Tuesday, 27 October 2009


David and I have just come back from a few fascinating days in Gibraltar. We visited with Rev John Hellyer, Chair of the South East District as Gibraltar is a circuit within the District. Our visit was timed to celebrate 240 years of Methodism in Gibraltar.

Sergeant Henry Ince, who was stationed with the army on the Rock in 1769, wrote to John Wesley asking permission to establish a Methodist Society in Gibraltar as a group of soldiers were meeting together for worship and fellowship. At the time the army had strong concerns about soldiers being Methodist and a future commanding officer was to prohibit Methodist practice altogether, 2 soldiers being given a sentence of 200 lashes as a result of disobeying this order.

Sergeant Ince is also well known on the island for leading the development of a series of siege tunnels dug deep in to the limestone Rock. At various points ventilation holes give views of Spain in the near distance and these were also used to site guns to protect Gibraltar from Spanish armies.It was therefore appropriate to celebrate the founding of the Methodist Church in Gibraltar in George's Hall, a large limestone cave dug out deep inside the Rock at the end of the Siege Tunnel.

We were joined by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Bishops of Gibraltar, members of the Gibraltar government, the Mayor of Gibraltar and church members and friends, some of whom had travelled down from Spain. Circuit Superintendent Fidel Patron welcomed everyone to the evening reception and introduced Sue Jackson who has just completed a detailed chronicle of the history of the Methodist Church in Gibraltar. Her excellent book is now available and was launched at the reception. David brought greetings from the wider Connexion and commented on the beauty of Gibraltar that we’d been lucky enough to see earlier that day, not least the wonderful sunset we had witnessed before entering the Siege Tunnel that evening.

On Sunday morning we joined with the congregation at the Methodist Church on Main Street. The church is blessed with a large number of members with musical skills, so much so that they have two music groups, one for the morning service and another for the evening. David preached and I brought greetings from the Conference.

One of the important ministries of the church is to run the Carpenter’s Arms, a cafĂ© and alcohol-free bar. It is well used by locals and tourists alike, serving meals and offering a listening ear every day of the week. On Sunday after the service not only is coffee and tea served to the congregation, but at the same time 15-20 homeless men receive a free meal cooked by church volunteers. The men I talked with had come from Poland, Germany, Italy and England. They'd travelled to Gibraltar looking for work as there is almost no unemployment here. Unfortunately most of the men had alcohol problems and found themselves homeless. The numbers of homeless in Gibraltar are small but the church is doing what it can to support those on their doorsteps as directly as they can.

We shared a barbeque lunch with church members on the manse balcony, the same balcony we were to watch yet another spectacular sunset from before the evening service.During the evening service David and I talked about our respective Christian journeys, our experiences up and down the Connexion over the last 4 months and our hopes for the future of the Methodist Church in Britain and throughout the world.

On Monday the new Governor arrived on board HMS Lancaster to start his 3 year term of office. David and Liz and Anne and I had all been invited to meet him at his post swearing-in evening reception. It gave us an opportunity to talk to both the Governor and the First Minister of State about the new way of working between the Gibraltan and British governments as they develop a new and increasingly mature relationship through a newly adopted constitution that moves power from the Foreign Office and Governorship to the Gibraltan state.

Earlier in the day we visited the naval base on Gibraltar where Harbour Master Lt. Cdr Nick Chapman talked to us about the role of the forces on the Rock. The size of the force has reduced dramatically over recent years and could do so further with any future M.O.D. strategic review. The Forces have played an important role in the history of Methodism in Gibraltar and what is not in doubt is the way the role of the churches in Gibraltar are clearly valued and respected by the military here.

David had already been interviewed for local radio and on Monday afternoon was interviewed for the local news programme. We were both then interviewed for the weekly religious affairs TV programme. It gave us a good opportunity to reflect on the many highlights of our visit over the last 4 days and on the witness of the Methodist Church in Gibraltar for the last 240 years.

We were looked after extremely well by Rev Fidel Patron and his wife Sheila throughout our stay and we owe them and all the church members that helped to make our visit so enjoyable a great debt of gratitude.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Wales Synod and Synod Cymru, 14th - 18th October

Unveiling a plaque to mark the centenary of Skewen Methodist was but one of many interesting, exciting and sometimes surprising moments during a visit to Wales. The next day I was entrusted with the task of cutting the cake at the 150th anniversary in Abergele, where I also had the opportunity to meet up with Robin Wood, with whom I was at Wesley House in the early 70s. One of the really enjoyable aspects of Presidential visits is the encounters with people from various moments in your past. Robin explained to the congregation at Abergele what a very significant role table tennis had played in the formation of our generation of ministers.

