Monday, 30 November 2009

East Anglia District visit

I started my visit to the East Anglia District on Saturday morning at Thetford Methodist Church where a group of GPs, nurses and others with medical backgrounds from the District came together to discuss the ethical issues related to our ageing society. We had a stimulating discussion about how we should respond to the challenges and dilemmas of an increasing number of people with dementia, how our society often fails to place enough priority on the needs of its oldest members or respect their wisdom and experience, and how the Church should respond.

I then travelled with District Chair, Rev Graham Thompson, to Soham in the Ely and Newmarket Circuit, where the church hall along with the kitchen and other rooms had been extensively refurbished. We had been invited to take part in a service of dedication and re-opening of the building. A large number of people from around the circuit had come to support them and it was clear that the effort put in to the redevelopment had also re-invigorated the congregation.

The service was led by local minister Rev Edwin Myers. Someone had let on that it was my birthday and it was a wonderful surprise to be presented with a birthday cake by superintendent minister Rev Barbara Garwood.

On Sunday we returned to the Thetford, Diss and Mildenhall Circuit, this time being welcomed at Stanton Methodist Church where I lead the morning service. It marked the start of their 125th anniversary celebrations and they have a programme of events planned for the year. They’ve clearly had 125 years of practice, but the singing was excellent as we celebrated not just their anniversary but the start of Advent. It was lovely to be presented with a picture of the church after the service and to meet members of the church, some of whom had been baptised here over 80 years ago.

Following the service we returned to Norwich were David and I had been generously hosted by Graham and Alison Thompson. Not only did they act as hosts but also as guides and chauffeurs throughout our stay in the District, for which we were very thankful. We shared lunch with representatives from the District and we were joined by General Secretary and past president Rev Martyn Atkins and his wife Helen. Martyn had been preaching nearby and was en-route to an evening service in Dunstable, 2 ½ hours away in the neighbouring district. We should appreciate more the time offered to the Church by many of our Connexional team members.

On Sunday afternoon we had the privilege of visiting Rev Stuart Luckcock at Eckling Grange in Dereham. Stuart is 101 years old and the oldest minister in the Methodist Church in Britain. We heard about his many years of faithful service, including his time as a mission partner in South India. He remains remarkably alert and was not afraid to challenge the President on the fact that David had more lines in the Minutes of Conference than he did.

On Sunday evening we travelled back across the District to a tea and circuit service at Haddenham in the Ely and Newmarket Circuit. A music group led by a local farmer and local preacher led the service alongside other members of the circuit. I was invited to preach. It was then time for me to return to Leeds, leaving David to continue to enjoy the warm hospitality of this friendly District.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

London Days

Living in London has lots of advantages. One is that it is possible to fit a few extra events and occasions into the Presidential diary. So, last week, the day before driving up to Yorkshire for the weekend, Liz and I were able to go to a gig at which our younger son, Joe, was playing bass guitar with one of the two bands he plays in. The band is called Night Code. The venue was the Bull and Gate, Kentish Town (and this may be the first time that particular venue has been mentioned in the President's and Vice-President's blog!)

On Monday evening I went to the British Academy for the 5th birthday celebration for Roehampton University, of which Southlands College is a constituent part.
Then on Tuesday it was to Lambeth Palace for Christian Aid's AGM. I'm pictured, left, with Christian Aid's Daleep Mukarji, for whom this was his last AGM. Daleep and his wife Azra are good friends of ours, and attend Muswell Hill Methodist Church.

On Wednesday I went into Methodist Church House and was joined by Roberta Rominger from the URC and Jonathan Edwards from the Baptist Union, as together we signed a Christmas Card for Phil Woolas MP, the Immigration Minister. We're encouraging people to send him a Christmas card inviting him to do what he can to end the UK's detention of children seeking sanctuary.
Then it was off to URC Church House to meet the staff, discuss all sorts of things, and pray together. The picture (below) shows me with John Marsh, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, Roberta Rominger the URC's General Secretary and Richard Mortimer, Deputy General Secretary.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Yorkshire weekend - November 21-22

So, while Richard went from Yorkshire to London, Liz and I did the opposite journey and went to Yorkshire for the weekend.
Saturday afternoon saw a service to celebrate the opening of Phase One of the COGS (Centre on Gracious Street) redevelopment at Gracious Street Methodist Church in Knaresborough. What has been built is a most exciting, creative, attractive and eminently useful building - well worth a visit to see what can be done when a church believes it is called to serve the community in which it is placed. The service was lively (with a world premier of a new Brian Hoare hymn!) and well attended, with lots of civic representatives and people from the wider Knaresborough community. There was a 'buzz' about the whole occasion. And, while we celebrated the completion of Phase One, it was also the time to launch Phase Two of the development - so there's lots more work to be done. But what a brilliant start! (Photo shows previous minister David Ely, present minister Gail Hunt, me and the Leeds District Chair, Liz Smith.)

