Thursday, 29 September 2016

Reflection at the Labour Party Conference prayer breakfast

Reflection by Revd Dr Roger Walton, President of the Methodist Conference, at the Christians on the Left prayer breakfast on housing
at the Labour Party Conference 2016

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."  John 4:5-7  

Last Sunday I was participating in Harvest Service.

We took our theme from the Relief and Development Charity All We Can, whose focus for Harvest is Make a Splash.  It is particularly focused on access to clean water and we used information, stories and videos from Uganda.

Their suggested reading was the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan women in John 4.  Re-reading this passage with the issue of access to water in mind meant that I read the passage differently and noticed different features.  I realised that question of ownership is central in the passage.  Whose water is it? Who has the water and who doesn’t? Who owns it? Who can give and who needs to receive it?

In begins in the opening verses – whose well is it?  Samaritans or for all children of Jacob?

It was also the church’s Jubilee Year– 50 years since it was built.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the Year of Jubilee was a special year.

It was the year after 7 cycles of 7 years.

Years were grouped in units of 7.

For six years, people worked the land, in the seventh year, the land was rested. There was no sowing or reaping. The land had a sabbatical, so that the earth could replenish itself, so the poor could glean, and so wild animals could roam and graze. It was an environmentally and socially sensitive year.
But after 7 cycles of 7 years, it was Jubilee Year.

Jubilee Year was extra special, because not only was the landed doubly rested but all debts were cancelled and all those who had become enslaved because of debt were released.  People remembered that the land was gift from God and no one owned the land other than God.

In relation to housing the issue of ownership is central too.
·         When I worked in the north east of England, the Church of England did some outreach work on the new flats down by the Quayside in Newcastle. Many flats were bought and deliberately held empty…so that with ever increasing house price rises, the owner could sit on an ever more valuable asset. They didn’t want people to live in them.  Yet, you would walk from the quayside into the centre and meet many homeless people.
·         What a contrast with my visit to Fair Isle in the Shetlands, where the National Trust owns the Island and everyone rents from the National Trust.

The Greek word for house is Oikos.  Interestingly, we developed some fairly key words from it.
·         Economy = the rules of the house – the way we rule the household
·         Ecumenism = which tends to be thought of churches cooperating but its actual meaning is much more inclusive and means the whole inhabited earth. All who live in the house
·         Ecology = the word or discourse about the house – which in modern usage is about how we treat the planet, all creatures and one another.
For Christians, these three words are deeply connected and inform one another.

The biblical tradition holds that inclusive, responsible stewardship informs the way we develop our economy, and that the economy has a creativity loaned by God to be a benefit and blessing for all.

The day of Pentecost resulted in a community that was radically different in its holding all thing in common.  This leads Norman Kraus, the Mennonite theologian to write:

“In the new order of things life is no longer lived for one’s private advancement. Selfishness and greed are now recognised for the idiocy they are! Life is together. Individuality finds fulfilment in a community where personal relationships are more important than individual achievement. Each brother and sister’s worth is perceived in their reflection of God’s grace, not their economic utility or social role.

There is space in the biblical tradition for each to have his or her own space (for example Micah 4.4 talks of each person sitting under their own fig tree and vines).  But true fulfilment is found in the interaction of all in a diverse and rich world in which everyone has a place. 

Housing is one signal that we have such a place.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

(Channel) Island Hopping: part 2

For those of you waiting with baited breath for Part 2, the wait is over.  Here is more about our amazing visit to the Channel Islands.

As second in the tag team, I arrived on Saturday evening into Guernsey on a sunset flight and tagged with Rachel (and ate some of her ice cream), after her visit to Jersey.  Chair of District David Hinchcliffe, was there also, together with Andrew and Esther Male with whom Marion and I stayed that evening. 

The Sunday saw Rachel and I up early for an interview on Radio Guernsey followed by a service to celebrate forty years since the forming of the Bailiwick of Guernsey Circuit.  In 1976 the French speaking and the English speaking circuits came together to form one circuit, which also included the islands of Sark and Alderney.  Whilst Rachel worked with children and young people, I preached on the theme of ‘Life Begins at Forty’ and we all joined to share bread and wine and sing our final hymn, Thine be the Glory (À toi la gloire O Ressuscité) in English and French. It was a wonderful sound of praise.

