Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Labour Party Conference, Brighton

I had spent the day at the Labour Party Conference yesterday wearing my BMA hat, when I was involved in a series of fringe events and had the opportunity to have conversations with MPs and health ministers. I was in the main hall on Monday afternoon to hear the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, who announced that water companies would be encouraged to offer concessionary rates to churches who are currently having to pay large bills since the introduction of the so called “rainwater tax”.

It was also good to meet ex-President of Conference, Revd Stuart Burgess who was here in his capacity as the Government’s Rural Advocate and who works closely with Hilary Benn’s department.

Today I visited the Conference in my capacity as Vice-President alongside colleagues from the Baptist Union, URC and Salvation Army. We started bright and early at the Christian Socialist Movement’s prayer breakfast meeting. Cardiff MP, Alun Michael chaired the meeting and I had the opportunity to respond to Stephen Timms who is the Financial Secretary to Treasury. Stephen has had a key role to play in working to find a resolution to the current global financial problems, and he reflected on issues relating to the economy in his address to the meeting. You can read my response below.

Later in the morning we had a good discussion with Methodist MP, Meg Munn, who told us about her visit to Fiji during the summer and reflected on the severe difficulties facing the Methodist Church in that country at the moment. We also had the opportunity to raise our concerns about the situation directly with the Foreign Office minister responsible for co-ordinating Britain’s response to the situation, Chris Bryant. We agreed on the importance of raising awareness of the situation, the important role the EU, Australia and New Zealand can play in putting pressure on the Fijian government, but also reflected on the difficulties of engaging with the military dictatorship when they can so readily accuse us of ex-colonial interference.

Meg Munn also described the reality of climate change for low lying Pacific Islands, and how ground water was already becoming polluted by salt water, islands having to rely on scarce rainwater instead. There is now a resignation among islanders that it is already too late to avoid the loss of a large number of their small islands. They hope the rest of the world can wake up to the reality of climate change quickly before is too late for other parts of the world too.

Michael Foster in another Methodist MP and we had a good opportunity to discuss with him the Equalities Bill which he has responsibility for guiding through parliament at the moment.

We attended a fringe meeting at lunchtime run by Action for Children, focusing on how we could improve safeguarding of children and how we can learn important lessons from the recent tragic Baby Peter case.

Throughout the week comments were made that there were often large numbers of empty seats in the main Conference Hall (see the picture below on Monday afternoon) yet the fringe meetings were buzzing with activity. Some reflected that it was on the fringe were the real debate and engagement now took place. However the hall was packed for Gordon Brown’s speech this afternoon. It was certainly well received by those present, and he echoed the commitment I had heard him make 2 weeks ago at the TUC, to enshrine in law the amount the country gives to international development. Whatever your political persuasion, there is no doubting his personal commitment to supporting the world’s poorest communities.

We concluded out visit to the Conference by joining the Citizens for Sanctuary campaign meeting, which is encouraging all mainstream political parties to sign up to the Saving Sanctuary Pledge. You will have seen David signing this last week at the Liberal Democrats Conference, and today I added my name under his. The campaign aims to encourage a responsible discussion about migration at the general election and to start to focus on offering sanctuary rather than using terms like asylum, which now creates a far more negative public reaction, whereas polls suggest the public reacts far more positively and with understanding when we talk of people seeking sanctuary from persecution.

One of the main aims of attending the party conferences is to offer support to Christian MPs, and we were able to do so today. All the men and women we met today are people of great integrity and it is important that we offer them our prayerful support as they work on our behalf.

Christian Socialist Movement prayer breakfast

Below is the address I gave at this mornings event.

One of the great privileges of being Vice President of the Methodist Conference is being able to visit and meet Methodists across the world. And one of the striking things that is common to all that I have met is the way they set out to be alongside the poor, the disadvantaged or the prejudiced in their society. So when I was in Macedonia in April I saw how the church there is working alongside those in the Roma community and with Albanian refugees.

In Bulgaria in May I saw the Church living alongside the Turkish speaking minority, supporting them as they struggled against discrimination and prejudice. And 2 days ago I was in Chile where the Methodist Church is working with the Mapuche indigenous population in poor rural areas, as well as with Columbian refugees who have fled the fighting and drug wars going on in that country.

