Friday, 13 October 2017

Travelling south to the north-east

Having studied at Durham University (a long time ago) I always love returning to the area we generally call "the North-East" but which now, of course, is south of where I live, in Glasgow.  Being somewhat directionally challenged this always confuses me and I often head to the "northbound" platform automatically - and invariably sit on the wrong side of the train to view Lindisfarne as I pass... but thankfully last Friday I managed to arrive safely in Darlington to spend the weekend staying with Ruth Gee, chair of district.

On Saturday I led a Quiet Day on the theme of "Bless You" at Elm Ridge Church in Darlington.  The words Blessing/Bless/Blessed occur about 1000 times in the bible - we didn't look up every reference (!) but worked our way through many of the stories, exploring God's great desire to bless in all sorts of situations and our response of learning to "bless the Lord" even in hard times.  Throughout the day we added our own blessings to our "Blessings Board" - always an uplifting thing to do.

We looked at the words of Pharaoh in Exodus 12:32, "and bring a blessing on me too" and wondered how we, as individuals and as church, might bring a blessing on our public life and society. Everyone settled down for half an hour before lunch to write their own blessings to be given to family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, politicians... who knows?   Some of the thinking for this came from my experience in the Isle of Man district in July when Loraine and I met with a group at Ballagarey who meet every morning with the explicit purpose of asking God's blessing on their communities.  (See a previous blog entry).  In the afternoon the group responded powerfully to an invitation to offer prayers of intercession around the words of the Beatitudes - so relevant to the world we find ourselves in now.

Sunday was spent mainly at Elvet Methodist Church in Durham; and the 35 years since I graduated slipped by as I reacquainted myself with this beautiful church.  In the morning I was glad to preach and share in the leading of worship with Rev. Shaun Swithenbank and in the afternoon attended the growing Chinese Congregation which meets monthly at Elvet.  They were celebrating their third birthday, a joyful service at which Ruth preached (on John 2, "The party must go on"!) and 6 people were baptised.  The party certainly did go on with plenty of delicious Chinese food and  cake afterwards too!

On Monday I moved on to Newcastle and spent four hours with UK Biobank having all sorts of scans and tests as part of a national survey of health and well-being... not really a VP task, but as Newcastle is one of only 2 centres in the country offering this, it seemed a good opportunity to participate.

Tuesday was to be an exciting day - not only my birthday (!) but a Newcastle District pilgrimage following the Pilgrim Poles to Lindisfarne - one of my very favourite locations in the world! The weather was fair, the spirits were high, the water was not as cold as I have known it, nor the mud as deep or sticky as sometimes, and I was thrilled to be able to include such a special adventure into my year of office, organised by Rev. Gill Welsh, minister in the Lindisfarne circuit, who has often led my pilgrim groups in worship and communion before our crossings in the past few years.

Along with around 25 walking pilgrims from the district (plus a few others who joined us on the other side by car) our party included a woman who was on holiday and had been disappointed not to be able to cross to the island for various reasons.  She shared this with a member of staff at the hostel where she was staying, and that staff member just happened to be a Methodist who knew of the event and arranged for her to join us!  I feel that the day played an important part in her life's journey and she was a great blessing to the pilgrim band.


After the crossing we gathered in St. Cuthbert's Centre on Holy Island for picnic lunches and some reflections from me on rhythm and from all of us on our experience.  Within my thinking about rhythm, for some time I have been captivated by the idea that much of life is about finding the balance between Adventure and Security (a pair of words I first heard used together in a Radio 4 Sunday Worship, applied there to the journey of ordination, but, I think, relevant to most if not all of us on our own life's pilgrimage).

Chair of district, Stephen Lindridge, was amongst the company and took many photos which, I think, capture something of that blend of adventure and security which filled the day.

