Held on Wednesday 11th January 2023: 10am – 3:30pm at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, London.

Our annual conference – postponed from September 2022 – attracted 63 colleagues from sacred spaces as far afield as Carlisle and Dublin. Sadly, there were a few colleagues who didn’t show up. Perhaps as the result of train strikes and other woes… But we had over fifty people who very much enjoyed meeting up with old friends or meeting new colleagues.

The venue, while not as flexible for group discussions as some would have liked, provided us all with a visually stunning and deeply historical backdrop to the day’s proceedings. We were wonderfully looked after by Laura Arends and her Westminster team. The technology, refreshments and brilliant Abbey tours were all very well-organised. To keep costs down and avoid allergen issues, we decided that it would be best if everyone brought their own lunches which worked out fine.

We were very grateful to our three keynote speakers whose very engaging presentations inspired colleagues to be proactive in trying new approaches to reaching out.

Fran Jeens, formerly of the Jewish Museum and now Head of Education and Engagement at UK Parliament, encouraged greater collaboration across departments to devise new and meaningful engagement strategies. She introduced everyone to the resources and training available from GEM (Group for Education in Museums) https://gem.org.uk/.

Peter Daniel, Education and Outreach Officer for Westminster’s archives, spoke about his wide experience of applying for funding to engage creatively with diverse communities. He shared several ongoing projects, such as Remembrance or the Cato Street conspiracy, to reach out into schools and help students explore their local history as well as the wider curriculum.

Dr Rev’d Dee Dyas, Professor at York University and Director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture, drew out valuable highlights from her research into visitor engagement with sacred spaces around the country. This session revealed what can be gained by evaluating and learning from each other’s projects. Dee’s research also emphasized the importance of a visitor’s welcome, whether from volunteer or staff member.

Before lunch, we concluded the morning with a panel of six colleagues, chaired by the Canon Chancellor of St Albans Cathedral, Kevin Walton. Our three keynote speakers were joined by Council Chair and Vice Dean of Chester, Canon Jane Brooke, Grazyna Richmond (Head of public engagement at Westminster Abbey) and Alison Appiah, (Education officer at the Bhakti Vedanta Manor Hindu Temple in Hertfordshire).

The three main presentations will be uploaded to the Members’ only area of our new website in due course…..

Responding to questions generated by delegates over the coffee break, the panelists shared their insights, experiences and reflections.

Going round the Abbey with Westminster’s lively guides and gathering into regional groups provided welcome opportunities for networking and for an exchange of ideas and future planning. Pre-pandemic, we had regional hubs and we are hoping to set up these support networks and find someone in each region to act as coordinator.

Naturally, at the end of the conference, delegates were asked to complete the ubiquitous evaluation forms.

Colleagues commented on the good diversity of speakers and interfaith perspectives. They benefited from LOTS of practical ideas to take away. Many were glad to discover the wide range of resources and support offered by GEM and found the information about GEM and the new AEC online volunteer training very useful. The key themes that emerged included community engagement; collaboration (cross-organization and between sacred spaces and other partners);  science and faith workshops; heritage interpretation ideas; family and school projects; and guidance on grant applications.

When asked what they would do differently because of the conference, delegates’ replies included: Think more strategically/ constructively; feel more positive; establish a public engagement group; try to link more departments within the Cathedral; think about welcoming and connect the welcome message; think more about emotions when preparing programmes; consider setting up a LEGO café; inspired to create new trails and activities; intertwine family and community groups with our learning  programme; review more often; be more mindful of WHY we are doing what we are doing; develop better resources; make contact with the regional hub.

Overall, the evaluations were reassuringly positive with 41% rating the day with 10/10 and 91% rating it 8/10 or above. The lowest score given was 7/10 (9 % delegates). The positive feedback partly reflected colleagues’ delight to meet one another face to face once again. Our last day conference took place online on March 24th 2022. It attracted nearly 50 participants but seeing each other face to face and meeting up with one’s regional partners was very much appreciated.

Indeed, there were many requests for another face to face, possibly residential conference and indeed, our Council which met during the day, agreed that we should aim to hold a one-night conference in January 2024. The time of year is sensible as it is quiet on the visitor front and travel and accommodation costs are lower.

We will notify our members of the dates and venue as soon as they are definite.

NB. Next time, members will enjoy a reduced conference fee.

Jackie Holderness (Secretary)



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