Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Glimpses in Israel and Palestine

On December 2nd I left Luton Airport to fly to Tel Aviv with a group of Methodists, representatives from the Jewish communities and a representative from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. We were to meet with people from both Palestine and Israel and to reflect together on our conversations and experience. Our visit was facilitated by Jane Clements of FODIP (Forum for discussion of Israel and Palestine). We were to return to Britain on December 5th, so what followed was brief and intense. Here, I offer a brief factual account of the visit, with some personal reflections and some photographs. This is not, and does not attempt to be a full report, it is simply some glimpses from a rich, challenging and varied experience.

You can listen to me being interviewed about this visit at http://t.co/6vQiFH0Ruy

The group
This is the group who visited the region. From left to right in the back row are: Joseph Moses (Board of Deputies of British Jews), Doug Swanney (Connexional Secretary, Methodist ), Christine Elliott (CTBI), Rabbi Leo Dee (Radlett United Synagogue), Matt Collins (Methodist), Jane Clements (FODIP). In the front row are: Rev Ruth Gee (President, Methodist Conference), Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner (Movement Rabbi for the Movement for Reform Judaism), Dr Elizabeth Harris (Associate Professor in Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University, Methodist).

Arriving in Israel
Evening in Jerusalem
I always find it very moving to see the coastline as the plane descends towards Tel Aviv.

On the first evening, after introductions, we went out to find a coffee shop in the local area.

On Tuesday we went first to a meeting with Janet Lahr Lewis in the Methodist Liaison Office which is in the Tantur Ecumenical Centre. This is on the green line. Janet spoke about her work and the challenges for those living in both Palestine and Israel. Palestinian Christians are leaving the West Bank - Janet told us the reasons for this were all connected to occupation.

We went on, passing through the security checks at the wall, to Ramallah.
In Ramallah we went to the Office of the Foreign Relations Commission of FATAH. Here we met with Hussam Zomlut (Official Spokesperson for Fatah/PA) and Nabil Shaath (Senior Palestinian Negotiator). We spent an hour in conversation here, I will not attempt to summarise but offer two quotations:

 "Hallas - enough!" (Hussam Zomlut)
"Persecuted people develop a kind of immunity against pessimism" (Nabil Shaath)

Picture on the wall of the Office of the Foreign Relations Commission, FATAH in Ramallah

Street scene in Ramallah

 We ate lunch in Ramallah, this is the view from the window of the restaurant.

The Wall

Leaving Ramallah took a long time as we had to queue to pass through the wall
Queuing at the wall on leaving Ramallah
Water storage tanks on the roofs of houses in Ramallah

The water storage tanks on the roofs of the houses were a reminder of the water shortage and reported interruptions to supply in Palestine.

Our final visit on Tuesday was to the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa. Here we met Yarden Leal, the Director for External Relations. The Centre seeks to promote lasting peace in the Middle East. The focus is on relationships between Jews and Palestinians and between Jews and Arabs within Israel. There are 4 main areas of work: Business, economics and agriculture; peace education; medicine and health care; sports. In all these areas people are brought together across divisions as the centre aims to foster tolerance, economic and technological development, co-operation and well-being. We saw examples of humanitarian and capacity building work where sick Palestinian children are treated in Israeli hospitals and training is given to Palestinian paediatricians. In another project, Palestinian and Israeli schools are twinned in sporting activities building relationships between the children.

Evening in Jaffa where we visited the Peres Centre for Peace
Wednesday morning began with two meetings in the hotel.
The first was with Rabbi David Rosen who is Director of the American Jewish Committee's Department of Interreligious Affairs and an international expert on Jewish/Christian relations.
The second meeting was with Gershon Baskin, Founder of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) and Mediator of Israel-Hamas Gilad Shalit Deal.
Both conversations offered fascinating insights into a complex situation.

