Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Go-betweens


This is Doug. He is a member at West End Methodist Church in the Tynedale Circuit. I encountered him on Sunday at the celebration of ministry service organised to mark the moving of two ministers in the circuit. The worship event was splendid, the send-off superb, and afterwards in the tea and cakes I met Doug. He has been Methodist all his life and he told me he had never met, let alone shaken hands with a President of the Conference. So we shook hands and talked and he was clearly delighted to have this opportunity to share, and so was I. I was enriched to have a conversation with someone who has been on the path of discipleship much longer than me.

It made me reflect on how important it is that the President and Vice President are available to meet members and worshippers throughout the Connexion. Alongside the access we are accorded to meet with some influential figures in our society – next week we are invited to lunch at the Korean Embassy – a large part of our calling is to meet, encourage and link together the Methodist people. As we are enriched and encouraged by their faith and stories, we can, sometimes, in turn pass these on to other individuals and communities, so that all are built up. We are ‘go-betweens’.

St Paul was a go-between. Not only did he travel to and fro among communities but his letters linked one Christian community with another, one set of individuals with others. He regularly includes the names of those who are with him at the time of writing the letter. (See the first verse of I Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians.) The final sections of the letters are often reserved for passing on greetings (e.g. 1 Cor 16.1-20 and Philippians 4). Indeed, greetings and commendations of people fill almost all the last chapter of Romans, whilst the whole of Philemon is a (re)linking of two Christians and a reimagining of what the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus might now be in Christ. Paul was a go-between, knowing that his communications travelled across a web of relationships.

All this represents, expresses and strengthens the deep connectedness of the Christian people. Dispersed and scattered as they may be, in small churches and large, in town, city and rural village they are joined together in Christ and therefore bonded to each other in a special way. Recognising that connection not only provides a sense of being part of something bigger but also demonstrates that each person is special within that larger body. And this gives confidence to our discipleship. We urge each other on ‘to see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly’ the Jesus we follow.

There are many ways of connecting: visits, handshakes, conversations, letters, cards, texts, MMS messages, photos on Facebook and tweets on Twitter. They can be used for good or ill. We know that all of these media have been, and are being used to degrade, discourage and bully but equally they are, and can be used to connect, encourage and affirm. And it is not just the job of the President and Vice President to make good links. All of us can be go-betweens for good, if we choose to be. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Tolpuddle Festival

Today was the day that Jeremy Corbyn told me I was beautiful.

Actually I think he was referring to my speech when he turned to me and said “beautiful”, but I was touched nonetheless.

I was at the annual Tolpuddle Festival, organised by the union movement in memory of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six men who were transported to Australia for starting a union in 19th century Dorset. Five of the six men were members and preachers at the local Methodist church.  As a result, the Methodist Church is accorded an extraordinary place within the celebrations.

Wreaths were laid at the grave of James Hammett, the sole martyr who is buried in Tolpuddle (the others returned to England after they were reprieved but eventually emigrated to Canada). I was invited, as the representative of the Methodist Church, to lay the first wreath and talk about the role of the martyrs’ faith in their struggle for justice (this was the speech that the Labour leader liked).



I was also asked to bless the parade of banners from the main stage of the festival. This was a parade of thousands down the main road through Tolpuddle, carrying elaborate banners from every imaginable trade union. I spoke about the current commitment of the Church to challenge injustice as well as our shared roots. The crowd applauded the mention of our campaign against the profound injustices of benefit sanction.

In amongst the parade, I'm pleased to say, was a banner for the Methodist Church, with the motto “God is our guide”, part of a hymn quoted by one of the martyrs after their sentencing. Walking through the streets, it was encouraging to see the number of people who greeted us warmly as we passed.

The original chapel in which the martyrs worshipped was until recently being used as an agricultural building. A new trust, with Methodist participation, has recently bought it, shored it up, and has plans to restore it as a community building.

With Revd Steph Jenner and Dudley Coates
For me the day ended with a service at the newer chapel in the village.  The place was packed with local Methodists, other Christians, and festival goers, and Dudley Coates, a former Vice President, led a service focused on God's call for justice.

The festival was certainly very earnest - someone described it to me as like Greenbelt, but without God...or fun.  These are people who are seriously committed to the Labour movement and are often secular.  But the Methodist Church is invited to be part of it, and shares many of the same commitments to justice as well as historical roots through the faith of the martyrs. Not everyone will agree with everything that is said (or everyone they meet) or some of the bedfellows we end up alongside...but isn't that true of most of the places we’re called to do mission?