I’ve predominately seen Methodist work around the world but I’m sure I could say the same for all other Christian denominations represented here. Christians are working for and alongside the poor of the world; indeed it should come as no surprise for that is what we are commanded to do, to love our neighbour, to follow Jesus’ example of sitting with the outcast and the marginalised.

This also means that when we consider the economy, both our nations and across the world, we automatically do so with a view to the impact on the poorest in the world. We can be distracted by envious looks to the minority that pay themselves obscene bonuses, and we do as Archbishop Rowan Williams has done, call for a sense of proportion in the way bonuses are paid, but more importantly than that we call for financial systems that work for the benefit of the poorest in the world and that don’t simply enhance the wealth of the rich minority at the expense of the poor majority.

Again as Rowan Williams has said, the widening gap between rich and poor will lead to an increasingly dysfunctional society, and we all will suffer as a result. It has been good to hear that even in a time of financial pressure, this Government will maintain it’s commitments to fund international development, but important as that is, it’s seriously addressing the issues of climate change, or working for fairer world trade rules that will make the most difference to developing communities around the world.

It’s ensuring robust and meaningful international regulatory systems are in place to protect our world from the unchecked greed of a small number within the financial sector. Not least in challenging so called vulture funds that make profits from buying up the debts of the poorest countries only to try and recover the cost often by legal action, so debt relief money finds its way I to the pockets of wealthy investors rather than paying for education and health care in developing countries.

It’s working to ensure all within the world have equitable access to health care, education, clean water and sanitation. If we are to take Jesus’ commands to us seriously then all Christians, indeed all people of faith, cannot avoid engaging with the bigger political picture that will have the most impact for the poorest in our world.

In Chile at the moment there is a presidential election underway. The current President, Michelle Bachelet has served her term of office and is unable to stand again, even though she has a popularity rating of 72%, a poll rating I’m sure this Government would love to have. Chile has benefited from the rise in copper prices on the global market, but rather than squandering the resources they have received they have invested them in a big programme of subsidised housing development and for the first time ensuring all women receive a state pension. They have also taken care to manage Government debt to a level that is not destabilising.

We live in an increasingly individualistic society, and the increased emphasis on a policy of Choice has played strongly to this change. However we can’t all have what we want as soon as we want it. We have though seen this culture of unchecked individualism lead to crippling personal debt for many. And we know all too well the size of the burden of debt the nation now carries.

We cannot live beyond our means, either personally or as a nation. It is wonderful to see new schools and hospitals being built, but if this is all through PFI projects that leave our children to manage the significant mortgage repayments to private companies over the next 30 years then we do no one a service. And then if we go on to bail out these private companies with public money when the going gets tough, is it any wonder why people have lost confidence in the political system.

We need to be more honest and open with each other. When there are painful choices to make we should not try to hide the fact for fear of being seen to be weak or somehow to have failed or worried what the 24 hour news media might say. As Christian leaders we want to support the many men and women of integrity who serve this great nation of ours through their public office, we want to engage in political debate and work together to find solutions to the difficult problems that face us.

But we can only do so in a spirit of trust and mutual respect. We need collectively to be honest and realistic about what we ask our politicians to achieve, and not push them to promise what cannot or should not be delivered within the resources that we have. We need to recapture a sense of working towards the common good, what is best for the majority not what is best for me. And at all times we should work together to achieve a fairer world, where it is acceptable to give more to those with the least and to offer a little less to those that often shout loudest.

We can do this, we want to do this and as Christians we are commanded to do this, and if we do it together then, with God’s help, we might just succeed.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Hildegard Lecture, Holy Rood House

It has been an absolutely beautiful late summer weekend in North Yorkshire. Liz and I have spent it at Holy Rood House, in Thirsk, a place (and people) we have come to love. Holy Rood House is the kind of 'safer space' I spoke about in my address to the Conference. It's a place for retreat, a place of healing, a place for quiet reflection, a place to meet interesting people. It's also the base for the Centre for the Study of Theology and Health.
I had been invited to deliver the annual Hildegard Lecture, on 'Living with Difference - Life on the Edge.' The lecture was on Friday evening at Sowerby Methodist Church. We explored the theme further in workshops on Saturday morning. And the weekend closed with lunch, after a morning eucharist at which I had been invited to preach.
Holy Rood House has a website, which is well worth visiting - as is the House itself.

