From 11 to 13 March 2022, the Congregational Federation, a federation of independent or Congregational churches, convened its first Spring School as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations. Held in the iconic grade 2 listed National Justice Museum in Nottingham, the aim was to challenge, and indeed inspire, Christians to play a more active part in the public life of the UK today. The heading of this piece was the gathering’s provocative title.
While featuring the experience and convictions of the Congregationalist churches, the Spring School was not narrow in its intention or focus, highlighting the Christian non-conformist traditions generally. Participants from Baptist and Methodist traditions joined us to explore their collective and distinctive values, perspectives and principles. The Spring School consisted of plenary sessions presented by people with expertise in different aspects of Christian dissent, interactive sessions led by equally experienced scholar-practitioners, and a great deal of energetic and deeply committed conversations.
The presenters reflected the broad remit of the Spring School. Rev Suzanne Nockels, the President of the Congregational Federation, gave the opening and welcoming address. Professor Anthony Reddie, the Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion, led a session on the importance of a Christian non-conformist voice in UK public life.
Dr Julian Gotobed, Director of Practical Theology and Mission at Westcott House, Cambridge presented sessions on the distinctives of the non-conformist voice within the broader family of Christian denominations and traditions and the need to recognise unfinished business in the areas of diversity and equity. Dr Graham Adams, one of the ecumenical staff team within the Luther King Centre, emphasised that challenging self-serving ‘empires’ of whatever nature, size or scope, is a Christian non-conformist’s active responsibility.
The workshop sessions, presented as options running through the weekend, were led by
Rev Dr Alan Argent, Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, London, and an expert in the dissenting Christian traditions, looking at significant historical Congregationalists with an ongoing influence, and Rev Dr Ann Jeffers, a former Director of Research at Heythrop College, University of London, exploring how we can read the Bible as non-conformists.
It was extremely thought provoking and inspiring weekend.
The event was greatly appreciated by all the participants, including the General Secretary and the Moderator of the Free Churches Group, Rev Paul Rochester and Rev Dr Hugh Osgood, and confirmed that there is a desire to renew an active commitment to speaking out in the name of Jesus against any vested interests that neglect or actively harm vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Being compassionate is not enough; we also need to be prophetic in the spirit of the biblical prophets. As James says in the New Testament: ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ (James 2:17 NIV)
It is hoped that this will be the first in an ongoing series of biennial Spring Schools.