Sunday, 28 February 2010

Newcastle District visit

This weekend we travelled to Doxford Place Methodist Church in Cramlington, in Northumberland, for an event organised by the Newcastle District which focused on medical ethics. It was a well attended morning which provided plenty of opportunity to discuss some very topical issues, particularly with the release of the Director of Public Prosecutions conclusions following the consultation on his draft guidelines that the Crown Prosecution Service would use to decide whether or not to prosecute people who assist others to commit suicide.

Medical ethical questions are constantly making headline news, for instance as I travelled home from London on Friday the front page story in the Evening Standard focused on women over 55 years of age being offered infertility treatment and the inside pages reported the plans of the assisted suicide group Dignitas to promote a “suicide hotel” in Switzerland for those willing to pay £6,200. Our society is debating life and death issues almost on a daily basis and it important that Methodists should not be afraid to engage in these discussions.

It was good to meet up with the Vice-President designate, Deacon Eunice Attwood, and her husband John and we were able to talk about her preparations for office which is now just 4 months away. We did so at the Baltic Centre, part of the impressive rejuvenation of the riverside between Newcastle and Gateshead. The new and the old are brought together well, including a memorial to where John Wesley first preached in Newcastle.

We spent the evening in Cullercoats with Stuart and Claire Earl, friends we first met when we were all at Manchester University. Stuart is now superintendent minister in the North Shields and Whitley Bay Circuit and Claire is a part-time lay worker with a focus on working in 13 local primary schools. This important outreach work is well received by schools and children alike and is built upon with monthly Praise Party services which attract many primary school age children to the church.

The circuit is an excellent example of what can be achieved with lay and ordained people working together in a team, ensuring all can play to their strengths. 4 ministers work alongside 5 full and part-time lay workers and a number of other volunteers. As well as the focus on working with primary and secondary schools, a lay worker acts as circuit evangelist enabler, one works as a family worker and another as a church development and outreach worker. One example of this outreach is the worship that now takes place every Sunday evening in a local pub.

On Sunday morning I preached at the two morning services at Cullercoats Methodist Church and it was wonderful to experience the buzz of activity and energy within this thriving church community. The current church was built in the 1950s after the previous church was destroyed by a bomb in World War II. It was fascinating talking to a member of the church who can still vividly remember the day when as a 16 year old girl she was pushed to the floor by her mother as the bomb exploded close-by.

They are shortly to hold a “Ministries Fayre” at which all church members will be encouraged to celebrate and learn more about the vast range of ministries and roles lay people fulfil both within the church and the wider community and encouraging more people to respond to God’s call to them.

On Sunday afternoon we travelled to Houghton-le-Spring Methodist Church in the south of the District. It was the church that Anne grew up in so it was a good opportunity to meet old friends over a faith tea before the evening service in which I was to preach. The service was led by circuit superintendent Rev Jenny Gill with the support of Rev Gillian McBride and District Chair Rev Leo Osborn along with members of the church.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Brief notes on 23rd and 24th February

On Tuesday 23rd February I travelled down to Amport House, near Andover, to join the Methodist Forces Chapains at their annual Conference. It was my third visit to Amport House. In my first circuit appointment I had been an officiating chaplain to RAF Church Fenton and went to Amport House for training events. As well as lively formal sessions, I appreciated the chance to have more informal conversations, particularly hearing chaplains explainingt their work when they or their units are in Afghanistan or Iraq. To hear their stories is both moving and humbling. They embody the gospel of God's love in situations that most of us would find hard to imagine, and we have every reason to be grateful to them. Please keep them in your prayers. And if you have the opportunity to invite a chaplain to come and tell you about their work, please take it.