We left the hotel and travelled to St George's Cathedral (Jerusalem) where we were met by the Dean, the Very Revd Hosam Naoum. Here we were given much insight into the challenges of a pastoral ministry where 1/3 of the parishioners live behind the wall and their journey to the cathedral (and often to work) now takes a minimum of an hour where before it was just 10 minutes.
In 1922 there were over 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem (27% of the population), now Christians make up less than 1% of the population in Jerusalem and about 2% in the region. The Dean believes the reasons for Christians leaving are complex.
Building peace is the only guarantee for security.

These beautiful windows were in the hall where we met with the Dean

Next we left for Bethlehem, passing again through the check-points at the wall. Our first meeting in Bethlehem was at the Holy Land Trust where we were greeted by the Deputy Director, Antwan Saqa. He told us about the Trust's commitment to the principles of non-violence and to strengthening and empowering the peoples of the region and transforming communities.

We went next to the Wi'am Centre, situated on the outskirts of Bethlehem, directly under the wall.

The entrance to Wi'am Centre
The Director, Zoughbi-Zoughbi, spoke of work for co-existence and against injustice. "There is no benign occupation" he said, "it demoralises me as a human being as well as Israelis" The aim is to end occupation by peaceful means, a struggle based on restorative justice and not punitive justice.
Zoughbi Zoughbi reminded us that those working for co-existence here are dealing with trauma; collective, intergenerational and personal trauma. We should never forget this.

From here we went to the Tent of Nations.
Road blocked
We were unable to drive all the way to the farm as the road had been blocked.
The Tent of Nations is on land owned by the family of Daoud Nasssar. In 1981, the Israelis declared this to be state land and the family have been fighting their case through the legal system since then. The farm is surrounded by settlements and was subject to attacks from settlers between 1991 and 2002. There is no running water or electricity and no building is permitted so the family have built cisterns to collect water, installed solar panels and continue living in caves on the land.
The Tent of Nations is now an educational and environmental farm where people come together to build bridges of hope and trust.
As we talked with Daoud, drinking the delicious tea made for us by his brother, I found him to be inspirational and sincere.
Let me share a few of his words:
"We refuse to be victims; we refuse to hate; we want to live our faith; one day justice will prevail"
"We have to learn from our history, but not let our history block our way forward."

We refuse to be enemies

Stones at the entrance to the Tent of Nations on which are carved words which declare the refusal to be enemies.

Matt with Daoud at the Tent of Nations
Settlements around the Tent of Nations farm

On our return to Jerusalem we went to Mount Zion to join in an Interfaith Chanukkah Candle lighting Ceremony. As a sign of commitment to reconciliation, members of faith communities gathered together around the symbol of light, reminded by one speaker that when the light of a candle is shared by lighting other candles it grows stronger.

Our final day began in the Centre for Jewish Christian Relations in Jerusalem. The Director, Sarah Bernstein told us about the work that is being done to increase understanding between Christians, Jews and Muslims. She told us that much of the dialogue in the region ignores and silences the Christian minority. The work of the centre includes education, encounter groups, research and advocacy. Sarah said, "We don't have the privilege of choosing sides."

Our second meeting was in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here we met with Amir Sagie, Director of Civil Society Affairs, Akiva Tor and Rami Hatan (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Yael Ravia-Zadok, Head of Bureau for Middle East Economics. After a presentation from our hosts we had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with them and were able to raise issues of concern.

Art work by the students in the school, related to religious festivals
Our final official visit was to Yad b' Yad School where we met with Rebecca Bardach, Director of Resource Development and Strategy. This school educates Arab and Israeli children. They learn alongside one another and establish friendship, trust and understanding from an early age.

Plaque which celebrates a dream becoming a reality

The official visit was over and we headed for the airport.

But there are a few things more that I want to share. Some special moments, some glimpses of glory.

In Bethlehem, I went into the Church of the Nativity. In the middle of this challenging visit and in the season of Advent I knelt at the spot where many thousands have remembered the birth of Jesus. I was reminded that God is with us in the midst of all this.

