New Methodist President: “We have to learn to expect to see God in the mundane”

The Methodist Conference opened in London today with the inauguration of the Revd Ruth Gee as President. In her inaugural address to the Conference, the Revd Ruth Gee spoke of a Church waiting expectantly for glimpses of God's glory. 

"Waiting expectantly to glimpse the glory of God means waiting expectantly wherever we are and whatever the circumstances," she said at Methodist Central Hall. "This recognition of the presence of God is at the heart of mission and of evangelism which are surely about enabling people to recognise God already present with them, about introducing them to Jesus, about being the hands and feet of Christ in the world." 

But she added that this recognition was a challenge. "At other times it is not so easy and we need to know God well to glimpse the glory. We have to learn to expect to see God in the ordinary, in the mundane, because that is the meaning of incarnation; that is the consequence of God's ceaseless movement into the depths."

The new president described Rublev's illustration of the Trinity - a fifteenth century Russian icon of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit - which features in the new booklet, Glimpses of Glory, launched by Methodist Publishing today. "Our belief in God as trinity means that we believe that God is dynamically relational," she said. "As you look at the icon, you are drawn into that space and into a dynamic relationship with God. God moves ceaselessly into the depths, reaching out to us in love and drawing us close."

At the end of her address, the Revd Ruth Gee emphasised that the calling of a Church to wait expectantly for glimpses of God's glory was no easy calling. 

"Let me be clear," she pointed out, "recognising the presence of Christ does not deny the harsh reality of suffering and the existence of evil, of those things that are clearly contrary to the will of a loving God. This is the calling to stand alongside people in pain and suffering and to offer something of the love of Christ even there. This is the calling to recognise the presence of God in the mundane and the ordinary and to help others to find God there as well. Many Methodist people respond to this calling day by day in their communities and places of work."

Her address also emphasised the importance of ensuring that Church spaces are safe places for children and the vulnerable, and that the Church should challenge cruelty, indifference and violence as contrary to the will of God.

The full text of the address follows:

Conference Address

(Prayer)

Let us pray:

Father of everlasting Grace,

your goodness and your truth we praise,

your goodness and your truth we prove;

you have, in honour of your Son,

the gift unspeakable sent down,

the Spirit of life and power and love. 

                                    (Charles Wesley, Singing the Faith, 378)

Let us be still...

Let us be quiet...

Move among us Spirit of life.

            Kindle a warming flame in our hearts.

            Inspire us with hope and expectation.

Move among us Spirit of power.

            Fill our sails with the wind of adventure and discovery.

            Disturb our complacency with your insistence.

Move among us Spirit of love.

            Soothe our fears with your gentleness.

            Lead us to Jesus, to life in all its fullness.

Spirit of life and power and love

Move among us now.

Amen.

(End of prayer)

Do you feel the Spirit moving among us now?

Do you believe that God is with us here?

Have you glimpsed something of the glory of God today?

Do you expect to do so?

A number of years ago, I was talking to a young woman who had begun to come to church. She had little Christian background and she asked me where she had to be to get close to God. She wanted to know where God was to be found and where she could pray. I said, "you don't have to go to a special place to be close to God, God is with you wherever you are."  She was surprised because in the forms of spirituality that she had explored she had been taught that there were techniques that she had to get right before she could find fulfilment. 

"Do you mean God is with me when I am at work?" she asked. "Yes" , I said.

"And God is with me when I am at home?". 

"Yes, God is with you at home"

"And what about when I am walking down the street, is God with me then?"

"Yes, God is with you then."

"Wow!" she said, "That is amazing!"

And it is amazing isn't it?

That God who is eternal, without beginning or end; 

God who underpins and sustains all that is or ever has been or will be; 

God who gently holds the threads of our lives and all history and weaves them into an ever-evolving picture; 

God who is beyond our reason or imagination; 

It is amazing that God is with each one of us, that God knows each one of us by name, and that we can know God.

Sometimes, I can forget how amazing it is.

I like this image of a pearl at the bottom of the ocean. Those who dived for pearls went down to extreme depths in a single breath and risked their lives in doing so. It was a hazardous occupation and few of the oysters that were brought to the surface contained pearls. But they dived because the pearls were precious.

God reaches out to us because we are precious to God, and God has reached out to us in the person of Jesus, given the name Emmanuel which means God with us. It was a risky venture, it led to arms outstretched in love on the cross and days of hopeless waiting for those who cared for him - a waiting and sorrow that were turned to joy in the miracle of resurrection.

In recent weeks, the ex President has reminded us of the sovereignty of God. The theologian, Eberhard Jüngel said that the distinguishing feature of God's majesty was "a ceaseless movement into the depths"  This is a movement prompted by God's love and a movement that reaches every part of our humanity. God reaches out to us so that we can know God and be the people God created us to be.

God reaches out to us, God moves ceaselessly into the depths, because it is God's nature, it is essential to God's very being, that God is relational.

This is well illustrated by Rublev's Icon of the trinity which will be known to many of you. This fifteenth century Russian icon is generally regarded as a depiction of the trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Much could be said about this icon but let me draw your attention to two things. 

Firstly if you look at any of the three figures, you will find yourself drawn to look at the other two because there is a dynamic interaction between the three. Our belief in God as trinity means that we believe that God is dynamically relational. 

The second thing to notice is that the three are sitting at a table and there is a space for another. As you look at the icon, you are drawn into that space and into a dynamic relationship with God.