We were all transported in cars back to the mainland before the tide cut us off at 4:30pm and I headed to Berwick-upon-Tweed station, remembering that this time I did need the "northbound" platform!  Jill





Sunday, 8 October 2017

Shetland revisited

As this wonderful year of experiences and encounters unfolds I begin to have more and more regard for Wesley's famous journal. Not only the content but the mere fact of it - when did he find time to write it? As Loraine and I make our way around the Connexion, sometimes together and sometimes separately,  we are trying to record our travels in various ways - blogs, Facebook, Twitter - ways which were not available to Wesley, but which I feel sure he would have used if they had been, but sometimes it's hard to keep up!

So here I am in Darlington at the end of a varied and thoroughly enjoyable district visit, reflecting back to last week in Shetland. I have posted some initial photos and notes on Facebook and my own blog,  but, a week later, am still reflecting on aspects of the visit.

Nearer to Norway

Several folk in Shetland pointed out that Lerwick, the capital, is closer to Bergen in Norway than to Edinburgh. Shetland generally feels more affinity with England than with Scotland (I decided not to wear my Methodist tartan kilt there!) and would be in an interesting, but uncomfortable, positon if Scotland ever does become independent.
These Scandinavian links were clear when I participated in a meeting of the relatively newly-formed ecumenical Shetland Women's Network - a gathering of almost 100 women aged between 16 & 86 who are linked with an organisation in Norway (as the worship focus displays).

Pilgrim possibilities
Along with both ministers in the islands, Andrew and David, I visited a number of small, beautifully-kept, but relatively isolated Methodist chapels. The pilgrim in me was itching to find paths to walk between them and put together a Methodist pilgrim route... maybe one day... These little gems already bear witness to the faith story of the islands; perhaps there are ways to use the buildings to proclaim more clearly their story, and the story which lies behind all such chapels, the story of Jesus?



Celebrating worship
On Sunday afternoon I was delighted to present a certificate marking 25 years as a local preacher to Joy at North Roe chapel. Her enthusiasm for sharing the gospel - through singing and guitar-playing as well as preaching and worship leading - had clearly contributed enormously to the life of that little congregation. For me it was a little incarnation too - having sat with Loraine in Methodist Church House many months ago signing a huge pile of such certificates it was special to see the "word made flesh"!
On my final evening I met with a group of 8 people committed to sharing the good news through preaching and worship leading; half of them just setting out on the new course and the other half there as mentors. The meeting began with a wonderful take on our "5-a-day" theme as Susie invited us to dip 5 different fruits into a chocolate fountain - strongly recommended! I was greatly heartened by the passion and excitement of this group (not only for the chocolate) and more widely by the ministry being offered in different roles by so many folk I met. All of this inspires in me great hope for Methodism in our most northerly district. I give thanks.

News from Darlington and Newcastle in due course...






Wednesday, 27 September 2017

24 hours in politics

Harold Wilson is supposed to have said once that "a week is a long time in politics"; I am quite sure he was correct, as, having returned late last night after a visit to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton I can't believe I was only there for 28 hours.  I had never been to Brighton before and found it very different from Glasgow (!) - symptomatic, perhaps, of my feeling of entering a brave new world.  As I arrived before the time appointed for the Free Church Leaders' Group to convene, I sat on the sea wall for a few minutes and pondered the vast grey ocean and a little brightness in the sky above - was this how the Labour Party were feeling at this point in time?

All along the seafront there was a sense of something big happening; lots of delegates and others wearing the lanyards which say to the world "I am someone"... so I put mine on too and entered the Conference venue.  If I had been hoping to bump into Jeremy Corbyn or someone else famous and have a little chat I soon realised that this conference was on a different scale from Methodist Conference and that was highly unlikely!  I enjoyed the buzz as I looked around the stalls and paid over the odds for two (admittedly high quality) "For the many" postcards.  Since it was the lunch break, a kind steward allowed me to have a little look in the auditorium (even though my lanyard only said that I was someone who should be admitted to the balcony - not a proper member) then I made my way to the balcony for the opening of the afternoon session.

