Monday, 31 May 2010

MCCA Connexional Conference (part 2)

Those who think our visit to this lovely island in the Caribbean may be a holiday will hopefully think again as your President and Vice-President, along with all the other visitors from Britain, did not let the midnight return to our hotel put us off joining the 8 am Sunday morning procession of witness through the streets of St John’s. A large group processed to Ebenezer Methodist Church and joined a packed congregation for a celebratory service.

The service lasted 4 ½ hours and as soon as the Antigua Circuit Combined Choir sang the introit, the first of 4 anthems, we knew we were going to be part of a very special service. The singing of both the choir and congregation throughout the service, including a final rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus that many in the congregation joined in with, was wonderfully uplifting.

Children from the circuit and the Youth representatives of the Conference also took part.

David presented Revd Dr George Mulrain, MCCA Connexional President, with an original copy of John Wesley’s “An Appeal to Men of Reason”, which was the book Nathaniel Gilbert’s daughter had given him accidentally whilst he was recovering from illness in 1756. He was so struck by Wesley’s writing that the following year he travelled back to Britain in order to meet him. Wesley’s journal records how he preached in Gilbert’s house in London in 1758 which led not only to the conversion of Gilbert but also three slaves who had travelled with him, Sophia Campbell, Mary Alley and Bessie, women who were to keep the flame of Methodism alive after Gilbert’s death.

David reflected that he felt St Paul’s words had come alive on the steps of Gilbert’s plantation house, that there was no longer black nor white, slave nor free, male or female, but all were one in Christ Jesus, and that they all had a part to play in the founding of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas.

In his address George Mulrain they had been looking back in order to surge ahead in their mission. They were right to place their hope in God. He stressed the importance of working with young people and embracing the music of the Caribbean as they developed their mission in the future.

The love of the traditional pattern of worship in Methodist Churches in the Caribbean is both a great strength and weakness. This morning’s service demonstrated how inspiring such worship can be, but the Church is also aware that many young adults are no longer attending such services and later in the afternoon we a call from the Connexional President not to allow the MCCA to become a dead sect, and he introduced ways they were taking this issue seriously. “Growing in Fullness” is a major piece of work that is developing resources to support children and youth work within MCCA. Being produced in 4 languages and intended for use for the under 5s right through to teenagers, it is hoped that the style of the materials will encourage children to see Sunday School teaching as more contemporary and relevant.

“Voices in Praise” is the new hymnal that it is hoped will replace the Methodist Hymn Book that is still used across the MCCA. Again it will reflect the diversity of language across the Caribbean and will include over 250 new hymns and songs, many of which will have been written by Caribbean authors. It was clear after singing some of the new hymns how much our own new music resource would be enriched by some of these new hymns. As we sung one in Haitian Creole we were reminded how the singing of such songs had been clearly heard after the earthquake in January, and how they gave hope to a people that had lost so much.

We closed the evening and the Conference by watching a film which had been produced to record the “Chapters of Methodism”. It again retold the now familiar story of the many people involved in helping establish MCCA over the last 250th years. We were reminded how revolutionary the act of preaching on the steps of Gilbert’s plantation steps had been, a slave master who he now called his slaves his brothers and sisters and preaching that God was for all. We were also reminded that it was the enthusiasm and commitment of lay people that was the main reason Methodism had spread so quickly across the Caribbean and that once again we should learn from our history if we are to move forward in mission in the future.

Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) 250th anniversary Conference (part 1)

We travelled to Antigua to join in the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Methodism arriving in the Caribbean. Nathaniel Gilbert was a plantation owner and Speaker in the House of Assembly who was so inspired by the writing of John Wesley that he travelled back to England to meet him and then brought Wesley’s message back to Antigua in 1760.

David and I were joined at the Conference by a number of others from Britain who had been invited because of their links to the area. We had travelled with Revd Stephen and Deacon Myrtle Poxon, both of whom had served in Jamaica and Stephen is now the Methodist Missionary Society Secretary. Brian Thornton, a past Vice-President continues to support MCCA in their publishing activities and John and Mary Hicks also have longstanding links with the Church here, John helping write the MCCA constitution and other legal documents. Revd Edward Sykes is a British Methodist minister currently serving in the Bahamas District. Revd Tom Quenet and his wife Judith were mission partners in Montserrat and Tom is now one of the partnership co-ordinators in the British Connexional Team.

The Conference started with a flag raising ceremony at the MCCA Conference Centre which is on a hill overlooking the island. Accompanied by a military band the flags of the countries in which the 8 District Presidents lived were raised, together with the Antiguan and Conference flags. Special mention was made of Jamaica and Haiti as their flags were raised, the Conference praying for those caught up in the violence in Jamaica and those still struggling in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

The conference centre chapel in which we met is octagonal, with each wall being made of wood or stone from one of the 8 Districts that make up the Connexion. After opening worship greetings were brought to the Conference by many of those attending. I brought greetings from the Methodist Church in Britain, and gave thanks for the strong links that we had with our partner Church.