I left the church and spotted a sign on a wall in the square. A man spoke to me and showed me the best place to stand to take the photograph. We fell into a brief conversation. He lives in a village next to the wall. "How does that feel?" I asked. He shrugged and said it now takes him over an hour to get to work on the other side of the wall. "Do you hope the peace talks succeed?" I asked. "Yes", he said, "we need peace."

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Early that morning (Wednesday) the Christians in our group had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We arrived there at 5.30am and all was very calm and quiet as early masses were being said. Here, I knelt at the foot of the cross and prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and of this land.

A little later we met to pray together in the church. We sang Jesu Tawa Pano (Jesus we are here), prayed together and then sang "O Thou who camest from above."

As we left the church I took this photograph of a man in prayer at the entrance.
 Church of the Holy Sepulchre - early morning prayer
I am grateful to all the members of the group who made this journey together, shared together, reflected together and learned together.

I offer you this brief account knowing that there is so much more that could and will be said in other places.

As you engage with these issues:
I ask you to listen well;
I ask you to respond from a place where you acknowledge the complexity, seek understanding, care for all the vulnerable and challenge injustice.
Most of all, I ask you to pray.

Joint Visit by Delegates from the Methodist Church and the Board of Deputies of British Jews

2nd – 5th December 2013

Monday, December 2nd
Arrive on Easyjet Flight 2083 from London Luton
Depart for Jerusalem
Arrive and Check-In at Dan Boutique Hotel in Jerusalem
Dinner at Hotel
Dialogue Session facilitated by FODIP

Tuesday, 3rd December
Breakfast in hotel; depart for Tantur Ecumenical Centre
Meet with Janet Lahr Lewis (Methodist Liaison)
Depart for Ramallah
Meet with Hussam Zomlut (Official Spokesperson for Fatah/PA) AND Nabil Shaath (Senior Palestinian Negotiator)
Lunch in Downtown Ramallah
Depart for Tel Aviv
Visit Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa and Talk with Yarden Leal (Director of External Relations)
Dinner at hotel
Discussion (facilitated by FODIP)

Wednesday, 4th December
Breakfast in hotel
Meet with Rabbi David Rosen (American Jewish Committee and international expert on Jewish/Christian relations)
Meet with Gershon Baskin (Founder of IPCRI and Mediator of Israel-Hamas Gilad Shalit Deal)
Meet with Very Revd Hosam Naoum (Dean, St.George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem)
Depart for Bethlehem
Meet with Antwan Saqa (Deputy Director, Holy Land Trust)
Meet with Zoughbi-Zoughbi (Director, Wi’am Center)
Visit Tent of Nations and Talk with Daoud Nassar (Director)
Interfaith Chanukkah Candle lighting Ceremony at Mount Zion
Diner at Hotel
Final Discussion (Facilitated by FODIP)

Thursday, 5th December
Breakfast in hotel
Meet with Sarah Bernstein, Director and Hana Bendcowsky, Programme Director, of Jerusalem Centre for Jewish Christian Relations
Meet with Amir Sagie, Director of Civil Society Affairs, Akiva Tor and Rami Hatan, Shalom (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Yael Ravia-Zadok, Head of Bureau for Middle East Economics
Visit Yad v’ Yad School and meet with Rebecca Bardach, Director of Resource Development and Strategy
Depart for Ben Gurion Airport
Depart on Easyjet Flight 2084 to London Luton

Sunday, 29 December 2013

West Yorkshire District

My visit to the West Yorkshire District included a retreat, visiting schools and returning to circuits where I had been stationed at the start of my ministry. Here are some of the highlights.

The District retreat was held at Ampleforth Abbey. I am very familiar with the retreat centre here and its beautiful setting. It was good to lead the retreat and to join with this group of presbyters from the District. Among the group are some who have given me wise guidance and great support in my ministry - thank you.

A week later I was in West Yorkshire again to spend time in two schools. I was invited to speak at the Hipperholme Grammar School Speech Day in Bradford Cathedral. I knew Hipperholme Grammar School from my time as Minister in Christ Church Hipperholme where a number of the members worked in the school. It was a good evening recognising the varied gifts of the young people.