After a splendid lunch with the Bailiff of Guernsey (the first citizen of Guernsey, who has number 1 as his car registration plate) and ecumenical guests, we were whisked off by boat to Sark.  Sark is an Island of a little under 500 inhabitants and has its own government.  There are no cars on the island. All transport is by bike, tractor, horse or walking.  We got a lift on the ‘toast rack’ pulled by tractor up from the harbour and the rest was on foot.  We travelled with the Rev Karen Le Mouton, the Methodist Minister on the Island, and headed for the exciting new Sanctuary Centre.  On the way we called at the Jeremiah Project.

The Jeremiah Project is a potter’s workshop where visitors are invited to make a pot under the guidance of master potter Loraine. It is later fired and finished and sent to the visitor at no charge. The Methodist Church covers the cost and uses the engagement with tourists to relate to the notion of God forming people (Jeremiah 18).  Lots of correspondence comes back after the pots are received and many have been prompted by this gift to think more about God in their lives. 
The Sanctuary Centre is an ambitious project costing around £650,000 and it is nearing completion. When finished, it will house support services for the islanders including the island’s only youth facility, as well as medical and psychological services. There are few, if any such services on Sark because the island has no social security provision; health care must be paid for and there are few safe spaces for people to seek help without everyone being aware.  For historic reasons, the land is owned by a small number of people but the Methodist Church owns land on which to build due to an incident in the Church’s early history. Originally the Methodist Church was on land owned by a land owner but apparently their singing was so loud, it disturbed the land owner, who then gave them land much further away on which to build a new church.  This has worked well because it means the Church now has land on which to build the Sanctuary Centre and it is away from the main centres and thus ensures some privacy for folk seeking help.  

After returning to Guernsey and having an informed tour of the Island, including standing on the stone on which John Wesley preached, we attended the MHA Care Homes, Maison L'Aumone, and Maison de Quetteville, which offers Dementia care. There we met staff, residents and the Chaplain, the Rev Mark Street, and learned something of the challenges facing those involved in care for the elderly.  Like elsewhere in Britain, the cost of quality care is above what local authorities (and individuals) want or are able to pay but as we saw high staff ratios and active programmes make a huge difference to the experience of those living there.  I reflected that if and when I needed such support for later life there is nowhere I would rather go than this MHA (Guernsey) facility.

Then it was time to go home and get ready for our next trip.  We will treasure this visit and are grateful to Revd Dr David Hinchcliffe and everyone who made the experience so special.

Monday, 19 September 2016

(Channel) Island Hopping Part 1

Jersey: home of Bergerac, finance industry, cows....and gorillas, foodbanks and knitting.

Roger and I visited the Channel Islands District as a tag team: I went to Jersey and Guernsey; Roger visited Guernsey and Sark.  And whilst the islands were as beautiful and the people as friendly as  you'd expect, we were both privileged to see life beyond the tourist trail.

I met with Revd Tony Morling and colleagues at the Methodist Centre in St Hellier in Jersey.  This stunning building, built originally for the French Methodist population, is now home to a community cafe, foodbanks, Toddler Church, Messy Church and much more.  Its local population is now largely made up of Portuguese migrants.  Tony talked with me about the poverty and inequality on the island, and the increasing number of people who were coming to the foodbank for lack of other options.  The Centre is clearly committed to offering a warm personal welcome to all who visit, and exploring ways of deepening discipleship among everyone who connects with it.

The circuit is investing a lot of energy into work with families and children.  I was fortunate to spend a morning with the layworkers on the island, who run a selection of Messy Churches, toddler groups, youth groups, to talk about what holiness and justice might look like in their life and work.  But this was the first time I had come across "Messy Vintage" - taking messy church crafts, conversations and worship into care homes and dementia units.  What a great idea.

For this really is a creative place!  I met Cathy Morling of Talitha, a group of professional artists and arts therapists passionate about the potential to restore hope, dignity and worth to people who have experienced exploitation or violence through the freedom of the creative arts, which is starting work on Jersey.  And Revd Elaine Halls gave me a wonderful knitted nativity, which is distributed to people before Christmas as a way of exploring the nativity story.

On the Saturday morning I shared interesting conversations with members of the circuit as we explored what "speaking truth to power" means in Jersey, looking particularly at issues of poverty and ethical investment.  In the afternoon, I was pleased to attend the Pride Jersey march, a lively community celebration of human identity and our ability to coexist.

At various points I was reminded that the Channel Islands had been occupied during the second world war.  This experience has not surprisingly shaped many residents.  This swastika, scraped in the brick of a house occupied by someone who was alleged to have collaborated with the Nazis, is a reminder that the scars run deep.

