Saturday, 30 January 2010

EMYC - European Methodist Youth and Children

This has been quite a month for me, in various ways. As well as the visits already described on this blog, we had a very important family celebration. On the 18th January, our young son, Joe, became 21. I'd made sure to keep the weekend free in my diary, so was able be part of the celebrations. But when your youngest becomes 21, it's another reminder that you're not as young as you used to be. So it was rather nice to go to Frankfurt with Mike Seaton for a meeting of the Executive of EMYC (European Methodist Youth and Children).

Back in the Autumn, while I was sitting relaxing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I received an email informing me that I'd been elected as the next President of EMYC. This came as good news. Years ago, when I was Children's Secretary at the then Division of Education and Youth, I attended EMYC for a number of years ands was its Vice-President. Over a decade later, to be elected as President is a great honour and I'm really looking forward to it. It's a four-year post, generally undertaken by Bishops or Ex-Presidents of the different European Methodist Churches.
We met at the same time and place as the Executive of the European Methodist Council (co-chaired by Chris Elliott) and held a joint session (pictured, left) in which the main item under discussion was a forthcoming European Methodist Festival, at Kracow in 2012.
I seem to be experiencing extremes of weather this month. Snow in London was followed by the warmth of Ghana. In Frankfurt it was both snowy and foggy. The photo below shows a plane landing while we waited for ours, which was delayed over an hour because of the weather conditions and the need to de-ice the wings before we could set off. I wonder what Palestine will be like next week?

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

More from Beds, Essex and Herts, January 24th to 27th

As January 24th was the Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is not surprising that both services in which I shared were ecumenical occasions. The morning was at North Watford Methodist Church, where the worship was introduced by the Revd Margaret Millar and prayers were led by the Revd Dick Lewis (Church of England). The picture shows Margaret and Dick, along with the Anglican Bishop of Southern Sudan, who is in the UK for a few weeks, and me (wearing the Kente cloth stole given to me in Ghana).

In the evening I had been invited to preach at Evensong in the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, the oldest site of Christian worship in Britain. Evensong was conducted by the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John (pictured, left). The service was followed by a reception and an opportunity to meet and talk with a good number of local church representatives, Anglican and Methodist.

On Monday morning we drove over to Luton to meet with representatives of Grassroots, a multifaith community organisation who run a number of projects. We heard of some of the challenges facing members of different faith communities, some of the ways in which people increasingly work together, and were made very welcome on a visit to the Central Mosque.
Monday afternoon saw us with Watford Town Centre Chaplaincy (the picture shows me with chair of Trustees, Alan Smith, and senior chaplain, Richard Chewter). There is a whole range of activities included in the chaplaincy's work - in workplaces, with young people, teams of 'Street Angels', etc. It is also exciting to discover more and more businesses asking for provision of chaplaincy services. Along with other types of chaplaincy I'd seen on this and other visits, I reflected on the opportunities available and often missed for us to engage more fully with our communities. (This led to me writing my February Methodist Recorder article on the subject.)

Tuesday was spent at the Chelmsford Diocesan Retreat House at Pleshey, where I'd been invited to lead a Day Retreat on 'Finding Safer Space Internally'. The theme linked with my Conference 'Creating Safer Space' theme, but also gave us the chance to explore its implications for the spiritual and faith life of individuals.

My visit to the District ended on Wednesday morning with a meeting at the manse of District Chair Anne Brown with members of the District Policy Committee. This gave an opportunity for me to share my reflections on things I'd seen and people I'd met, as well as to hear more of plans and hopes for the District's future.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Luton and Harwich

This morning I went with Revd Anne Brown to Beech Hill Methodist Church in the Luton circuit. We were to share in worship there in a united service with nearby Oakdale Church. Church stewards John and Diane Bowes helped with the service.

The church has recently been rebuilt and it now shares its site with a new GP health centre. It is a wonderfully versatile building and has the potential to become very well used by the local community. It is also intended to open the café area on a regular basis and linked to the opening of the surgery next door.

