Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Lerwick, Vidlin and out at sea.

On Monday we spent the day around Lerwick, including a visit to the award winning Shetland museum, which includes in it’s displays a preaching plan for the former Lerwick circuit from the end of the 1800s and a description of the development of religious traditions on the Sheltands. That evening we met with the leadership team of the Circuit and District at the church in Lerwick. David and I talked about the events of Conference and a little about the themes of our respective conference addresses, which initiated lively discussion.

Anne and I were then taken to spend the evening with Dr Brian and Mrs Chris Clemison. Both have recently retired from the local health centre, Brian as a GP and Chris a practice nurse. Brian is also a local preacher in the circuit. It was good to meet them both and learn a little of the life of a respected Christian doctor and nurse and how they have served this community for over 30 years.

On Tuesday we made the most of clear blue skies calm seas to join Scalloway church members Thelma and Geordie Pottinger on their fishing boat. They took us across to Oxna, a small island inhabited only by sheep and watched over by inquisitive seals. We walked around the small island which has spectacular views of the open sea and the mainland’s south-west coastline. While we walked around the small island Geordie took the boat a little further out to sea and came back in a short time with a small catch of mackerel. As we shared fresh egg sandwiches in the fishing boat we certainly felt a strong connection with those fishermen 2000 years ago, although thankfully for us we did not need to call on anyone to calm a storm, the sea remaining beautifully calm throughout our trip.

Geordie then went on to take us to his mussel lines, long lines of rope supported by a series of barrels on which mussels seem to grow with ease. They are a common site in the voes (water inlets) around Shetland.

On Tuesday afternoon we visited a small Church of Scotland church at Lunna, which has been in continuous use longer than any other on the island. The current building dates back some 250 years, but previous buildings on the site date back to pre-reformation times. Just a few miles away is Vidlin Methodist church, and the two congregations alternate each week between the two buildings as they share worship together.

Later that evening we were to take part in a Network event that filled the small Vidlin church, bringing together people from across the district. I spoke about how the church can respond to the rapid changes in our society that are affecting children and parents. We also heard a choir singing in the Shetland dialect as well as sharing with us hymns and songs that had been written by local ministers.

One verse of a hymn written by former minister John Williamson summed up our day well (blyde means glad or joyful):

Blyde to the foregather in faith and in friendship,

Blyde to be here in this breathtaking place,

Blest as we celebrate beauty in smallness,

Scattered, united, refreshed by God’s grace.

Today we returned to explore St Ninian’s Isle, where there are ruins of a 12th century church. Pictish treasure, dating from 800AD, was found here in 1958, hidden below a slab of sandstone. The silver bowls and ornaments were probably hidden at the time Vikings were invading and bringing some much terror to these peaceful islands.

Unfortunately we have to leave today, returning by ferry overnight to Aberdeen and then back to Leeds. We’ve been very fortunate to see the Shetland Islands at their glorious best over the last few days and been welcomed with love, fellowship, and wonderful hospitality wherever we have been.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Shetland - Scalloway, East Yell and Haroldswick

We arrived on the ferry in to Lerwick early on Saturday morning and were welcomed by District Chair, Jeremy Dare and his wife Sheila, with whom we would be staying during our stay on the Islands. For at least 24 hours we left behind the rain that seemed to have followed us around Scotland and we took the opportunity to enjoy a “given day” – a term used by those in Shetland for a good day of clear weather in which to down tools and enjoy the beauty of the world around them.

The Shetland Islands are certainly beautiful. Jeremy took us from the cliffs around Eshaness in the north of the mainland to the major archaeological site at Jarishof at the very southern tip of the island, and St Ninian's Isle (pictured below). We were even able to see across to Fair Isle, a small island with a population of just 70, half way between Shetland and Orkney, and home to one of the most remote Methodist congregations in the British Isles.