"Good afternoon Conference" sounded familiar as the chair brought us to order and I was half expecting us to sing a hymn at that point... we didn't, although choruses of "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" rang throughout the chamber whenever he was mentioned or appeared.  Speakers were introduced and business proceeded, again with a sense of familiarity, and I pondered on the shared roots of the Labour Party Conference, Methodist Conference and the Trades Union Congress.  However, when it became clear that there would be opportunity for a number of members to speak, those who wished to do so stood on their chairs waving articles of clothing, umbrellas and flags... until the chair indicated who could come forward; "the woman waving the bright green scarf", "the man jumping up and down on the back row..." I did feel that we have a somewhat more decorous system in Methodism! 

In the main hall - and wherever I went - there was a great deal of energy, a great deal of optimism that Labour's time is about to arrive and a great deal of passion amongst people who want to create a better world.  The church does not have the monopoly on that!  I came away with a strong sense of God at work in so many ways and through so many channels.

It was so good to meet with the other church leaders later for a briefing meeting and then a meal together.  The Salvation Army had organised our visit brilliantly, with excellent town centre accommodation and really helpful briefing papers.  As well as the Salvation Army, the group comprised church leaders or staff members with responsibility for political life and public issues from Baptist, United Reformed, Quaker and Methodist Churches, along with Steve Hucklesby representing JPIT who do such wonderful work across denominations.

On Tuesday (was that really only yesterday?) we all attended the Prayer Breakfast organised jointly by Christians on the Left and All We Can, where I was proud to hear All We Can's Simon Beresford  speaking about the importance of relationship in international development.  (Delicious breakfast too).  Then we moved to a group of sofas and chairs in the foyer of the Grand Hotel, carefully saved for us by the Salvation Army's superb admin assistant, Olivia.
These we occupied for the whole morning - not just sitting around drinking coffee.  One after another we were joined by MPs and other activists (representing the Refugee Council and Joseph Rowntree Foundation) for a succession of quick-fire 15 minute meetings.  At each one we introduced ourselves, asked one or two leading questions, allowing the guest to share what they were involved in, raised some of the related issues in which our churches are working, and offered prayer for the MP and their work before having a photo taken with each one. Discussions focussed particularly on the refugee crisis, poverty, peace-making and, of course, the effect on all of these of Brexit, In all cases we were treated with warmth and appreciation and we sought not to lobby or harangue, but to affirm.  A great privilege and fascinating experience.  As someone who is very much a beginner in politics, I was so glad to have the expertise and insights of the others to inform and guide our discussions and felt again the great wealth of wisdom, compassion and hunger for justice which there is in our churches.

Over lunch time I attended a fringe event with the Scottish Labour Party -  effectively hustings for their new leader - and just had time to catch 20 minutes of Naomi Klein, International Speaker in the main arena, before another short gathering with the church leaders and then my train north... reaching home just before midnight.  What a fascinating time, what a privilege... but a week in politics?  I'm not sure I could take the pace!  Jill

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

At Westminster Cathedral

This year continues to unfold with rich and varied experiences and I am so grateful to the Methodist Church for these opportunities (literally, "open doors").

Yesterday began early as I was on the 5:40 train from Glasgow to London - which enables me to be at Methodist Church House for 10:30am (I admit I wouldn't want to do it every day!) I attended Ministries Committee, of which I have been a member for 2 years, and engaged with about a dozen others on a wide-ranging and packed agenda.

I had to leave a little before the end to travel to Westminster Cathedral with Rev. Neil Stubbens, the Methodist Church Ecumenical Officer; together we were representing the Methodist Church in Britain at the service of "Solemn Vespers of the dead" for His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, former Archbishop of Westminster, who died on 1st September.  In the Sacristy (surrounded by dozens of priests and bishops donning robes of white, black and purple) we were made extremely welcome. Canon John O'Toole, the Catholic Ecumenical Officer, who has attended the last two Methodist Conferences went out of his way to make us feel comfortable and at home and numerous other clergy greeted us, introduced themselves and made conversation, including the current Archbishop, Vincent Nichols. It was certainly good to have Neil there who already knew many of them and was able to fill in bits of background and context for me.