The church is working in partnership with the local United Reformed Church with the appointment of Karen Campbell, a new community worker. Karen only took up her post 2 weeks ago but intends to support a number of churches that work together in the area with various community initiatives.

This afternoon I travelled right across the District to the Essex town of Harwich on the east coast. Local Methodists were sharing in a service for the week of prayer for Christian Unity with Churches Together in the Harwich Peninsula. We gathered together at Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, Catholic Church in Dovercourt, near Harwich. It was good to worship together and to share in conversation afterwards before returning home.

The picture shows local church leaders, including Methodist ministers Rev Ian Wales and Rev Katie Jackson, Lt Andrew and Jackie Jarrold from the Salvation Army and local Catholic priest, Fr Michael Stokes.

I was told of a number of exciting initiatives taking place within the circuit including a church with just 7 members that started an arts group. A couple of years ago the group asked to meet once a month for worship structured around Sunday lunch. Now between 40 and 50 people regularly worship together in this café-style church and they’ve even asked to share in a Covenant service.

Visit to the Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex District

We started our visit to the Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex District at Bishop’s Stortford Methodist Church, just a few miles from the District manse where I’d spent the night at the home of the District Chair, Revd Anne Brown and her husband Andrew. The Church is fairly central to this relatively new District, and on Saturday morning it hosted a large number of circuit stewards and others who had been invited to come and meet us.

I spoke a little about the decisions of Conference and reflected again on my theme of “God calls us all”, talking about the importance of lay leadership, how working in teams can give new life to a church and how we should try to overcome any barriers that prevent anyone from fully engaging in the Church and being able to respond to God’s call to them.

David picked up on this theme, reflecting on experiences we had had over the last 7 months, and talking about “Church without walls”. We have both been impressed by the number of Churches we have visited reaching out beyond their walls, as well as the many work-place chaplains who are working well outside our buildings and traditional settings.

We had a good discussion with the circuit stewards who were also able to share their stories and experiences.

The day was to have a theme of team-work as after lunch we travelled to Broomfield Hospital at Chelmsford to visit the chaplaincy team led by Methodist minister Revd Guy Goodall. He leads a team of 5 employed and 95 volunteer chaplains who minister to the staff and patients across the sites of Mid Essex Hospital Services Trust. It is an inter-faith chaplaincy team and Guy reflected on how well they worked together.

They have around 27,000 contacts a year and clearly play an important role in the life of the hospital. This was underlined by the Trust Chief Executive, Graham Ramsay, who told us that despite the financial difficulties facing the NHS at the moment, and the £30 million worth of savings the Trust had to make in the coming year, the hospital would continue to invest in the chaplaincy because of the vital role it played. The fact that the Chief Executive gave us so much of his time confirmed this.

Broomfield Hospital is home to a major regional burns unit and we were able to meet some of the staff working on the unit that are supported by the hospital chaplains. It can be a very distressing job caring for those with serious burns, but there are also major psychological wounds that need healing as well as the physical, not only for the patient but also their relatives. We were impressed by the large team of professionals that were involved in the care of these patients, all having specialist skills and all supporting one another.

The theme of team working continued in to the evening, when Anne Brown graciously gave up her TV to allow us to watch Leeds United continue to triumph against the odds in the FA Cup! They clearly demonstrated what teamwork can achieve, this time achieving a well earned draw against Premiership club Tottenham.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Parliamentary Methodist Fellowship’s Annual Covenant Service

This evening David and I joined with members of the Parliamentary Methodist Fellowship and many other Methodists who had come to share in the annual covenant service. It was held in the splendidly ornate Chapel of St Mary Undercroft which is at the heart of the Palace of Westminster and perhaps one of the most unusual places a Methodist covenant service is held on an annual basis.

We were welcomed by Meg Munn MP who now chairs the fellowship group that brings together Methodist MPs and peers. Revd Martin Turner, Superintendent Minister at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, who acts as chaplain to the group, preached and he was supported by staff from the Central Hall who led the service.

