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Having now attended, in person, my first hybrid conference I had a chance to compare the experience of attending virtually and attending in the flesh.

It was the AGM and annual conference of CCA, Community Chaplaincy Association, of which Irish Chaplaincy is an associate member, and it was being held at the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, a charity founded in East London in 1147 and described on its website as ‘an extraordinary urban oasis’. It truly is! There is an immediate sense of calm upon entering, with lots and lots of lovely, tranquil spaces, both inside and out. I had a little explore before joining the group and found in the grounds the old chapel which was reconfigured so that a huge floor to ceiling window was created in one of the side walls giving a view of the beautiful garden and a giant oak tree. And right outside the chapel is a little enclosed terrace with fountains. It really was my kind of place, somewhere where I could just sit in peace for hours.

One of the most valuable elements of conferences for me has always been the informal conversations that take place in between the formal sessions. This one was no disappointment in that respect, and the conversations were well fuelled by mid-morning coffee and pastries, a tasty lunch, and tea and cakes in the afternoon. You just don’t get any of that when you attend ‘virtually’, which many people did. There they were on a large screen, and they even got a bit of gentle teasing from Jackie, the Chair: “Sorry, we’ve got to leave you now to go for our coffee and pastries!”

There was yet another little treat in store, with an opportunity to go to the chapel for a mid-day prayer at 12.45. I was the only one who went and the man there lighting the candles as I arrived seemed pleased that he wouldn’t be conducting the service on his own. We got chatting after the prayer, and my ears pricked up at the clear trace of a Belfast accent. He had heard of the Irish Chaplaincy and said how much he liked our website. “How do you know about us?” I asked, pleasantly surprised. His wife, it turned out, was Debby, CEO of London Gypsies and Travellers, with whom I’d had some contact. Kevin told me that she spoke very highly of our work. We could have talked all day but I had to go for lunch where I ended up sitting next to Jackie who, it emerged, had once worked as an actress and had appeared in Casualty!

Those encounters with Kevin and Jackie and everyone else during the day; so too simply going to a different place and observing people and life on the way: it was so stimulating. It was a very different experience to attending virtually, which I have done several times over the last eighteen months. I sit there in my chair on my own and I really do try to concentrate but I end up turning the camera off and checking and sending emails; and then I get fidgety and walk around the room; and then I lie on the floor to listen; and then invariably I fall asleep! How many virtual conferences have ended for me in sleep! And I feel a bit rubbish come the end of the day.

By contrast, I was still buzzing the day after the CCA conference as I travelled up to London again for our first hybrid team meeting at the Irish Chaplaincy! There were six of us there in the flesh and three people on my laptop screen and it worked just fine and there was plenty of good-natured banter and laughter. All were agreed that we would all come together once a month for an in-person meeting followed by lunch together. And we’ll continue to do certain other meetings via zoom. One of those who had been on the screen came in to the office a little later and the seven of us headed over to Temptation Café for lunch to mark Fiona’s birthday. Dessert was taken back in the office in the form of chocolate cake, and it was a welcome return to an old Irish Chaplaincy tradition. Several people contacted me the day after to say how much they had enjoyed it. I also had found it immensely uplifting and energising.

And then the week after that there was the CSAN Directors conference, which had been due to be in Rome but because of continuing Covid uncertainties took place at Hinsley Hall in Leeds. As said already, I find immense pleasure and value in the informal encounters that take place between sessions. And I was delighted with the reunion in the evening of Sean (whistles), Jim (bodhrán) and myself (guitar). We were in fine form, and we were joined at one point by Jo and Andrew of CJM music who had given us such fantastic musical input during the conference.

In the middle of one tune I noticed a woman enter the bar who wasn’t part of the CSAN group. I gave her a little smile and she explained to me later that it had encouraged her to come in and stay. She had been up in her bedroom, the sole person there that night who was not part of the group, and had hear the music from below and had felt drawn to it. She stayed right to the end and sang a couple of old Irish songs herself, beautifully, and told a bit of her story. Amongst several various or potential things in common, she and I knew somebody at Taizé where she’d once spent a couple of years. I told her that she would be getting a mention in my latest blog, which would be making the point that some things just aren’t possible via a zoom screen: things which may be considered dispensable but which are in fact vital to our innate human need for connection. And so Sorcha becomes the second person living in London but born in Belfast to appear in this particular piece!

It will be interesting to see how the hybrid working culture develops. Zoom is here to stay and we couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to. And indeed it makes certain things possible that we never could have imagined, for example people in different countries or cities being able to meet together without having to hop on planes or trains. Mind you, in-person can be hard to beat, especially if it involves live music, coffee and pastries or chocolate cake!

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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