We processed into a packed Cathedral for a service full of awe and beauty but also full of love and thankfulness for a wise leader who had been friend to many there. The choir were superb and the silence held after their rendition of Bruckner's motet "The mouth of the just" was like the silence of heaven. It was my first time inside this magnificent building so I breathed in the sense of the sacred, along with the incense of prayers.


I couldn't help but be aware that, in a procession of at least a hundred all told (plus the choir), I was the only woman. The weight of representation settled on my shoulders! At least one other Methodist woman was present in the service, Gillian Kingston from Ireland, currently Vice-President of the World Methodist Council who came across from High Leigh where she was attending the European Methodist Council so we were glad to catch up with her later.



Friday, 8 September 2017

Happy Methodist Hogmanay

During the two years I have lived in Scotland I have gained a greater understanding of the significance of celebrating the New Year - "Hogmanay" is big north of the border!  The Methodist Church in Britain starts a new organisational year on 1st September each year so for Loraine and me this has been a week of events marking that.

We began on Sunday morning at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London for a great time of worship and dedication.  It is a time of transition for Wesley's Chapel as Rev. Dr. Jennifer Smith takes the role of superintendent minister so we were delighted to share in worship with her.  Loraine preached on "Ambassadors of Christ" (you can still watch the service here).  As we arrived, we encountered Rev. Jorg Niederer, a Swiss Methodist minister who had walked here from Switzerland over the past two months!  I had been following his blog intermittently during his pilgrimage and was so glad to meet up. 



After a fantastic international lunch there we made our way to Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, where we shared in an evening service of Holy Communion and prayers for healing.  This was conducted in a very relaxed and Spirit-filled atmosphere and it was so good to see clergy and laity together giving and receiving ministry in this historic church.  I tackled the evening Old Testament lectionary reading from 2 Kings and you can listen to my attempts to make sense of it here.  We were both somewhat awed to find our names on these boards... we stand in some mighty shoes!

On Monday we shared in a very special event at Methodist Church House as 8 young people were commissioned to serve in a variety of situations as interns for one year.  Abigail, Dean, Georgia, Hannah, Helen, Madalena, Rachel and Rebecca will be in locations as diverse as Action for Children, Rome, Central Finance Board, the House of Lords, JPIT and the Academy for Executive Coaching.  It was such a privilege to meet them and hear about their plans; do remember them in your prayers.

On Tuesday we headed north together to share in worship, conversation and encounter at Manchester Central Buildings as we saw in the new year with Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes (TMCP) and members of the bilingual Swahili-English congregation, and from the circuit and district.  Another great experience and good to hear of the work happening there from Rev. Ian Rutherford and Deacon Ruth Lackenby amongst others.

Back to London in the evening to be ready for the Connexional Team New Year gathering.  Along with the brand new Youth President, Michael Pryke, I led brief prayers before the team meeting which Loraine addressed.  She used the idea of early explorers struggling to navigate mountainous territories when they were only equipped with canoes for river voyages.  We too need new equipment for new terrain in the church in this generation.  The meeting then heard from from two exciting pieces of work, the Holy Biscuit in Newcastle, and church-planting in Stoke-on-Trent, both of which are finding just those new tools for new situations.  The Connexional Team work very hard in all sorts of ways - when I arrived at Methodist Church House at 8:30 on Monday morning I was surprised how many people I found already at their desks, beavering away.  Do pray for these folk as well.  

Perhaps the idea of a "Methodist Hogmanay" sounds like a contradiction in terms, but John Wesley certainly valued the opportunity a new calendar year brings to renew our walk with God, so perhaps not!  Charles Wesley's new year hymn "Come, let us anew our journey pursue" (Singing the Faith 460) includes the phrase "and never stand still"... which seems to have fitted our week quite well so far! 