With the School Officers at Bronte House
The next day, I visited Woodhouse Grove School. Woodhouse Grove is a Methodist School and I visited both Bronte House (for younger children) and Woodhouse Grove. In both places I spoke in the assembly, met with staff and spent time with the children and young people.

With the School Council at Woodhouse Grove

On Advent Sunday I was in the District again,  in the Bradford South Circuit in the morning and the Calderdale Circuit in the afternoon.

The morning service was in Thornbury Methodist Church. My first appointment as a presbyter was in the Bradford Trinity Circuit (now part of Bradford South) and so I was returning to my roots and to the place and people that had nurtured me in presbyteral ministry. In the afternoon worship was at Christ Church Hipperholme and we were joined by others from the circuit where I was stationed until 2008. Both places held many memories and it was good to see so many friends again and to lead worship here. It was a real reminder of the importance of those who journey with us as we grow in our discipleship, I am grateful to them. There are no photographs of these two churches because I was so involved with meeting and talking, remembering and catching up.

On Sunday evening I left West Yorkshire to travel to Luton airport ready to leave leaving on an aeroplane the next day.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Generosity and action

Some of you may have read or heard the President's Christmas message in which I speak of the amazing and abundant generosity of God.

Today, having taken some time to reflect in the wake of the debate about Food Banks, I want to emphasise that generous love is a love that is responsive and active. Jesus challenged those who could not, or would not see the plight of those who were in poverty and those who were stigmatised and excluded.

We too must challenge those who will not, or cannot see that the rapidly increasing need of food banks across the UK is scandalous. We must challenge and rebuke those who laugh in the face of people sufering poverty, hunger and injustice.

The generous love of God requires us to work unceasingly for justice and to challenge policies and social structures which are unjust. The generous love of God is a costly love, a challenging love, a reconciling love and a healing love. Our calling is to repond to the challenge, bear the cost and work for healing and reconciliation.

I thank God for those who provide the food banks and I long for the time when they will no longer be needed.

Visiting the RAF

A lot has happened since my last post but there has been little time to tell you about it. So now I will be posting several blogs - just like buses you wait a long time and then they all come at once!

At the end of November I was invited to visit the RAF and to meet with some of the chaplains, to learn about their work and to share with them. I was accompanied by Doug Swanney (Chair of the Methodist Forces Board) and Revd Robert Jones (Secretary of the Methodist Forces Board & Chaplaincies co-ordinator). We arrived at RAF Brize Norton and were met by the Methodist Chaplain, Padre Melanie Reed. We spent time talking with Melanie and with the Senior Chaplain and their dedication to this ministry was evident. As I met with others in the course of the visit it was very clear that the presence of the chaplains is highly valued and essential to the well-being of the whole community.

Melanie took us to the repatriation centre on the base. Those who fall in action are brought back to Brize Norton and the chaplains support the families throughout the repatriation process. They also support others from the base who are involved, all of them volunteers. I am thankful that our chaplains are able to be there for people at times like this and hope that we will all remember them in our prayers alongside the families when we hear news of a repatriation.

At Brize Norton we were able to see a C17 aircraft at close quarters. These huge aircraft can carry a Chinook helicopter but can also be transformed into a fully operational and staffed Intensive Care Unit when needed. Doug, Rob and I were able to go into the cockpit and look down on the airfield from a great height without leaving the ground!

The group with the C17 behind us

Dave showed us the aircraft

With Robert in the cockpit
Doug and Robert in the cockpit

The second day of the visit began with a meeting with the Chaplain in Chief at High Wycombe, after which we went to RAF Halton. Here we began by visiting St George's Church. One of the main features of the church is the Apprentices Windows. RAF Halton was once the base where apprentices were trained and each of the panes in the stained glass windows represents one group of apprentices.
Apprentices Window

Today RAF Halton is a place where recruits (Other than officer recruits) come for their initial training. We were shown around the facilities before sharing lunch with some of those working here. After lunch I was able to meet with some of the recruits and it was good to talk with them about their experience of training. They too spoke warmly of the chaplaincy and their good relationship with the chaplains was evident as we spent time together.