So where do  the gorillas come in?  Well I had the pleasure of visiting the Durrell, an amazing conservation centre with the aim of "saving species from extinction".  We were shown round by Dominic, the Head of the Mammals Department, who talked with pride and passion about the work of the centre.  It was sobering to hear from him about the impact of climate change on animal populations, as well as the increasing impact of deforestation.  And whilst the bats were probably my favourite animal there, and the breeding programme of endangered frogs was the most interesting, what a sheer emotional privilege it was to see the mighty gorillas at such close quarters, the mother holding hands with her baby.  

On Saturday afternoon I flew off to Guernsey for the celebration of 40 years of the creation of the Bailiwick  of Guernsey circuit...but I'll let Roger pick that up in the next post.  Thank you to Revs Graeme and Elaine Halls, Rev Tony Morling and colleagues at the Methodist Centre, the lovely layworkers and everyone who welcomed me to Jersey.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The struggle continues...

It was off to the House of Lords last night on a sticky London evening, where I was privileged to speak at the launch of a book by Methodist minister, Rev David Haslam.  

A Luta Continua (The struggle continues) is a memoir of David’s ministry.  David has been deeply committed to working for justice in the world.  He was at the forefront of the campaign to challenge the apartheid government in South Africa in the 70s and 80s by pressing for companies to stop investing there.  He has worked for justice for Dalits, some of the most oppressed people in the world.  He’s argued for the urgency of action on climate change. And he’s pushing for tax justice by transnational corporations.  

Reading the book I chuckled at the audacity of some of David’s actions – borrowing a Franciscan monk’s habit to go to Downing St and demand that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher give him St Francis’s prayer back – but David has also worked to build relationships and coalitions.

Like many prophets, what he says is often uncomfortable for us to hear because it challenges vested interests. Even if you don’t agree with David’s views or his politics (though history suggests he’s often been right), our Church needs people like David to keep us uncomfortable.  We should never become a comfortable place to be. 

Pictured above and right are David, together with (Lord) Leslie Griffiths and (Baroness)  Hilary Armstrong, the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, Fr Abiola, and David's wife Sarah.  

Also present were some of the many, many Methodists who have worked with, argued with and been inspired by David over the course of his ministry.

A Luta Continua  is available from all good bookshops...! 

(Photos by David Hardman)

Monday, 5 September 2016

Well hi y’all! Unity without uniformity in Texas

The global Methodist family meets once every five years in the form of the World Methodist Conference.  

And we are a gloriously diverse lot.  Over 2000 people have been gathered in Houston, Texas, to worship, have fellowship, learn and celebrate.  Together we represented more than 80 Churches in 133 countries, from Chile to China, from Sweden to South Africa, from Tanzania to Toga.  We may have had different languages, different cultures, different ecclesiologies, but we were united in the love of God, and as Churches with shared roots in the ministries of John and Charles Wesley.

The variety of traditions and countries was celebrated on the first evening when representatives of each Church carried a banner onto the stage representing their country or denomination – all whilst singing “And can it be?”, a deeply moving occasion.

This variety was also represented in the preaching and teaching.  On the first evening the Revd Professor David Wilkinson of Durham University did a lively double act with Dr Jennifer Wiseman, a leading astrophysicist.  Together they explored the awesome nature of the universe, through stunning photographs from the Hubble telescope and a reflection on Psalm 8.

On Thursday, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church gave a sermon in the finest tradition of the American deep south, full of emotion, drama, call and response.  She challenged us with the question: “What does your love look like?”.  It’s the first sermon I’ve ever heard which ended with the entire congregation holding hands, dancing and singing “Love Train”!

Grace Imathiu, the Kenyan author and preacher, led a bible study looking at the story of the Prodigal Son.  She reminded us that using this title distracts us from the fact that the parable is actually about the father, not the son.

Chap and Julie from Sugar Land Methodist Church
Of course, even with such inspirational input, the most valuable part of the Conference is the conversations you have with Methodists from all over the world in the coffee queue, the lift or over breakfast.  We met Ann, a clergy woman from Hong Kong, who served with the US military as a chaplain.  We met Robin who led young adults’ work in Australia.  We met Chap and Julie, leaders in Christchurch Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Houston, whose choir led some of the worship and whose church sponsored a lunch.  We met Bishops galore, from small Churches, such as the tiny but growing Methodist Church in North Myanmar to the enormous Nigerian and Korean Methodist Churches.  We also met the American Para-Olympic athletes who were staying at the same hotel.