The story of Methodism on the Shetland Islands is one of small church communities offering faithful Christian witness in an often remote and sometimes harsh environment. We visited the small church in North Roe which has 8 members. The church building sits on the side of a bay with only a small number of other houses nearby. However when the church was threatened with closure the local community offered to run fundraising events to help refurbish a building they valued. Slowly but surely the building is now being renovated with the wider communities support and the hard work of volunteers.

We saw this pattern repeated right across Shetland. The church in Scalloway, the old capital of Shetland, has been refurbished in the last few years and now offers a welcoming and flexible worship space in which we shared in the Saturday evening prayer and praise meeting.

On Sunday we travelled 55 miles from Lerwick and used 2 ferries to reach Haroldswick where we were to worship in the most northerly church in Britain. Again this is a church that has survived because of the full support of the local community. In the late 1980s the old church suffered major damage during a storm, and the decision was made to build a new church on land nearby. Donald English, then President of the Conference, laid the foundation stone in 1990. The beautiful church reflects Shetlands strong links with Scandinavia and is based on a simplified form of Norwegian wooden Stave Kirk. It was built almost entirely by local volunteers.

We were greeted by members of the church and shared fellowship with them over tea before the evening service.

Haroldswick is on Unst, Shetland’s northernmost inhabited island. Earlier in the day we worshiped on the neighbouring island of Yell. The small Methodist church appears isolated on a hillside overlooking the sea and yet it would appear that this has been a popular destination for many a President and Vice-President, with a wall at the back of the church recording their visits. As everywhere we were warmly welcomed, and it was wonderful to be able to lead worship whilst also looking out on to the heather covered hillside. Following the service we joined local church steward Louis Johnson and his wife Lilias for a wonderful Sunday lunch as well as a fascinating rendition of the 23rd Psalm in the Shetland dialect.

We returned to the manse in Lerwick over 12 hours after we had left, and realised how challenging but rewarding offering pastoral oversight to remote island churches can be.


Aberdeen is over an hour away from Banff but in the same circuit, a reflection of the size of many Scottish circuits. The Methodist church in Aberdeen is in the heart of the city and, like the city, has more of a diverse congregation than the other churches in the circuit. It also has close links with a church in Accra, Ghana, with regular visits between the 2 churches.

Marischall College, Aberdeen (the world's second largest granite structure)

We were able to share a lovely lunch of fresh salmon, direct from the quay that morning, with church member Michael Dyer who also showed us around the city. It was then time to catch the ferry that would take us further north to the Shetland District, and the next stage of our visit.

Banff - North of Scotland Mission Circuit

Banff is a small town on the Moray coast. The Methodist church in the town is part of the North of Scotland Mission Circuit which includes 5 other churches on the Moray coast stretching westwards to Portgordon, in addition to larger churches in Peterhead and Aberdeen.

Methodism in Banff has a long history stretching back to three visits from John Wesley, with a society being established here by 1773. The congregation has though seen many ups and downs in the last 4 centuries, no more so than when the Circuit Superintendent challenged the Banff Church Council in 2001, “It’s your church. Give up and close up, or continue the work in other premises, or tackle your building.” The Church building which had fallen in to significant disrepair had already been valued with a view to selling it, and with a congregation of just 12 members it seemed the only sensible option.

However the faithful congregation thought otherwise. After a Day of Prayer they rose to the challenge set them. They have since managed to raise enough funding to enable them to completely refurbish the church and hall. They were not even set back when the church ceiling was suddenly condemned and had to be replaced. Time and time again problems have been solved better than could have been hoped for and money has been found to support the work.

8 years later the congregation has almost doubled, growing to 20 members, a real sign of resurrection and new hope.

I was warmly welcomed as the first Vice-President or President to visit the church since John Wesley! We shared in the “Time-Out” offered by the church twice weekly at lunch-time, a time to meet over an informal lunch. It gave us an opportunity to talk to those church members that had done so much to renew the church in recent years including Alison Borrowman and Michael Burch.