Martin reflected on the fact that for many MPs the last year must have felt like an “annus horribilis” but that media reports had failed to emphasis the reality that the vast majority of our MPs and peers work extremely hard with great integrity and honesty. The covenant service reminded us both as a community and as individuals that we were answerable to God. All had an important role to play in our society and a renewed respect for a reformed Parliament would help to strengthen our whole society.

With the chapel’s ancient walls resounding to Methodists in full song it was also an opportunity to affirm the men and women who work on our behalf in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and to let them know that despite the many challenges they face, we continue to uphold them in our prayers.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Linthwaite Methodist Church

This morning I lead worship at Linthwaite Methodist Church near Huddersfield. I was joined by Revd Peter Whittaker, the Chair of the West Yorkshire District. We were both local boys, I spent my first years in this friendly village and Peter grew up across the valley in Huddersfield.

It was lovely to be joined by friends and family, and Jonathan and Matthew were able to talk a little about their experience in Uganda.

Of course our prayers were with those in Haiti and we used the prayer on this website within our worship. Peter also shared with us some moving prayers of intercession using a prayer table containing items from around the world.

Following the service we shared in warming soup and cake. Outside the snow had stared to thaw, but you may have seen pictures on the national news on Wednesday of people crossing the road on their hands and knees because the ice made it unsafe to walk. The picture was from Linthwaite, very close to the church. Fortunately no one needed to crawl to church this morning.

Friday, 15 January 2010

A letter to Haiti, following the earthquake

On behalf of the Methodist Church and people of Britain, the Vice-President and I wrote to the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas and the letter has both been received by the Methodist Church in Haiti and posted on the MCCA Website. The letter was worded as follows:

"I write on behalf of the Methodist Church and people of Great Britain, to express our condolences to our sisters and brothers in the Methodist Church in Haiti and to all those affected by the recent catastrophic earthquake. We understand this is worst to have hit your country in two centuries, and we are aware that it comes in the wake of four successive hurricanes that hit the island in 2008.

Over the past days, our media have made the extent of this tragedy very clear. Many have died. Hundreds of thousands of people face ongoing pain, sorrow, hardship and uncertainty. Homes, businesses and public buildings lie in ruins.

We pray for the people of your church and nation, that those suffering grief, loss and injury may be comforted; that broken lives may be healed, destroyed homes and communities rebuilt, and justice established for all.

We have also heard that while you have been responding to the immense needs of Haitians, you have also been seeking to establish the welfare of colleagues from the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR, we are relieved that it has been established that they are safe and we thank you for your care and concern for others in the midst of your own great need.

We hope and pray that the necessary international relief and support will become speedily available, that medical supplies and personnel will reach those who need them, and that people's basic needs for food, water and shelter will be properly met.

Be assured of our continuing prayers, love and support. You are constantly in our thoughts."

Thursday, 14 January 2010

January in Ghana

From 4th to 10th January, Stuart Jordan (co-Chair of the London District) and I visited Ghana at the invitation of the Ghanaian Methodist Fellowship, and accompanied by its chaplain, the Revd William Davis. It meant leaving behind the snow and the cold and enjoying for a few wonderful days the warmth of Ghana - a warmth that is even more about the quality of the welcome than it is about the climate.

During what was a relatively short visit, we visited quite a number of churches, projects and people. On our first full day we met with staff of the Methodist University College (see above) and started to explore possible new ways of co-operation and collaboration with similar groups and organisations in Britain.

On our second full day we travelled north to Kumasi. On the way, we dropped in to the 'annual all ministers retreat', which is what it says it is, a residential retreat for all the ministers of The Methodist Church Ghana, where around 1,000 ministers meet for worship, fellowship and learning. (We have nothing quite like this in Britain.) W
e listened in to two fine sessions led by the Presiding Bishop.