The weekend also provided the opportunity for the launch of Barbara Glasson's latest book, 'A Spirituality of Survival'. (The picture shows Barbara at the book launch, hiolding the book with it's very striking cover illustration, provided by Laura Wild.) Like her previous books, it's an excellent read, though on a difficult topic. It explores the depths of the experience of abuse - but it also speaks of hope. I thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Columbian refugees and learning from Chile’s past

This morning I met with Juan Salazar Fernandez who is the co-ordinator of PROSIR, a Methodist Church sponsored programme that works with refugees coming in to Chile. Most refugees come from Columbia, mainly farmers from poorer rural areas that have been badly affected by the conflict or drug trafficking there. They are therefore not professionals and have had little education and have difficulty finding work and integrating in Chile. Some are forced to hawk goods on the streets of Santiago, others have found work in the mines in northern Chile but many women are drawn in to prostitution.

The numbers remain small, with PROSIR working with around 112 people. Individuals or families are allocated up to $2500 which is used to support their subsistence as well as relevant education or training. 50% of this funding comes from the Government, the rest in the form of grants from the World Council of Churches and churches in the USA.

Indigenous communities are more welcoming to Columbians, but Chile is a predominately white society and there is an underlying racism amongst the Chilean majority that the Church is trying to challenge.

The Methodist Church may be small in Chile but it spoke out courageously during the years of dictatorship iafter the coup in 1973. I was taken to meet the daughter of a man who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1976. For decades he was one of thousands who disappeared, his daughter Viviana Dias and her family knowing nothing about what had happened to him. It is only in the last few years that she found out how he was tortured over an 8 month period, gassed and killed, tied to a metal railway sleeper and then thrown in to the Pacific Ocean from a helicopter.

Many others suffered the same fate, their names are recorded on a moving memorial in the city cemetery. The wall records the names of 1197 who disappeared and 2000 who were known to have been executed. Above the names is written the phrase “All my love is here and it extends from the sea to the mountains”. 4 sculptures lie in front of the wall, depicting the heads of a man, a woman, a child and an elderly person – the abductors and torturers did not respect age nor gender.

Viviana described how difficult it had been for her family during the years after the abduction of her father. Her sister lost her job and communities feared to offer them support. However she said that the clear voice of the Church was crucial in bringing to an end those dark days.

We were then taken to visit Parque por la Paz (Park for Peace) which has been developed on the site of the now demolished Villa Grimaldi. The infamous villa at the foot of the Andes on the outskirts of the city was where 4500 were tortured and 226 executed. Throughout the park are memorials made with mosaic tiles, as those that were brought here were blindfolded and those that survived remember being only able to look downwards to see the tiled floor of the villa.

The old entrance to the villa is now firmly closed and locked. The key has been given to a church minister with the intention that they should never be opened again, no one should have to walk through them again. The park contains a replica of a small shed in which 5-8 victims would be shut at anyone time, a small wall near a patio on which victims took it in turns to sit and support one another, and a tall water tower that was the place where 90% of those imprisoned there were killed.

A memorial wall records the names of those who are known to have died, shells around the memorial highlighting the final resting place of most. A rose garden remembers all the women who died in the villa.

It is a powerful and moving place to visit, but we reflected as we left that there are many such places around the world that are testament to the horrors that humankind can inflict, something we must keep reminding ourselves about as we seek peace with justice for all.

Bournemouth in September - with the Liberal Democrats

It's party conference time! Having just returned from the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Bournemouth, I am very conscious of how many important issues our country is facing at the moment. The decision we shall be expoected to make in a few months’ time when we vote at the General Election will be of massive significance for the future of our society and our world. As Christians, we need to be involved in this process, to make sure the right questions are asked and heard. But also to support and encourage people of goodwill who are willing to serve in politics, (despite the way the media seek to sensationalise stories of malpractice and rarely give credit for integrity and commitment to public service which is the basis on which so many people get involved in politics at both local and national levels). One of my fears is that the effect of recent stories on the public perception of politicians will lead many people not to vote, or will lead others to vote for some of the minor parties whose policies are extremist and racist. Methodists have an honourable tradition of active political involvement. We need to be actively involved now more than ever! Please use your vote, ask questions and get involved!!