Of course the week has also included the terrible destruction of hurricane Irma.  We continue to hold a suffering world in prayer - do visit the facebook pages as well if you can.

Jill  

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Pray out the old, pray in the new

31st August… the last day of the meteorological summer (about the only sort of summer some of us have had this year!) and also the last day of the Methodist Connexional year… How do we feel as this date dawns?
Loraine and I are almost ten weeks into our new roles and have begun getting to know new parts of the Connexion and of the world.  Thank you for your prayers for us as we travel and share – those prayers make all the difference.  As we all say good bye to one year and hello to a new year, prayer seems to be the place to start… so here I share a few thoughts about where my prayers may take me in these days:
Confessing and letting go – perhaps, if I am honest, there are things about the past year which weren’t so great; upsets, disputes, disappointments, hasty words... Today seems like a good day to let go of anything which could fester or distract me from my own discipleship. 
Amongst people I meet in the wider Methodist church too I have encountered strained relationships, hurt and bitterness.  All of this is not surprising – we all “fall short of the glory of God” (as Paul puts it in Romans3:23) – but, as I always urge those who come with me on pilgrimage, heavy loads slow us down and grievance is a very heavy load.  Can we make today a day for putting down some of those loads and walking away, towards a shared goal of peace?
Tomorrow, 1st September, is being marked by many as a day of prayer and fasting.  There is plenty for which to pray…   
Hoping and picking up – A new Connexional year brings with it many signs of hope and new beginnings.  The Yorkshire districts have been reconfigured and launched in new shapes; the districts of London, Northampton and Yorkshire North & East have welcomed new chairs, on Monday Loraine and I will share in the induction of 8 young people who will be placed in all sorts of exciting locations as part of the ONE internship programme and on Tuesday and Wednesday we will take part in new year worship in Manchester with TMCP and in London with the Connexional Team.  Many circuits around the Connexion will be welcoming new ministers or reconfigured boundaries.  All of this is not mere formality, but happens in a context of worship and prayer which affirms that we are looking to God to work amongst us.  It is a day to listen to “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7)
Longing and looking out – Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we express our longing for the Kingdom of God to come “on earth as it is in heaven”.  But every day the media open windows onto a world which is very far from that Kingdom.  Day by day we hear of natural disasters, catastrophes, violence, suffering.  The list of places in need of prayer grows all the time; Freetown, Barcelona, Houston, Mumbai, Pakistan, Bangladesh… and there are all the places we don’t hear about in the media too. Both Loraine and I have been moved and challenged by our visits to Uganda and Ethiopia respectively.   We spoke on the phone yesterday and grieved together over such a pain-filled world. 
Once again we invite the people called Methodist to join us in prayer, prayer for ourselves, prayer for the church and prayer for the world.  Prayer can be hard work – during a very long Ethiopian Orthodox service which I attended in Debre Birhan a few weeks ago we were given “prayer sticks” to lean upon as we stood and prayed; I would have liked to bring one home, but that wasn’t allowed.  However, we do have the new Methodist Prayer Handbook to help us!   This year it is entitled “Jesus the First and Last”, reminding us of where all our prayers begin and end.  If yours hasn’t arrived yet, I hope it soon will; meanwhile, from day 22, here is Loraine’s prayer which we may all lean upon as we offer our prayers today and tomorrow and beyond:
Holy God of the morning:  still our minds.
Holy God of creation:  create through us new life and vitality today.
Holy God of whispering gentle breeze:  come to us in sighs too deep for words.
Holy God of crashing thunder:  break into our lives and into our complacency.
Holy God of sun and warmth:  encourage us to reach out with love.
Holy God of the evening:  fill the fading light of this day with your awesome presence that we might worship you, honour you, glorify you , bless you , praise and adore you as we take our rest.  Amen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Coming and going (or "planes in the night")

One of the great privileges of holding these offices of President or Vice-President of the Methodist Conference is the invitation to travel to different parts of the world.  In January/February this year I made a two-week visit to our Methodist sisters and brothers in Russia, which was an amazing experience with much warm hospitality offered in temperatures that reached -21C!  My full report can be read on the Mission pages of this website.