So thanks to the Friends of Tooluddle, Steph Jenner, David Wrighton and others for all the work they are doing to nurture new growth from the roots of Methodism and trade unionism.

And as a postscript, isn't it interesting, in this age of Prevent and counter-extremism, we take such pride in our own "martyrs"? 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Justice in Battle

Tonight was an evening of wigs, robes and ceremonial chains.  My vice-presidential cross looked modest in comparison.   I sat next to a man who asked whether I was there because my husband was “someone”. (I replied that of course he was. But so were we all).

I was a guest of the High Sheriff of East Sussex attending the annual judicial service at Battle parish church, along with various mayors and local dignitaries.  It was an opportunity to pray for the judges in the area, and for them to recommit themselves to public service.  

The judges, standing robed and wigged at the front of the church, were asked to affirm that they would protect our freedoms, contribute to the community, take special care of the poor, and do all this “in a spirit of honesty, service and peace”.  Each replied “With the help of God, we will.”


The service started with a Charles Wesley hymn, and I opened my mouth to belt it out....before realising that no-one else was singing at a volume higher than a mumble.  But the service had a familiar theme - of “justice and holiness”.  Having spent the week of Methodist Conference talking, with Roger Walton, about holiness and justice, I was rather thrilled to see that the Presidential theme was already spreading through the Church of England! 

But it was a slightly more judicial take on the theme.  In his sermon the Dean talked about how holiness can contribute to justice, giving the example of the 17th century priest Samuel Fairborough who, after stealing some pears as a child, had his conscience “awakened by the terror of the law” and thereafter became “the personification of holiness”.  So justice can lead to holiness.  And in answer to the question whether holiness can lead to justice, the Dean quoted “the great preacher, John Wesley” who said that it is a holy people who will reform society.  Holiness can lead to justice.
                             
The High Sheriff of East Sussex,
Michael Foster DL
The High Sheriff of East Sussex is Michael Foster, formerly the MP for Hastings.  I first met Michael when he came to speak to the young people’s group at my church in the late 1990s about faith and politics.  I remember being impressed at the time that an MP would travel up from the south coast on a Sunday evening to talk with 15 young people who lived outside his constituency and so could never vote for him.  Latterly I got to know him as Chair of the Methodist Parliamentary Fellowship as well as the minister responsible for bringing in Civil Partnerships.  Since finishing as an MP, Michael has returned to legal practice and now acts as his county’s High Sheriff, bringing together the judiciary, politics, civil society and the voluntary sector.

Methodists together at the East Sussex judicial service
There was a reception after the service, and having wandered around chatting to various mayors, the Methodists in the room, as often happens, began to congregate.  I was delighted to meet with local minister, Rev Peggy Heim, supernumeraries, wives and widows, and John, who told me he is the longest serving dry-cleaner in the country! 

So today I am left giving thanks for Methodists all over the country, serving their communities.  I pray for those who serve in our judiciary, along with prison officers, governors, and politicians who make decisions about the future of our prison service.  And I pray for those who personally experience criminal justice system, as criminals, accused and victims - and especially those who this night are in jail, on probation, or in police cells. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice

Which is more than liberty.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Safety pins are not enough

Tomorrow a statement will be read out in Methodist churches around the country calling on Methodist people to challenge racism and discrimination.  The statement is the text of a resolution passed at the Methodist Conference last week which was brought in response to the apparent rise in racist incidents over recent weeks.

It is important that our Church proclaims its position that “racism is a denial of the Gospel”, as it says in our standing orders.  I hope that people will follow the encouragement of the Conference to write to their MPs to express their hope for political debate which neither demonises any nor leaves the vulnerable in danger of victimisation.

Yet this is not enough.  It is a start in our good endeavours, not an end in itself.  And those of us who are in a position of white privilege need to be careful that we are not assuming to speaking on behalf of others.

This is particularly the case around the campaign to wear an empty safety pin.  This initiative was started as an attempt to indicate that the person wearing it was a safe person to sit next to and would not subject another to intolerance or abuse.  It is intended to be a “pin of safety”.  It has been taken up by many people, including the Methodist Conference, out of a desire publicly to demonstrate resistance to racism.

