The first was personal. Cazz and I last attended an Assembly together at Westminster Chapel, when I was still at theological college, i.e. a long time ago, so it was a delight to be with her, and our youngest son, both of whom enjoyed being there. Also, hearing of some of the experiences of colleagues with accommodation and food, ours was good.
We didn't arrive until later on the Friday evening, but the two occasions I heard Elaine Storkey, I wasn't disappointed. She gave inspiring, challenging, hype-less addresses, with great use of stories and photos from her experience as the President of Tear Fund.
Pat Took, the Regional Minister/Team Leader of the London Association, and a colleague I respect enormously, spoke at the Baptist Ministers' Fellowship, on the subject of 'In the Image of God'. She was marvellous. As a denomination we have ordained women since 1925. That would be impressive in the general scheme of things were it not for the fact that many of our churches are still resistant and closed to the ministry of women, especially in the role of minister. Pat explored this at depth, with seriousness as well as lightness of touch, eloquently, passionately, convincingly. I expect it to be available in The Journal, in due course.
Then, as Team Leaders, we put on a seminar, 'Women and Men in Leadership', addressing the same theme. This consisted of a number of contributions, including a superb Bible study from Viv O'Brien, and concluding with a panel for questions. Clearly I'm biased, but again I thought this was excellent. My only criticism would be that we were preaching to the converted, although a good number of them!
The other speaker who stood out for me was Vinoth Ramachandra, who spoke on the Saturday evening. My only regret was that when I ordered red wine with the meal, instead of the choice of a small or large one I automatically received the large one, a 250 ml glass. There are some occasions when I would have been extremely grateful for the effect, but moving towards the end of a long and full day, I could have done with being just a bit more alert!
Other predictable highlights were the presentation of Ministers - as an aside, Catriona, has made my day by giving me 10/10 as best turned out Regional Minister - the valediction of missionaries, (see photo) and the in memoriam, all of which move me intensely, and make me particularly glad to be part of this family.
I also appreciated meeting a large number of people, though I was frustrated by the lack of time to say more than 'Hi' to many of them. It was particularly good to have coffee (eventually) and sit with Andy and Norma. They live opposite the house we lived in when we got married, and Cazz stayed with them prior to our marriage. Back in 2001, I was delighted to hear that Andy, who had exercised leadership in the local church from his teens, upon taking early retirement as a deputy head at a secondary school in Leeds, was going to Spurgeon's as a church-based minister in training. He was ordained in 2004 and has just completed his period as a newly accredited minister, so he was one of the ministers being presented. Andy and Norma are excellent people and when for one reason or another I'm browned off with Christian people, I think of Andy and Norma as shining examples of christlikeness.
I would have liked to go to the Whitley Lecture, but am looking forward to reading Craig Gardiner's address, 'How can we sing the Lord's Song?: Worship in and out of the church'. And I'd like to have heard John Colwell too.
The Assembly takes a huge amount of work by a large number of people, so criticism must feel acute by them, especially as what we don't appreciate is often down to personality and taste. Last year's worship I found less than helpful, so by comparison, this year was good. Musically, I still feel that we've moved away from a style which had more breadth to something which is fairly narrow, and while I agree with Andy in his comments about the lack of confession, intercession, lament, crafted and thought-out prayer, and reading of Scripture, I think that this is a reflection of what is the norm in many of our churches, which is a bigger issue. In other words, what we have at the Assembly is our default. It was great to have an oboe and trumpet, but mostly, what is heard is a fairly standard soft-rock sound.
We did sing 'These are the day of Elijah', sorry Catriona, but although this is one of my favourite worst songs, we didn't sing, 'Above all powers', which must be very near the top! I'm relieved that I was spared the image of Christ as a rose trampled to the ground, taking the fall and thinking of me, above all. End of small rant. If this is your favourite song, forgive me; you may well hate my favourite songs.
Positively, we used an excellent song, and one that I can't remember singing before, although it's been around since 1988, 'What does the Lord require of you?' I've tried tracking it down, but it isn't in any of the hymn/song books I possess. Based on Micah 6.8 it was attractive with a good hook, singable, and said something enormously important.
It would be good if it didn't take three days to reach the stage where getting a coffee at the break is no longer a feat of human endurance, but hey ho! Overall, it was good to be in Blackpool, and appreciation to those who put in such a huge amount of work, locally and nationally. Also it was good to come home to the Indian curry we didn't have on Saturday night!