Monday, 31 May 2010

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

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