Thursday, 28 July 2016

A moving tragedy

One of the gifts I brought away from our visit to the Bristol District is a copy of the recently published ‘A Tragedy of Errors’ by Gary Best.  It was a gift from the New Room team and I read it on a couple of train journeys this week, finishing in Brighouse today. 
The subtitle outlines what the book is about: ‘The story of Grace Murray, the woman whom John Wesley loved and lost’.
Grace was an enthusiastic and energetic Methodist who was converted to faith through the work of the Wesleys and Whitefield and was appointed house keeper at the Orphan House in Newcastle, one of three key bases for Methodism, alongside Bristol and London.  The core of the story is about the relationship between Grace and John Wesley and how close they came to marrying.  The scandal of Charles Wesley’s intervention to prevent this happening caused deep division between the brothers and threatened to break up the Methodist connexion.  Grace married another of the Methodist preachers, John Bennet, and this also created ongoing tensions within the relationships of the leading figures of the revival.
Of course, the story is not simple but complex and Gary Best helps us to see the various contributing factors and to weigh up the evidence for interpreting the motives and causes of the events.   What I particularly liked about the book was threefold:
  1. The setting of the story of the seemingly doomed romance within the wider life of Grace Murray.  She has been a band and class leader, a travelling evangelist accompanying John Wesley and several other key figures.  After her marriage to John Bennet she continued her work alongside him and after his death held band, class and prayer meetings in her home.  She died in 1803 at the age of 87 still confident in the faith she had discovered as a young woman and still encouraging others in their faith journey.  The book helps us see that this was not a woman who played a part in John Wesley’s life but whose story is worth telling and hearing in its own right. It is surprising that a full biography has not been published before.
  2. The humanity of the characters.  We rightly revere the founding figures of Methodism.  They brought about nothing less than a spiritual revolution in the 18th century which continued to have massive impact on social and political life in Britain beyond their deaths and we look to them for inspiration in our own time. They were nevertheless women and men subject to same desires, impulses and dilemmas as face all human beings and the range of emotions from tenderness through angry arguments to deep disappointment and frustration characterised their lives too.  The narrative that unfolds here portrays each person as fallible and capable of making major errors of judgement, which sets some of the discussion about Christian perfection in context. Yet it is also clear that all involved were trying to work out how to live faithfully to their experience of God and their sense of call.  That doesn’t mean they always got it right – far from it as this book shows - but faith was a key part of living for them. 
  3. The sense of the close working of those involved in earliest Methodism. Whilst this growing network called Methodism needed tight organisation and continual attention, it was not some bureaucracy that made it work but a closely knit family of preachers, pastors and pray-ers.  They knew each other, met, prayed, travelled and worked together and when they were not together they wrote letters.  The gossip that was often a part of the societies was promoted by news being carried here and there by travelling preachers with the gaps filled in by active minds.  They had an early form of social media operating in this web of relationships. The book helps us to see this form of koinonia and to understand the ways in which the interactions shaped the movement.  
It is a paging-turning story.  I couldn’t put it down.  I strongly commend the book and say ‘thank you’ Gary Best and the New Room team.  It is a great read.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Pubs, prisons and potential - visiting the Bristol District

I never thought that being Vice President would get me VIP entry to a nightclub in Chippenham. And I certainly never thought I'd be wearing a hi-vis jacket while I was in there.

This was only one of many wonderful experiences that Roger and I had on our first district visit, spending four days in the Bristol District.

Mandy Briggs, Education Officer
at the New Room
Visiting the New Room building site
We had two hi–vis moments during our visit. The first was when we donned jackets and hard hats, George Osborne style, to visit the new building project at the New Room, Bristol - the oldest Methodist building in the world. The building project will result in a cafe, library, education space and exciting new museum - and is slotted (very) carefully into a courtyard between Grade 1 listed buildings.

Out on patrol
We put on the second hi-vis of our visit on our evening out with the Street Pastors of Chippenham. I had heard about the work of Street Pastors before, but this was the first time I'd seen them in action.  We went out with them on their first shift of the evening.  After praying together we set out in two teams, on either side of the road.  My first impression was how much they were integral to the night time economy: the police, the door staff, the bar owners all knew them (this was when, wearing my hi-vis observer jacket, were invited into the club SM15 to be given a quick tour by the owner).  What's more, the people out in Chippenham for the night not only knew them, but appreciate what they do.  I was stopped on a number of occasions by people, often obviously enjoying their night out, who said thank you for the Street Pastors.  
Rachel's street cred rises -
we were photographed by the
official club photographer

Secondly I was stunned by how effective a set up this is: Street Pastors are well trained, equipped with first aid, defibrillators, water, flip flops (your feet hurt after a night out!), jelly babies (great at defusing fights), walkie talkies with links to the news about what was going on in bars and on CCTVs.