But wearing a safety pin is not unproblematic.
  • A safety pin doesn’t make me not a racist.  It might indicate my desire to challenge racism...but I recognise that I still have unconscious and unarticulated racist assumptions.  Despite my desire to expunge racism from my life, I have grown up in a society which has, and continues to, subject people to racism.  I have benefited from a society which has been built on historic racist practices.  I acknowledge with shame that, although I try to resist racism, I cannot claim myself flawless in this regard.
  •  As a result I need to listen to the insights of people who experience racism even more closely.  Unfortunately wearing a safety pin might make it harder to do this.  Instead I am occupying the space of the debate.  It becomes about me and my feelings.  I want to show I am anti-racist.  I want to do something.  I was talking to a friend yesterday who asked, “what do you want me to do when I see you wearing a pin?  Say thank you to you?!”  The danger is that wearing a pin becomes about me, and not about the people who most need to be listened to.
  • And this raises the question of who we need to listen to. The safety pin initiative and the post-Brexit concerns have focused on emergent racism largely (but not solely) against eastern Europeans.  Racism is not something which started after the referendum.  To our shame racism is part of the lived and daily experience of too many people in our country.  To focus on “the foreigner, the immigrant and refugee” risks ignoring British Black and Minority Ethnic people.  People who have lived here all their lives.  People who experience abuse and micro-aggression daily.  The Methodist Conference was appalled to hear the experiences of one Black minister who detailed the casual racism at the hands of his congregation.  Our Church should be appalled and ashamed that this is happening in our own community of faith.  And we need to listen to our members who experience it.
As Rachel said in her opening address at Conference, we know that our Church is committed to justice.  The challenge is how we do it.  So please do read out this statement to your church tomorrow – and perhaps reflect on where racism exists not only in our society but in our churches.  Please write to your MP – and as you ask them to challenge racism, pledge that you will do so in your daily life too.  And as  we wear our safety pins we will repent of the racism in our society, our church and in our lives, and ask forgiveness for the times when we have failed to listen to our sisters and brothers.

Rachel Lampard and Roger Walton



Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Wesley Day 24 May 2016: Extraordinary Calls for Extraordinary Times

Oh what a journey!  It felt like a Camp Meeting - for four hours we sang, prayed, read from the Bible, John Wesley’s Journal and Son to Susanna, preached and even danced!

From St Paul’s Cathedral we processed, via John Wesley’s statue at the North Steps of St Paul’s, to the Flame Monument at the Museum of London, Susanna Wesley’s grave in Bunhill Fields, and finally Wesley’s Chapel itself.
There were so many highlights!  Laying flowers at Susanna Wesley’s grave, the gate specially open for the occasion.
The great gathering of Methodists from Korea, China, Ghana, Canada, America and even Britain! 
And for me – best of all – standing on John Wesley’s tomb to preach in the open air!
I enjoyed reminding people that John Wesley was the first Primitive Methodist!  (After all, in my day job, I am the Director of the Chapel and Museum of Primitive Methodism at Englesea Brook!)

John Wesley turned the church of his day upside down.

An astonishing man!  After his conversion on 24 May 1738, Wesley had a heart so open to God, that he was open to change everything that he had been culturally conditioned to believe, as an 18th century man, a Tory, and an Anglican clergyman!
First of all God called him to preach outside a church building – in a field - unthinkable!  As Wesley wrote in his Journal, ‘today I have done a thing most vile’.
Then God called Wesley to accept lay people as leaders and preachers. What - only ordained people can do that!  With a little prodding from Susanna, Thomas Maxfield became the first local preacher.
Worst of all, John Wesley found that God was calling women!  He took a little longer to get his head round that, but he got there!  Women became evangelists, spiritual leaders, directors of social care projects.

Extraordinary calls for extraordinary times.  For John Wesley, if a person bears fruit, they must be called by God.
Are we as open to the movement of the Holy Spirit now as John Wesley was over 200 years ago? This is the challenge for us.
  • Which people/places/ministries are bearing fruit today?
  • What deep-seated attitudes might we need to change?
  • What ‘vile things’ might God be calling us to today?
The Covenant Prayer, one of John Wesley’s greatest gifts to the church, blows us out of our comfort zone!

Extraordinary calls for extraordinary times. 
When John Wesley was asked Why has God raised up the Methodists?'  His answer was: ‘As God’s messengers, to reform the church and spread scriptural holiness through the land.’

God has not finished with us yet! 

Monday, 25 April 2016

The risen radical Lord

On my [the Revd Steve Wild's] recent visit to the Liverpool District the Chair Revd Sheryl Anderson took me to our church in Toxteth, Princess Avenue. Outside this church is a thought provoking image of the risen Jesus. I remember driving past it years ago and thinking 'what ever is that?'