On Sunday I returned to York South Circuit, where I had served as a minister in the 1980s. Morning worship was at Holgate, whose centenary year this is. (Liz and I posed by the banner made to celebrate the centenary)

Evening worship was at Central Methodist Church in the City Centre of York (left), where I had been the minister and where Liz and I were married in 1987.
A wonderful opportunity to meet up with old friends and hear the latest news. Also, to see how churches respond in the 21st century to the challenge of sharing God's love with the community in which they are placed

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Hinde Street Methodist Church

Today I spent the day at Hinde Street Methodist Church in the West London Mission, a church that describes itself as being a conscience at the heart of Marylebone for nearly 200 years. It is also at the centre of a significant amount of social care activity and the Mission employs around 60 staff in this work. I reflected with the congregation that the only other time I’d been to the church was when I attended my first Methodist Conference in 1988 when Hinde Street was one of the venues for an ordination service.

The Church has a tradition of using a 1936 order of Holy Communion every Sunday morning and I joined the congregation to share in this. The main morning worship follows an hour later and today was led by the Superintendent minister Revd Sue Keegan von Allmen. I had been invited to preach.

Once a month different class groups volunteer to prepare lunch after the morning service and today Revd Leao Neto’s group were in charge in the kitchen. It gave a good opportunity to meet with members of the congregation in an informal setting.

Following lunch a group of us met to discuss the questions that arise from the recent debate about assisted suicide and advance directives. The group included health care professionals who reflected on how difficult some decisions could be as well as others who shared their thoughts when they had considered writing an advance directive for themselves. We reflected that the law can leave us in a messy place, but to try and clarify or change the law may makes matters worse rather than better.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

MHA Multi-Faith Housing with Care Project – The South Leeds Appeal

This evening I was invited to attend a presentation given by MHA to describe their plans for Hemmingway House, a multi-faith housing with care project in South Leeds. Local residents and members of the various faith communities in Leeds had also been invited to hear about this ground breaking scheme which is a national first.

MHA is proposing to build a facility that will provide support for up to 90 residents in 45 apartments which will offer independence with the security of 24 hour staffing. The unique element of the scheme is to use the project to encourage the coming together of local faith groups in South Leeds focused on the care of older people from all faith communities. It is hoped that local residents will use the facilities in the building, like the planned vegetarian bistro, and so ensure that those living in Hemmingway House will continue to feel that they are full members of the community.

MHA now provides care and support to over 13,000 older people through 75 care homes, 50 retirement schemes and 49 community based projects, and they are applauded for their work to support people with dementia as well as their emphasis on nurturing a persons spirituality and by doing so helping to improve physical wellbeing. However they have never done anything quite like this.

The South Leeds Appeal is an attempt to raise £750,000 to make this dream a reality and I’ve no doubt that once people see the quality, scope and importance of this project the target will be quickly achieved.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Youth Assembly

David and I spent this weekend at the Methodist Youth Assembly which was held at Ushaw College near Durham. This is the first Youth Assembly and replaces the Youth Conference held in previous years. It has certainly been more successful in attracting young people, with 211 attending, almost double the numbers attending previous Youth Conferences.The Youth Assembly has also succeeded in reflecting the ethnic diversity of the Methodist Church in Britain, probably more so than Conference itself.

I was impressed by the large number of young people that had been involved organising the Assembly and who continued to act as stewards on the day. All the sessions (or Logins) were facilitated by young people trained for the task. The many senior members of the Connexional Team who came to support the event sat on beanbags in a corridor and acted as advisors only when called on to do so. This was very much an event that empowered young people to speak and be heard.

Login sessions covered a range of subjects including youth violence, sexuality, God and me, self esteem, equality and diversity, you and your rights and vocation. There can have been few Presidents of the Conference who were invited to attend a discussion group led by young people because he was “the expert on sex”.

Later in the day login extra sessions were added to discuss topics requested by those attending, including exploring Christianity in a multi-faith world, and considering the challenges that being in a relationship with someone who is not a Christian brings. All the sessions were well attended and by all accounts lively and thoughtful.