From Amport House I dropped in briefly at the final meeting of Churches Together for Families (CTF), the ecumenical network set up to co-ordinate the churches' response to the International Year of the Family in 1994. When that year was over there was still a lot of work that could best be done ecumenically, so CTF carried on. But now, after almost 20 years, it's been agreed it is time for CTF to hand over to others. I had been involved in the early days of CTF and it was good to meet old friends and celebrate lots of good things done together.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

A Pastoral Letter to the Methodist People from the president and vice-president of the Conference and the general secretary

This week we have sent out a letter from ourselves and the General Secretary Rev Dr Martyn Atkins to all churches. It reads as follows:

And are we yet alive? Our answer, despite some recent press speculation to the contrary, is a resounding “Yes!”. We have seen the evidence in various ways through our complementary roles. As president and vice-president we have represented the care, oversight, authority and support of the Conference as we have visited local churches and situations in different parts of the Connexion. We have seen the Methodist people being faithful and the Spirit at work in them and through them. We mentioned some examples in our address to the General Synod. As General Secretary, Martyn is responsible for leading the development of the mission of the Methodist Church. He too has seen evidence of energy being released amongst us.

We are all convinced that God is not finished with the people called Methodist yet. We began as a discipleship movement within the wider Church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in worship and mission. In Wesley’s time and through succeeding generations we have continually adapted to circumstances to fulfil that calling as effectively as possible. It is still Our Calling today. And mission has never been more needed than it is now. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty, and torn apart by questions of how we care for the natural environment and the morality of financial systems. We live in a world where people need to hear the word of God in a language they can understand, where they need to see the love of God through people like us and experience it as good news for themselves. We live in a world where not enough people are being attracted and formed into disciples of Jesus Christ, responding to the promptings of the Spirit.

Responding to situations like this, allowing God to transform us so that we can be most effective in doing so, supporting each other in that through our interconnections, is what Methodism has always been about. We best honour those who have gone before us by doing the equivalent in our time and our circumstances of what they did in theirs. It is our DNA as a people to be a group of disciples who are committed to glorifying God in worship, to holiness and to being obedient and active in mission. We are therefore delighted to see an increasing interest in and commitment to discipleship amongst us.

We believe that God has a role for us in this mission, and we are increasingly embracing it. We have about 265,000 ‘card-carrying’ members, and that number has been decreasing because of the age-profile of our members. But more churches are making more members each year; a quarter of our churches are growing; the numbers worshipping with us on Sundays and, increasingly, mid-week is rising; fresh expressions are starting to flourish; we have regular contact with over 800,000 people; and we are part of a growing world-wide Methodist communion of over 70 million. There is a growing self-confidence amongst us accompanied by an appropriate humility about ourselves, and a releasing of energy for mission.

But we are not the whole of the Church, and we cannot do it all by ourselves. So we have voted consistently over the years for unity schemes that are designed to increase the whole Church’s effectiveness in mission. This is not a death wish, but a desire to be obedient and a willingness to be transformed. We can countenance ceasing to exist as a separate Church because we know that we will still be the Methodist people within a wider Church.

As our major statement on the nature and mission of the Church Called to Love and Praise put it in 1999 “the British Methodist Church may cease to exist as a separate Church entity during the twenty-first century, if continuing progress towards Christian unity is made”. Methodism will still contribute some of the riches of its own distinctive history and mission to any future Church. We know from that history that we can be the Methodist people either in our own separate Church or in some wider expression of the universal Church. Helping to create a wider expression of the universal Church and becoming part of it will require not just us but other Churches to be prepared to move forward together and to leave some things behind in the process for the sake of the Kingdom. So it is not a question of Methodists being submerged or absorbed in the Church of England or any of our other partners. It is not a matter of Methodists returning to the Anglican fold, but of seeing whether together we are prepared to become a ‘new fold’.

This is not just true of our relationship with the Church of England. We have also signed a Covenant with other Churches in Wales, and recently a partnership with other Churches in Scotland. We have many local partnerships with other Churches, the United Reformed Church in particular. And we are all part of wider denominational groupings. For example, the world-wide Methodist communion is over 70 million strong and the world wide Anglican communion about 78 million. Both are faced with questions of how they cohere in the 21st century, and how they deal with situations where there are competing and even contradictory convictions within them. In addressing these we have a lot to share with each other.

