October beckons and that means its autumn and Conference Season is upon us. This month John Hardy and I will be attending the Greater Churches Network Conference at Christ Church Priory in Dorset. This year there will be site visits to Romsey Abbey and Wimborne Minster. Both John and I sit on the national Council, which brings all the Greater Churches of England together in a loose association. It was back in 2008 that John Hardy, Anne Coldwell and I went to our very first conference near Bath, when we first applied to join the Network, and two years ago the conference was held in Leeds, and the site visit was to Halifax Minster. Each of the Greater churches ministers in its own context, be it rural, suburban, or inner city. Whilst each is uniquely different, there are things we all share in common: usually a large ecclesiastical building; open most days of the year; a significant civic ministry; employed staff and large volunteer base; huge opportunities for mission that are usually totally under resourced!

Unless you have ever worked in a Greater Church, most clergy and bishops find the Greater Churches a strange beast to understand? Certainly local parishes often look with envy at what resources they perceive we have, with little understanding that most of the time we have to beg, borrow or steal, and we are always trying to punch above our weight in order to achieve the major contribution we make to the life of the town and diocese. My experience after ten years is that it’s a roller-coaster, and not for the faint hearted!

As the town continues to regenerate its self all around us, so too we need to look to our future? Last month we began to openly discuss the possibility of a permanent exhibition space where we could display all our treasures, and try to tell the story of our faith more effectively. The 900 Trust, the Friends, and The Minster PCC have come together to form a new Campaign Team, to build a new Five year Business Plan for the Minster and tackle some of the projects we have long wanted to achieve. Following the set back from the last two failed HLF Bids, we have needed time to lick our wounds, and regain strength to gird up our loins and have another push.

Caring for the heritage of the building takes a huge amount of time and effort, and I’m always left frustrated about the time we need to build up the community of faith. Is it me, or are people worshipping less frequently than they used too? There is no point restoring the Minster unless we have a community that worship in it – otherwise we become a museum piece? The Association of English Cathedrals have a useful Self Evaluation Tool Kit which the staff are looking at. This helps to balance out fabric and mission and evangelism. There can be no doubt we need to grow our community and whilst its my job to lead, I can’t do it on my own, we all need to work together. One of our volunteers, Oli Burgage Hall, has made some attractive Minster badges – if we all wore one, maybe we could initiate conversations with our friends about coming and supporting the Minster on a Sunday? Buy one in the shop next time you pass through – it might just be the start of something?