It was interesting to hear from the MCCA Women’s representative talking about the important role that women had played in the development of MCCA, and that we should not forget women now in the Church’s leadership. The MCCA Men representative responded by a moving apology on behalf of the many Caribbean men who “go absent without leave”, and who do not fulfil their parental or family responsibilities. The District Youth representatives reminded the Conference of the diversity of language across this Connexion, presenting their greetings in English, Spanish and French. They also encouraged the formation of a formal MCCA Youth structure to enhance their representation within the Connexional structures.

The day ended with an informal reception which was enhanced by a good steel band.

Saturday morning began with the Nathaniel Gilbert Lecture at the Cultural Centre, the former parliament assembly in St John’s. Rev Dr Joan Meade, who has been part of the SALT programme in Britain, spoke about the history of the arrival of Methodism in the Caribbean, and went on to talk about how the MCCA should shed the weight of their past as it could hamper the mission of Caribbean Methodism today. Discrimination based on race, gender or the class structure linked with colonialism still had to be dealt with, as did the ability to take financial independence seriously. The Church should also be doing more to engage with social problems like drug abuse, gang violence and sex trafficking. They should not only seek to work with the poor, but allow the poor to write the Church’s agenda. Finally she made a plea for more lay work-place apostles, and called on her ministerial colleagues not to own the Church but to serve it.

A lively question and answer session followed which demonstrated that the challenges facing many traditional Churches around the world are common here too - a concern about being too middle class, not flexible enough in mission and ministry, not connecting with young people who were more attracted to Pentecostal and charismatic churches and not taking financial discipleship seriously enough.

After lunch back at the MCCA conference centre we set off on a heritage tour around the island. We visited the site that Rev Dr Thomas Coke arrived on Christmas Day 1786 to find a Methodist community already established. We went in search of Nathaniel Gilbert’s unmarked grave, visited the Gilbert Memorial Church and finally stopped at the Gilbert Centre for a special ceremony.

Prayers were said on the steps of Nathaniel Gilbert’s house from which he preached to his slaves. Revd Stephen Poxon brought greetings and talked movingly of the lessons he had learnt during his ministry in Jamaica.

We then dedicated a new monument that will be placed on the site of this developing conference centre, which also has a focus on agricultural education.

Finally we all took part in a tree planting ceremony, with each of the groups represented at the Conference planting a tree along the line of the drive of the centre.

A busy day ended with a large celebratory dinner organised by the Antiguan Circuit and which the Prime Minister was also present at. The heat and oppressive humidity of the room didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of those present to give thanks for 250th years of witness and service in the

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Now is the Time

This afternoon we went to No 10 Downing Street to deliver a petition encouraging our Government to do all in its power to support the Non-Proliferation Treaty process currently under review at a Conference meeting in New York. An ecumenical campaign (nine UK Churches) entitled Now is the Time calls on the British Government to make a commitment to achieving an agreed international timetable leading to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Pictured below, just before handing the petition over, are (right to left): the Revd Pat Took (President Elect of the Baptist Union of Great Britain), David Bradwell (Associate Secretary, Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland), the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Reading), me, John Cooper (Joint Public Issues Team) and Susan Seymour (Clerk to the Meeting of Sufferings, Quaker).

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Back to North Lancs, May 19th to 23rd

For my final District visit of the Presidential year I set off to the North Lancs District, knowing I'd be well looked after in the safe hands of its Chair (ex-President, Stephen Poxon) and Past Vice-President of the Conference, Deacon Myrtle.

First stop was Burnley, at the Faith Centre used in a whole range of creative ways by a number of Burnley schools and the wider community. This part of Lancashire has a very high Muslim population and exploring ways in which people of different faiths can live and flourish together is high on the agenda. The Faith Centre makes an impressive contribution.

From the Faith Centre we went to the Basement Youth Project, based at Burnley's Central Methodist Church. Various pieces of work have been done here, including a non-alcoholic night club (see mural!) There's a well equipped recording studio, giving young people an opportunity to develop their musical and technical skills. The premises were decorated and refurbished by the young people themselves - an impressive achievement. We were joined on our visit by the new Leader of Burnley Council, who was also very impressed with what he saw and the opportunities it provides.

The evening was spent at Ingol Methodist Church, at a World Church event. We had a presentation on a recent visit to Sierra Leone, where the District has links and is involved in a project. I was also able to share some pictures and reflections on my visits over the past year to the wider Methodist family around the world. Quite a travelogue - but also some wonderful memories of places and people committed to sharing God's love and making the world a better place.

