Friday, 28 April 2017

The Shetlands: Island Methodism and my second encounter with sheep

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, outdoor and natureI arrived in the Shetlands just as the national weather forecast was warning of extreme weather in the north of the UK.  My visit there showed that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing!   Luckily the warmth of my clothes along with the welcome of the people there made this a really special visit for me.

Image may contain: grass, outdoor, text and natureMethodism came to the Shetland Islands in the 1820s with John Nicholson, a former soldier, who returned home to Shetland and began preaching.  Very early on, the Methodist Conference provided practical support, in the form of ministers to station and additional funding.  This recognition of the particular needs of Methodism in these islands has continued with additional financial support for the ministers stationed here, and a recognition that a higher proportion of ministers is needed than the membership might suggest.

Image may contain: 4 people, people standing and suitThe islands are run by the Shetland Islands Council.  With a population of under 25,000 this would be the equivalent of a small town council.  Yet it owns ferry services and power companies, runs schools (with boarding pupils), and does all the things that a large metropolitan borough would be expected to do.  Together with Revd Andrew Fox, the Superintendent of the Shetlands, I met with Malcolm Bell, the elected Convenor of the Council and Frank Robertson, a Methodist member and councillor, and learned about the issues facing the islands’ population.  The meeting ended with an invitation from Mr Bell to explore more of the ways in which the Churches and the Council could work together.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, mountain, shoes, sky, outdoor and natureImage may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoorThe Shetlands are rich in their archaeological history, with Iron Age and Viking settlements.  The Shetland Archaeologist, Dr Val Turner, is a Methodist and is much respected internationally for her contribution to the understanding of Shetland history.  Val took us on a tour of Old Scatness where she led the excavations beginning in the 1990s.  At the centre is a large Broch, a form of tower found around the Shetlands and beyond, surrounded by round dwellings.  At the corner of the site a dwelling has been reconstructed to give a sense of the way people lived.  It was so cold, with snow and hail falling – I was wearing six layers of clothing yet I still felt numb – I did wonder how people used to cope before the invention of central heating and Gortex.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and indoorImage may contain: 3 people, people sittingOn Tuesday I went to the farthest reaches of the Islands.  Andrew drove me, via two ferries, to the island of Unst.  I met folk at the most northerly Methodist Church, Haroldswick.  This church was re-built a few years ago, and the members of the church did it all themselves.  It is a much loved place.  Then we drove onto the island of Yell and met people at East Yell Methodist Church.  They are a tiny chapel, facing all the challenges of small societies everywhere and more, but I had a real sense that they are up for growth.  They are looking at ways in which they can reach out to their small community, offering love and sharing the good news.  In the evening I joined a small bible study at North Roe, near where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, and again witnessed the desire of these people to engage with the bible and respond to the love of God.

Image may contain: foodImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, dog and outdoorOn Wednesday I visited a Methodist local preacher, Alma, who lives on a croft.  She soon had me kitted out in wellies and waterproof trousers, and we went off to feed the ducks and hens and collect eggs.  Then she gave me a shepherd’s crook, and had me catching a young lamb, just a few hours old, and iodine its cord.  My second encounter as Vice-President, after my West Yorkshire visit, with a newborn lamb!  Alma spoke about the hard life experienced by crofters, most of whom also maintain at least one other job in order to earn a living.  But she also spoke movingly about the delight and privilege of living close to the land, seeing the birds and animals around her. 

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing and indoorIn the evening I joined the well-attended Shetland Easter Offering service.  I spoke about my visit to the Church of Pakistan last year, about the experiences of Christians there and the way in which the British Methodist Church World Church Fund supports the work of the Church.  The Shetland Island Methodists, with a membership of just over 200 people, raised an astonishing £1,500 for the World Church Fund, a real example of the generosity of the people on the islands.

The British Methodist Church has a history of supporting Methodism in the Shetland Islands, and it is good to see this continuing with the imminent arrival of a new probationer, who I met at Queens earlier in the year.  The membership may be small, but it is disproportionate in terms of population and strong in faith.