Seeing it this time I have perhaps more appreciation of modern sculpture than back then. The sculpture is titled is 'The Resurrection of Christ' and was made by Liverpool born sculptor Arthur Dooley who died in 1994. It is arresting on the plain brick wall of the church; an emaciated Jesus with a loin cloth and torn grave clothes is leaping out of the church in a cruciform shape but crossless. One could say it looks like a V for victory shape, very apt for resurrection.

As I stood and looked at this sculpture the face of Jesus looked to have a smile. I sing lustily 'Lo Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb.' In my mind I picture him smiling but not looking like this...but why not?


Sadly there are thousands in the world who look like this sculpture and Jesus relates to them too. It is known locally by Liverpudlians as the 'Black Christ'. Well Jesus was certainly not white and the framed print I grew up with in my Rochdale bedroom showed a white Jesus with children from around the world at his feet - I suppose it was slightly better than the one in my scout hut of the white Jesus with one hand outstretched and the other on the shoulder of a Boy Scout with half a globe in front of them and the words BRITISH EMPIRE on it!

Yikes, a black emaciated Jesus is more healthy than some of the patronising white images in the past.
But what is very powerful and moving to me as an evangelist is Jesus breaking out of the church and being in the community. Don't get me wrong I met the circuit team in Toxteth and what an impressive group they are, a number of excellent projects and as I walked in the building there were lots of young people of the community buzzing round.

This image is not of a tame domesticated Jesus - this is a victorious Lord who has overcome death and has good news for everyone, is ready to serve the Toxteth residents, to celebrate and weep with them.

Life within our churches is good and this year I've witnessed some of Methodism fit for purpose with amazing mission activities on our premises, but let's catch up with the risen Lord alive and at work outside the church.

One lady I met was an Air Traffic controller at Manchester International Airport, a responsible job, she said 'I couldn't do it without Christ with me.' In Truro last week I met a homeless chap who often sits on the back row of the Methodist Church, on greeting him I said I hadn't seen him for a while. His reply was 'well I didn't do it but I've been in prison - I wasn't alone He was with me' and he pointed to the sky.

Thank God there are loads of situations were We as the body of Christ break out and run with the risen Jesus and tune in to the work of the Holy Spirit - let's have more of it!


Yes I am inspired by this piece of sculpture; my photo of it has become the screen saver on my computer to remind me to look for the risen radical Lord I serve in unexpected places sharing love, comfort and peace.



Wednesday, 2 March 2016

“I will bless you … and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2 NIV)

A blessing has an important part to play in the journey of  the people of faith. The Old Testament has great stories over different people being blessed or not blessed in the right order. Jesus talks about blessings. The image of Jesus blessing little Children is very tender and a favourite of Victorian Stained Glass window artists although somehow the joy of the moment can be lost in some very solemn depictions.

In the New Testament, there are two primary Greek words translated as “blessing.” Makarios which carries the meaning of happiness. The happy state of those who find their purpose and fulfillment in God is shown in the Beatitudes of Matthew ch 5 and Luke ch 6 as in other parts of the Bible it means the best life is available for those who love and fear God and order their lives according to His Word.
In  the book of Romans there is a lovely little blessing  “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” (ch 4 v 6 - 8)



The other word Eulogeo focuses more on good words or the good report that others give of someone this also describes - giving thanks, the blessing that we say over our food. The word   “eulogy,” stems from this, used about speaking well of someone who has passed away. There is a great blessing in Ephesians 'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (ch 1 v 3)and in 1 Peter  "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (ch 3 v9)


On my trip to the Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury District I visited the Revd G. Mark Stobert who is the lead chaplain in Dudley at Russells Hospital NHS Trust. I have met Mark before but never been round the wards with him, what was astonishing was the way he blessed the doctors, nurses, cleaners in fact anyone who works there. When I accompanied him into the Accident and Emergency Ward he wandered in the midst of the busyness blessing the staff. I noticed how they leaned forward for his light touch. It was very moving one of the nurses said to me 'I've got to have my blessing, it gets me through!'


In experiencing the Revd Mark doing this I was deeply moved. This touch of blessing is used by the Holy Spirit in a most wonderful way and Rev Mark is quite laid back about it he has the great gift of allowing the Lord to use him and relaxing in it, a true vessel.


How can we bless people more effectively?

What about the very practical blessings when we support 'All we can' or 'Action for Children'. This is only a little exploration I've done in my quiet time but prompted by Mark I hope that I can increase my blessings to people I encounter.