The morning of Thursday 20th was spent at the Central Methodist Church in Preston. The church's main entrance is directly opposite one of the main entrances to a shopping centre, and the church provides a thriving coffee bar. It was quite hard to find a seat while we were there!

We then went to the rear entrance to the Church, where the premises have been converted to form the Fox Street Community, providing accommodation for 20 ex-homeless people, along with various forms of support to enable them to move on into settled accommodation. We lunched here with Ken Wales (chair of the Methodist Church's Strategy and Resources Committee, but here on his home territory) and the CEO of the Fox Street Community Charity, Nigel. On our tour of the premises, Nigel managed to pursuade two ex-residents to join us for a 'photo opportunity'.

In the afternoon we went to Ribbleton Avenue Methodist Junior School, one of a number of Methodist day schools in Lancashire. A high proportion of the 180 children who attend are Muslim. I very much enjoyed this visit, and the chance to meet the headteacher, one of the foundation governors, and a number of other teachers and children.

From there we went to Fulwood Methodist Church, where the building has just been opened after having been refurbished to serve wider community needs. Members of the church community have been involved in creating a fascinating piece of work on what was one of the external walls of the earlier building.

From Fulwood to Ashton, where again the premises have recently had a major makeover. Here already the buildings are used by many different community groups all week long. The church's own programme has included a meeting for people to come and discuss important matters of faith and life in a safe, accepting environment (strong links here with my 'creating safer space' theme). (Picture shows Revd David Wood at one of the entrances to the church)

So, there are very intersting things going on in Preston (which, by the way, is where I was received into full connexion at Conference in 1976).

Friday 21st was my birthday - and throughout the day I kept receiving kind celebratory emails. Many thanks to all senders! Most of the day was spent in the North Fylde Circuit (where we kept coming across people waving and selling orange and white flags. I thought it was a nice touch to help me celebrate my birthday, but it turned out to have something to do with Blackpool's hopes of promotion to the Premier Division the following day.) First we went to Poulton le Fylde, and had coffee at 'Coffee Plus', the church's busy coffee shop. I had visited this church and preached here in the early 1970s (though I met no-one who remembered the occasion). It has recently been refitted as a church for the 21st century, and is a good place to visit. They even marked my big day in a very 21st century way.
From Poulton we drove to Anchorsholme, where there are hopes of a development scheme to enable the church better to meet the needs of children and families in the local community.

Next stop was Thornton, where a major refurbishment is taking place. We were joined on this visit by the Mayor, and there is clearly a lot of community interest in what the new premises will provide and enable. I asked the builder if they'd come across any unexpected difficulties as they worked on the site. He told me they had found what they feared was asbestos. But, on further investigation it had turned out to be horse manure. What a relief!(?)

Lunch was at Bispham Methodist Church, where there is a Day Care Centre. I remember Bispham from the early 70s. As a student at Wesley House, I spent two very happy summers acting as Social Secretary at the Palm Court (Methodist) hotel. I remembered preaching at two consecutive morning services (9.30 and 11.00) at Bispham Methodist Church, with a bacon roll being shipped in from the Palm Court between services to keep me going.

After lunch, we went to Cleveleys where minister Mike Payne took us along the award winning sea front development (where next year it's hoped to do a Passion Play at Easter). It was a warm sunny day at the seaside, so it was here that we stopped long enough to have an ice cream (picture shows Mike Payne and Stephen Poxon discussing the new sea front development with the ice cream shop's owner).

Last stop in this circuit was at Fleetwood, where we held a short service at The Mount Methodist Church.

Then it was over to the other side of the District, to Nelson, where the children at Christ Church - a Methodist/Roman Catholic church - had prepared a presentation for Pentecost. This was followed by tea and the evening event described in Richard's blog (where you'll also see what Christ Church looks like).

My day ended back at the District Manse, with a specially prepared giant birthday cake and candles to blow out.

Richard has described what happened on Saturday, so I move to Sunday 23rd May, Pentecost. In the morning I preached at a service to celebrate 200 years of Methodism in Freckleton, in the South Fylde Circuit. I was particularly impressed that the members here had decided one of the ways they would mark this special year was by raising money for an MRDF project in Cameroon. They have already nearly reached their £2010 target. 200th anniversaries don't come along that often, so at the close of the service we had a church photo taken (with me lurking in the shade at the back).

In the evening I preached at a Circuit service at Penwortham, as part of that church's centenary celebrations. Clearly, there's at least one cricket fan in this congregation, as the banner above the door said '110 not out'!

