Monday, 14 June 2010

Methodist Church in Ireland Annual Conference

David and I were joined by Rev Michaela Youngson and Mrs Nwabuese Nwokolo as representatives of the British Conference to the Methodist Church in Ireland’s Annual Conference. David was also accompanied by his wife Liz. We met at Sydenham Methodist Church in East Belfast, close to the famous Samson and Goliath Harland and Wolff shipyard cranes.

David joined the ministerial session of the Conference on Thursday and the representative session started on Thursday evening with the election and installation of the new President of the Conference, Rev Paul Kingston. Ms Gillian Kingston (no relation to the President) also became the first Lay Leader of the Conference, an office that replaces that of the Vice-President and which she will hold for 3 years, although the President is elected for just for a year.

On Friday the business sessions began and David brought greetings from the British Conference. Business focused on the Church’s mission in the world, with young people and financial issues. The main item of the day was a ground breaking proposal that would allow interchangeability of ministry between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church. It was agreed that full proposals would be brought to the Conference next year for the mutual involvement in the consecration of Bishops and installation and dedication of Presidents. This would then allow the mutual celebration and affirmation of the presbyteral ministry of all those ordained in both Churches.

On Saturday I was invited to lead the opening devotions. Throughout the day the impact of the economic crisis both north and south of the border provided the background for a number of items of business. Churches were encouraged to support those helping the rising number of people coping with debt and we heard how cuts in educational budgets in the Republic of Ireland were having a major impact on Methodist schools there. There were further concerns expressed about delayed political educational reforms in Northern Ireland which was causing uncertainty about the future.

We shared lunch with the President, Lay Leader and her husband, Revd Donald Ker, Ex President and current Secretary of Conference, those who attended the British Conference in Wolverhampton and those who will shortly represent the Irish Methodist Church in Portsmouth.

A number of memorials (equivalent to our notices of motion) were discussed including one which condemned the recent shooting of Bobby Moffett on Belfast’s Shankill Road which had sparked fears of a return to sectarian murders. Another memorial, whilst recognising Israel’s security concerns, condemned the killing of nine people on an aid-ship bound for Gaza, and the boarding by Israeli forces of the Rachel Corrie which had sailed from Ireland. The discussion on both of these memorials included important comments informed by the direct experience of many from the time of conflict within Northern Ireland.

The Conference elected Revd Ian Henderson, assistant secretary of the Conference, to be President next year.

On Sunday I was invited to preach in the morning service at Finaghy Methodist Church in South Belfast. Revd Billy Davison, local minister and District Superintendent, led the service. Members have developed strong links with the Church in Tanzania, and two Volunteer in Mission teams have visited to help build a manse and a classroom for a school. Another visit is planned shortly. They have also been able to enable Tanzanian church members to visit Northern Ireland. The work of the teams and the partnerships that have developed through this work has clearly enriched the wider life of the church in Finaghy.

David, Liz and Nwabueze attended the Conference Service at Sydenham, while Michaela preached at Dundonald Methodist Church, to a sizable and appreciative congregation. This was the church’s 41st anniversary, and three new members were received during the service.

The agenda on Sunday afternoon began by receiving four new ministers in to Full Connexion. There was also a special service of commissioning of a further five first year probationers as they were sent out by the Conference. In addition moving tributes were paid to two ministers who were given permission to retire.

Each year at the Conference a different area of the work of the Church normally in en-bloc business is given more prominence, and this year we heard of the impressive work taking place at the nearby East Belfast Mission. East Belfast is the 10th most deprived part of the UK, with high levels of deprivation and unemployment. We heard how 60% of the congregation worshipping at EBM are under 40 and how for many years members have played a key role behind the scenes in peace building and reconciliation. They have a staff of 85 and 150 volunteers involved in a wide range of projects, including employment advice, a community café, homeless hostel, furniture warehouse and 9 Re:store clothes shops which generate a significant income to support the rest of their work. They are currently involved in a £23m Skainos Project which will provide a significant multipurpose building, offering space for worship, a new hostel, café and space for partners Age Concern and Belfast Metropolitan College.

At the end of the afternoon time was given to have a conversation on the work of God, with members sharing stories from around the Connexion.

The Conference closed with an evening ordination service at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church. David preached on a text from Paul’s letter to the Romans, encouraging each one of us to use the different gifts given to us through God’s grace. The four ordinands were invited to give their testimonies to a packed church, and the overwhelming response was that “they are worthy”. It was a fitting way to end the 241st Conference of the Methodist Church in Ireland.

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