13 March 2024

The Big Conversation: Honest, reflective, insightful

Stevie Hope

A photo of people smiling and having conversations round tables

Stevie Hope reports from Belonging and Believing: The Big Conversation (1–3 March, Warwick University).

With ‘excitement’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘hope’, delegates gathered in the presence of God for Belonging and Believing: The Big Conversation. These feelings – gathered through a poll on arrival – formed a word cloud that spoke to the array of expectations brought to the weekend.

Friday’s opening worship emphasised the aim of the ensuing days: listening. Territorial Leader Commissioner Paul Main used Ephesians 2:1–22 to assert that we belong together and are better together. Secretary for Mission Lieut-Colonel Drew McCombe, the chair of the Membership Working Group, recognised our differing experiences and convictions, urging us to actively listen, empathise and find common ground.

Saturday began with reflection led by Lizzy Thornton-Dean (Sale), who asked us to think about people who feel that they have been excluded or don’t belong. Lieut-Colonel Karen Shakespeare outlined the differences between poor disagreement, agreeing to disagree and good disagreement, emphasising that we have to be able to talk about our differences in our corps and fellowships.

Major Stephen Oliver (William Booth College) took us through a brief history of membership in the Army. Lieutenant Nazia Yousaf (Stockport Heaton Norris) invited us to consider whether we think of membership in the Army as primarily about how we behave or whether we’re saved.

Lieut-Colonel Drew unpacked the headline results of last year’s membership survey, emphasising that this was not the final report, but would feed into the Membership Working Group’s recommendations to UKI leadership this summer.

A collage of speakers from Belonging and Believing: Paul Main, Drew McCombe, Lizzy Thornton-Dean, Karen Shakespeare, Stephen Oliver, Nazia Yousaf, Julie Forrest, Lyndall Bywater, David Betteridge
Top row (left to right): Commissioner Paul Main, Lieut-Colonel Drew McCombe, Lizzy Thornton-Dean; Middle row: Lieut-Colonel Karen Shakespeare, Major Stephen Oliver, Lieutenant Nazia Yousaf; Bottom row: Colonel Julie Forrest, Lyndall Bywater, Major David Betteridge.

Delegates could choose two of six elective sessions, which unpacked membership from several angles, giving time to listen, share and gently – but earnestly – critique what it means to be a member of the Army and God’s Kingdom.

International Liaison Officer for Dialogue on Human Sexuality Colonel Julie Forrest presented some thoughts on the Army’s International Symposium on Human Sexuality in 2022. The main takeaway, she suggested, was that we need to keep talking about and praying into all aspects of human sexuality.

Majors Ann and Donald Montgomery (Sale) led evening worship with a focus on lamenting times when people have not been included for a range of reasons. Major Donald recognised that the time for burying and ignoring such things has passed, and he discouraged us from lamenting alone, asking us to bring our thoughts together in deep prayer.

Lyndall Bywater (UKI Boiler Room Team) rounded off the evening with deep prayer and reflection. She asked us: What are we hearing from God? How will we respond?

Led by the Children and Youth team, Sunday morning’s insight into what belonging means for young members could have filled a weekend all by itself. Children shared perspectives that were insightful and innovative, and several young people brought powerful personal testimonies, some encouraging, others heartbreaking. Commissioner Paul responded genuinely and emotionally, apologising for times when hurt had been caused.

A collage of three photos from Belonging and Believing: The first is of a building made out of cardboard boxes made by children, illustrated with words and drawings - the following text is clearly visible: 'Everyone is allowed in'; the second is of a teenager speaking to the delegates from the platform; the third is of a children's worker interviewing a group of children on the platform
Teenagers and children share their thoughts about what belonging in The Salvation Army means to them

A leadership Q&A followed covering a range of themes, including the relationship between employees and church members, the diversity of views across the territory, ecumenism and governance. Responding to questions on the Army’s international position on LGBTQ+ topics, everyone was reminded that Salvationists within this territory are not of one mind and continued conversation was encouraged, with understanding and compassion.

Lieut-Colonel Drew said that, while this listening phase of the project was coming to end, belonging@salvationarmy.org.uk remained open to ensure the full breadth of voices could continue to be heard following the weekend.

Whole-church worship led by the Family Ministries team wrapped up the weekend, reminding us that everyone belongs to the family of God, not because of – or despite – anything we’ve done, but because of who God is.

Seated around tables during the two-and-a-half days, we had plentiful opportunities to meet new people and share experiences, and conversations continued informally between sessions. Regular time for worship, including a music group led by Nik King (Music and Creative Arts), brought God to the centre of our interactions and empowered us to shout out our praise to God – literally for some of the young people! Meanwhile, graphic recorder Ann Howlett-Foster (Cambridge Citadel) beautifully brought the messaging together visually.

A graphic illustration of the Belonging and Believing weekend featuring a tree with leaves made out of thumb prints in bright colours
A graphic recording of the weekend by Ann Howlett-Foster

Speaking with people after the final session, emotions ranged from hope to frustration, with some expectations exceeded and others unmet. But perhaps this is a fitting outcome for what is an ongoing conversation about belonging, committing and serving the Kingdom of God through The Salvation Army.

Written by

A photo of Stevie Hope.

Stevie Hope

Editorial Assistant

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Tatiane Del Campo (Sutton) shares how she is part of the body of Christ through the Army.

Major Kerry Coke talks to Salvationist about her session at Belonging and Believing: The Big Conversation.

Salvationist shares the headline findings of the Membership Working Group’s survey and conversations.

Colonel Julie Forrest talks to Salvationist about her session at Belonging and Believing: The Big Conversation.

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