One of the events I attended in Bournemouth was organised by churches along with the organisation ‘Citizens for Sanctuary’. The more I hear the stories of sanctuary seekers – the situations from which they have fled and the treatment they have received in our country – the more I believe this is one of our major issues. I am delighted that so many individual Christians and churches are active, both in campaigning on the issue and in offering support to those seeking sanctuary. I spoke of this in my address to the Conference, and referred to the concept of ‘Cities of Sanctuary’, in whose development Inderjit Bhogal is deeply involved. ‘Citizens for Sanctuary’ is a different initiative and the hope is to get politicians of all parties to commit themselves to a more responsible understanding of what ‘sanctuary’ is about and what should be done about it. I joined other church leaders and politicians in signing up to this. Again, I encourage you to find out more and get involved. Inderjit and Craig Barnett have written a book, ‘Becoming a City of Sanctuary’. It’s both an interesting read and an inspiration to do something about it. (For details go to www.cityofsanctuary.org).

Monday, 21 September 2009

World Methodist Council Executive Committee, Santiago

The Executive Committee of the World Methodist Council meets twice between the main Council and Conference that takes place every 5 years. It last met 2 years ago in Australia and this week is meeting in Santiago. I attended as an observer accompanying Anne who is a member of the Council.

George Freeman, the General Secretary of the WMC highlighted changes he was seeing in the Church around the world, including the “silencing of the Church”. Not only is the Church being increasingly ignored and marginalised, but also in parts of the world the willingness of the Church to be prophetic and articulate a vision for our world and society is not as clear as it ought to be.

Bishop Nafteli Aravena Bravo, of the Methodist Church in Chile, talked to the meeting about the Church in Chile. The Catholic Church is by far the majority tradition within the country whilst 15% of the population worship in one of many Pentecostal churches. The Methodist Church is very small in comparison although they have links with and a ministry to many thousands within the country. The Bishop talked about the importance of diversity within the church. To be a Protestant in Chile used to be regarded as being a second class citizen, but with a more confident democracy in the country there is now a greater understanding and acceptence of the various Protestant traditions, something we witnessed by the involvement of a number of faith traditions in a televised ecumenical service that was part of the weekend's 200th anniversary celebrations of independence.

He went on to highlight concerns about the potential for a huge gold mine in the country that would need the removal of a glacier that sits above it. To do so would remove the water supply for thousands of people that depend on it and the Church is raising concerns about the impact that multinational mining companies are having on these vulnerable communities. He also talked about the role that the Methodist Church had played in highlighting the importance of human rights in a country that has emerged from dictatorship.

He was accompanied by five of the district superintendents who spoke a little of the work taking place within their areas. One reflected concerns that the local Church had about the impact of a proposed hydro-electric scheme, another from the Punta Arenas District in the far south of Chile reflected concerns about global warming and the impact it was having not just on nearby Antarctica but also the area in which he lived and worked, and a third reflected on the difference in the churches within the district between the traditional and the more charismatic.

The WMC is working through a process of revision to it's governance and structure. As a body that only meets as an executive every 2 years and as a Council every 5 years it is understandable why this process of change is moving so slowly. A key area of this meetings agenda will be to discuss the current proposals for reform and that discussion started today.

From the Pacific to Pichihue

On Sunday morning we were taken to see the beautiful and awesome Pacific coast. We travelled to Puerto Saavendra, a fishing town that was completely devastated in 1960 by the biggest earthquake ever recorded. The tsunami that followed created havoc over 10,000km away. The small town has now been rebuilt but still lives with the fear that it could happen again. This is after all a land where volcanoes remain active. On the way back we were able to visit and offer greetings to the small congregation worshipping in the Methodist Church in Carahue.

We then returned to the rural areas around Nueva Imperial to worship in the small church at Pichihue. It was built on farm land next to the home of Margarita Ovalle and she and her husband Juan welcomed us in to their home for lunch which we shared with other members of the church.

