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31 October 2014


THE last one happened at Butlins, in Bognor Regis - and, to my huge surprise, I loved it. I am referring to the Chichester diocesan clergy conference eight years ago; and it was with memories of water slides and "hi-de-hi" holiday-camp cabins that I rolled up to this year's conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury, on the theme of "Thy Kingdom Come".

Two nights away and a gala dinner were part of the draw (I'm easily bought), alongside a whole range of speakers, including Phillip Blond, and the Dean of Birmingham, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle.

We started, though, with Dr Christina Baxter, who, because she had closed the previous Bognor conference, we expected to launch into the new one with the words "As I was saying previously. . ."

But the speaker who made the biggest impression on me was the superb Camila Batmanghelidjh, whose talk "The Future of the Child" was a real eye-opener. A psychotherapist who founded the organisation the Kids Company for abused children in London, which cares for a staggering 11,925 children every year, she is a striking figure.

Sweeping into the hall in multicoloured robes, bright turban, and fuchsia lipstick (she describes her hobby as turning people's old curtains into dresses), she proceeded to tell us about child development: about how children's brains do not physically grow properly without an environment of safety and care; how the part of the brain that moderates and regularises behaviour, the pre-frontal cortex, is compromised by ill-treatment and fear; and she backed it all up with images of brain scans and stories of abuse, recovery, and courage.

It was a real revelation. It explains to me the behaviour of young people I have known, and, I think, has made me more understanding, and, I hope, more compassionate in my work.

There was a spin-off: apparently, the aforesaid prefrontal cortex is not, in any case, fully developed until you are 30, which I gleefully pointed out to my hugely competent curate, Alice, who is still in her mid-twenties. She sighed wearily.

Mind you, bearing in mind that she is far more sensible than I am, I suspect her pre-frontal cortex is actually far better developed than mine.

SOON after that conference, I was at another, very different clergy meeting - this time at Pusey House, Oxford, at a 25th- anniversary reunion of students from St Stephen's House, where I trained for the priesthood.

In a beautiful upper room overlooking St Giles, decorated with Pugin wallpaper and festooned with portraits of former Principals of Pusey, 14 of us met - in some cases, for the first time in a quarter of a century.

I had contacted about 60 former students in our year, and in the years below and above. There was a deafening silence from about 20 (the reminder of their training days clearly being too horrendous for words), and, from another 20, I had excuses and best wishes along the lines of "have weddings/memorial services/will be sipping cocktails on a beach in Crete". The remainder planned to come.

Alas, on the day, there were a number of drop-outs: one could not face the journey; another (who was supposed to be co-hosting) had had a dodgy Chinese the night before; another had ground her teeth so hard during the night she had broken a molar; and another (my favourite) had whooping cough. So it was that the 14 of us met and, over a splendid lunch, caught up.

Out of all of us, one was completely unchanged (we suspect a sinister portrait in the attic), and there was only one I would not have recognised (I'm not saying who). There we were, in our fifties and sixties, after 25 years of ministry, chatting away as if we had never been apart, although greyer and wearier.

But hovering over us were the ghosts of the ordinands we once were, in our twenties and thirties, with our hopes and enthusiasms still intact. Here's to the next 25 years!

THEN, a few days ago, I was at another gathering, this time in Liverpool, for the annual day-conference of the National Estates Churches Network, an organisation for Christians of all denominations who live, work, serve, and worship in inner-city estates.

Facilitated by Bishop Laurie Green, we were a group of clergy and lay people from all over the country, sharing our experiences of inner-city life crystallised around the theme "A farewell to welfare?" And a good day it was, too.

But the thing I was most struck by was not what was said, but where we were. We met at St Michael's in the City, a 1960s concrete church newly refurbished and clearly loved and well used by its loyal congregation (thank you for lunch), in the heart of a 1960s housing estate.

Once, however, it had been very different. On that site had stood a handsome Georgian church, with mighty columned portico and soaring spire, on a bustling metropolitan street in the heart of the docks - probably, in the 19th century, one of the busiest streets in Europe. Then came the bombs of the Second World War, and a very different environment regrew.

But the church (and Church with capital C) was still there, in the same place, ministering as it always had done to the people in its cure of souls. I found that moving and really heartening.

Maybe that was the underlying theme of all three gatherings: change and challenge all around us, and yet, ultimately, we are still in the same place, ministering to the people we are called to care for in the here and now. I came away from all three feeling hugely encouraged.


The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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