Whatever our personal feelings about military action we can and should be grateful for the work of the chaplains to the forces as their presence is a continual reminder of the love of God to all those with whom they have contact.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Golden Jubilee at Brigg Methodist Church

A week-end of celebration in Lincolnshire was a good way to end one week and begin the next! Brigg Methodist Church was celebrating its 50th anniversary and 50 years in the present church building. Ofcourse, Methodism has been in Brigg for longer than 50 years but the present church came into being when three congregations joined together.

On Saturday afternoon I arrived from the United Reformed Church Mission Council, at which I am the Methodist representative. I was warmly greeted and given a welcome cup of tea before I delivered  a talk about my year so far. After this we had tea and shared the usual, very generous Methodist fare, including tempting cakes and delicious cheese straws (I find it very hard to resist cheese!). After tea others joined us from around the circuit for a service in which I preached.

During the service I was able to present a local preacher with a certificate marking 60 years of service, it is always a huge pleasure to present one of the certificates I have signed and it was good to meet Geoff. We also commissioned 3 worship leaders, Eleanor, Myra and Ros.

On Sunday I led worship in the morning along with worship leaders and local preachers who worship in Brigg Methodist Church. We had a good time of celebration together and after lunch with the two circuit ministers I left Lincolnshire to drive home to Darlington and a night in my own bed.

There are pictures to add to this blog but my camera is still in Darlington and I am now in London preparing for my next visit - to the RAF.

Friday, 22 November 2013

From 3Generate to Easington Colliery and then a retreat

Last week-end I travelled to the Pioneer Centre in Cleobury Mortimer at the invitation of the Youth President, to spend time at 3generate. What a brilliant time I had there! On Friday evening Tamara (Youth President) welcomed us all and we shared in worship together, enriched by the musicians from Cliff College. For the whole week-end children and young people aged from 8 to 23 were participating fully in the life of the Methodist church. I was very impressed by the variety of ways in which they were able to learn, share and feed back their opinions and ideas. I had to leave before any resolutions to the Methodist Council and Conference were prepared but I look forward to being challenged by them.
On Saturday the Vice-President and I were among those who listened to the opinions of the 8-11 year old group. They were enthusiastic and eager to share, they were also very well worth listening to - I expected that but I wonder how often they are really heard in their local churches, I hope they are.
In the afternoon I was one of four people who were on a panel for a Question Time event. Paul Morrison (from JPIT), Tamara and Sam Taylor were the other three who responded to questions from the 11-23 year old groups. The questions ranged from those about belief to those about ethical issues - I really enjoyed that session. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was late for the next session where I was with an 18-23 year old group who were thinking about spiritual gits. My tardiness did not matter as the session was being led by Megan who didn't need me there, it was good to sit at her feet.
I had to leave on Saturday night but fitted in a quick visit to the bonfire before I left.
I love the fact that we really expect young people to participate fully in the life of our church, and we expect to learn from them.
Thank you 3generate for a fantastic couple of days.

On Sunday I was at Easington Collliery Methodist Church in County Durham. The people there were celebrating the centenary of the church and we had a good time of worship and thanksgiving. They are really looking for ways to work with their community and to work ecumenically.
They are also generous with their hospitality - we had 2 cakes!

From Monday until Wednesday I was leading a retreat for a group from the WestYorkshire District. We were at Ampleforth Abbey - a beautiful setting especially when the weather was so good for us. It is always good to take some time apart to focus on God, in fact I believe it is essential.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Silence at Cenotaph and in studio

People at Westminster Abbey
 Last Sunday I represented the Methodist Church at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. For me, this was a time to remember all those who have died in conflict; those serving in the forces and civilians. It was also a time to hold our human failings and frailty before God. The poppy is a reminder, both of the battlefield and of the transience and fragility of human life.

