prayers. During the final Eucharist, at which Rev Sue Huyton (Church in Wales) presided, Rev Joel Edwards general director of the Evangelical Alliance preached the sermon. He is a minister of the New Testament Church of God and an honorary canon of St Paul's Cathedral. He reflected on how the churches need to engage in a landscape where there is pluralism of choice. And he said there were parallels to the first century where the church was a small minority of women and men trying to share holy ground with a plethora of other cultures. The challenge for today is to find a way to move the claims of Christ from the pulpit to the pavement. "I believe holy ground is as much on the pavement as in the pulpit," he said. A week later the pots of mustard seeds, planted in shared earth are sprouting fresh shoots: a reminder of an assembly which had set out in search of holy ground, where the gospel and the spiritual quest of people today can engage with one another. CTBI's general secretary Dr David Goodbourn reflected: "The Assembly was a great opportunity for us to respond to Jesus' words about the kingdom of God growing from tiny seeds. Lots of tiny seeds were planted, as relationships were built, ideas exchanged and Christian life shared. We can expect to see them grow." The theme of holy ground was developed by the speakers. Common sense would tell you that, as the Church's influence on young people's lives declines, belief and spirituality go with it. Not so, said sociologist Grace Davie, addressing the delegates. Amazingly, all the evidence shows that it is countries where the fewest young people are engaged with the Church - places like England, France and Sweden - that young people are more and more likely to affirm belief in the soul, in life after death and in spiritual forces. When researchers first discovered this, she said, they thought they were reading their tables upside down, it was so unexpected. The finding confirmed the views put forward by another speaker, theologian John Drane, who saw lots of meeting points between today's culture and riches of Christian faith - but thought the Church was often the wrong vehicle for real engagement to take place. Both speakers were challenging the Churches to recognise the great interest around in things of the spirit. For them, this is clearly not a secular society. In fact, the secular assumptions of many people in the media and politics have made them unable to understand some of the key dynamics of society today. Grace Davie also pointed to another feature, which led to sharply different reactions from other speakers and delegates. She said that for most people religious practice had become "vicarious". They wanted it to go on, liked it to be there when they needed it, and were quite happy to pay to help it continue, but did not feel the need to take part regularly themselves. Quoting Scandinavia as the region where this approach was most pronounced, she saw it as highly significant in Britain, too. For some this was a sign of inadequacy, since Christian faith grasps and transforms whole lives and cannot be done for you by someone else. For others, however, it was a sign of hope. Delegates had been encouraged to read a new title from CTBI, Changing Churches: Building bridges in local mission , written by Jeanne Hinton in which she gives a down-to-earth account of a journey to visit many Christian communities across England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The stories arise from the ecumenical Building Bridges of Hope Project, which conducted the largest-so far detailed survey of patterns of local mission from 1996-2000. Changing Churches considers how Christians at grassroots are responding to the challenge of change. Such were the challenges to thinking and planning facing delegates to the Assembly, which meets every two years and seeks to provide an occasion for delegates from all the major Churches to think and pray together. The Assembly met at The Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick in Derbyshire from Tuesday 26 February until Friday 1 March.

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