I was asked for my reflections on why the Gathering (deliberately not called a conference) of Bath and Wells diocesan clergy at Swanwick this week was so good. And you know, it's a hard question to answer.
I can immediately think of one thing that wasn't as good as last time and two things that were dreadfully cringy but somehow these didn't matter. I may not mention them.
Let's have a go at why that was. In no particular order:
Having no diocesan bishop takes the pressure off people to show-off or have someone they are trying to impress. We were told, back in July, that it was hoped our new appointment might be sorted by the time of the gathering so we could at least hear the name used for the first time. This didn't happen and, apart from a few jokes (the absent bishop has been referred to as Bishop Kevin for a while now) was not mentioned. But it does make our diocese a place of hope and expectation.
The organising group went to some trouble to include everyone. There were quiet spaces and discussions, a very noisy multi-media Eucharist and a quiet spoken one, a lively bar (which now has real ale on hand-pump) and a saunter (a solo outdoor prayer walk), many symbolic acts in a closing Eucharist but also a poet in residence all week. We had some simple gifts in our rooms to welcome us and an A4 pad with logo and pen.
A gathering is a different thing to a conference. We met. We shared stories without offering judgement or advice. Lots of the input was affirming and encouraging. By and large we know that our diocese needs some serious strategic leadership and cannot continue with clergy spread so thinly. We didn't need challenging.
We are a diocese with problems but we are at ease with ourselves. There is no constant bickering between the boys in black and the Hezbollah conservatives. Dog collars were not worn on day two. No-one seemed to have any issues sitting next to anyone else.
The boat was pushed out for a last night gala dinner and the Bishop of Taunton put wine on all the tables.
We took coffee in a separate room to our meal each evening with an amusing after-dinner speaker. This kept things light.
John Bell and Timothy Radcliffe were good main speakers full of earthed stories but taking biblical texts seriously enough not to upset evangelicals (I write as one who has largely ditched labels - you watch me for a bit and tell me what you think I am). OK, I heard of one who got annoyed (there's always one) and an archdeacon gave him (it's always him) a good listening to.
There was a flash mob. It included the Bishop of Taunton.
Every time I walk into Swanwick (after my ten years of conference organising at CPAS) I rejoice at not being in charge. I was on the planning group for the last diocesan conference in 2008. The centre is well-run and professional. Rooms are good.
Three gathering group sessions enabled us to share our stories and experiences with a smaller group.
There were no feedback forms to fill in. Feedback was asked for via a graffiti wall.
At three nights and two full days (Monday afternoon to Thursday lunchtime) it was long enough to get to know a few people and not feel guilty at sitting by them twice.
Most of the things were voluntary. If you want to refresh a gathering you have to be willing to let the gathering set the agenda and not impose one on them. No-one likes to be told 'Here is how you're going to relax.'
All this feels a bit thin by way of reasoning but that may simply mean the success is down to act of God, which wouldn't exactly be a bad thing.
The organising committee got one of the longest, and most heartfelt, rounds of applause I have experienced in thirty years of clergy conferences.