Margarita told us of how she had been seriously ill and had alcohol problems. She had a dream in which she felt God called her to leave her old life behind in order for her to be healed. She did, and has since made a full recovery. She enabled the church to be built as a way of giving thanks to God for his healing. She had faced some opposition at the time from other members of the Mapuche community who felt she was working against their traditional religion, but she was convinced that there was only one God and she believed that worshipping in a Methodist tradition was not in conflict with her Mapuche heritage. The church was built and now worship is held within it every week.

Women from the church are supported by the Rural Work office by supplying wool for weaving and knitting and helping them to sell products they make. Wool is dyed using local natural traditional techniques. As with everywhere we had travelled over the last 4 days, we were overwhelmed by people’s generosity and here was no exception as we were given gifts of a scarf and poncho made by the women's group. They certainly came in handy as Chile has lived up to it's name and is a little colder than we were expecting.

We shared in a lively service in which many of the congregation offered prayers, many using the Mapuche language. One member asked for prayers for him in his new role as a representative of the community in talks with the Government about finding a resolution to longstanding concerns about land ownership. As elsewhere in the world, the land farmed and lived on by the indigenous Mapuche population had been lost to big land-owners and attempts are being made to reverse this.

Before leaving to fly back to Santiago we shared a meal with Pastor Grandon and his wife Sylvia, together with Omar Sepulveda, our translator and his wife Ester,Christian who had driven us around the projects and Sandra Garcia from the Rural Work office. We were very grateful for the wonderful way they had looked after us during our brief visit and the opportunity they gave us to see the work of the Methodist Church in this part of Chile.

Working with the Mapuche community

We were taken back to the rural area in which the Methodist Church project works to meet some of the elders of the Mapuche community. We met with Bernardino, the leader of the local community, and his wife Euristela. Both had attended the Methodist schools and had been involved in the church and community ever since.

They showed us their small farm and described how the whole area had been devastated by a 6 day flood caused by the nearby river bursting its banks. Navy helicopters were needed to help some stranded members of the community and it meant all livestock and seeds had to be renewed. The Church project has helped with this. The Government have also started to fund new housing that could withstand a further flood. Wherever we have been we have seen evidence of new state subsidised housing, evidence of the way the Government have positively invested money received as a result of the rise in copper on the world market, which is one of Chile’s main exports.

Bernardino’s new house is yet to be finished and so we shared food in his current traditional one room ruka-style house. We enjoyed a local favourite, empanadas, which are large tasty pastries with beef, egg and olives inside. These are baked or fried over the fire in the centre of the ruka.

Sister Isobel lives nearby, an elderly lady who lives alone but who still looks after her pigs and hens. She proudly showed us the well that had been dug with the help of an American Volunteers in Mission team a few years ago.

28 km from Neuva Imperial is the village of Molco. It is the site of the newest project the Rural Work is involved with. As with many rural areas, young people have left to find work in the towns or cities and many older members who are left are quite isolated. With the help of the Methodist rural workers, 2 groups have been established, one for older members of the community for fellowship and to help overcome the isolation, and a second for younger people who are coming together to develop skills along the lines of other groups supported by the Rural Work project.

Members of both groups meet in a community hall, and it was here that we were warmly welcomed and shared a feast of traditional stew followed by large plates of steak and potato. It was only lunchtime but we didn’t need to eat again for the rest of the day!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes

Today saw the annual covenant renewal for members of the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, in Milton Keynes. Here five denominations (Baptist, Church of England, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed) work and pray together in the UK’s first city centre ecumenical church. I had been invited to preach at the 9.00 Communion Service and the 10.30 Covenant Renewal Service – both of which were led by the Ecumenical Moderator, the Revd Dr Mary Cotes. It measnt an early start from London, but the roads were nice and cklesar at that time in the morning.

I much enjoyed the opportunity to share in these services. The church building is very impressive, and imaginatively used. The music was excellent. I met several old friends and many new ones. And the visit to Milton Keynes provided an opportunity for a family get together over lunch and through the afternoon, as my sister and brother-in-law, their offspring, their offspring’s offspring and their offspring’s offspring’s offspring live in and around Milton Keynes. Thomas James, the youngest member of our family, was born just before the start of the Wolverhampton Conference at which I became President – so he and I sort of share a birthday.