It was only when I joined the Presiding Bishop on the stage to bring greetings from Methodists in Britain that I realised just what a lot of people were there!

In the evening I had been invited to preach in the Wesley Methodist Cathedral in Kumasi. There was a very large congregation, with representatives from various Methodist organisations, Boys' and Girls' Brigade members on parade, and music from a number of choirs and music groups along with a brass band. The worship was conducted by the Presiding Bishop and other Bishops.
Stuart and I were presented with beautiful stoles which will certainly be seen in action around the connexion in the months to come!

On the Friday we travelled to Cape Coast by way of the Methodist Rafiki satellite village at Gyahadze, Winneba. Here, the Methodist Church has set up a village for abandoned children, on land donated by the local village chief. We met the children and staff of the village, and also the village chief and one of the elders. The story of this village was much like the story of how the National Children's Home was founded.

From Winneba we travelled to Cape Coast, where Methodism started in Ghana in the 1830s. Here there is the oldest Methodist church in Ghana, now the Wesley Cathedral. The remains of the earliest Wesleyan missionaries are buried under the cathedral's pulpit. It is profoundly moving to realise how many young men trained and responded to the call to serve in other parts of the world, knowing that the likelihood was that they would die within a few months, probably from malaria. Yet still they went. The name boards from Richmond College, now on the walls of Room 100 in Methodist Church House, bear testimony to this.

Just a few minutes walk from the cathedral is the castle, which was the base for the slave trade. Visiting the dungeons and hearing the story of the building and its use over many years was very hard. But it is a story of which we need to be reminded, and one which must commit the human race to ensuring there is no repeat of such inhumanity towards fellow human beings.

On the final day of our brief stay we visited our third and final Methodist cathedral. This was in Accra - a stone built church (made from local stone) that looked very similar to many Methodist Churches in the UK.

For Stuart and me this was a week to remember. Methodists from Ghana make a very significant contribution to the life of British Methodism, particularly in London. Hopefully, we shall find new ways of building on relationships that are already strong.

Being driven around in an air conditioned car made it easy to forget just how hot it was outside. On our last afternoon the temperature reached 35 degrees C - while back in the UK it was a similar figure, but in fahrenheit.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Connexional Leaders Forum

For the last 2 days David and I have been at the Connexional Leaders Forum which has been meeting at High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Despite the awful weather in many parts of the country almost all members of the Forum managed to get to the meeting.

CLF brings together the 6 people who are designate, current or ex President and Vice-President, the Youth President, the General Secretary and Strategic Leaders in the Connexional Team, the Warden of the Diaconal Order, the Chairs of the SRC, Stationing Committee and Methodist Council and the District Chairs. It meets 3 times a year and whilst it is not a decision making body, it does provide the opportunity for leaders in the Methodist Church in Britain to gather together for mutual sharing discussion and support.

Today CLF met with our District Development Enablers who work across the Connexion. DDEs have been closely involved in the initiative known as “Mapping a Way Forward: Regrouping for Mission”, an initiative that is encouraging churches, circuits and districts to look again at their mission and trying to address those factors that get in the way of it being truly effective. For some this means revising circuit boundaries, for others it means working across them in partnership, but if that is all that happens then we will have wasted a God-given opportunity to revitalise our discipleship and mission.

The session this morning provided an opportunity to hear of the many different approaches being taken in Districts around the Connexion and learn the lessons of the experience over the last 2 years. It was stressed how important it was to understand the local context of a community, church or circuit and this was why a single Connexional approach or blue-print was not being advocated.

Equally this should be a continual process of discerning how we as individuals and as the Church should respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

These are exciting times for the Methodist Church in Britain, but they can also feel risky or unsettling for many. Today was about learning from one another and supporting one another as we move forward in mission.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Voluntary Action for Development and MRDF- 6th January

It takes about a week of hard work by members of the local community to dig and build a functioning well. When the rains come it can be hard to persuade men to leave the planting in their farms to take part in well creation, but at Katubwe village we found a group of men hard at work building a spring tank. The water supply here is quite poor and so the design of this type of well allows for filtered spring water to collect slowly overnight in a sunken tank and then it is available for use during the day. A spring tank like this can supply enough water for 200 people.