Thank you to Andrew and Susie Fox, and all the people who welcomed me with such generous hospitality.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Half Shilling Curate

This book was sent to me by the author, Sarah Reay, the granddaughter of the Revd Herbert Cowl aka The Half Shilling Curate.  It tells the story of him as a young Wesleyan minister, serving as an Army Chaplain in WW1. It is carefully researched and lovingly written.  Sarah is fortunate to have many original letters and photographs from Herbert and his family, which makes the narrative come alive. You often feel you are listening in to conversations that took place 100 years ago.  At the same time, she has found corroborative evidence from a range of sources, ensuring that this personal story is anchored in the wider historical context and the Wesleyan Church of the era.

I found it an easy read, which helped me to glimpse something of the work of those early chaplains. Herbert and many others won much admiration from the serving men for their bravery in being alongside them in the trenches and tending to their practical, pastoral and spiritual needs.

The most moving part of the story, for me, was when Herbert was being transported home after a sudden and serious injury (Chapters 5 and 6).  The hospital ship carrying the wounded was hit by a mine, four miles off Dover and the 400 injured men on board were in danger of being lost in the sinking ship or in the freezing ocean.  Barely able to walk and having witnessed horrific scenes, Herbert finds himself trapped in a dead-end corridor with water rising.  Not only did he manage to get to the deck but he also got life rafts into the sea for a group whose lifeboat had failed.  Although 139 of the 400 people died that day, the death toll would, almost certainly, have been higher had it not been for his swift and self-sacrificing action.  For this, he received the Military Cross. 

The Methodist Church Heritage News has featured this book in its Autumn edition (2016) because it tells something of our rich history as a Church.  For in addition to Herbert’s story, there is a tribute to many others with whom he served.  The account also gives some insight into the training and stationing of ministers and the work of the Wesleyan Church in a time of war.  
Not many in Methodism have experienced the work of chaplains first hand.  I would be one of those, having never served in the military and never having been a chaplain to the forces.  But having recently spent a few days with the RAF chaplains in East Anglia, I am full of respect for this group of people and what they bring to this sphere of life and work.

I commend this book to you.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Rachel Lampard's address to the annual Methodist Parliamentary Covenant Service - 17 January 2017

“Let me be laid aside for you”

If you believe the old adage about not mixing religion and politics, then I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place.  This chapel is at the heart of our Parliament.  And I’m certainly the wrong person to ask to speak today. For nearly 17 years I’ve been helping the Methodist Church to do politics. 

So you’ll have guessed that not only do I think that religion and politics can mix, but rather I believe that taking politics seriously as people of faith is part of our calling. 

For we are a people who worship a God of justice, an incarnate God, whose Spirit offers transformation.  So how can we say religion and politics don’t mix?!

The Methodist Covenant service is a very special time in our Methodist year, an opportunity to affirm the loving relationship in to which God has called us. 

Every year when I say the Covenant prayer, particular words leap out, and they’re often different words each year.  I don’t know if you find the same.  Sometimes a phrase resonates, sometimes one consoles, sometimes another jars.  This year a phrase has pained me.  They are the words “let me be laid aside for you”.

Now let’s be clear.  Being laid aside in this context does not mean being discarded or judged to be useless.  Rather I think it means for whatever reason, the things we have associated with our calling no longer seem to have a clear context or be sustainable. 

At first the resonance of this phrase for me may seem strange.  I’ve never been busier than I have been this year.  I have been so privileged to be in the role as Vice-President of the Church, and to have the opportunity to witness what God is doing in and through God’s people in this country and in other parts of the world. I’ve been able to listen, speak and learn.  The President and I have had the chance to explore our theme of holiness and justice with people from around the Connexion.  I have a suitcase permanently packed, and I need to plant roughly a tree a week to cancel out my carbon footprint over the course of the year.

So why does the phrase “Let me be laid aside for you” feel so painful?  Well this is where it gets personal.  I voted to remain.  I think that President Trump is a terrifying prospect.  And I’m a member of a political party which some may say is in the doldrums. 

For someone who has such a high belief in the worth of political engagement this is a tough place to be. 