The circuit often struggles to attract ministers to this part of Scotland, although once you’ve seen how beautiful this area is you realise why once people do move to the area they don’t want to leave. 2 years ago the circuit employed local man Willie Aitken as lay pastor and he has since had a real impact in some of the coastal churches, including setting up a youth club that is now at capacity of 50 children and with a waiting list to join.

The picture show me with Willie Aitken, Alison Borrowman and Michael Burch

Later that evening I joined church members in a service to which other members of the circuit and churches in Banff had been invited. I spoke about the role of lay leadership within the church, but it was clear that this was a church and circuit that had much to teach me and the wider Church about how lay members of a church can step out in faith and with God’s help achieve far more than they could imagine.


Inverness Methodist Church is one of the largest Methodist churches in Scotland. It is a modern church built in a beautiful setting on the banks of the river. Unfortunately the growing town of Inverness has developed in the opposite direction and so the church is no longer as central to the heart of the town as it once was. That though doesn’t stop many coming to the weekly coffee morning, with the attraction of excellent home baked cakes, and we were fortunate enough to be able to join members of the church and visitors on Wednesday morning.

About half the congregation are able to walk to the church but many more drive many miles to be able to worship. Many other church members struggle to do that on a regular basis, living hundreds of miles away in a circuit that covers most of the Scottish Highlands, including a local preacher on trial who lives on the Outer Hebrides. The Superintendent minister of this one church circuit, Rev Dr Peter Howson, has a vision of being able to develop and support a number of locally based classes around the Highlands, with the help of a number of faithful local preachers and worship leaders who live in remote parts of circuit.

After we had eaten far too many cakes than was good for us, we shared in the short act of worship that takes place in the church every Wednesday at 12.15, a service that uses prayers from the prayer handbook and joins this congregation in the North of Scotland with Methodists around the world.

One of the main Action for Children offices in Scotland is in Inverness, and later that afternoon I was able to meet many of the managers and project workers based there. They told me about how Action for Children was one of Scotland’s leading children’s charities and they had been working in the Highlands since 1985.

The picture shows me with Action for Children administrator and Inverness Methodist Church member Susan Reid.

Services cover all ages, from projects working with young mothers with pre-school children that meets weekly in the Methodist church buildings to a comprehensive range of services called “Gael Og” (Young Highlander) for older children, including intensive support and fostering services for extremely vulnerable young people.

A new project based around street football and a mobile advice unit has been supported by the local police because of the positive way it has engaged with young people and made a noticeable difference to criminal activity.

Action for Children is working with children in the Highlands who have experienced significant and sometimes unimaginable trauma in their short lives. They help to provide stability, care and support and there is clear evidence of the difference that this makes.

We spent a very pleasant evening with Peter and Jane Howson before travelling on to the Moray Coast the following day.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

A mountain top meditation

I met with God on the mountain today.

But God was not in the cold wind or driving rain,

nor in the litter caught between the rocks.

God was not in the misplaced hope of the false summit,

nor in the desire to give up climbing and turn around.

God was not in the cloud that obscured the way ahead,

nor in the frustration of the child made to wait for others.

God was not in the weary cry of “are we nearly there yet”,

nor in the false reassurance of “just around this bend”.

But I saw signs of God in the well-trod path and the map maker’s skill,

in strong shoes and protective clothing.

There were signs of God in those carrying an extra load on behalf of others,

and in the volunteers repairing the path.

There were signs of God in the smiles and greetings of walkers passing each other,

and the cairns guiding the way through the cloud and mist.

There were signs of God in the views that declared

the wonder and promise of creation,

and in the exhilaration of reaching the summit.

And God was in the still small voice

A voice of peace declared at 1343m

A voice declared to tired but happy hikers

A voice that needs to be heard

On every mountain top and every plain

A voice that needs to be heard

In every human heart and every human action.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain and which rises above the town of Fort William on the west coast of Scotland, has strong Methodist connections. At the top of the mountain is what has become known as the peace cairn.

The plaque on the cairn says:

“Erected to the glory of God and in memory of the fallen of all races on VJ Day, August 16th 1945, by members of Vicar Street bible class, Dudley, who were then enjoying the hospitality of their Scottish friends at Fort William.