Earlier in the day I had met with some of the ministers and officers of the Wales Synod, at Radyr, and visited (with Will Morrey and Stephen Wigley) two excellent Action for Children projects in Caerphilly - the Family Intervention Team and the Children's Centre.

The following day we drove through mid-Wales. The weather was sunny and the scenery spectacular. For lunch we stopped at Pentre Llifior, a chapel with a fascinating history where a lot of work is being done to make it available for wider use. It's well worth a visit. I tried out the pulpit and would have tried out the harmonium if mice hadn't beaten me to it!

We travelled on via Pennant Melangell, a place of pilgrimage and a sanctuary, a 'safer space'. Over our evening meal we met members of the leadership team of Synod Cymru and had a chance to explore some of the challenges facing them at the moment. By nightfall we reached our destination, Bangor, and the home of Alf and Mary Williams.

On Saturday morning people gathered for a morning considering aspects of 'Creating Safer Space', my Conference theme. We covered a lot of ground and tackled some pretty important if complex issues. This session was followed by lunch and then Wales Synod Chair Stephen Wigley and I found a quiet spot (in a golf club!) with a TV screen to watch part of a rugby match. Rugby is a love of mine. Had I been at home in London I would have been watching my team, London Welsh, beating the Cornish Pirates.

Next we dropped into Coed Craig, the Methodist Home at Rhos, where a 10th anniversary was being celebrated. This is a fine building with beautiful gardens and wonderful sea views.

Our day ended at a Circuit Celebration at St John's, Llandudno. The worship began in the church premises, but ended on the promenade - with the lighting and launching of a sky candle. I've never been involved with such a thing before and it was a bit questionable as to whether we'd get it lighted. But once it was well and truly going it sailed gently heavenwards and we (and many other people on the promenade) watched it until it was almost out of sight. By this time the candle had gone out so it drifted slowly back to earth.

Saturday night was spent with Trevor and Mal Pratt, and Sunday morning at Buckley Cross. This was a most enjoyable service, attended by the Mayor and representatives of the Council. We lunched at a country house restaurant, where the other party was a group of Rolls Royce enthusiasts (hence my attempt to drive away in the wrong car!).

From lunch we went to a thanksgiving service led by the minister, Rosemarie Clarke, to mark the completion of the refurbishment of the 'Community Room' at Northop Hall Methodist Church for community use. The room looks great and has been renovated in such a way as to reduce its carbon footprint by something like 80%. So it's good for the planet. But it's also quite clearly good for the community, and is a very imaginative development of Methodist resources in a way that responds to the needs of the wider community. A celebration cake was cut by the oldest and youngest members of Northop Hall. Mrs Lilian Edgington and Libby Smith.

My final stop of the day (and of my visit to Wales) was Wrexham, for a very well attended ecumenical service for One World Week. At this service we also marked John Rayfield's 50 years as a Local preacher and I was privileged to present a certificate to John.

I drove back to London with many memories - of places visited, ideas shared, scenery admired, but most of all of people met.

Southlands College, 13th October

Tuesday October 13th saw the Welcome Service for Principal, Prof. Yvonne Guerrier, and Assistant Chaplain, Nicola Coulthard, at Southlands College, Roehampton University. The picture shows the preacher (me) standing next to Yvonne and Nicola, along with John Cooke (Chair of Governors), Prof. Paul O'Prey (Vice-Chancellor) and David Innes (Chaplain). We're all looking a bit relieved because the formal service is over and we're about to share a fine meal!
For me it was good to revisit Southlands, which relocated to its present site when I was on the staff of the former Division of Education and Youth. It was also good to see it as it is today and to meet some of those who make up its community. The Methodist Church's ongoing commitment to Education is very significant (as my visits to India and Sri Lanka earlier in the month had demonstrated).

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Ossett and Horbury Circuit Service

This evening I lead a circuit service at Horbury Methodist Church in the Ossett and Horbury Circuit of the Leeds District. It is the home church of my parents-in-law, John and Vera Sudworth, and the home circuit of my aunt, Janet Hey, (pictured) so it felt very like a family occasion.

The circuit Superintendent minister, Rev Tony Walton and circuit stewards all took part in the service and we benefited from a dramatised reading by the worship leaders of The King’s Way Church as well as a large choir. Members from neighbouring circuits also joined the service, which was good to see as they start to develop links as part of on going discussions about a possible future single circuit that could bring together 4 of the current circuits around the Wakefield area. It is an exciting and challenging time for all of them.