The theme of the conference was “ONE” - One God; One Faith; One People; and One mission: we have such diversity as Churches and as people from around the world, but we have Unity as we worship the one God.  

Now this isn’t to pretend that we are one big happy family all the time.  It is clear that there are tensions within Churches, and between Churches and nations. And these tensions were apparent at times during the course of the gathering.  We have different priorities and pressures, and the gulfs between the cultural realities within which we practice our faith are immense.  But as speaker after speaker reminded us, we do not create unity, rather we are called to preserve the gift of unity given by God in Christ (Ephesians 4.2) in the way we live our lives and the way we are church where we are.  This is a big calling.  It is not a passive acceptance of the status quo.  Instead it is a challenge to love.  The kind of love that disrupts as well as brings peace.  Love that costs and doesn’t give up, that not only inhabits the church, but pours out into the world.

The World Methodist Conference took place at the same time as the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women.  To our delight one of the British delegates, Alison Judd, was elected as the World President.  We know the Methodist people will want to offer their congratulations to Alison, and also Carolyn Lawrence who took over as the Vice-President of the Britain and Ireland unit, and assure them of our prayers.

Revd Jo Cox-Darling preaching on Saturday
We were only able to attend the first few days of the Conference as we were scheduled to be at Wesley’s Chapel and Methodist Central Hall Westminster for the first Sunday of the new Connexional year.  As such we missed the session led by one of the British delegation, the Revd Dr Joanne Cox-Darling – though we heard later that it was inspirational.  

We begin this year encouraged and enthused by the unity without uniformity of our glorious Methodist family under God.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

A moving tragedy

One of the gifts I brought away from our visit to the Bristol District is a copy of the recently published ‘A Tragedy of Errors’ by Gary Best.  It was a gift from the New Room team and I read it on a couple of train journeys this week, finishing in Brighouse today. 
The subtitle outlines what the book is about: ‘The story of Grace Murray, the woman whom John Wesley loved and lost’.
Grace was an enthusiastic and energetic Methodist who was converted to faith through the work of the Wesleys and Whitefield and was appointed house keeper at the Orphan House in Newcastle, one of three key bases for Methodism, alongside Bristol and London.  The core of the story is about the relationship between Grace and John Wesley and how close they came to marrying.  The scandal of Charles Wesley’s intervention to prevent this happening caused deep division between the brothers and threatened to break up the Methodist connexion.  Grace married another of the Methodist preachers, John Bennet, and this also created ongoing tensions within the relationships of the leading figures of the revival.
Of course, the story is not simple but complex and Gary Best helps us to see the various contributing factors and to weigh up the evidence for interpreting the motives and causes of the events.   What I particularly liked about the book was threefold:
  1. The setting of the story of the seemingly doomed romance within the wider life of Grace Murray.  She has been a band and class leader, a travelling evangelist accompanying John Wesley and several other key figures.  After her marriage to John Bennet she continued her work alongside him and after his death held band, class and prayer meetings in her home.  She died in 1803 at the age of 87 still confident in the faith she had discovered as a young woman and still encouraging others in their faith journey.  The book helps us see that this was not a woman who played a part in John Wesley’s life but whose story is worth telling and hearing in its own right. It is surprising that a full biography has not been published before.
  2. The humanity of the characters.  We rightly revere the founding figures of Methodism.  They brought about nothing less than a spiritual revolution in the 18th century which continued to have massive impact on social and political life in Britain beyond their deaths and we look to them for inspiration in our own time. They were nevertheless women and men subject to same desires, impulses and dilemmas as face all human beings and the range of emotions from tenderness through angry arguments to deep disappointment and frustration characterised their lives too.  The narrative that unfolds here portrays each person as fallible and capable of making major errors of judgement, which sets some of the discussion about Christian perfection in context. Yet it is also clear that all involved were trying to work out how to live faithfully to their experience of God and their sense of call.  That doesn’t mean they always got it right – far from it as this book shows - but faith was a key part of living for them. 
  3. The sense of the close working of those involved in earliest Methodism. Whilst this growing network called Methodism needed tight organisation and continual attention, it was not some bureaucracy that made it work but a closely knit family of preachers, pastors and pray-ers.  They knew each other, met, prayed, travelled and worked together and when they were not together they wrote letters.  The gossip that was often a part of the societies was promoted by news being carried here and there by travelling preachers with the gaps filled in by active minds.  They had an early form of social media operating in this web of relationships. The book helps us to see this form of koinonia and to understand the ways in which the interactions shaped the movement.  
It is a paging-turning story.  I couldn’t put it down.  I strongly commend the book and say ‘thank you’ Gary Best and the New Room team.  It is a great read.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Pubs, prisons and potential - visiting the Bristol District

I never thought that being Vice President would get me VIP entry to a nightclub in Chippenham. And I certainly never thought I'd be wearing a hi-vis jacket while I was in there.