Visiting the police station in Chippenham
with Police Chaplain, Revd David Gray
And thirdly I couldn't help but be moved by the Christian care they displayed: from helping the distressed homeless man, keeping an eye on the young man high on drugs, talking with the Polish man about life after the referendum, to helping people who were vulnerable through drink or circumstance. Chatting to the pastors on duty that evening they spoke about how they wanted to put something back into their community and saw it as a way of practically witnessing to the gospel.

We were also privileged to visit a prison over the weekend.  This was my first time inside a prison, and I found it hard. The staff we met were impressive, committed to a fair and safe place where prisoners could grow in both skills and personal development. And the multi-faith chaplaincy service there was incredible, way beyond anything I'd imagined chaplaincy could offer. But this is all in the face of a physically tired building, a chronic lack of staff which can prevent inmates taking part in activities, and an environment and lifestyle which is unhealthy.  Thank God for what is being done, but how much more we need to prioritise our criminal justice system to make rehabilitation possible.

The art room at the Bristol
Methodist Centre
Discussions about life post-referendum
at the Bristol Methodist Centre
On Saturday we saw the new Bristol Methodist Centre, a refurbished church building operating as a day centre for homeless and vulnerably housed people. As well as offering food, showers and support, it has a sacred space, art room and even kennels so that homeless people with dogs can use the facilities.  

Communion at Fairways
On Sunday Roger and I headed in different directions to worship: Roger went to Pill, the place from which Francis Asbury sailed to America where he ended up as a founding figure of American Methodism; and I went to Chippenham Central Methodist. In the afternoon we celebrated communion with residents of the Fairways MHA home. Throughout the weekend it was lovely to meet with so many Methodist and other Christians, to talk, eat and laugh together.

On board the ARK bus - faith in action
Thank you to members of the Bristol District for making us so welcome on our first visit. We can't possibly describe everything we did or everyone we met (there’s so much going on!) but we hope these photos give something of an idea. Thanks particularly to David, Ann, David, Ann, Jonathan, Denise, Andy, Kate, the street pastors, friends at Sea Mills, the Ark, the New Room and the Bristol Methodist Centre, and to Mike Alderman for being our official photographer!
In the garden of Charles Wesley's house
(yes, we needed a sit down by this stage!)

Communion at the New Room

Tuesday, 19 July 2016


This is Doug. He is a member at West End Methodist Church in the Tynedale Circuit. I encountered him on Sunday at the celebration of ministry service organised to mark the moving of two ministers in the circuit. The worship event was splendid, the send-off superb, and afterwards in the tea and cakes I met Doug. He has been Methodist all his life and he told me he had never met, let alone shaken hands with a President of the Conference. So we shook hands and talked and he was clearly delighted to have this opportunity to share, and so was I. I was enriched to have a conversation with someone who has been on the path of discipleship much longer than me.

It made me reflect on how important it is that the President and Vice President are available to meet members and worshippers throughout the Connexion. Alongside the access we are accorded to meet with some influential figures in our society – next week we are invited to lunch at the Korean Embassy – a large part of our calling is to meet, encourage and link together the Methodist people. As we are enriched and encouraged by their faith and stories, we can, sometimes, in turn pass these on to other individuals and communities, so that all are built up. We are ‘go-betweens’.

St Paul was a go-between. Not only did he travel to and fro among communities but his letters linked one Christian community with another, one set of individuals with others. He regularly includes the names of those who are with him at the time of writing the letter. (See the first verse of I Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians.) The final sections of the letters are often reserved for passing on greetings (e.g. 1 Cor 16.1-20 and Philippians 4). Indeed, greetings and commendations of people fill almost all the last chapter of Romans, whilst the whole of Philemon is a (re)linking of two Christians and a reimagining of what the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus might now be in Christ. Paul was a go-between, knowing that his communications travelled across a web of relationships.

All this represents, expresses and strengthens the deep connectedness of the Christian people. Dispersed and scattered as they may be, in small churches and large, in town, city and rural village they are joined together in Christ and therefore bonded to each other in a special way. Recognising that connection not only provides a sense of being part of something bigger but also demonstrates that each person is special within that larger body. And this gives confidence to our discipleship. We urge each other on ‘to see more clearly, love more dearly and follow more nearly’ the Jesus we follow.