When we addressed the General Synod it was only the second time that the president of the Conference had done so; the first since the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England was signed in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen in 2003; and, importantly, the first time the vice-president and the president had been invited to address the Synod together. What we were saying to the General Synod was that Methodists have always been committed to unity in order to create greater effectiveness in worship and mission. We said that thinking like this comes naturally from our spirituality. We approach our Covenant with the Church of England in the light of the Covenant Service in our Worship Book which we pray each year. We were gently but urgently asking the General Synod whether the Church of England was prepared to make the same commitment and allow itself to be transformed for the sake of the gospel. And what we say to the Church of England we say to our other partners.

So what happens if other Churches are not prepared to be changed in order to become more effective in mission with us? Rather than being groups of Methodist people in a new and wider Church, we shall continue as a Methodist people in a separate Methodist Church faithfully trusting in God’s continuing leading of us. We could do that, and we currently do. But even as a separate Church we shall have to continue with our commitment to co-operate with others in mission wherever possible and to whatever extent it is possible.

Whether co-operating with others or allowing a wider expression of the universal Church to come into existence will require a lot of working together in mission locally. Doing that will throw up some obstacles that will have to be removed and some issues that will have to be resolved if mission is not to be hampered. Some of those include matters of interchangeability of ministries, common decision-making structures, the role of women in the Church, and how oversight is embodied. Much work has been done on these and some people will have to be asked to keep working at them on our behalf. When we signed the Covenant we committed ourselves to working to remove any obstacles to visible communion so far as our relationship with the Church of England is concerned. Any solutions will have to be agreed by all of us in due course and by due procedure. But in the interim we must all keep striving to engage as effectively as possible in worship and mission.

We have found the Methodist people in good heart, and an increasing sense of the energy of God’s love being released amongst us. We are a people of one book, the Bible. We allow the gospel to both comfort and challenge us. We let the love of God both confirm and transform us in the body of Christ through the Spirit.

We are yet alive. We shall be alive in the future in whatever form God wills. God has not finished with us yet!

The Revd David Gamble
President of the Conference

Dr Richard M Vautrey
Vice-President of the Conference

The Revd Dr Martyn D Atkins
General Secretary

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sutton on Hull

This weekend I’ve gone from coast to coast, and the snow seems to have followed me. Today I made the slow and careful journey along a snow-covered M62 to Sutton on Hull, in the York and Hull District, to share in the 150th anniversary service of the building currently used by Sutton Methodists. There have though been Methodists worshiping in Sutton for over 200 years.

It was worth the journey as I was given a wonderfully warm greeting and it was good to be able to celebrate together not just what has happened over the last 150 years, but also what God might have in store in the years to come.

Following the service I shared in a faith lunch and was given the honour of cutting the anniversary cake. I then headed to the bean bags on the stage where “Hot Chocolate” can usually be found meeting when they leave the morning service.They are a group of 11 to 16 year olds and today they were also joined by the younger church group “Milkshake”. We shared in hot chocolate and a wide ranging chat together. As the stage can be a drafty place they presented me with a fleece blanket, which I thought might be useful for my journey home!

Local minister Rev Keith Borwick then took me to nearby Bransholme, one of the largest council estates in the country and with some of the highest levels of deprivation. We visited the small Methodist Church on the estate which was full with a buzz of activity that comes with Messy Church. We also met with Hull (East) Circuit superintendent Rev John Stanton. The church building has been subjected to repeated vandalism, but the small but faithful congregation continues to meet weekly and the building is also well used by the local community during the week. However they have recently started Messy Church during the week, following the successful example at nearby Sutton, and they have attracted quite a number of new families who wouldn’t otherwise come along to the Sunday service.

For one week only they’d kindly moved to a Sunday so I could join in. The session was lead by Children and Family Worker Julia Gaines, and she was supported by her fiancĂ© Matt who is also a lay worker but in neighbouring Hull (West) Circuit. They’d met at one of the annual Methodist Lay Workers conferences.

