The Liturgy of the Conference – part 1


October 24, 2014 by Worship, Community, Formation

Working in health and social care, I used to attend a lot of conferences and workshops; and they have a liturgy of their own.    A seemingly sparse one, but a liturgy nonetheless.   That realisation first came when I noticed how at every conference I attended, a ‘deacon’ would step forward, call everyone to order, and run through a well worn pattern of words, about the location of the toilets, the excitement of the forthcoming day, and the general absence of fire drills.    I hardly needed to listen, because I knew what the words would be, and indeed their real purpose was to transmit not information but mood: to give delegates the chance to switch themselves from ‘broadcast’ to ‘receive’.   The effect was the same as the opening hymn and words of a service: to calm; to focus; to begin to be together, one body.

It wasn’t until I went on a liturgy course and heard about the four-fold pattern of liturgical movement that I realised the similarities ran way beyond the opening words and right through the pattern of the day.

The template of worship is usually described as:

Gathering        Word       Sacrament      Sending Out

Most churchgoers will be instantly familiar with the middle two as the general movement of worship they attend.    Word and sacrament (whether it be eucharist, altar call or movement of the spirit) tend to take up most of the time spent in worship.

Indeed, the first time you see this pattern, it’s tempting to think that ‘gathering’ and ‘sending out’ belong to a lower level of action; in a more detailed analysis perhaps.   But that’s not the case: they are rightfully included at the top level of the pattern and they indicate that worship begins long before, at the point of leaving the house, or even setting the alarm on Saturday night; and finishes long after, if ever.   (More on this in a future post, perhaps).

For conference organisers, this fourfold pattern exists too, and in conferences the underlying movement through the day from ‘Word’ to ‘Sacrament’ is often the most evident.   A morning of lectures and addresses, followed by an afternoon of workshops is typical.  Like a gathered church, a conference receives the word – typically the wisdom of an expert – before trying to build a community committed to action.   Just as church, through the Eucharist, chews on the Word of God (Jesus), so the conference in small groups, wrestling with what it’s been introduced to earlier, chews on the Word of the Day, as it tries to inwardly digest it on the road to transformation.

There are analogies at a more detailed level, too, for those who find them useful.   Perhaps the comparison can help both conference organisers and priests think a little more about what they set out to do.

Confession is routinely a part of much worship.  Confession of one’s failures frees one to act.    For a Christian, the facing up to one’s shortcomings is made much easier in that forgiveness is already promised.   At the moment at which you are saying, ‘I really have been a jerk’, the other is not saying, ‘yes you have haven’t you?’.   Conferences and workshops may also think, amongst the challenge of the Word, and the hope of shaping new practice, that there is space for a cool reflection on the limits of our current practice.   Any group of care practicioners would be able to say ‘we have sinned… against our fellow humans, through weakness, through negligence, and through our own deliberate fault’ in fact.

Confession is an important part of orienting people for change, because it stops the blame game.   A perennial challenge for all conference organisers is how to shift the conversation away from:

‘there’s nothing we can do because resources are so limited’


‘perhaps my practice is not perfect, and with what I have learnt today I could do more.’

By structuring the event programme to give time for reflection on current practice s/he enables that ‘confession’ to happen.   The conference organiser can’t speak of God, but plans that a group of relative strangers will provide the anonymous accountability that God provides worshippers.

Likewise, a perennial challenge for priests and ministers is how to challenge individuals within the liturgy to make confession more than a passing stream of words.

Both the conference organiser and the minister have the same challenge here: the challenge of their own belief.   If they don’t approach the task with the conviction that confession will genuinely happen if it’s left in someone else’s hands, then their lack of confidence is going to hamper everyone.    Christians learn to say: I have truly done my best, and now it is in your hands, God.   This is called trusting in God’s grace.   Conference organisers may not have those words – but often they have the skills, and if they are to survive and thrive, they will learn to have the faith.

2 thoughts on “The Liturgy of the Conference – part 1

  1. […] a previous post, on conferences and training workshops, I noted the fourfold structure of […]

  2. […] I illustrated in a recent post on conferences.   This pattern is latent to some extent in much human gathering, from team meetings, through […]

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