Horbury Methodist Church has a vision for a new church building. Their current building has significant structural problems and the hope is to raise £1.8 million to build a building that is fit for Church and community. Pictured below with the plans are Rev Tony Walton and Mr John Sudworth who leads the new building group. They’ve raised around £0.5 million so far and they remain committed to the task despite the difficulties they’ve had with planning restrictions. Even trying to get permission to deal with the large trees that have damaged the foundations at the front of the church has been difficult. Please pray for them as they try to live out what God has called them to do in Horbury.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Lancaster Methodist Church Centenary

On Saturday October 10th, still tired from my 25 hour journey home from Sri Lanka, I set off by train to share in the 100th anniversary celebrations at Lancaster Methodist Church. On Sunday morning, a good sized congregation shared in worship led by their minister, the Revd Juliet Wriglesworth. I was the preacher at this service.

The service was followed by an excellent lunch of meat and potato pie.

Then I was taken to another part of the life of Lancaster Methodist Church - and this was quite an eye opener! Faced with the question of what to do with several chiurch buildings near the town centre, Lancaster has decided to concentrate its morning worship in the building whose centenary we were celebrating. Meanwhile, another building, right in the centre of Lancaster, is now the centre for a partnership of three charities and the church. I met representatives of the charities and church people involved in this developing scheme and our conversation gave me a lot to think about. There are certainly other places where Methodism has too many buildings for our present needs. Often we sell the surplus building(s) and use the proceeds towards refurbishing those we keep. And this may be the right thing to do. But I am sure another option which should always be considered is the possibility of being involved in something innovative and creative, working with partners. Cornerstone certainly fits this description. It also has the feel of 'creating safer space', the theme of my Conference address.

Perhaps the thing that impressed me most was when we talked about what difference it makes to the work of the charities having the church as a partner. Initial fears that the Methodists would only be wanting to get everyone going to church have died away. Instead, we talked about people's deep spiritual needs (the charities currently involved work with people with learning disabilities and with carers) and about what 'spirituality' means in this context. I only wish we had more such conversations in church meetings!

Wave prayer walk and Lambeth Palace

In December it is hoped that over 30,000 people will come to London to join a march and rally to draw attention to how seriously we take the issue of climate change and the importance of gaining an agreement at the Copenhagen summit. Yesterday I shared with Steve Clifford of the Evangelical Alliance, Roger Forster of Icthus, David Reed from the Salvation Army and Matthew Frost and Ben Niblett of Tearfund on a prayer walk along the proposed route of the march.

The event will be known as “The Wave” and participants will be encouraged to wear blue gloves and wave to those we pass. Saturday 5th December will be a major pre-Christmas shopping day so there won’t be any shortage of people to wave at! It’s also a sign of the impact of rising sea levels and we’ve only too recently been made aware of the way huge tidal waves can devastate vulnerable low lying islands in the South Pacific.

We started from Grosvenor Square opposite the American Embassy and walked down to Piccadilly, through Trafalgar Square and along Whitehall to Westminster, passing Downing Street on the way. At key points along the way we stopped to pray for those who would be taking part, for a peaceful day, for those in business and government around the world who can make such a difference if we encourage them to do so, and for the scientists who act as modern day prophets on this issue.

I hope as many people as can do so will take time to come to London in December. The Churches have a big role to play in highlighting the importance of climate change and reducing carbon footprints, leading debate and setting examples to follow.

Following the event I had the opportunity to meet Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury once again as I had been invited to attend an evening reception at Lambeth Palace. A large crowd of people shared conversation in the panelled Guard Room Hall, and I was surprised to bump in to the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, and we talked about the way many communion services had been altered since the outbreak of swine flu. It’s an interesting area where my Church and medical roles come so closely together.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sri Lanka, 3rd - 9th October

From Chennai I flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to join London District Chair, Jenny Impey and London District Synod Secretary Bala Gnanapragasam for a few days with the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. One of the first things we did was to visit families settling into a new (post-tsunami) housing organised by the City Mission and then an almost complete MRDF funded project into which families hope to move within the next few weeks. These are important pieces of work and we were hugely impressed with how the Sri Lankan Methodist Church has responded to the situation caused by the tsunami.

On the Monday I had been invited to present the prizes at the Wesley College prizegiving. We processed in, preceded by a band dressed in traditional costume. The whole occasion was a reminder of the Methodist Church's tremendous commitment and contribution to education.