The theme for today was the prodigal son, and pigs formed the centre of the craft activities. This was followed by an entertaining interpretation of the gospel story and then baked potatoes all-round. I have picked up from quite a number of churches now about how successful Messy Church can be, and Bransholme was no exception.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Synod Cymru

We travelled down to Llandudno last night and were surprised to be travelling part of the way in snow. We were even more surprised to wake up to find snow lying on the promenade in Llandudno this morning and leaving the Great Orme looking like an alpine peak – well almost!

I had been invited to speak to members of Synod Cymru at St David’s Methodist Church about lay leadership and we had a good morning sharing experiences both from my travels and of what is happening within their District.

Synod Cymru is now one circuit that brings together the Welsh speaking Methodist Churches across Wales. One of its biggest challenges is a lack of ordained ministers and even with the support of a good number of supernumery ministers there is an increasing recognition that lay people will need to take on a greater role within the life and work of local churches and the circuit. It was good to hear stories of this happening already in a number of places.

We also talked about the importance of the Welsh language and about the growing number of young people learning the language. Whilst Synod Cymru may have experienced years of decline, there could be real opportunities in the future for Welsh speaking congregations that can find new ways of engaging with young people who are increasingly proud of their national language.

In recent weeks I’ve had the good fortune to meet up with a number of my predecessors, and today it was a delight to meet Sister Eluned Williams who was Vice-President in 2000/1. Shortly before she took up office the Vice-Presidential cross had been stolen and so Eluned used a temporary one. The newly made cross was first given to Ann Leck in June 2001, but today it was Eluned’s turn to wear it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

What the Vice-President never told you...... about the Leeds District visit

The Leeds District visit was action packed, as you can tell from Richard's previous blogs. Following our visit to the Church of England's General Synod in London, I arrived in Leeds on the evening of Thursday 11th February and returned to London on Wednesday 17th. What follows is a quick canter through a few of the events and visits in which I was involved.

On Friday, accompanied by Liz Smith, the District Chair, I went to Ashville College in Harrogate - one of the Methodist schools. During the course of the morning I led the Senior School Assembly, met some of the senior staff, had a lively question and answer session with the Upper VIth form, and went on a guided tour of the school. It was good to meet and talk with the Headmaster, Andrew Fleck (pictured), about many matters, including Methodism's contribution to the world of Education.

From there we went to hear of the work of the Oastler Centre and the Leeds Church Institute. We talked with the Revd Philip Bee and Institute Director Margaret Halsey (pictured) about the role of the church and of Christians in the city centre and of how to respond to city issues. This is exciting and important work, and it's great to see how the Church is involved and can make a significant contribution on 21st century issues.

Saturday's event is well covered in Richard's blog, as are most of Sunday's. I need to add that the drive from Leeds to Pateley Bridge is absolutely magnificent (particularly on a clear, sunny morning), as are the views from Pateley Bridge Methodist Church's car park.

Even better was the view from the front of the church, seeing a large ecumenical congregation representing what is now known as 'The Church in The Dale'. The covenant at the heart of this ecumenical initiative includes Methodist, Church of England, Roman Catholic and United Reformed Churches and the morning service was a wonderful celebration of commitment to each other.

On Monday I went to Oxford Place Methodist Church to meet with presbyters, deacons and lay employees. We had a lively and, for me, very helpful discussion on all kinds of matters. I was also allowed to accompany the hymn singing - in readiness for my return to duty as one of Muswell Hill's assistant organists in July.

From this meeting we went to the Oxford Place Children's Centre, where children up to 12 years old are cared for while their parents appear in the adjacent law court. A very impressive piece of work, carried on for many years -and much needed.

In the late afternoon I met with supernumeraries and their spouses, widows and widowers at Burley Methodist Church. As well as the formal session, this was a chance to meet a number of old friends and experience how much Methodism can feel like an extended family. I was very much 'at home'.

