Sunday, 1 June 2008

Liberal Conferences Together

There is GAFCON and there is Lambeth 2008, but also from 24th to 27th July, 2008 the European Liberal Protestants Network (ELPN) conference is followed in serial succession by the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Good for Northern Ireland that it can be a suitable place to host a conference about religious toleration.

The conferences host is the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI) at First Church, Rosemary Street, and adjacent Church Hall. The NSPCI attends the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (with a common roll of ministers): note that the the NSPCI retains presbyteries whereas English Presbyterianism (before Unitarianism) did not; the Unitarian churches in Dublin and Cork are members of the NSPCI and the Synod of Munster has provided ministry to Cork Unitarian Church.

These ELPN and IARF conferences will explore the role of liberal religious thought in the public sphere and society.

The suggestion is that the privatisation of religion in Europe has probably reached its limit. Churches still are an important factor in civil society.The ELPN conference specialises in Liberal Protestant structures and their mission. Then the first day of the IARF conference is on the place of liberal religious thought in society; its second day asks the part it could play.

The notion is that dogma-free religion can best play a vital part in the debate on religion in the public space whereas dogmatic religion has no real consequence on society.

This raises the question whether the publicity gained by dogmatic religion has any impact - say on British parliamentary votes recently. The answer would seem to be an increasing no. The second question is whether liberal religion does any better and the answer may be no too, even if the places of agreement are the greater.

This is the programme for both:

The ELPN conference on the 24th July is called in general The Liberal Dilemma - Propaganda or Dialogue?

There is an Introduction and Workshops are led by Csire Szabolc and these work on 'Spiritual Capital - Its identification and Public Presentation' - asking about the content of the message, putting it across and what is attractive about it.

There is a Lecture by Chris Hudson itself entitled 'The Liberal Dilemma - Propaganda or Dialogue?' Liberal religion is reluctant to push propaganda because faiths are treated equally in their right to exist and individuals should have full freedom of conscience. It always prefers dialogue to propaganda - a strength and a weakness.

I am sure in Western society all religions have now grasped the equal right to exist of faiths that do not suppress (now there's a thought); but the key difference is dialogue over a one sided assertion or even aggression in evangelism. Myself, I view mission as conversation and dialogue in which I can learn as much as the conversation partner. Also mission as dialogue takes place as much within a church as from a church and its members to outsiders.

There is a brainstorming session on positive examples from congregations in seeing what works and what does not about mission and dialogue.

After lunch William Crawley lectures on 'Reaching Out'. He talks about how liberal Protestantism can be better known and heard.

ELPN's place in the IARF is discussed and whether the Protestant label should be dropped in favour of a broader Christian label. There are other structural questions.

After dinner there are IARF people arriving, including its Opening Ceremony, and so a chance to mix.

The IARF Conference proper follows the next day with Workshops. Newspaper cuttings brought by participants illustrate religion in the public space. Information on Church/ State relationships faciliate discussion on a place of the liberal Church.

Mona Siddiqui then lectures on 'Religion in the Public Space' with reference to civil society and religious freedom, politics and morals, and ethics and justice.

After lunch there is a forum to discuss the lecture. After some free time (in Belfast) and dinner Ivo de Jong lectures on 'The Spirit beyond Theology' - about religious issues in modern popular music and art.

The next day Workshops ask how can and how should liberal religious organisations participate in the public debate. Derek Suchard runs one about taking a stand on human rights and another looks at infringements on religious freedom and getting a public space.

Then Árpád Szabó lectures asking about the 'IARF as a Participant in Public Debate'.

After lunch comes a lecture and discussion on 'Academic Independence' asking the newsworthy question whether science should be unrestricted and who is to judge this.

Thomas Mathew, caretaking President of IARF, then leads a meeting in preparation for the 33rd World Congress in 2010 in Kochi, Kerala, India.

After dinner there is a social evening with cultural content.

Accommodation is up to participants with help offered. There is emailing and online registration.

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