The Deanery Conference and its origins
An annual conference bringing together clergy and laity from all corners of the Diocese of Sourozh was instituted by Metropolitan Anthony in 1975. Long known simply as the ‘Effingham conference’ from the Surrey convent school where it took place for nearly 20 years, the event rapidly became central to the life of the diocese, nurturing its awareness of itself as an embodiment of the Church in this country.
The origins of the conference lay in the recognition of an oddity about Orthodoxy in Britain.
Many members of the Diocese were active in the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, founded to promote encounter between Orthodox and Anglicans – unsurprisingly, since it was as chaplain to the Fellowship that Metropolitan Anthony had first come to London. But the anomaly was that in the 1970s, the Fellowship still provided the only forum for Orthodox to meet each other, even those in the same diocese. For some years, communities of the diocese of Sourozh had been growing up outside the London parish; but in Metropolitan Anthony’s words, ‘we grew into a body, but a body without shape’.
The first move to give shape to the church body involved instituting regular meetings of the diocesan clergy. Then a few years later, as Metropolitan Anthony continues, we conceived the thought of a diocesan conference as a means of bringing together not only the priests and deacons, but also the people who had given them birth, a body of people mature, intellectually adult, knowledgeable in Orthodoxy, filled with the love and the respect of their Church, understanding the ways of God on their own home ground in this country. We started by trying to understand what Orthodoxy is in its essence. Then we discussed how one becomes a Christian, how one tries to remain one, what is the Church, how does it live and pervade the life of each one of us singly and embracing God and us all together.
(Metropolitan Anthony, Effingham Conference 1979)
The Effingham conference could not of course bring together all members of the diocese. But new parishioners would often be encouraged to attend, to give as many people as possible a sense of the community to which they belonged. And generally there would not be services in the parishes that weekend, sending the message that the diocese was ‘gathered together in one place’ with the Bishop at the conference.
The structure was deliberately built round worship and fellowship, with talks from the Bishop, diocesan clergy and the occasional visitor. Why choose the title of ‘conference’ for such a broad gathering of parishioners, often including whole families? Again, this may go back to influence of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, whose annual ‘conference s’ used to combine theological debate with family holiday. And perhaps more importantly, the influence of its antecedents - the student conferences and study circles of the Russian emigration, in which a broad spectrum of Orthodox clergy and laity came together to deepen their understanding of faith and churchmanship and learn from each other how to live out their faith.
So our present Deanery Conference has deep roots in our understanding of what it means to be the Church. It connects us with a powerful vision of conciliarity, sobornost’, in the Church, which requires each one of us to work as part of the church body to acquire the mind of Christ.