Tuesday saw me supposedly 'cutting the turf' at MHA's South Leeds Interfaith Housing with Care project. It meant donning fluorescent jacket and hard hat. And the 'turf' turned out to be tarmac, so I enlisted the help of two of the project's patrons, Bishop John Packer (Ripon and Leeds Diocese) and Sister Agatha from the Bar Convent in York. This is a very exciting project - both in terms of what it will provide and also in terms of who it will involve. The 'Interfaith' part of its title is at the heart of the vision.

From there I went for lunch at the Live at Home Scheme based at Stanningley Methodist Church in Leeds Wesley Circuit. Talking to some of the other lunchers (and Superintendent Minister Godfrey Nicholson) it was clear that what is provided here makes a huge difference to people's lives and their ability to remain in their own homes. Very much a political issue at the moment.

From Stanningley back into Leeds centre to meet Inderjit Bhogal at Yorks and Humber Faiths Forum. I always enjoy meeting Inderjit as a friend, but also as a challenger and inspirer - and yet again he didn't disappoint. We talked of many things, particularly the Cities of Sanctuary initiative. Churches can work with other organisations and local authorities to ensure they provide a proper welcome for those seeking sanctuary.

From Inderjit we went to meet George and Molly Lovell, celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary. And thence to Rothwell for Pancake Praise (see Richard's blog). I achieved a lifetime best by tossing a pancake 81 times in a minute. Unfortunately this is not (yet) an Olympic sport.

On my final day in the District I went first to the Meeting Point Cafe in Leeds East Circuit. This is what it says on the label - a cafe which provides a meeting point for all sorts of people. As we talked with Deacon Vicky Atkins, members of staff and customers, it became increasingly clear to me that a project like this is not just 'something the church does'. It IS Church. Finally we drove to Bradford, where I joined West Yorkshire church leaders for lunch and presentations at an occasion organised to share their latest public statement on the theme 'Every Person Matters'.
I arrived back in London tired but inspired by so many different ways in which the Methodist Church and other churches are finding new ways to respond to the challenges of life in our society in 2010.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Pancake Praise

This evening Rothwell Methodist Church hosted Pancake Praise. The church was full for an evening of tossing and eating pancakes, creating ways to safely get an egg from a table to the floor, competitions that helped us to learn more about the work of MRDF, songs, prayers and much laughter.

The President showed one of his many talents, winning the pancake tossing competition, beating District Chair Liz Smith, superintendent of the Wakefield circuit Revd Richard Oldroyd and me.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Leeds District visit

This weekend I’ve been able to carry out a district visit and at the same time sleep in my own bed. We’ve both been in the Leeds District and it has been good to share in services with many friends as well as an opportunity to see parts of the district we didn’t know so well.

However we’ve also had to create plenty of time to engage with the media after our visit to General Synod on Thursday. People who rely on reports in some of our national papers could be forgiven for thinking that the Methodist Church in Britain was about to merge with the Church of England in the next few weeks, but those who have read what we actually said, or whom we have spoken to this weekend, have been uniformly supportive and understand that we were talking about a covenant between our two Churches that is now 7 years old.

On Friday David was on Radio 4’s Today programme, together with the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, and was interviewed by John Humphries. They both spoke as one about the importance of our Churches working together more closely and being “The Church” in a community. This morning I was back at BBC Yorkshire in the centre of Leeds, this time appearing on Radio Leeds with the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield, as well as doing an interview for another BBC local radio station, 3 Counties Radio.

In all our media work there has been an opportunity to talk positively about what the Church is doing, and how our focus on working on mission together and responding to God’s call to us all is so important. There may be more opportunities for many more of us to do the same in the coming weeks, and we hope Methodists will take up such opportunities if they are available.

We’d also recommend a visit to Pete Philips’ blog site for an excellent summary of current Methodist thinking on the issues relating to the Anglican/Methodist Covenant. Pete is the secretary of the Faith and Order committee. His blog site, postmodernbible can be found at

On Saturday we spent the day at West Wakefield Methodist Church leading a discussion on “A Welcoming Church”. David spoke about creating safer space and how churches can provide a safe space for people, not least recognising and valuing difference, as well as offering a safe space to explore our doubts or concerns. I spoke about removing barriers that prevent people from engaging with the church, barriers for young and old, men and women and those with physical or mental illness or disability. We then had an open session in which we talked about our recent experience in Israel/Palestine, ecumenical relations and issues relating to sexuality, amongst many other subjects. It was a good day and thanks to those who organised it.