There are now just two traditional Methodist schools in Sri Lanka, but we also visited quite a number of nursery schools during our stay, including one known as the 'Peace School', because it has been set up for Tamil and Muslim children together in an area where the communities have known conflict.
During our all too brief stay, we visited various parts of the country and, again and again, were very impressed and profoundly moved by how the Methodist Church is seeking to work with individuals and communities as they rebuild their lives after the tsunami and the tragic conflict through which they have lived for so many years. We visited a Methodist church that had been destroyed during the conflict - the hope is to rebuild it as a 'Peace chapel' for use by people of all faiths.

The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka has some important stories to tell and the wider church could learn many important lessons. Throughout our visit we were made wonderfully welcome.
As we came to the end of our stay we visited the elephant orphanage, near Kandy, whefre it is possible to sit and eat your lunch overlooking around 50 elephants enjoying their midday bath and cool-off in the river. So, of course, we did this - as do many people who visit Sri Lanka as tourists. But our lasting memories will be of people and of Christian hope expressed in the most tangible of ways, offering new and transformed life to individuals and communities.
Thank you, Sri Lanka.

Operation Noah Annual Lecture

Last night I was invited to attend the Operation Noah Annual Lecture at Southwark Cathedral, which was this year given by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. The cathedral was packed to hear him speak, and he took as his theme “The Climate Crisis: A Christian Response”.

He reflected on the story of Noah and the creation stories, and observed that humanity is meaningless if seen in isolation from all other living things, and that respect for humanity is bound up with respect for all created life.

Unchecked financial growth and consumerism isolates us from life and leads to the death of elements that make us distinctively human. Our addictive and self-destructive behaviour not only leaves the climate in crisis but damages our souls as well. Responding to the climate crisis gives us an opportunity to become truly human again, created in the image of God.

This does not mean preventing developing countries from trading their way out of poverty, but it does mean working towards a fairer and more equal world. He observed that societies that have the narrowest inequality gaps tend to be the happiest.

The possibility of life is never exhausted in creation, but as God gives us free will, it is for us to respond to the situation facing us, and we are offered the choice of deciding how genuinely human we want to be. Reconnecting and reconciling with an alienated world is at the heart of the Christian story.

He called on Governments to take a lead, not least at the forthcoming Copenhagen summit, but all of us need to play our part, with the smallest changes in the way that we live our life being important not just to reduce our carbon footprint, but also to stimulate a revival in our civic society. We will all benefit from a more balanced, healthy, caring approach to the environment.

The evening concluded with a plea from Mark Dowd of Operation Noah for financial support for this small campaigning organisation. They had literally £20,000 left in their budget and they risked having to make their small number of staff redundant if they weren’t able to secure significant funding in the near future.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

With MRDF in India, 29th September - 3rd October

I've always been interested in and impressed by what I've seen and read about the work of MRDF, so I was delighted to join their Head of Fundraising, Simeon Mitchell, on a visit to the RAIDS project, at Pulivendula, Andhra Pradesh, in South India. We were made very welcome wherever we went, often greeted with garlands.

During the course of a few days we travelled many miles and met some very impressive people. I was given the privilege of opening a new 'Livelihood Resource Centre'. But a bigger privilege was to meet people who were working together for a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

We met Gangadevi, ther woman who features on this year's MRDF Harvest project literature. She and her partners are now self-sufficient, and are helping other people to develop their land and crops.

We were also shown the seedbank, where villagers are able to store seed for next year's use - so their future is becoming more and more secure.

Having said this, we also became all too aware of just how vulnerable people can be to the effects of climate (and climate change). This year the first rains had not come, so the first harvest was severely affected. And then, the day before we left, heavy rains led to a dam overflowing and many people being killed - just 100km from where we had stayed. The RAIDS project sent an emergency relief team to help with the rescue work.

I believe the Methodist Recorder will be carrying an article about this visit. Please read it. And, as Christmas approaches, consider buying some of the MRDF 'Extraordinary gifts' for Christmas - or asking people to buy them for you. (You'll find them on the website.) Having seen what a difference they can make, and how 'small miracles' really take place, I shall be telling MRDF stories wherever I go around the connexion.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Wales Synod/Y Synod Cymru

This weekend I travelled down to South Wales and spent 2 good days visiting church communities in the area. I was warmly hosted by Wales Synod Chair Revd Dr Stephen Wigley and his family.

On Saturday morning we walked the short distance to Radyr Methodist Church were we met by local minister, Rev Susan McIvor and a group of church members with direct links with local health services. As nurses, doctors, managers and administrators we talked together about our day to day work and the way our faith impacted on what we did. We reflected on the many challenges those working with health care face each day and how we respond as Christian men and women.

