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Three Pieces of String and a Packet of Smarties

No, I don’t know what it means either, but it was one of the messages that appeared on the scrolling LED sign on the train to Plymouth, along with ‘this is coach F’ and ‘please do not leave luggage unattended except in designated areas.’ It kept us passengers amused during a long journey on an overcrowded train. Maybe in some way or another it connects with the concept of around 2000 Baptists gathering in Plymouth?

Rather than a blow-by-blow account of good, bad or indifferent, here are a few bits that stood out for me either as worthy of comment or because I found them amusing/bemusing.

First of all, credit where credit is due. For many years, along with others, I have complained about the lack of diversity in the worship style, which has been dominated by high-octane, multiple-repetition, latest-hit worship songs. This year it was different, albeit a lot of stuff that for me is very familiar, some world church songs in African or Asian languages , some hymns (proper ones!), some Taize chants, some material written specially for Assembly as well as some new worship songs. Rather than lowest common denominator beige, there seemed to be an effort to offer different styles in different meetings at different times, and overall I think it worked. There was some proper intercessory prayer – a perennial gripe has been its absence - thoughtfully engaging with relevant topics, and quite a lot of confession (gosh we must be bad between sessions!). There was some improvement in the choice of Bible versions though there is still some way to go and why, when all Baptist, and many Bible, colleges use the NRSV, Assembly can’t is beyond me. So thank you organisers, I do appreciate the effort involved and congratulate you for some significant strides forward.

Then there was a bizarre incident of being alluded to by strangers. I went to a session telling some of the stories of women in Baptist history as missionaries, deaconesses and ministers. Towards the end of the session people were ask to share thoughts of moments or people that had been significant for them. There was a surreal moment when someone who had spoken of the import of Margaret Jarman’s ministry said, ‘... and last October the first Baptist church in Scotland inducted a woman minister and her name is Catriona Gorton...’ The session leader, one of my former college tutors then got me to stand up and take a bow! I am still bemused at the spontaneous applause that drew – I am a very ordinary, not very holy, person who has been given the opportunity to respond to God’s call on my life. History is composed of the ordinary, I guess that’s the point. The fact that one day I probably will have my name in a Baptist history book both amuses and bemuses me – thankfully most of the time I just get on with doing what I do, being what I am and trusting that I get enough of it near enough right to justify my calling.

One of the best bits of Assembly is meeting up with friends and acquaintances. The college reunion (the only one with lunch provided free) is always great as we re-connect with those who shared formative years with us. Our personalities, theological views and ministries are incredibly diverse, but the mutual respect and love ensure heaps of hugs and loads of laughter! Friends from EMBA and NWBA, a new-ish friend from Aberdeen (the only person who came further than me), blog-land friends made flesh, former link missionaries, friends from churches I didn’t get called by, friends whose paths crossed mine at some point... From quick hellos to late night tea drinking to shared meals (apparently I mention food a lot in my blog these days) it is good to connect with people, some of whom are now around 500 miles south of me!

There are very special moments of Assembly, one of which is the ‘in memoriam’ when the names of ministers and missionaries who have died appear on screen. Each year are a few names I know, and increasingly people whose lives have intersected with mine. This year it was an 82 year-old retired minister from Manchester, a 67 year-old Baptist minister and historian from Leicestershire and a 24 year-old mission worker from Surrey. Being reminded of our own mortality and of our interconnectedness with these siblings in Christ is humbling and affirming. Until this year was the thought ‘one day, my name will appear on that PowerPoint’... now I’m in the BUS maybe not but even so it keeps things in proportion.

I also enjoy the communion service with up to 2000 people taking part. It is a logistical nightmare and this can sometimes detract from the sense of worship/awe... whilst at the same time lending a sense of authenticity to proceedings. This year it felt more calm, more relaxed than sometimes. I like that sacramentalists and memorialists can each find what they seek, in at least some measure; I like that liberal and evangelical share ‘one bread’ and ‘one cup’; I like that no one knows whether those serving think as they do. I like the mysterious way in which, if fleetingly, what unites overrides what divides, the connection of past, present and future, the glimpse of community as it might be.

Talking with friends of various church-person-ships and from different contexts, we all agreed that Assembly had been a bit different this year, and in ways we approved of. There was a bit less razzamatazz, there was a lot more diversity in the style, there was a deeper openness and willingness to speak risky things and listen respectfully to voices of dissent. Some speakers said annoying things, some said surprising wonderful things but overall, yes, it was good. As part of the Assembly four people had been appointed specifically to listen for what God might be saying, and these were the things they identified:

· Committed conversation

· Vulnerability and openness

· Intimacy with God

· Compassion, risk and the willingness to be made uncomfortable

These are worth contemplating as I endeavour to minister in my own context.

So it’s over and I return home, typing some thoughts whilst sitting on a train (to post once home and I have internet again). I’m glad to have been allowed south of the border to connect with Baptist life in England and bits of Wales. I’m glad to be allowed to serve Christ’s church within Baptist life in Scotland. More than anything I am glad to be part of the crazy world of Baptist life with all that entails: there is one world, one mission; there is one faith, one Baptism, one God and father of us all.

(Posted at home early hours of Tuesday morning despite what the platform clock says)

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