Throughout the weekend the process of selecting the next Youth President took place. Youth Assembly members were introduced to 5 possible candidates for the role and after a series of interviews and an initial election they were left to make a choice between 2. This morning Pete Brady, from Bradford, was finally elected to be the next President and will take up office almost immediately. X-Factor was nowhere near as exciting as this.

Pete was inducted during the morning worship that took place in the splendidly ornate chapel in the College. I can’t imagine that the ancient catholic saints that look down from the stained glass windows could have witnessed worship quite like this very often. The chapel was packed with young people as well as members of all ages from nearby Methodist circuits. The powerful and dynamic service followed the theme for the weekend, “be something beautiful...for you, for the world, with God”. We were reminded that God saw the worth in all people, whatever they looked like, and picking up a theme I articulated at Conference, God calls us all to work and witness wherever we find ourselves.

Contemporary songs were well led by the band Life Colour, with words and video clips on a series of screens distributed around the chapel.

It concluded a very successful weekend and I’m sure that even those that had long journeys back home left uplifted and inspired.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Meeting with Chris Bryant MP about Fiji

Yesterday evening I went with David and David Bradwell from the Connexional Team to meet Chris Bryant MP, a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to talk about the situation in Fiji. The meeting had been facilitated by Methodist MP Meg Munn who also has an interest in this issue, having visited Fiji during the summer as part of a group looking at the impact of climate change.

The Methodist Church in Fiji is by far the largest religious group there and has been the subject of increased persecution by the military government led by Commodore Josaia Vorege (Frank) Bainimarama who came to power in a coup in 2006. This year the annual Conference was prevented from taking place, as was the annual choir festival, and significant speaking restrictions have been placed on senior church leaders.

In August the President of the Methodist Church of Fiji Rev Ame Tugaue, the General Secretary, Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu, and seven other church leaders appeared in court charged with attending an unauthorised committee meeting. Court action continues and communication by and within the church is being monitored, crippling the churches business.

Last week the political situation in Fiji deteriorated further with the expulsion of the Australian and New Zealand High Commissioners.

The British Government is aware of the risks of being seen as a former colonial power lecturing Fiji, but nevertheless they have made their concerns known about the unacceptable treatment of the Methodist Church in Fiji. Fiji has now been suspended from the Commonwealth and the EU has also taken action to try and put pressure on the military leadership to move to free elections as soon as possible.

David and I underlined the concern raised by the Methodist Conference and by Methodists across the world and hoped that the British Government would continue to do all in its power to help seek a resolution to the dreadful situation in Fiji.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday

I joined other representatives of faith communities for the annual Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The bands were magnificent. As the last notes of Walford Davies' 'Solemn Melody' faded away, the Royal Family were all in their places as Big Ben struck the hour and a gun fired one round to introduce the silence and another two minutes later to end it. I've seen the event or parts of it many times on television, but the experience of being there is far more moving. Liz joined other guests on one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office balconies, and had excellent views of the event.

It has become the tradition on this Sunday for the President to preach at Hinde Street in the evening.

There were many aspects of this service I enjoyed, including the music group (pictured) that accompanied the hymns (including the Conference Memorials Secretary on bass recorder).

After the service, some of us retired to the manse for eats, drinks and conversation.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Leeds North East Circuit Local Preachers’ Study Day

The local preachers in Leeds North East Circuit organise an annual study day and this year they invited 3 doctors from the meeting to lead the day. I was joined at Chapel Allerton Methodist Church by former vice-president Prof Peter Howdle and Dr Stan Pearson, both of whom have recently retired as physicians at Leeds Teaching Hospital Trust, and together we led an exploration of medical ethical issues.

Stan Pearson talked about the different ethical frameworks that can be used, and asked what is distinctive about a Christian ethical model and how that relates to our cultural context. Peter Howdle talked about end of life issues including a reflection on the latest developments in the debate about assisted suicide. He was also asked about his experience looking after patients who had had liver transplants, and the ethical issues that this area of health care can raise. I concentrated on the questions that can arise in relation to fertility treatment, abortion and embryology research.

As local preachers and worship leaders we did not shy away from these challenging questions, even though there are often no easy answers.

ll Million Takeover Day - November 6th

My rather rare visit to Methodist Church House yesterday coincided with '11 Million Takeover Day'. Organised by the Children's Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green. 'Takeover Day' encourages organisations across England to open their doors to children and young people so that they can see for themselves the processes behind the decisions which affect their daily lives.