Elsewhere in Katubwe a shallow well had been completed and I had the privilege of officially handing over the completed well to the community. Members of the managing committee as well as others from the village gathered in the valley around this newly created well. They said that children had frequently developed gastrointestinal infections when they had previously collected water from the dirty pond and they were delighted that a safe supply of water was now available for them to easily collect and use.

As with other places we had visited during our time with VAD, we planted trees near the site of the well which will not only provide shade and bind the subsoil but also fruit and firewood in years to come.

Men were also hard at work in Bbulabakulu, where we found two men in the 25ft deep well shaft that had been dug out over the last 3 days.They were now laying blocks around the wall of the well and packing in hardcore in preparation for putting the pipe and plumbing. It was hot work and there were plenty of people on hand to help. Jonathan and Matthew briefly lent a hand.

Following lunch in the village, were we also learnt about the papyrus and banana leaf weaving done by a group of local women, we headed off to visit two farmers in Kasengejje. VAD not only focuses on water and sanitation, but also does important work encouraging sustainable farming practices.

One of the first women that they helped in 1996 was Mrs Fatima Katumba. She started with a small loan from VAD and training in how to grow a variety of crops rather than relying on one or two that would leave her more susceptible to crop failure. She was also helped to use improved seeds, grow more disease-resistant crops and have goats, chickens and a cow on her farm. The result is her harvests achieve better prices at market and she has over the last 14 years been able to build a brick house, expand her farmland and most importantly ensure all her 8 children went to school, 2 of whom now also have university degrees. As a result of all this she has been empowered as a community leader.

Fatima is seen as an example to follow and the skills she has learnt with the support of VAD are now being shared. As Chair of the local farmers circle she acts as a local agricultural trainer, teaching others the skills she has learnt. Her friend, Hadija Nugerwa, has followed her example and she and her family have also benefited as a result. She now knows how to look after her banana plantation better and the diversity of crops she now grows has also meant she can save money for the first time. She too has been able to pay for her children’s education and is in a stronger position to be able to cope with the recent tragic loss of her cow. This once would have been a disaster but now the sustainability of her farm allows her to cope better than she previously would have been able to.

Global warming seems to be having an effect on the previously predictable growing seasons. For instance maize requires consistent rain after the first month of planting but in recent years the rainy season is less predictable making planting crops more risky. However organisations like VAD, in partnership with MRDF, are able to offer support and training in sustainable farming techniques, as well as provide necessary loans when required. This means that where once vulnerable communities could be devastated by changes outside their control, now they are in a much stronger position to be able to look after their families whatever difficulties come their way.

We leave Uganda so much richer. We’ve been warmly welcomed wherever we went, we’ve met some wonderfully generous people and seen some truly inspirational work. We also seen how well money raised by MRDF is spent. It is not just small miracles we have seen, but abundant ones. As we sit in the airport, we’re not that enthusiastic to return to the cold and snow of Leeds.

Voluntary Action for Development and MRDF - 5th January

After a day travelling back from Jinja we started today at Voluntary Action for Development’s office in Kampala. We were to spend 2 days learning about their work, much of which is sponsored by the Methodist Relief and Development Fund. MRDF have been partners with VAD since 2001.

VAD began in 1996 following the civil unrest in Uganda when the need for development was even greater than it is today. 2 years later Benedict Male joined this non-government organisation and now he is the Executive Director. We met him in his office and he introduced us to many of the 16 people who now work for VAD.

The aims of VAD are to facilitate access to safe clean water in rural communities and to improve standards of sanitation and hygiene practice. They try to enhance the efforts of small farmers to achieve sustainable farming practices and they have also started a micro-credit scheme. More recently they have began to encourage the planting of trees, seeing the fruit and firewood that can come from trees just as life-sustaining as clean water.