From this mountain memorial the affectionate hand of friendship is extended to the youth of every nation in the world.”

On another face of the cairn is a second plaque, this one erected in 1965 by the youth associated with the World Federation of United Nations Associations and International Student Movement of the UN. It concludes with the phrase “Blessed are the peacemakers”

Bert Bissell, an influential leader of the bible class in Dudley, is fondly remembered for leading regular pilgrimages up Ben Nevis to the cairn, and as Vice-President inducted at Conference in Wolverhampton, I took the opportunity yesterday to follow in his footsteps up the mountain.


We enjoyed the excellent hospitality of Alan and Sheila Anderson whilst we stayed in Glasgow. Alan is a Methodist minister and former Chair of the Scotland District. He is currently teaching religious studies in a local high school as well as having pastoral responsibility for one of the churches in the Glasgow circuit.

Alan is born and bred in Glasgow and clearly proud of his beloved city. On Sunday afternoon he took us to look at the redeveloped area of the Clyde and what is left of the dockyard. This once thriving industrial area has now changed radically, but unlike many other former ship building ports, Glasgow has managed to retain a small shipyard. It is currently building a destroyer for the navy, with little in the way of civilian shipping contracts coming its way. Competition with European and other shipyards is very fierce which is why so few ships are now built in the UK.

As with many other British cities, Glasgow has started to reclaim its run down riverside area. The buildings of a once great industrial heartland have been replaced with the new Science Centre, a concert and exhibition centre, hotels, flats and the new BBC Scotland building. This had clearly been a painful process for many, but it is now a sign of resurrection, with many lessons for the Church.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Scotland District visit - East Kilbride

Our first District visit is to Scotland. Traditionally the President and Vice President have visited in the late spring but we offered to visit in August knowing that the school holidays in Scotland are earlier than in England and so business gets back to normal after the summer break by mid-August in Scotland rather than September as in England. It therefore gave me the opportunity to visit the District along with the rest of the family.

Lily Twist, the Chair of the Scotland District lives in Stirling and so David and I started our visit to the District with an evening meal at her home with her family. It provided us with a chance to learn a little bit more about the District and the role that Methodists play not just in their local communities but also in wider national political life, particularly as the impact of devolution is gradually changing the nature of Scottish society. Lily told us about how Methodism in Scotland may be small but it punches well above its own size on the national stage and it is seen as a valuable and respected partner.

On Sunday morning I led worship at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in East Kilbride, a small town at the southern-most part of the Glasgow circuit. Many other districts have been considering larger circuits in recent months, but for a number of years now the Glasgow circuit has covered the whole of one of Britain’s largest cities. Indeed circuits in Scotland can cover an area the size of many English districts.

East Kilbride is a new town and the Methodist Church was built in 1975. The small but faithful congregation have been considering how they can re-invigorate their mission. Last year, when the circuit reduced the number of ministers it provided the opportunity to look again at how the freed up resource could be used. Churches in the circuit where invited to put forward proposals as to how they wanted to develop their work with the circuit’s help. The church in East Kilbride saw an opportunity to look again at how they met the needs of their local community with the help of a lay worker. The circuit supported their vision and a local woman was employed to take the work forward.

Annette Robb was appointed as a lay worker by the circuit and has since been working to establish a number of projects in the church. She is also a local mum and she has been able to connect with other local young mothers, with the church building now providing a focus for a twice weekly drop in centre for mothers and young children. They’ve also started to provide a weekly soup lunch with the support of a number of volunteers from the church.

The church has gone out of its way to ask the local community what they want from the church, inviting them to suggest what they could provide. The church is set in the midst of a housing estate and they have a good set of premises but they had not been used as well as they could be. They are now planning a more ambitious weekly children’s club focused on primary school children. There is a real need for these projects in the local area, particularly at a time of rising unemployment and social isolation. The result has also been a church that has regained its confidence in mission and I sensed a real excitement about what the future may hold for them.