“No man steps into the same river twice” – words attributed by Plato to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus. Time moves on, nothing stays the same, be it a river, a person or a body of people such as a Church.
This ancient wisdom was reflected in the title of the 16th International Partnership Conference held in Ostrava in the Czech Republic at the end of July and the beginning of August 2016: “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the Continually Reforming Church).
Long standing members of Purley United Reformed Church will know that the Partnership Conference is a triennial gathering of representatives of five Partner congregations from the Reformed tradition, three (Ostrava, Dessau and Speyer) from across continental Europe, one (Hartford) from across the Atlantic Ocean and one (Purley) from somewhere in between.
What, though, do we need to reform? Our buildings? Our organisational structures? Our ideas beliefs and/or theological positions? Our attitudes to people from other cultures and countries? Or, in the light of the recent Brexit referendum, even our membership of the Partnership itself?
I began to work out my personal answer to the last of these questions by reflecting on what it was about Partnership that had persuaded me to go all the way to the Czech Republic to attend one of its conferences for the first time. I realised that the key thing that both intrigued me and fired my imagination was the idea of an international gathering of local congregations rather than of representatives of national ecclesiastical organisations. Here was something that “Ordinary Joe” in the congregation could attend, to speak (if he could think of anything to say) to listen and to learn, to make a few new friends and perhaps to exert a little influence on others in the course of the event. This Partnership seemed to me to afford such a unique opportunity that I concluded that we should continue to support it. I looked around suspiciously at the other Purley representatives and wondered if they would agree with me. Perhaps it would it take the quality of the conference itself to persuade them…
So what happened at the conference? Being put together by local enthusiasts rather than professional conference organisers there were inevitably a few learning points in amongst the striking successes. But as one conference speaker wisely reminded us, “Hey, you can’t have everything, can you?”
What went well? Firstly it was impressive to see how pleased everyone there was to see everyone else, including the new boys and girls. I was prepared for it to be cliquey. It was not. I had the pleasure of sharing digs with a long-standing Partner from across the Ocean. Our late evening conversations with our Czech hosts were hilarious – as if we had all known each other for years.
On an entirely serious note, the three keynote lecturers were excellent and our appreciation of the quality of their thinking was helped greatly by the provision of transcripts of their speeches, professionally translated into both English and German.
The music was also excellent. The Ostrava church choir was first class and when enhanced with additional members from other Partner congregations the musical contribution to the service on the final Sunday morning was magnificent. A midweek evening performance of early music also hit all the right notes, so to speak. And in the right order.
The discussion groups took a while to get going but got better as the conference went on. They afforded us an opportunity to respond to the presentations from the three speakers, to offer our own insights and to clarify some of our thinking.
Mention must also be made of the best of the presentations from the Partner congregations. Hartford’s opening contribution, on the first Sunday, emphasised the importance of equal treatment of “All People”. Their closing performance on the second Saturday evening gently sent up all the things during the event that might have gone a bit better.
Purley’s beautifully-acted-out history of the Reformed tradition in England, Scotland and Wales, and through grace our part in it, was especially appreciated by Partners whose first language was not English. Hartford Partners were polite about it too. And our closing rendition of a “Prexit” meeting (to debate whether Purley United Reformed Church should exit from the Partnership) reduced our audience to tears and helpless laughter in approximately equal measure. I hope that those readers of Reflections who did not go to Ostrava this time will be as relieved as I was to know that we voted unanimously to “Premain”.
Finally we must give an enormous vote of thanks to our Partners from Dessau, whose Saturday evening performance of the story of Cinderella somehow managed to make absolutely everything “okay”.
But when all is said and done, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I asked myself if I would really want to travel all the way to Dessau in three years’ time and go through it all again. Yes I would.
9 August 2016