Sunday, 14 March 2010

Darlington District

After a day back in my surgery in Leeds I returned to the Darlington District to join David and District Chair Rev Ruth Gee for an evening meal with the District Vision and Strategy Team. We met at Broadgate Methodist Church in the heart of the city, a church that is open for meals, tea and cake, or simply a place to come for a chat 6 days a week. Over 80 volunteers from a wide range of local churches support the 3 employed catering staff in this ecumenical outreach.

After a good meal we shared some of our experiences and heard from members of this District leadership team about their hopes for the future.

On Saturday we spent the day at Elm Ridge Methodist Church, a large church in Darlington which used to be a private home until it became a Methodist church in the 1930s. Housing has gradually built up around it and now it is the centre for a thriving church community.

The theme for the day was Discipleship and we both shared reflections on various aspects of discipleship we had witnessed on our travels and then led workshops which allowed us to explore some of the theme in greater depth.

We were joined by Steve Hucklesby, a policy advisor within the Connexional team and a member of the Joint Public Issues Team who has played a leading role in the development of the Methodist Churches response to climate change, in part through the report “Hope in God’s Future”. Steve also talked about how our discipleship can lead to engaging in politics as the General Election approaches. A fourth workshop was led by workplace chaplain Rev Rosa Leto on bullying in the workplace. All the workshops produced lively discussion.

On Sunday morning I was taken to Durham Prison. Fortunately I was also allowed to leave again without too much difficulty. I joined Bill Offler, a local preacher in the Durham and Dearness Valley Circuit and a prison chaplain. Durham has over 900 prisoners, many of whom are on remand or only there for a short time before being transferred to other prisons. The chaplain meets all new prisoners on arrival. As well as one-to-one meetings, the chaplains lead study groups during the week. Two services are held in the chapel every Sunday morning and today just short of 40 men attended the earlier Roman Catholic service and a similar number attended the service that Bill led and I preached at.

At the end of the service at least 10 men asked for bibles to take away with them.

One prisoner told me that as he entered the chapel it felt like a blanket of peace fell upon him. Another told me how a fellow prisoner had repeatedly nagged him to come to the mid-week discussion group about Christian faith and belief but he was afraid of what the other prisoners would think of him if he did. Eventually he relented and over time he found that God really did exist and not only that but that God loved him. Early one morning in his cell when he realised this he broke down and cried. This was a man who had little if any contact with the Church before he came in to prison but now he is convinced his life has changed for the better.

A few minutes walk from Durham Prison is Elvet Methodist Church where we met Bill’s wife Anne Offler, a children and families worker in the circuit. I’d met Anne earlier in the week at the Lay Employees conference and she was able to tell me of some of the exciting work she is involved with in the two circuits she is employed in, including a very successful Christmas event for Year 2 children that had been positively welcomed by a number of schools in the area.

Brian Thornton, a past Vice-President, has also recently moved to the circuit as a pastoral worker with 3 churches in the Dearness Valley area. It was a delight to meet him again and share lunch with him. He has only been in post for a little over 6 months but already many within the community regard him as their local minister. We both reflected on how important the idea of a “pastor for every church” was.

Before ending our visit to the District at Richmond Methodist Church for a District Celebration service, we drove around the beautiful Swaledale Circuit within the Yorkshire Dales.

It not only includes a number of small rural churches but also a Methodist Primary School at Gunnerside.

Revds Keith Bamford and Alan Coustick welcomed us to the circuit which is shortly to join with neighbouring Wensleydale Circuit which will then embrace over 500 Methodists in the north of the Yorkshire Dales. We shared in a wonderful service in a packed church which continued the discipleship theme of the weekend. We were also joined by a group of Fijians from nearby Catterick Garrison.

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