This week, Loraine has set off for her partnership visit to Hong Kong and Fiji and I look forward to hearing more about that in due course.

About 48 hours before she took to the airways, I landed at Heathrow following an extraordinary week in Ethiopia with our relief and development charity, All We Can (with whom Loraine recently went to Uganda; her reports are on the Presidential Facebook pages)

Ethiopia was a huge surprise to me - probably most of us think of Michael Buerk, Bob Geldof and Band Aid in 1984 or, if we are a bit older, of Jonathan Dimbleby revealing "The Hidden Famine" a decade earlier in 1973 and so we associate Ethiopia with desert, famine and drought.  Sadly, it is still a country of poverty, need and injustice, but it is a vast country and my visit was centred in Debre Birhan, about two hours' north of Addis Ababa in the Ethiopian Highlands (which are much higher than the Scottish Highlands!  We reached heights of around 3000 metres, where I found the altitude affected my breathing and ability to climb considerably!)  The rainy season is now underway - and farmers told us it has been a good rainy season so far, with plenty of rain, but without the excessive deluges which can do more harm than good - so everywhere was looking green and fertile.


I travelled with Claire Welch from All We Can and we were guided by two of All We Can's partner organisations, SUNARMA and ADEHNO, both NGOs working with local farmers and communities to find ways of increasing productivity and improving living conditions in mainly rural areas.  This method of working, with its emphasis on partnership, strikes me as extremely good practice.  We are not sending people into places to teach new methods but working on the ground with those who live there and who, day by day, are exploring how best to harness nature and, through soil and water conservation techniques, alleviate the effects of climate change and other environmental disasters.  


Amongst many others, we met shepherds rearing new strains of sheep; beekeepers with new design hives (I still managed to get stung!); women making a more efficient stove; an apple farmer discovering how this relatively new crop flourishes in the highlands (despite frost and hail - which we experienced on our visit!); a potato farmer having great success with Irish potatoes (now known locally as SUNARMA potatoes!), women breeding chickens (of course!)... and time and time again the farmers impressed upon us how their lives are being transformed, "Day by Day".  It was humbling and a huge privilege to enter the homes and lands of these generous, dignified people and to share around their tables in the ever-present "injera" (the local staple food) as well as huge loaves of celebratory bread, and, of course, the very special coffee ceremony.  (I politely declined the home-brewed beer and spirits, known to be very powerful!)


On the final day, as we were driving back to Debre Birhan and then on to Addis for our flight, I noticed a group of people gathering on the skyline, some 800 yards from the roadside.  Our driver slowed down and our hosts explained that they were a group of farmers waiting to see us and to thank us.  We walked along a low embankment through the mud to be warmly greeted (in the rain) by about 80 Ethiopian farmers from that plainland area.  Movingly they told us of how last winter the frost had devastated their crops.  They had had to go to the government for emergency food aid but even so many had had to eat leaves.  Their message was clear, however, they didn't want to be given food, they wanted to be supported in ways of making the land more fertile and protecting their crops from erosion and weather-damage.  Their gratitude to ADEHNO (and therefore All We Can) for working with them in this way was enormous.  It was a profoundly moving and humbling experience.

There is so much more I could write, and so much more I have to learn about the history of this amazing land and culture - with its proud ancient history of the origins of the human race, and its bloody recent history of the Derg Regime and the Red Terror of 1974-1991.  There is so much more I could write about the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which we attended from 5:30am - 7:15am last Sunday morning - and even then the service was not half-way through)...

I flew home with many faces, voices, prayers and hopes in my heart and mind and I am so grateful to All We Can and to the Methodist people for this life-changing encounter.  Please keep Ethiopia in your prayers.

Jill