It was also a time that was personally significant as my grandfather was once the National Chairman of the British Legion and so had been at the cenotaph and laid a wreath. He was in my thoughts as well.

People arriving at Horse-Guards Parade, early on Sunday morning

In the evening I shared in the service in Hinde Street methodist Church and afterwards in a round table discussion with young adults and others as we shared food together.

On Monday I travelled to Stoke-on-Tremt where I had been invited to visit UCB Media. I was shown around the radio and television studios and met many of the staff, it was extremely interesting to get a flavour of the variety of work that this Christianmedia organisation is involved in. At 10.45 I was interviewed by Paul Hammond, talking about remembrance. At 11.00 we observed the 2 minutes silence in the recording studio and as 6 of us stood in silence in that small room, it was a moving and prayerful time.

Some of the staff working at UCB

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Queens Foundation - a place of excellence

Yesterday the Vice-President and I visited the Queen's Foundation and met with the staff and the students. We talked together, worshiped together and shared meals together and I came away energised by the encounters and carrying an olive tree (more about that later).

This picture shows Daleep and I with the staff, the Methodist Students and the overseas students. We were in the chapel because it was pouring with rain outside.

Had we been able to take the photograph outside we would have been joined by the rest of those who had been at lunch with us, and there would have been about 130 people, that is about half the total number of those who form the vibrant, diverse and gifted community here.

Our day began at lunch-time, when Daleep and I were able to talk with some of the Methodist Students. It is still quite early in the first term for the first year students but they were clearly enthusiastic and engaged. It was good to meet Tim, who had candidated from the Darlington District (where I am Chair) and to see him playing in the music group at worship in the evening.

After lunch we met with the staff. It was a joy to be able to spend time listening to and sharing with this group of highly skilled, academic and gracious colleagues. The past two years have not been easy for any of our training institutions, including Queens. I was deeply impressed by the professionalism, excellence and grace of the tutors here. I would have loved to have spent much more time with them and would grab any opportunity to share with them or to learn from them, the students here are very well served.

Some of the staff of the Queens Foundation - From the left - Back row: Revd Gary Hall, Simon Sutcliffe, Deacon Eunice Attwood, Revd Dr Judith Rossall, Dr Rachel Starr, Revd Dr Joseph Suray, Deacon Kerry Scarlett, Revd Sam McBratney. Front row: Revd Helen Cameron (Senior Methodist Tutor), Daleep, Ruth, Revd Canon Dr David Hewlett (Principal)
After the conversation with the staff we met a group of students and were led in this session by Daleep. There was an engaging and lively discussion on the theme of global discipleship. The group of students included a number of the overseas students who came from Kenya, Zambia, and India; our conversation was enriched by them. The links with the world church are foundational in this community as are the strong ecumenical links. Of course, the students from Britain were equally varied in their background and were just as engaged in the conversation.

With the staff and overseas students
We had a break for a cup of tea and some cake and then Daleep and I were able to talk with Helen and David. It was good to have that opportunity.

After a full and interesting afternoon we went to the chapel for Foundation Worship. The chapel was very full with over 80 students and staff. Helen presided at this communion service, I preached and Daleep led the intercessions. The gospel was read in Tamil, the Lord's prayer was spoken in many different languages, hymns and songs were sung from varied traditions and nations. All of this helped us to recognise and rejoice in the diversity of God's people.

After supper and the opportunity to talk to another group of students during the meal, I left Queens feeling nourished, challenged and thankful for this community which is such an important part of the Methodist Church in Britain.

Please pray for the staff and the students here at a transitional, exciting and challenging time. And please, give thanks for this gift to the connexion.

I left Queens with the gift of an olive tree. This had been an important symbol in the worship there during the first part of the week, worship that was linked to Psalm 52:

But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
for ever and ever.
(Ps 52:8)

I will cherish my olive tree and will remember the chapel in which it was the focal point of a community's worship. I pray that this community will continue to grow and to flourish and will be given the nourishment, resources and support to do so.