Following our meeting we had time to drive up some of the Welsh valleys and saw the significant changes that have taken place in this area, as industry has been replaced by green hills and heritage sites such as The Big Pit. There have been major changes not only in the landscape and the type of jobs available, but the Methodist Church has been changing too, with circuits coming together and historic boundaries disappearing.

Saturday afternoon was spent with a group gathered at the newly refurbished and extended Llanyrafon Methodist Church in Cwmbran. The focal point of the sanctuary area is the impressive Oberammergau Carving, which depicts the Last Supper. I'm pictured with Superintendent minister, Revd Cathy Gale.

We talked together about the many ethical problems raised by modern health care, including the recent developments in the assisted suicide debate and the questions raised by the death of Kerrie Wooltorton, who wrote an advanced directive that prohibited health care staff from saving her life after an attempted suicide. It was a lively discussion about very difficult issues.

On Sunday morning we headed to the coast as I had been invited to preach at Trinity Methodist and United Reformed Church in Porthcawl. It is one of 4 united churches in the area. Superintendent of the Brigend United Area, Revd Gordon Sollis lead the service. The church is excellently situated on the high street of this popular tourist town and it’s premises are well used for a full range of activities, including work with people with learning disabilities.

We had been invited to lunch with former MP and health minister, Wyn Griffiths and his wife. Wyn is now Chair of the newly merged Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board which brings together local hospitals and community services, a way of working that is very different from England which currently encourages competition between groups rather than collaboration. Wyn has also lead the development of links between the local hospital and a children’s hospital in Sierra Leone, the charity helping to support senior clinical members to share their expertise in that country.

An afternoon service had been arranged at Trinity Methodist Church in the Newport and Lower Wye Circuit. The service was co-ordinated by local minister Revd Louise Gough, who had also been encouraged to share her flute playing talent and augment the church music group. The Church has recently been refurbished after a flood and it was good to share with members of the church and circuit as they started to use their building to the full again.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester

It’s Manchester…and it’s raining! It was certainly a wet start to my visit to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. As a former student in this city I know all too well what the weather can be like here, and Tuesday afternoon brought back many fond memories of soggy cycle rides in to the University.

As with previous visits to the TUC and party conferences, I was visiting alongside colleagues from other denominations, this time Revd John Marsh, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, Revd Graham Sparkes of the Baptist Union, Tim Stone of the Salvation Army and David Bradwell and Rachel Lampard from our Joint Public Issues Team. I was also here in my BMA capacity, and it was good that the programme of meetings and fringe events allowed me to fulfil both roles without any difficulty.

We shared in an inspirational Conference service on Tuesday evening in the splendid Manchester Town Hall. The theme was how churches were “Transforming Manchester” and highlighted the dynamic way a young and lively Church was engaging in this community and the wider world.

On Wednesday we met prospective parliamentary candidates and MPs who all echoed the importance of Christians both engaging in political decision making and being willing to respond to the opportunities faith groups may have with a new administration.

Shaun Bailey hopes to be a London MP after the next election. He became a Christian 5 years ago and is enthusiastic about the powerful role churches could have both during the election and afterwards. He particularly emphasised the importance of supporting and encouraging marriage and questioned why churches charged any couple other than the minimum cost that wanted to marry in their building rather than seeing this as a mission opportunity.

Caroline Spelman is the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We talked about the emphasis the Methodist Church has recently placed on supporting Christians who work in business. She reflected that whilst churches have a good track record running schools, they are sometimes “behind the curve” when it comes to bidding to provide other community services alongside other third sector groups. She believed there would be far more opportunities to do so if a future Conservative government were to decentralise services in the way they plan.

David Lidington has a shadow foreign office brief and we travelled the globe with him, discussing Afghanistan, Christian persecution in Pakistan, limiting nuclear arms proliferation, reforming the UN and the situation in Fiji.

The Conservative Christian Fellowship has grown in the last 10 years and now has increased influence within the Party. Elizabeth Berridge, CCF Director, told us how they encourage Conservative policy makers to remember the important role churches can and do play within communities. She observed that Christians were better at complaining than being willing to take positions of responsibility and become decision makers for their communities. This was something CCF was trying to change.

David Burrowes, shadow Minister for Justice, founded CCF in 1990 as a student and he attended the 3rd of the series of Citizens for Sanctuary meetings which have been held at each of the major party conferences. Whilst he wasn’t able to sign up to the campaign he did recognise the importance of the issues raised and committed to working further with this campaign group.

Visiting the TUC and party conferences has been interesting and enjoyable. It's also been very worthwhile, demonstrating both the Churches support for Christians in politics and the relevance of involving the Church in political debate and policy development.