There are many ways of connecting: visits, handshakes, conversations, letters, cards, texts, MMS messages, photos on Facebook and tweets on Twitter. They can be used for good or ill. We know that all of these media have been, and are being used to degrade, discourage and bully but equally they are, and can be used to connect, encourage and affirm. And it is not just the job of the President and Vice President to make good links. All of us can be go-betweens for good, if we choose to be. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

The Tolpuddle Festival

Today was the day that Jeremy Corbyn told me I was beautiful.

Actually I think he was referring to my speech when he turned to me and said “beautiful”, but I was touched nonetheless.

I was at the annual Tolpuddle Festival, organised by the union movement in memory of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six men who were transported to Australia for starting a union in 19th century Dorset. Five of the six men were members and preachers at the local Methodist church.  As a result, the Methodist Church is accorded an extraordinary place within the celebrations.

Wreaths were laid at the grave of James Hammett, the sole martyr who is buried in Tolpuddle (the others returned to England after they were reprieved but eventually emigrated to Canada). I was invited, as the representative of the Methodist Church, to lay the first wreath and talk about the role of the martyrs’ faith in their struggle for justice (this was the speech that the Labour leader liked).

I was also asked to bless the parade of banners from the main stage of the festival. This was a parade of thousands down the main road through Tolpuddle, carrying elaborate banners from every imaginable trade union. I spoke about the current commitment of the Church to challenge injustice as well as our shared roots. The crowd applauded the mention of our campaign against the profound injustices of benefit sanction.

In amongst the parade, I'm pleased to say, was a banner for the Methodist Church, with the motto “God is our guide”, part of a hymn quoted by one of the martyrs after their sentencing. Walking through the streets, it was encouraging to see the number of people who greeted us warmly as we passed.

The original chapel in which the martyrs worshipped was until recently being used as an agricultural building. A new trust, with Methodist participation, has recently bought it, shored it up, and has plans to restore it as a community building.

With Revd Steph Jenner and Dudley Coates
For me the day ended with a service at the newer chapel in the village.  The place was packed with local Methodists, other Christians, and festival goers, and Dudley Coates, a former Vice President, led a service focused on God's call for justice.

The festival was certainly very earnest - someone described it to me as like Greenbelt, but without God...or fun.  These are people who are seriously committed to the Labour movement and are often secular.  But the Methodist Church is invited to be part of it, and shares many of the same commitments to justice as well as historical roots through the faith of the martyrs. Not everyone will agree with everything that is said (or everyone they meet) or some of the bedfellows we end up alongside...but isn't that true of most of the places we’re called to do mission?

So thanks to the Friends of Tooluddle, Steph Jenner, David Wrighton and others for all the work they are doing to nurture new growth from the roots of Methodism and trade unionism.

And as a postscript, isn't it interesting, in this age of Prevent and counter-extremism, we take such pride in our own "martyrs"? 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Justice in Battle

Tonight was an evening of wigs, robes and ceremonial chains.  My vice-presidential cross looked modest in comparison.   I sat next to a man who asked whether I was there because my husband was “someone”. (I replied that of course he was. But so were we all).

I was a guest of the High Sheriff of East Sussex attending the annual judicial service at Battle parish church, along with various mayors and local dignitaries.  It was an opportunity to pray for the judges in the area, and for them to recommit themselves to public service.  

The judges, standing robed and wigged at the front of the church, were asked to affirm that they would protect our freedoms, contribute to the community, take special care of the poor, and do all this “in a spirit of honesty, service and peace”.  Each replied “With the help of God, we will.”

The service started with a Charles Wesley hymn, and I opened my mouth to belt it out....before realising that no-one else was singing at a volume higher than a mumble.  But the service had a familiar theme - of “justice and holiness”.  Having spent the week of Methodist Conference talking, with Roger Walton, about holiness and justice, I was rather thrilled to see that the Presidential theme was already spreading through the Church of England! 