Obra Rural Metodista

We started the day back at the Obra Rural Metodista, the offices for the rural work. Pastor Pedro Grandon described the extent of the work they were doing and highlighted some of their limitations and hopes for the future. He showed us a room fitted with a dental chair and equipment. This had come with a mobile unit from Holland nearly 20 years ago. Over the years they have been able to secure funding to support short periods when a dentist visited regularly to provide dental services to the children in the schools and the women and families with whom the projects have regular contact. It was an important service as dental decay is common and access to a dentist too expensive for the majority.

Another project they have started is to support women who weave mats and clothes. They help the women to access better quality wool and give advice about weaving techniques that lead to better quality products that are more saleable.

In a field next to the rural office is the frame of a building built with the support of a Volunteer in Mission team from USA a few months ago. It is the first of a series of dormitories and meeting rooms that will form a training centre for local women’s groups. It is hoped it will enable more to develop skills and trades as well as strengthening the Christian bonds between groups of women in the area. The Obra Rural Metodista is certainly not short of ambition and vision.

Today was the Chilean National Day, with flags hanging from most buildings, and parades and festivals in most towns. We went to watch the festival in the centre of the nearby town, New Imperial, which included a parade of children from various schools and day centres. Leading the way were the youngsters from the Methodist Day Centre in the town. We visited the centre which is next to the local Methodist Church. As with the schools the Church run, the majority of children attending the Day Centre come from the indigenous Mapuche community.

From New Imperial we travelled out in to the countryside to visit the primary school run by the Methodist Church in Rulo. As it was a public holiday the school was closed, but families and children had come to greet us, and we shared a traditional meal together. Children travel many miles to get to the school on a daily basis and a mini-bus travels around the rough rural tracks picking up many on a daily basis. Even with this service children have a long walk to the various pick-up points, and one even crosses the river by boat every day in order to meet the mini-bus.

The school also has classes for adults, helping many with literacy skills.

After our meal we watched the children showing us both traditional Mapuche dancing as well as Chilean dancing that has a very Spanish style. Tug-of-war and sack races completed the afternoon’s festivities before they started the long journeys back home. It was wonderful to be able to share in this special event.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Well done!

Yesterday I attended two award ceremonies. The first was at the Barbican Centre, and was one of the Open University’s 25 graduation ceremonies this year. I went to celebrate a friend receiving her BA, but it was easy to get caught up in everyone else’s celebrations as well. OU students generally have to fit their study in along with their work and family life and it takes a lot of hard work and commitment. At the ceremony a Doctorate of the University was awarded to Frank Gardner OBE, the BBC’s Security Correspondent, who received a standing ovation.

In the evening I went to the ‘Bloggies’ award ceremony at St Stephen Walbrook Church, in London. This is the event organised by Premier Christian Media to present their Christian Web and New Media Awards for 2009. There were three Methodist finalists. Wellspring Methodist Church was a finalist in the class for a small church website. The President’s and Vice President’s blog (which you are currently reading) was runner up for the Most Inspiring Christian Leadership Blog award. But our star of the evening was the Revd David Perry, Chair of the Lincoln and Grimsby District, who won the award for Best Christian Blog! Well done indeed! Visit his blog and you'll soon see why he did so well - it's called: davesdistrictblog. (Picture shows him making his thankyou speech.)

Friday, 18 September 2009

Welcome to Chile

The Methodist Church in Chile is hosting the World Methodist Council Executive meeting in Santiago. Anne is Secretary of the group that represents the Methodist Church in Britain at the meeting and so we have for a change reversed roles and I’ve taken the opportunity to accompany her. We had both been invited to see something of the work of the Methodist Church in Chile outside the capital, and so before the Executive meeting started we travelled to Tamuco in southern Chile. Tamuco is a growing provincial city 300 miles south of the capital Santiago.