Groups of children toured Methodist Church House, along with teachers, parents and members of our staff. They engaged in various activities - including interviewing the President of the Conference. These were hard-hitting interviews, with very direct questions from budding Jeremy Paxmans. The tone was set when the first group arrived on our floor of the building. Ken Howcroft and I were at our desks, industriously getting on with the day's tasks. We were introduced to the group and, alnost immediately, a hand went up. 'I have a question,' said the hand's owner. 'OK, what is it?' I responded. 'Why are your desks so untidy?' This was clearly a question for the Assistant Secretary of the Conference, so Ken replied, 'Because we're very busy.'

It was a most enjoyable day.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Queen's Foundation, November 3rd

On a day when the weather favoured us with its rich autumnal variety (i.e. from bright sunshine to torrential downpours) I travelled to Birmingham for an afternoon at the Queen's Foundation, where I was made most welcome. After conversation with the Principal, Canon David Hewlett and our own Helen Cameron, I joined other staff members and students for lunch. This was followed by a session on 'Creating Safer Space' with this year's presbyteral and diaconal students. We're pictured (left) and I'm hoping the haziness of the picture reflects the weather consitions rather than any lack of clarity in our conversation.
Next came an hour or so with the SOCMS (Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies) students (right) whefre we listened to each other's stories and considered some of the challenges facing the Church in Britain and throughout the world. This was a fascinating session and I wonder how more people could get the chance to meet and talk with this group of church leaders from around the world. We have so much to learn from each other.
The climax of the afternoon was the Foundation's evening eucharist, with a full chapel, a congregation drawn from different churches, cultures and continents. Bible readings were read in different languages and everhyone said the Lord's Prayer in their own language. The music was lively and came from different continents.
I drove home with much to reflect on, after a fascinating, inspiring and enjoyable afternoon. Many thanks to all at Queen's.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Revisiting old haunts - York and Tadcaster (31st October and 1st November)

While Richard and Anne were visiting Malta, Liz and I went back to North Yorkshire for the weekend. On Saturday I was the invited 'after dinner speaker' at Clifton Methodist Church, in the York (North) Circuit. Clifton are celebrating their centenary. The photo shows me with the York and Hull District Chair, Stephen Burgess and Keith and Nancy Reed. Before becoming Assistant Secretary of the Conference, Keith was minister in York (North) Circuit - even back to the days when I was in the neighbouring York (South) Circuit. Liz and I always love meeting up with Keith and Nancy - and it was Keith who conducted our marriage service, back in 1987.

At the Sunday morning service, led by the current Superintendent minister, David Godfrey, a plaque was unveiled, marking the centenary and proclaiming that 'Clifton Methodist Church celebrates the loving power of God drawing young and old into daily worship and service.' Over the past few weeks, I've been working on my technique for plaque unveiling and have developed it into quite a dramatic art form, as the pictures demonstrate!

As we gathered for coffee and refreshments after the service, the Lord Mayer of York, who told us he was a butcher's son and knew how to cut a cake, made the first incision into the anniversary cake, which was then shared by all.

The evening provided an opportunity to revisit Tadcaster, the circuit in which I served for seven very happy years when I first left college in the 1970s. I was amazed and very moved by how many people came from around the circuit to share in the service. It was great to meet people after so many years and get updates on children I'd baptised who are now doing all kinds of things. Tadcaster had made good use of this year's MRDF harvest project and during the service I was able to share some of my recent experiences in India and Sri Lanka. The choir sang a very enjoyable version of 'Amazing Grace' set to a backing of Pachelbel's Canon. I'd not heard it before, and it worked really well. But my real memory of the evening will be meeting again so many wonderful friends. The following is just one of many photos taken on the night. Thanks, Tadcaster!


We continued with our visit to the South East District on Friday when we travelled to the Malta circuit. The church here is a local ecumenical partnership between the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church in Britain and on Saturday morning we were taken by the current Church of Scotland minister, Rev Doug McRoberts, to meet Malta’s Catholic Archbishop Paul Cremona.

Malta is proud of its long Christian heritage, stretching back to the time St Paul was shipwrecked on the island. Over 95% of people in Malta would regard themselves as Catholic and just over 50% still attend Mass regularly, although the Archbishop acknowledged that, as with other countries, this percentage is falling and the Church has to re-evaluate how it responds to the challenge of an increasingly secular society. He was clear that the Catholic Church in Malta needed to embrace modern technology to a greater extent and to place a greater emphasis on Christian formation and education in order to remain relevant to younger people.