VAD identify individuals or groups in local communities that are most in need of their services with the help of local governments. Local volunteers outline a baseline assessment of need and consultation takes place with the community. Volunteers not only help with the physical tasks like digging wells, they are also trained to teach other members of the community basic hygiene skills.

VAD has worked with over a hundred schools, providing access to clean water and improved sanitation to students and teachers alike. St Charles Lwanga primary school in Nabbingo has benefited from a large rainwater storage tank and a new toilet block for the 600 pupils and staff to use. Both had been funded by MRDF. Before their installation pupils could spend up to 2 hours a day fetching and carrying water for the school needs. They were also more exposed to infection. The water tank and new toilet block has not only meant access to clean water and reduced risk of infection, it also means the children are able to spend more time being taught in school. It has also meant that learning the basics about good hygiene are now part of the school curriculum, and this knowledge is then past on to other family members. As a result of all this the school is one that parents now want their children to come to.

In Katulaga village around everyone shares the same natural spring at the bottom of a steep valley. However the water would often be dirty and its flow was unpredictable. With the help of VAD an underground dam and filtering system has been dug and a cleared area created which allows clean water to be collected each and every day. Whilst the village children still need to walk down the hill to collect water, what they bring back is now reliably clean and free of infection.

As with all similar projects, a WATSAN (water and sanitation) committee is created from village volunteers. One of their tasks is to collect small donations that can be used to help maintain the new water supply or make necessary repairs. However in very poor communities, even the request for 10-15p a month from families using the water supply can be too much. The widespread belief that water is God-given and so any attempt to charge for what they recently collected freely can cause a degree of conflict, and VAD workers maintain contact with recipients of their work to try and help to resolve such problems.

Mrs Misusera and her family in nearby Nanziga are the grateful recipients of a new pit latrine and bath shelter. She also demonstrated a simple device called a tippy-tap – a small plastic container filled with water that can be tipped over without using dirty hands. In addition a dish-rack has been built to allow more hygienic drainage of washed plates and pans. These simple things have made a big difference for all the family and there is evidence of reduced infection in her children as a result. She has very little, but insisted on giving us a big box of ground nuts and another of mangos as a token of her appreciation for what MRDF and VAD had done for her.

We had lunch with Mrs Muwanga, a long time support of VAD. As at all the places we visited during the day we left behind a newly planted tree, on this occasion a mango tree, but in other places we left avocado or trees suitable for fire-wood when fully grown

In Nkonya village we saw evidence of another type of water source used by VAD, a shallow well. This requires 3 days of digging some 25-30 feet down to the water table and then another 4 days of work back filling around the well with blocks and cement to make a long-lasting well that is relatively easy to pump water from – a vast improvement from the dirty water-hole the villagers once collected water from. This is now just left for animals to drink from.

However many elderly people in the village are unable to make the difficult walk down the steep and slippery slope to collect water, and so the best option for them is the installation of rainwater jars. Mrs Namwandu Ssettaka has been delighted with the large water jar that now sits proudly next to her simple house, collecting rainwater from the guttering. She also has a pit latrine behind her house, something which she is very pleased to have. It gives her much needed dignity and privacy as well as improved hygiene.

We sat and talked with the local committee that oversees the work done in Nkonya, listening to the challenges that they still face and we heared how grateful they had been for the support they had received.

In rural areas where the need is great VAD try to identify those who would most benefit from their help. Mrs Harriet Nassuna contracted polio as a child. It means she is unable to use her legs to walk and can only crawl with difficulty. She has 3 young children and fetching water for the family was very difficult. The VAD team have adapted their design for pit latrine and bath shelter to enable Harriet to use it. She also finds the tippy-tap easy to use and is very pleased with her water jar as collecting water previously was an almost impossible task. Now fetching water is so easy to do, even her small children can help with the daily task.