Wesley Day Commemoration

On Monday afternoon we joined members from Wesley’s Chapel, including the Revd the Lord Leslie Griffiths and Revd Jennifer Potter along with Revd Stuart Jordan, Co-Chair in the London District, and other friends from around London, in attending Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. We were welcomed by Revd Canon Lucy Winkett and members of the St Paul’s staff. David brought greetings from the Methodist Conference and read the lesson, the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the splendour of St Paul’s we listened to the beautiful singing of the choir of Royal Holloway College, London.

Following Evensong we traced the steps John Wesley took on 24th May 1738 by leaving through the north door of the cathedral. At the foot of the steps is a statue of John Wesley and we joined together in singing in the open air.

At each stop in our pilgrimage we laid a wreath in memory of the events that took place 272 years ago. Our next stop was at the Flame Monument at the door of the Museum of London, and which commemorates the site in Aldersgate Street where John Wesley felt his “heart strangely warmed”.

We then walked through the Barbican towards Bunhill Fields graveyard where Susanna Wesley’s grave can be found. Here extracts from a letter of Susanna and from John’s journal reflecting on his mother’s funeral were read. All along the route we were joined by members of the Ghanaian Susanna Wesley Mission Auxiliary, and it was one of their members that lay the wreath at this site whilst others sang.

A short walk across City Road took us back to Wesley’s Chapel, where we shared in a celebratory service which David led and I was invited to preach.

As the service drew to a close we processed out of the church and gathered around the grave of John Wesley. A final wreath was laid, another extract read from Wesley’s journal recounting his heart-warming experience in 1738, and we sang once again.

It had been a hot sunny day in London, but it was not the weather that left many of our hearts that bit warmer as we concluded our day’s events, but a real feeling that we were not just here to remember a historical event, but to give witness to a living faith that was having an impact on peoples lives today.

Monday, 24 May 2010

North Lancashire District visit

On Friday evening I managed to get in to Lancashire even without a passport check at the border. I was warmly welcomed by Revd Stephen Poxon, District Chair, and Revd Andrew Turner, local minister and superintendent of the Pendle Circuit, when I joined David on Friday evening at Christ Church in Nelson. After tea we led a session in the church, reflecting on how we had seen the impact of the discipleship of ordinary people in the life and work of the church throughout our year of office.

Christ Church is one of the very few joint Methodist/Catholic Churches in Britain. Catholics and Methodists worked together to build this new building which opened around 6 years ago. Catholic mass takes place every Sunday morning, followed by a Methodist service and once a month an afternoon mass in Urdu is conducted to meet the need of local people. However many other joint activities take place, including “Pop in and Pray” every Wednesday lunchtime, which is advertised as Catholics and Methodists in partnership praying together.

Friday evening also gave an opportunity to celebrate the President's birthday.

On Saturday we attended the 4th annual Inspire Conference. This is a major conference organised by the District and which attracted just over 200 people to Westholme School near Blackburn. It was a mixture of speakers and workshops exploring the theme of “Rediscovering Holiness: Christian spirituality for living in today’s world.” The day was centred around worship that was well led by a group from Lancaster Methodist Church.

Former President of Conference, Revd Dr Bill Davies, and Old Testament scholar Revd David Wood, superintendent minister of the Preston Circuit, both spoke powerfully and eloquently about holiness. They both reflected on what scriptural and social holiness meant for contemporary Christians.

David and I not only led workshops in the morning and afternoon, but also spent “time on the sofa”. We were interviewed by Revd Mark Slaney who, resplendent in a purple blazer that he’d found in the school, quizzed us using questions from conference members, with great skill and humour and to the great amusement of those present.

Following the successful conference we spent the evening relaxing in the company of Stephen and Myrtle Poxon, my predecessor as Vice-President, David Walton, Chair of the SCR, Ken Wales and his wife Janet, who live locally, and Connexional Team strategic leader, Revd Mark Wakelin who was also visiting the district this weekend.

On Sunday morning I travelled to Antley Methodist Church in the Accrington and Haslingden Circuit to preach in a circuit service.

I was welcomed by superintendent minister Revd Roger Brown and his ministerial colleagues Revd Christine Leech and Revd Garo Kilagi who is a mission partner from Papua New Guinea. Jubilate, the circuit worship group, led the music in our worship. Following the service we shared in lunch and then I led a further session in the afternoon which provoked a good discussion.

I then travelled to Pilling Methodist Church in the rural Garstang Circuit. Pilling is said to be England’s second largest village judged by area, and is surrounded by a large area of flat farmland. I was now accompanied by Revd Stephen Poxon, and I started my time in the church by fielding a wide range of questions posed by members of the church in a Q+A session. After tea I preached at an ecumenical service that brought together members from the local Catholic and Anglican churches.
Local minister Rev Paul Critchley led the service with his ecumenical colleagues even though he was supposed to be on paternity leave supporting his wife Jo. However members of the church were delighted to meet Samuel, who is just a week old, as well as the proud parents.