We were taken by church members David Smith and Paul Slater to Dar Tereza Spinelli, a home for homeless women and their children, some of whom are fleeing domestic violence. There can be between 10-20 women living in the home at any one time, usually for a few months until they can be helped to find rented accommodation of their own. Many living here are quite vulnerable and the support offered by the staff of the home is vitally important in helping them regain their confidence and independence. The church supports the home with regular supplies of food donated by members of the congregation.

The church is also involved in work with men and women living in refuge centres on the island. Led by the dedicated work of church member Frank Wilmont, pastoral and practical support is offered to those who arrived in Malta when they were picked up from boats between Libya and Italy. Many are from Somalia, a few from Sudan and Eritrea and a smaller number from West Africa. The Marsa Open Centre near the port in Valletta, is home for 600 men and I spoke to men from Somalia who had been living there for 4 years. Most survive on small state payments with only limited opportunities for casual work. Although a small number have been allowed to travel to America, the majority are unable to leave the island and have had no contact with their families in Somalia since fleeing that war-torn country.

The Marsa Centre has received recent investment both from the Maltese government and agencies abroad which has led to improved cooking, washing and accommodation facilities and a very popular internet café. Church members visit regularly, offering pastoral support, teaching English classes and even challenging residents to games of chess, which appeared very popular.

A few miles away, near the airport, is a much more basic camp comprised of a large number of tents. It is another open camp, the majority of the 600 men living here having previously spent months in the nearby closed detention centre.Again the majority are from Somalia but we talked to Ernest and Emmanuel from Nigeria. Ernest told us how he was one of only 17 out of 31 who survived an attempted boat crossing from Libya 15 months ago. An Italian patrol boat lowered a ladder on to the small boat which caused it to capsize. 14 people drowned. After being kept quiet for a year, this incident is now the centre of much media attention.

Ernest was an elder in a Pentecostal church in Nigeria that was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists, the scars on his chest bearing testament to these traumatic events. He fled when his life was in danger. He fears to return to Nigeria and simply wants to use his skills as an electrician but he is unable to leave Malta and has to rely on the limited amount of casual work as he can get it to survive. However despite his adversity his faith remains strong.

Both men, together with a few others from the camp are now attending St Andrew’s Scots Church in the centre of Valletta each Sunday as well as joining the men’s fellowship meeting during the week. St Andrew’s is a cosmopolitan church with over 20 different nationalities from a variety of church backgrounds making up the congregation.

On Saturday evening members of the congregation gathered in the church and I led a session on Men and the Church. We had a lively discussion about possible reasons that acted as barriers to some men and young people in general from engaging with the Church. We concluded the evening by sharing a lovely meal together in the local pasta restaurant, something that would undoubtedly attract many men to come to church meetings if repeated on a regular basis.

On Sunday morning we returned to the church where I led the morning worship. I was able to bring greetings to the members of St Andrew’s, the most southerly Methodist Church in the British Methodist Connexion, from Haroldswick in the Shetland Islands, the most northerly Methodist Church in Britain. It has been a privilege to visit both churches in the last 3 months.

Following the service there was time to look around this historic city and then to head off to the other side of the island with our generous hosts Peter and Elizabeth Lloyd, and their friendly dog Rory, for a walk along the coast. Dotted along the coast are numerous small shooting hides. Shooting migrating birds has been a popular activity in Malta, but now European Union laws are starting to restrict this, and the once unusual sound of wild bird song can now be heard on the island again.

Our day concluded with a pleasant meal with church minister Doug McRoberts and his wife Lesley in the so-called silent city of Medina, the historic former capital of Malta in to which only a very limited number of cars are now allowed to enter.

Today, before we left to return to England, we walked to nearby Mosta to see the impressive St Mary’s Church. In 1942, when Malta was one of the most bombed places on earth, 3 bombs fell on to the church. Two bombs bounced off the large dome and the third fell straight through, hitting the interior wall twice and then rolled across the floor during a crowded service without exploding. Members of the congregation then bravely carried the bomb out in to the square. A replica of the bomb can now be found on display in the church.

We’ve been warmly welcomed and very well looked after during our brief visit to this fascinating island and we leave the South East District, and Gibraltar and Malta particularly, inspired by the generosity, work and witness of both church communities.