Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Review of the 2015 Conference

The Anglo-Nordic-Baltic Theological Conference
August 2015 held in Turku, Finland in Turun Kristillinen Opisto

Conference Dinner and Seminar at 'Skola', a microbrewery restaurant in Turku


The Conference began life in the late 1920s, pre-dating the Porvoo Agreement. The then Lutheran bishop of Aarhus, Denmark invited friends with theological interest to join him for a house party during the summer. The spirit was one of conversation and hospitality together with intellectual honesty and creative thinking structured around issues of the day. This tradition has continued, in different forms, to the present. This year, friends coming from what are now the Porvoo Churches met for five days in Turku to converse and give papers on the theme: God in Public Places. It retains the spirit of an informal gathering of friends. Participants in 2015 came from Finland, Latvia, England, Scotland and Ireland.   


The Conference opened with a wide-ranging paper that brought Wisdom, a poetic personification of God in the Old Testament and Wisdom Literature, into the frame, concentrating in this context on the strategic position of Wisdom at the gate of the city. This led into an exploration of what such an approach might mean for Anglicans and Lutherans seeking to hear and to articulate the voice of God in public places. This moved into questions about the appropriate and imaginative use of churches as public buildings, under the custodianship of particular traditions, but not viewed exclusively as their preserve or property. One paper introduced us to the potential moral dilemmas for all concerned in terms of donor-client dynamics when money is raised by churches; and then it is given away to other church agencies rather than the church in question engaging directly with people in neighbourhoods and communities. Both together would set the needs and goals of co-operation consultatively, whether these be material, financial, spiritual or societal. This led us into an impassioned presentation of layers and nuances of identity in national churches that have been affected time and again by the imposition of history and, most poignantly, concern for migrants and refugees in the current phase of such heart-rending human experiences and exploitations. This was appropriate, particularly as Turun Kristillinen Opisto, our house of hospitality, offers all year round in-depth residential opportunities for the acquisition of Finnish language and culture on the part of those who are today’s refugees worldwide.

Evening prayer on board the ferry to Turku from the archipelago
Throughout our time, we worshipped publicly, not only in our new home and in Turku Cathedral but outdoors and, a first for many of us, on the deck of a ferry boat returning from an afternoon on an island of the archipelago in the Baltic Sea – by kind agreement of the captain and other passengers. The Cathedral Eucharist was celebrated with the Anglican and Lutheran international community of Turku.

The impacts of social media on doing theology and writing theologically were hotly discussed and many of us were introduced to the concept of a Twitter Fall, perhaps at its most interesting and arresting when it happens in the background while a preacher is preaching. We learned also of blogging towards writing and in this way incorporating a range of voices in the ultimately written word, whatever that term itself means any longer. Chaplaincy in its many manifestations was considered as a Godly presence in a contested public space. Chaplaincy to the media and its hard-boiled secular exponents was explored as an engagement with people of human and spiritual needs that often must be suppressed in the quest for rapidity of analysis and sensationalism of presentation. A funeral is a sadness when all is said and done. Media intimidation and abuse were also considered under this heading, even if they do not always issue in phone hacking.

The Conference was very strongly pulled together by a presentation on surveillance. On one level, it would seem that surveillance is an offer that nobody could refuse. It would claim, almost coquettishly, to promise security and to relieve anxiety. But on closer inspection, there are many good reasons not to share your data in an on-line shopping context or in order to gain small rewards and ‘pennies from heaven’ so as to be able, in the longer term, to prevent those whom we will never know from creating their own profile of our ‘net worth’ and with our implicit compliance. But, let us take another example. The innocence of spotting a camera in a largely empty car park and deciding that this is a safe space can be the beginning of the deadening of a moral instinct for self-protection and therefore of responsible self-care. We heard a very interesting paper on theology, science and intelligent design ably analysing limitations and potentialities.

Education as a public space also featured. This is hardly surprizing as education offered through religious patronage is a deeply contested public space where a range of secularists seek to debar religious bodies from inhabiting such space as a space of personal, societal and educational flourishing. The other side of the coin is that, left to its own devices, an exclusively religious or denominational educational system would show equal and different inadequacies. In an evening seminar, held in a restaurant that had been a school since the early nineteenth century, the argument was explored from the perspective of the experience of the Republic of Ireland to the effect that the conversation between religious altruism and open pluralism needs urgently to be developed and sustained in a secular democracy. This will be required if any state is to facilitate a range of voices and the commitment to God and to other people that goes with words like pluralism, tolerance, respect and opportunity today.

Death and hymnody may not seem to sit together in obvious ways and yet they strive to be obvious relatives in the public square. This was a challenge to the final two presenters and they handled it in a very powerful way. Respect for the dead and their memory in life as their relatives continue to live life without them in a public context is a perennial question that relates with the public square as a place where those most deeply affected by the loss live a specific witness to life itself in ways that have to be both private and public. Hymnody takes us to the point where the private and the public, the emotional and the objective, are given voice whether we can in fact sing or not. Hymnody is itself the voice of the people of the church making noise together for God and for the world.   
The Conference was not all about presenting papers or responding to papers. It was, at its heart, about conversation and interchange of ideas often as stimulated by the papers but frequently coming directly from the interactions of the participants themselves and their developing expression of their own idea around both the theme and its tangents. Sincere thanks go to all who by their contributions and their involvement made the Conference possible.

Anglo Nordic Baltic Theology Conference 2015 Papers

Michael Jackson: God in Public Places - Towards an Anglican Expression
Guntis Kalme, ‘Globalization, National Identity and the responsibility of a theologian’
Jack Dyce: “Grundtvigian” reflections on the foundations for dialogue in the public square
Alison Joyce: ‘The spiritual home of the media?’
Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: theology in the public (cyber) sphere – social media
Arto Kallioniemi: Finnish pupil’s views of religion in schools
Patricia Hanna: Religion in Public Space: University Chaplaincy
Stephen Taylor: Church Buildings in many small public squares
Eimhin Walsh – Dublin Cathedral: a theological platform for community engagement
Michael Jackson and Anne Lodge: Articulating an Anglican Voice in a Secular Space
Rupert Moreton: Public Theology or Pragmatic Process?
Jyri Komulainen: What could the Lutheran Tradition Contribute to the Theology of Religions?
Juuso Loikkanen: Theology, Science and Intelligent Design
Eric Stoddart: The Common Gaze
Catherine Shelley: Death, Graves and Ashes
Kathryn Rose: Hymns as Public Theology

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