We were greeted at the airport by Revd Pedro Grandon, co-ordinator of the Methodist rural work in the area. He was accompanied by Revd Omar Sepulveda and his wife Ester, a minister from further south in the district and who was to act as our translator.

After a quick wash and brush up at the hotel we were taken for a welcome lunch at a fish restaurant in Tamuco market. There we also met Elizabeth Cuevas, a Methodist visiting from Alabama, and who moved there from Chile over 30 years ago. She now regularly returns with Volunteer in Mission groups from her home church to support Methodist work in Chile.

The Methodist Church in Chile is 130 years old and currently has around 70 ministers and a membership of 7000. In this area they were once a major provider of primary education but over the years schools have been handed over to the state. Now they run just one High School and a further rural school that we will see tomorrow.

La Granja” Secondary School is some 70 years old and now focuses on 3 areas, child care work, agriculture and metalwork. They have 250 students who live in dormitories on a weekly basis. 90% of the students come from the indigenous Mapuche people and if they didn’t attend this school would in all likelihood get no secondary education at all. A small number of students go on to university, but most leave with good qualifications that lead to jobs in their communities.

Across the road from the school are the offices for the rural work the Church here is involved with. It works with many local communities around the area providing a great range of support and advice, from encouraging collaborative work and co-operatives, to basic housing advice to providing plastic sheeting for poly-tunnels and greenhouses.

We were taken to visit 2 of the co-operative projects they support. The first was a small group of women who use herbs they grow themselves to make hand creams, soaps and natural herbal oils, some of which are said to have therapeutic properties. The second was the marmalade group in Furgon who were encouraging the use of preserving fruit in order to store (and sell) more of the annual harvest. Both groups were clearly empowering local women in a very positive way.

We met them in a building modelled on the traditional single roomed house or “rucca” which now serves as a meeting place for the group and community. Not only were we well fed but were also treated to some traditional folk dancing from 2 of their children who were dressed ready to celebrate National Independence Day which is tomorrow.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

London District Synod, September 12th

While Richard was at Leeds District Synod, I attended the London District Synod (of which I am a member). We met at Westminster Central Hall and it was a particularly good day. The overall theme was ‘Church without walls’ and the morning opened with a lively and very funny DVD produced by ‘Applecart’ (if you haven’t heard about them visit their website!) Micky Youngson then showed her potential as a chat show host, with four interviews exploring different aspects of ‘church without walls’ – including the street pastors’ scheme; work with released offenders; ‘Toddler Praise’; and a preview of Anthony Reddie’s latest book. I’d been invited to explore the ‘church without walls’ theme further, and did so after lunch. The regular business of the Synod was dealt with in under an hour and the day finished with worship, with music from the Herne Hill children’s choir.

Technical hitch!
If this entry on the blog is out of chronological order, I apologise. I wrote it straight after synod (so excited was I) and tried to publish it, but my laptop is doing strange things so this blog disappeared into the ether. Hopefully, normal services are now resumed!

European Methodist Council, Methodist Insurance and TUC

This year’s meeting of the European Methodist Council, which brings together representatives of the Methodist Churches throughout Europe, is being held in Manchester (at Luther King House). I am not a member of the Council but was invited to join them and bring greetings from the British Methodist Church. I arrived late on Sunday afternoon and we joined the congregation at Evensong in Manchester Cathedral. The feast of Anglican choral music was followed by a feast of a different kind, as we shared a meal together in an excellent Chinese restaurant.

On Monday morning it was down to business (see photo, above). Chris Elliott and Bishop Hans Vaxby shared the chairing. It is clear that, while our contexts differ in many ways, there are important issues that affect us all and where the Methodist family could be more effective by communicating and sometimes acting together.

From the European Methodist Council I went to the new offices of Methodist Insurance for a celebration lunch, meetings with the staff, and an official ribbon cutting ceremony. Of all the things I’ve been asked to do as President, I think ribbon cutting is one of the more difficult. I’m not sure whether it’s an art of a science but, whichever it is, I could do with an intensive training course. However, my ineffective attempts lightened the occasion and eventually the ribbon was cut and the offices were duly declared open for business (though they’ve been in operation since July). On behalf of the wider Methodist family, I expressed thanks for both what Methodist Insurance do for us and for the way in which they do it. We are greatly indebted to them.

