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
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
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
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.