I’ve always felt my role within the church, encouraging Christians to make the links between faith and life, to be a vocation.  And I feel passionately that my beliefs – religious and political – are rooted in my response to the love of God.

And now I find myself in a position where I have – politically – been laid aside.  We hear that the British people have spoken.  And I feel outside that definition of “the people”.  Things which I feel are unacceptable are creeping towards the norm.  And political power – the way of bringing about change – feels beyond reach.

Now at this point I should say that I wholly accept that many of you here will be in a different place.   And will hold very different beliefs with passion and integrity. I am very privileged to count as friends and fellow Christians people with whom I profoundly disagree politically, and am honoured that some are here this evening. 

And I suppose my pain could come from a realisation that I am wrong.  Politics is, after all, a human endeavour.  As much as we yearn to understand the mind of God, we are never going to bring about the kingdom of God through a party manifesto.

And yet.  We are political beings, and this is the way in which we choose how we order our world.  The sense of being “laid aside” from this is, for me, painful.

Having wrestled with this in the light of saying the Covenant prayer, I think there are (in a Methodist fashion) three reflections.

Firstly we are here for the Methodist covenant service, not the Methodist contract service.  Ken Howcroft, a former President of Conference, once described his understanding of the difference between the two as being that a contract sets out how the future will work.  Whereas a covenant involves setting off together, into an unknown future, but promising to walk together whatever comes. 

Early versions of the Covenant service included words that were very similar to the marriage service – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. This covenant, this relationship, is for the good and bad times. 

We are promising to abide with God – notice the frequent use of the word in the passage from John.  That is where we remain, abiding in God’s love, through the good times, the bad times, the times of power and the times of pain. 

So firstly God does not abandon us, but abides with us, for, in that very tender phrase, he has written his promise on our hearts.

Secondly the Covenant prayer reminds us of the corporate nature of this covenant relationship.  Although the prayer is in the first person we will be saying it together, as the people of God,
·        people who voted different ways,
·        people who are members of different parties,
·        politicians, and people for whom this is the first time in Parliament,
·        ministers and lay people, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists
·        ...and those who may be searching or wondering.  

In the passage from Deuteronomy we heard that all those assembled were part of the covenantal relationship with God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water”. 

Everyone, even those on the edge, is invited into a covenant relationship with God. 

 And our relationship with God means we are in relationship one with another.  Those who are employed for God are in relationship with those who are laid aside for God.  Party politics are never more important than the relationship that we are offered as part of the body of Christ.

So secondly we are all part of the vine, in relationship with God and with one another.

Finally the Covenant prayer reminds us that there is a time for being laid aside, for suffering or being done to, for being empty, for having nothing. 

But this is not God rejecting us or what we offer. For when we are in these places we can be there for – and with - God. 

Perhaps we sometimes have an expectation of power and influence, just look around at the venue we’re in today.  Perhaps we expect to be listened to and taken seriously.  Perhaps we’re not used – as churches or as individuals – to being on the margins ...of politics, of society, of our church. 

But it’s not always a bad thing to be at the margins.  And who says that change can’t come from there? 

Indeed Methodism started in the margins – small groups, outside the power structures of the church, preaching the love of God to the poorest and most marginalised in society, raising up people as lay preachers, as itinerant ministers to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. 

And when you’re on the margins you can always look around and see whom else God has placed there. 

For the Covenant prayer is not passive.  It’s not about sitting still where we end up.  It is about being offered renewal in Jesus Christ.  It’s about opening ourselves up to the greatest transformation of all, through the love of God.  Because vines bear beautiful fruit. 

So from this sense of being laid aside comes awareness that God does not abandon us but holds us in loving relationship.  We are all part of the vine together, one with another and with God.  And that being at the margins can be fruitful.

Whether this year you feel you are being employed, laid aside, exalted or brought low, I pray that you will experience renewal and growth in Jesus Christ, and be fruitful, be it at the centre, or at the margins. 

For ultimately the most glorious truth is there in the words that we will say together in a few moments.  “He is ours and we are his.  So be it”.