This was only one of many wonderful experiences that Roger and I had on our first district visit, spending four days in the Bristol District.

Mandy Briggs, Education Officer
at the New Room
Visiting the New Room building site
We had two hi–vis moments during our visit. The first was when we donned jackets and hard hats, George Osborne style, to visit the new building project at the New Room, Bristol - the oldest Methodist building in the world. The building project will result in a cafe, library, education space and exciting new museum - and is slotted (very) carefully into a courtyard between Grade 1 listed buildings.

Out on patrol
We put on the second hi-vis of our visit on our evening out with the Street Pastors of Chippenham. I had heard about the work of Street Pastors before, but this was the first time I'd seen them in action.  We went out with them on their first shift of the evening.  After praying together we set out in two teams, on either side of the road.  My first impression was how much they were integral to the night time economy: the police, the door staff, the bar owners all knew them (this was when, wearing my hi-vis observer jacket, were invited into the club SM15 to be given a quick tour by the owner).  What's more, the people out in Chippenham for the night not only knew them, but appreciate what they do.  I was stopped on a number of occasions by people, often obviously enjoying their night out, who said thank you for the Street Pastors.  
Rachel's street cred rises -
we were photographed by the
official club photographer

Secondly I was stunned by how effective a set up this is: Street Pastors are well trained, equipped with first aid, defibrillators, water, flip flops (your feet hurt after a night out!), jelly babies (great at defusing fights), walkie talkies with links to the news about what was going on in bars and on CCTVs.

Visiting the police station in Chippenham
with Police Chaplain, Revd David Gray
And thirdly I couldn't help but be moved by the Christian care they displayed: from helping the distressed homeless man, keeping an eye on the young man high on drugs, talking with the Polish man about life after the referendum, to helping people who were vulnerable through drink or circumstance. Chatting to the pastors on duty that evening they spoke about how they wanted to put something back into their community and saw it as a way of practically witnessing to the gospel.

We were also privileged to visit a prison over the weekend.  This was my first time inside a prison, and I found it hard. The staff we met were impressive, committed to a fair and safe place where prisoners could grow in both skills and personal development. And the multi-faith chaplaincy service there was incredible, way beyond anything I'd imagined chaplaincy could offer. But this is all in the face of a physically tired building, a chronic lack of staff which can prevent inmates taking part in activities, and an environment and lifestyle which is unhealthy.  Thank God for what is being done, but how much more we need to prioritise our criminal justice system to make rehabilitation possible.

The art room at the Bristol
Methodist Centre
Discussions about life post-referendum
at the Bristol Methodist Centre
On Saturday we saw the new Bristol Methodist Centre, a refurbished church building operating as a day centre for homeless and vulnerably housed people. As well as offering food, showers and support, it has a sacred space, art room and even kennels so that homeless people with dogs can use the facilities.  

Communion at Fairways
On Sunday Roger and I headed in different directions to worship: Roger went to Pill, the place from which Francis Asbury sailed to America where he ended up as a founding figure of American Methodism; and I went to Chippenham Central Methodist. In the afternoon we celebrated communion with residents of the Fairways MHA home. Throughout the weekend it was lovely to meet with so many Methodist and other Christians, to talk, eat and laugh together.

On board the ARK bus - faith in action
Thank you to members of the Bristol District for making us so welcome on our first visit. We can't possibly describe everything we did or everyone we met (there’s so much going on!) but we hope these photos give something of an idea. Thanks particularly to David, Ann, David, Ann, Jonathan, Denise, Andy, Kate, the street pastors, friends at Sea Mills, the Ark, the New Room and the Bristol Methodist Centre, and to Mike Alderman for being our official photographer!
In the garden of Charles Wesley's house
(yes, we needed a sit down by this stage!)

Communion at the New Room