Then it was on to Liverpool, for the TUC Conference, which Richard has described in his blog. Methodism is the only denomination that attends this Conference and it presents us with various opportunities, not least for useful networking. Listening to Gordon Brown’s speech emphasised the importance of this coming year as we approach a General Election. There’s a great deal at stake and all kinds of uncertainties that make it difficult to predict precisely what will happen. Our Methodist tradition has always encouraged involvement in the political process and that has never been more important than it is now.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Trades Union Congress, Liverpool

Today David and I attended the annual Trades Union Congress, which this year met in the newly built Convention Centre in Liverpool. The significant redevelopment of the water-front of Liverpool with surrounding large and striking buildings made a strong statement about the recent expansion of the economy, but this was in stark contrast to the repeated concerns we heard from those we met, which was about the impact of the recession, with rising unemployment and the prospect of spending cuts just around the corner.

The visit was facilitated by Paul Morrison, Policy Advisor with the Methodist Church, and David and I were joined by Rosa Leto, Chair of the Chaplains Council, and David Wrighton, a part-time member of the Connexional Team with an emphasis on industrial chaplaincy. It was a good opportunity to affirm our support for those that work within the trades union movement and to share some of our hopes and concerns.

We met with a number of senior TUC officials, including Adam Lent and Carl Roper, and we quickly identified the significant common ground the TUC and the Methodist Church share. It was noticeable that the strap-line for the Congress was “Jobs, Justice, Climate”, and banners hanging around the hall spoke of Respect, Fairness, Unity, Dignity, Equality, Safety, all themes that we have a common passion for.

We talked about how the Church and unions could build on joint work done together in the recent past on issues related to industrial chaplaincy by exploring how we respond to the needs of the increasing number of people who are unemployed or being exploited. We also shared our common concerns about the impact of climate change and how even at a time of recession we must take this issue seriously. The TUC is fully behind getting a comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen later this year.

We had a useful discussion with Joe Mann, Deputy General Secretary of the union Community about how we should respond to the growth of the betting and gaming industry, as well as how to support those working within the industry and who find themselves in difficult ethical situations.

We met the current President of the TUC, Sheila Bearcroft, and shared with her our joint experiences of chairing large conferences!

The central event of the afternoon was the visit of Gordon Brown to the Congress. It was a visit that had been heavily trailed in the press, particularly as it was expected he was to focus on cuts in government spending in his address. In the end, as you might expect, this was a very small part of what he had to say, although he did say he would, “cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets”, but he would “not support cuts in the vital front line services on which people depend.” This is clearly going to be a major area of debate as the general election approaches, and one that Christians should not shy away from.

Amongst all the many promises he made I was pleased that he did not forget the “Make Poverty History” campaign and underlined the Government’s commitment to international development and to keep their promise to continue spending on this area of vital importance to many of the poorest in the world.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Leeds District Synod

The Autumn Synod for the Leeds District is traditionally at the Methodist school, Ashville College, in Harrogate. We are always made to feel welcome and the lunch that concludes our business is always appreciated. Today was no exception with the Headmaster, who is to move on from the school at the end of this academic year, welcoming us back once again.

Liz Smith, our District Chair (opposite) led the opening worship and we welcomed those who had been newly stationed in the Leeds District.

I’d been given an opportunity to address Synod, and I reflected that the last time we had met together they had sent me off to Conference with their full support and best wishes. It was good to be back, now 2 months in to my year of office and with much to share about Conference and my experiences so far.

Later in the morning we heard from Norman Ivison and Sally Thornton who led a challenging session about Fresh Expressions. They talked about the changing pattern of Sundays, relationships and cultures, alongside the increasing lack of knowledge about faith and the growing spiritual hunger within our society, and how fresh expressions of church can respond to this.

Norman had been on to the streets of Preston asking people what they knew about the Methodist Church. The results were stark but not surprising. “I’ve heard about them but don’t know anything about them”, “They’re a bit strict aren’t they”, although some added words to the effect of “they do some good things don’t they”. Research suggests that at least 60% of the UK population have no real contact with any church. The Fresh Expressions movement should offer a wake-up call to us all