But it was a slightly more judicial take on the theme.  In his sermon the Dean talked about how holiness can contribute to justice, giving the example of the 17th century priest Samuel Fairborough who, after stealing some pears as a child, had his conscience “awakened by the terror of the law” and thereafter became “the personification of holiness”.  So justice can lead to holiness.  And in answer to the question whether holiness can lead to justice, the Dean quoted “the great preacher, John Wesley” who said that it is a holy people who will reform society.  Holiness can lead to justice.
The High Sheriff of East Sussex,
Michael Foster DL
The High Sheriff of East Sussex is Michael Foster, formerly the MP for Hastings.  I first met Michael when he came to speak to the young people’s group at my church in the late 1990s about faith and politics.  I remember being impressed at the time that an MP would travel up from the south coast on a Sunday evening to talk with 15 young people who lived outside his constituency and so could never vote for him.  Latterly I got to know him as Chair of the Methodist Parliamentary Fellowship as well as the minister responsible for bringing in Civil Partnerships.  Since finishing as an MP, Michael has returned to legal practice and now acts as his county’s High Sheriff, bringing together the judiciary, politics, civil society and the voluntary sector.

Methodists together at the East Sussex judicial service
There was a reception after the service, and having wandered around chatting to various mayors, the Methodists in the room, as often happens, began to congregate.  I was delighted to meet with local minister, Rev Peggy Heim, supernumeraries, wives and widows, and John, who told me he is the longest serving dry-cleaner in the country! 

So today I am left giving thanks for Methodists all over the country, serving their communities.  I pray for those who serve in our judiciary, along with prison officers, governors, and politicians who make decisions about the future of our prison service.  And I pray for those who personally experience criminal justice system, as criminals, accused and victims - and especially those who this night are in jail, on probation, or in police cells. 

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice

Which is more than liberty.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Safety pins are not enough

Tomorrow a statement will be read out in Methodist churches around the country calling on Methodist people to challenge racism and discrimination.  The statement is the text of a resolution passed at the Methodist Conference last week which was brought in response to the apparent rise in racist incidents over recent weeks.

It is important that our Church proclaims its position that “racism is a denial of the Gospel”, as it says in our standing orders.  I hope that people will follow the encouragement of the Conference to write to their MPs to express their hope for political debate which neither demonises any nor leaves the vulnerable in danger of victimisation.

Yet this is not enough.  It is a start in our good endeavours, not an end in itself.  And those of us who are in a position of white privilege need to be careful that we are not assuming to speaking on behalf of others.

This is particularly the case around the campaign to wear an empty safety pin.  This initiative was started as an attempt to indicate that the person wearing it was a safe person to sit next to and would not subject another to intolerance or abuse.  It is intended to be a “pin of safety”.  It has been taken up by many people, including the Methodist Conference, out of a desire publicly to demonstrate resistance to racism.

But wearing a safety pin is not unproblematic.
  • A safety pin doesn’t make me not a racist.  It might indicate my desire to challenge racism...but I recognise that I still have unconscious and unarticulated racist assumptions.  Despite my desire to expunge racism from my life, I have grown up in a society which has, and continues to, subject people to racism.  I have benefited from a society which has been built on historic racist practices.  I acknowledge with shame that, although I try to resist racism, I cannot claim myself flawless in this regard.
  •  As a result I need to listen to the insights of people who experience racism even more closely.  Unfortunately wearing a safety pin might make it harder to do this.  Instead I am occupying the space of the debate.  It becomes about me and my feelings.  I want to show I am anti-racist.  I want to do something.  I was talking to a friend yesterday who asked, “what do you want me to do when I see you wearing a pin?  Say thank you to you?!”  The danger is that wearing a pin becomes about me, and not about the people who most need to be listened to.
  • And this raises the question of who we need to listen to. The safety pin initiative and the post-Brexit concerns have focused on emergent racism largely (but not solely) against eastern Europeans.  Racism is not something which started after the referendum.  To our shame racism is part of the lived and daily experience of too many people in our country.  To focus on “the foreigner, the immigrant and refugee” risks ignoring British Black and Minority Ethnic people.  People who have lived here all their lives.  People who experience abuse and micro-aggression daily.  The Methodist Conference was appalled to hear the experiences of one Black minister who detailed the casual racism at the hands of his congregation.  Our Church should be appalled and ashamed that this is happening in our own community of faith.  And we need to listen to our members who experience it.
As Rachel said in her opening address at Conference, we know that our Church is committed to justice.  The challenge is how we do it.  So please do read out this statement to your church tomorrow – and perhaps reflect on where racism exists not only in our society but in our churches.  Please write to your MP – and as you ask them to challenge racism, pledge that you will do so in your daily life too.  And as  we wear our safety pins we will repent of the racism in our society, our church and in our lives, and ask forgiveness for the times when we have failed to listen to our sisters and brothers.

Rachel Lampard and Roger Walton