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Keswick Convention


WHILE the established churches worry about declining congregations, the evangelical Christian movement is growing apace. And clear evidence of this comes at the annual Keswick Convention, which this year topped all records and saw around 12,000 people attending the three week long event.
In these days of pop festivals it is sobering to see that 3,000 people at a time attended celebrations at which dynamic preachers broadcast the Christian faith to anyone who cares to take part.
The Conventions, that started as a modest gathering on the St John's vicarage lawn in 1875 now needs extra camp sites, park and ride services and even broadcasts hymn singing and charismatic bible-quoting preachers over internet TV channels.
Operations manager, Simon Overend tries to explain the success of the Conventions: "Perhaps the credit crunch has led more people to search for better meaning in their lives...people are asking 'what can we put our trust in?'
"We have seen that while the established churches sometimes struggle to maintain congregations, the less structured evangelical churches have grown and evolved." He hints, quite rightly, that hymn singing by 3,000 voices in the beautiful Lakeland fells is somewhat more inspiring than a gathering of 25 in a cool and damp church.
Simon adds that anyone can come to the Conventions and there is no need for formal registration. The only proviso is that visitors have to make their own accommodation arrangements, but with Keswick's thriving bed and breakfast scene this should no be an issue. Explaining what drives the Conventioners, he says: "It is inclusive, warmly welcoming all evangelical 'tribes' and seeking to operate 'with a generosity of spirit in this regard and no narrowing of our position'. The Convention's motto remained - 'All One in Christ Jesus'."
Simon concedes that this year has seen some 'negative feedback' from some in the local community over noise levels, car parking and an alleged reduction in trade for certain businesses.
But Simon says the Convention is making every effort to address the concerns, including provision of the park and ride service.
Personally I think many towns that have tourism as part of their economy would give their eye-teeth to be hosting a three-week event attracting 12,000 to the area. It is interesting to compare the situation in Keswick with that at Whitehaven where the sterling efforts of volunteers to organise the massive Maritime Festival were greeted by grumbles by a minority of traders who claimed it did nothing for the town.
One of the better known preachers who took the pulpit, or should we say microphone, at Keswick was the late US evangelist Billy Graham. He came in 1975, followed by his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz who preached to thousands in 2004.
The Convention has an office complex in Skiddaw Street and is both a charity and company limited by guarantee. It has a board of trustees and the new chairman is Mr Jonathan Lamb, a director of Langham Preachings.
The first Convention was organised by Canon Thomas Harford-Battersby, and his friend Robert Wilson. Harford-Battersby was Vicar of St John's Church in Keswick, and he chose to hold the first event in a tent erected on his lawn. Three or four hundred people attended, and within a few years, Christians from all over the world were making an annual pilgrimage to the little Lake District town, to hear the best Bible teachers that were available.
The early Conventions met with a number of setbacks, in particular criticism from those who were suspicious of the teaching on the higher life, but numbers attending grew steadily and many mini-Keswick conventions were held elsewhere. The language of 'higher life' was later abandoned. Initially very much an Anglican event, the Convention's motto `all one in Christ Jesus' was soon worked out on the platform, as speakers from many other denominations were welcomed. This has contributed to its growth. F.B. Meyer, a Baptist was the leading international representative of Keswick in the early twentieth century. United Communion services at the end of the week were introduced in 1929.
A second week of convention was started at Keswick in 1969, and this has grown to be equal in status and attendance to the first week, though for some years it was called the 'Holiday Convention' with less meetings being arranged and more family related activity. A third week began in 2001, which reflects the considerable success of week 2 in attracting families and younger people. The benefits of the Keswick Convention are not limited to the town of Keswick itself. Today there are many annual meetings, some of them very large indeed, that either still use the Keswick label or owe their existence to the Convention, held not only in the UK but also around the world, including in Japan, Australia, Jamaica, North America, India, parts of Africa and New Zealand. Perhaps Australia has more 'Keswick' Conventions per head of the population than any other country, with gatherings in or near all the main cities. The significance of these gatherings has continued and the Northern Territories capital of Darwin began a Keswick Convention in the 1990s. Other more recently launched 'Keswicks' include the 'Keswick Christian Life Convention' in Nairobi, Kenya, and the 'Keswick' Conventions in Romania and Zimbabwe. (DS 2009)

*Significant new developments have taken place in recent years. In 1997 the Rawnsley Hall, near the centre of Keswick, formerly part of Keswick School, was purchased for use by the Convention. In 2015 the churches bought the former Cumberland Pencils factory and produced ambitious plans to create a huge Convention centre.

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