SouthWest Conference 2007 at Sidmouth, Devon
‘I Have Chosen You’ - 30th Nov - 2nd Dec
The South West Conference 2007 organised by the Diocesan Service Team for Catholic Charismatic Renewal took place at the beginning of December at Sidholme Christian Hotel and Conference Centre at Sidmouth in Devon.
The event, which was attended by over 100 adults plus a number of children and young people, had been fully booked since early in November. Participants came from all parts of the Plymouth diocese, the Clifton diocese was also well represented whilst from further afield there were participants from Portsmouth, Arundel and Brighton, Southwark and Northampton dioceses.
The principal speakers were David Wells from the Plymouth Department of Formation, John Vaughan Neil who is well known for his Life in the Spirit seminar programme and as a speaker at many national conferences, and Margaret Duncan a lay person from Scotland who has a very powerful testimony and has been leading retreats in USA, India and Papua New Guinea. The theme ‘I have chosen You’ which reflected the call to discipleship and the need to proclaim ‘the day of the Lord’ fitted well with the first Sunday of Advent.
At the opening session on Friday evening the David Wells talk, ‘You are my disciples’, reflected on the challenges of discipleship in the modern world and of the need to respond with gratitude and a generous heart. He reminded us that we sometimes need to do ‘brave things’ in responding but in the Lord’s power and not our own, ‘God does not choose the qualified but qualifies the chosen’.
In a series of talks throughout the weekend John Vaughan Neil revealed the need and calling for everyone to evangelise and started by looking at the fears and anxieties that many Catholics encounter in a session entitled ‘What’s holding me back?’ This was followed by a talk ‘Can God really use me?’ which examined the ways in which, despite our own doubts, inadequacies and sense of unworthiness God can use and equip individuals for His purposes. This talk was illustrated by a number of scriptural examples from the Old and New testaments.
John’s third talk on Saturday morning ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ considered how, through listening and being aware of the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we can recognise the opportunities presented to us to evangelise and overcome our reticence to speak about God to others. The examples from John’s own experience were inspiring and reinforced the point that we need to operate in God’s power and not through our own strength or impulse and to remember that if we are proposing to speak to a person about God we should first speak to God about the person involved.
On Saturday afternoon David Wells ran a workshop entitled ‘Whatever happened to the soul?’ which looked at how it is possible to discern positive and spiritual things in an increasingly secular world. A combination of humorous stories, powerful insights plus the study and reflection on a number of well known TV adverts both amused and challenged workshop participants. One example that was used, the ‘Bisto’ advert, will now be viewed with a new perspective!!
John Vaughan Neil then returned to continue the evangelisation theme encouraging participants to ‘Just be Yourself’. This talk encouraged everyone to realise that they each have an individual story that is different from anyone else and that when talking to others about God it is important to be genuine and authentic and to talk about what God has done in your life rather than attempt to tell someone else’s story.
On Saturday evening, after an extended period of Prayer and Praise, Margaret Duncan, a lay Catholic from Aberdeen, shared a remarkable and powerful testimony of how she had mistrusted God after a number of close family members had died in various circumstances during the early years of her childhood. Her story included teenage drinking and pregnancy, giving up a child for adoption, alcoholism, marital problems, depression, sudden death of her husband and many other difficulties before she rediscovered God in her life. Margaret was then able to tell about the healings she had received, being re-united with the daughter she had given up and how she had been given opportunities to study, firstly to obtain an honours degree at Aberdeen University and then to undertake scriptural studies in Rome. Subsequently she has had opportunities and invitations to participate and lead retreats for priests and religious in various parts of the world.
Margaret’s story touched people very deeply and the time of healing ministry and celebration of the sacrament of Reconciliation continued late into the evening as a result of her words.
Sunday morning saw John Vaughan Neil encouraging participants to recognise and record the key elements of their own personal testimony before sharing it with another person. This was a new and revealing experience for some people present who came to realise that God had indeed been very active in their lives and that they had a story to share with others.
Sunday Mass was a really joyful celebration with Fr. Trevor Jordan as celebrant. The work that the children and young people had produced in their sessions run by the Pathways Community formed the altar front piece and represented all present at the conference.
In the final session of the conference on Sunday afternoon John Vaughan Neil talked about about Evangelisation Cells, a parish initiative originally pioneered in USA and Italy. He related the experiences and success he had witness on a visit to Italy and through the cell group system that was operating in his own parish in Wimbledon.
The music ministry which served the conference throughout the weekend was provided by Sarah Harding, Tom Bonard, Keith Taylor and Chris Price whilst Terry Danes and Robert Taylor worked tirelessly on technical matters and recording the conference talks. Children’s activities and liturgy, which were organised and run by Kate, Emma and Tom members of the Pathways Community based in Plymouth, added a new dimension enabling the conference to be a true family event.
The food, hospitality and facilities provided by the staff at Sidholme were excellent and added to the wonderful warmth and ambiance of the weekend. The feedback from participants reflected a feeling of fellowship, encouragement and great blessing. A comment received from someone who has attended all the South West Conferences was ‘ they have all been good but this year (2007) has really raised the bar and set new standards’.