On Saturday evening we had an opportunity to relax in the company of District Chair Liz Smith and her husband Peter, together with former Vice-Presidents Peter and Susan Howdle.

After the early visit to BBC Yorkshire this morning I returned to Sandal Methodist Church in Wakefield, the church I grew up in, to lead worship. They offered a wonderfully warm welcome, as well as digging out some old embarrassing photos! Members of my family were able to take part in the service during which I was presented with a beautiful picture of the Yorkshire Dales, for which I’m very grateful.

There used to be a thriving young peoples group at Sandal, which helped to bring me in to church membership in 1981, but sadly it is no longer active, and whilst the congregation remains large, with a wonderful choir, they have few children worshipping in the congregation on a Sunday. However they have recently started a Messy Church which is now attracting over 30 children and families, which is certainly good news.

Leeds District is relatively compact compared with many others in Britain, but I was to travel from one end to the other to join David and District Chair, Revd Liz Smith at Pateley Bridge, north of Harrogate, in Nidderdale. Pateley Bridge Methodist Church has recently completed an extensive refurbishment which has left them with a very useful building at the heart of this rural community. The building was made possible in part with funds released from the closure of Kettlesing Methodist Church. They are starting to host a number of new initiatives, including “The Big Fish”, a new style of service once a month on a Sunday evening and Toddlers Praise every fortnight.

David had led worship in the morning, and after lunch we joined in a session called “Church in the Dale” led by Revd Elizabeth Clark, the rural officer for Leeds and York and Hull Districts. The picture shows us with Elizabeth, as well as local vicar Revd Peter Dunbar and Revd Liz Smith. It was clear that there was strong ecumenical working in many rural areas that should be an example to us all.

We concluded our day back in Leeds at my home church in Chapel Allerton. Members from around the Leeds North East circuit came to join in a service led by Revd Andrew Atkins and superintendent minister Revd Dr Jane Craske. We took the opportunity to present two long service local preachers certificates, one to John Witt for 40 years service ( John was recently the LPWT national advocate) and one to Joan White for 70 years faithful service.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Church of England General Synod

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York invited us to address the Church of England General Synod today which was meeting at Church House in Westminster. It was the first time the President of the Methodist Conference had done so since Brian Beck was President 16 years ago and possibly the first time ever that the Vice-President has been invited to speak.

We were greeted warmly and we felt we were amongst friends. We shared a little about the structure of the Methodist Church and Conference, and some of the experiences we have had during the last few months. We talked about the importance of valuing the gifts and talents of all people, lay and ordained, as well as valuing our different characteristics and traditions. We repeatedly stressed that we are stronger working together, quoting Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that the body is only made whole if we all appreciate and value what each other brings and offers.

We emphasised the importance we placed on our covenantal relationship and talked about the many areas where our two Churches are working together productively. However we did acknowledge that in many areas of the country individuals and groups are frustrated at the lack of progress being made and the barriers they encounter to greater joint working.

We concluded by reminding Synod members of the powerful words of the Methodist Covenant Service Prayer and suggested that Methodists approach the Anglican-Methodist Covenant in the spirituality of this prayer. We echoed what previous Conferences have agreed, that we are prepared to be changed and even cease having a separate existence as a Church if it will serve the needs of the Kingdom. But our parting challenge was that both our Churches needed to approach the Covenant in this spirit.

A full copy of our address can be downloaded from this site, although what that will not contain is the reference we made to the President sharing his blue gloves with the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster at the Wave Climate Change rally in December, in order that they were both properly dressed for the cameras. A true sign of partnership working.

Our hope is our visit to the General Synod will act as a catalyst to renewed joint work together, and give greater impetus to those working to find resolutions to the big questions that still face us.