God moves ceaselessly into the depths, reaching out to us in love and drawing us close.

During the last year quite a few people have asked me what the theme of this address would be. My usual answer has been, "I am going to talk about God", it was truthful but not very informative. For those who would like the theme in a few words it is waiting expectantly for glimpses of glory.

You see, if it is true that God is with us and reaching out to us in love, wherever we are and whatever we are going through in our lives - then we should expect to glimpse the glory of God at any time and in any place. It is not just that we will be surprised by God, though in my experience this does happen, It is that we should expect to glimpse the glory of God, we should be an expectant people.

One night a group of fisherman and other friends of Jesus were in a boat on the sea of Galilee. Earlier that day they had been with Jesus and a huge crowd of people who had listened to his teaching and had been fed by him when they grew hungry. It was a tiring day and, at the end of it, Jesus had gone into the hills to pray and his friends were going back across the lake in the boat.

Then the storm began. The fishermen knew that inland sea well and were used to the sudden storms that often came. The wind was blowing and the rain was beating down and they were struggling with the oars against an adverse wind. It was then, according to the author of the Gospel of Mark, that Jesus came towards them, walking on the sea. They saw him and were terrified thinking he was a ghost. Jesus spoke to them and said, "It is I do not be afraid." He got into the boat and when he was with them the storm subsided.

 It is a well known story but I have always been intrigued by one short phrase in it. Mark writes that Jesus came towards them and "He intended to pass them by."  What use was it to pass them by if they were struggling against the storm and afraid of drowning? 

We have to look to other parts of the Bible to understand Mark's reference to Jesus' intention to pass them by. In the Old Testament, we can read about the time when Moses was on Mount Sinai and God told him to hide in a cleft in the rock, and the glory of God passed by. At another time the prophet Elijah was on Mount Horeb feeling disheartened and abandoned when the glory of God passed by. Elijah recognised God's presence in the still small voice or the sound of sheer silence. In both stories the reference to the glory of God passing by speaks of the real presence of God.

Those friends of Jesus who were struggling against the storm had been with him for many months. They had listened to his teaching, they had seen him making people whole and restoring their dignity, and yet they didn't recognise him as he came towards them. They didn't recognise the glory of God passing by as it had passed by Moses and Elijah.

I think the real danger for those friends of Jesus was not that they would be overcome by the storm. The real danger was that they would fail to recognise God with them, they would fail to glimpse the glory of God.

And I suspect that is a real danger for us too.

I think that many of us have lost the expectation that we will glimpse the glory of God, we are no longer confident that God is with us and we don't always recognise God in unexpected and difficult places.

But with St Paul," I am convinced that ...nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39)

I am convinced that we must be people who expect to glimpse the glory of God if we are to fulfil our calling as disciples, as followers of Jesus. 

I am convinced that if we are to be a discipleship movement shaped for mission, a fundamental part of that shaping is to grow to know God so well that we recognise the glory of God passing by and we help others to see it too. 

We are called into relationship with God, through Jesus, enabled by the Spirit and we are called to invite others into this life-giving relationship. 

So, what does all this look like, how does it play out in our everyday lives as Methodist people. What will the church look like and what will society look like, if we truly are people who wait expectantly for glimpses of Glory?

Here are some suggestions as a starting point for a conversation that I hope will continue throughout this year and perhaps beyond. A conversation that I hope will be resourced by the booklet, 'Glimpses of Glory', that you have all received, and that are available from Methodist Publishing.  I am grateful to all those who have contributed to it.

I believe that a church that waits expectantly for glimpses of glory has to be a church of people committed to growing in the knowledge of God throughout their lives.

I enjoy watching detective series on television but unfortunately have a good enough memory to remember who committed the murder. This means that the second and third time that I watch a series of Morse or Lewis, or Frost is never as good as the first because I know who did it; there comes a time when there is nothing new to be learned. 

 It is never like that with God. There is always something new, something more, because even when we reach the end of life, we will only have scratched the surface of the knowledge of God. Our desire should always be to scratch deeper. 

This desire is well expressed in the prayer attributed to Richard of Chichester:

Day by day dear Lord,

of thee three things I pray:

to see thee more clearly,

to love thee more dearly,

to follow thee more nearly,

day by day.  

                        (Singing the Faith, 444)

How do we grow in our knowledge of God, indeed how do we come to know God in the first place? There are many ways in which we grow to know God but I want to focus briefly on three of them. We grow to know God through one another, through scripture and through our traditions. 

Of course, the fullest revelation of God is in the person of Jesus and we cannot hold anything as true which contradicts the teaching and example of Jesus.

For many of us there will have been significant people who have told us about Jesus, who through their example have shown us God's love or who have sustained and challenged us in our developing relationship with God.

This is the appropriate time for me to thank some of those who have been and are an important part of my journey of faith. My mother and father, who first taught me to pray and brought me up in a Christian home. My father was a Methodist Local Preacher for as long as I can remember. It was while attending church with him that I first heard a congregation singing 'And can it be' and thought, I want to be part of a church that sings hymns like that. It was my mother, who is here today, who took me to Sunday School in the parish church in the village where we lived and whose quietly sustaining faith has been a powerful example throughout my life. My husband, Robert has supported me unfailingly and is the one who has helped me to struggle with the most difficult questions and shared in the greatest joys. Our children Andrew and Rachel, and our Son-in-Law Andrew, have enriched my life immeasurably and helped to keep me grounded when I lose a sense of proportion. There are friends and colleagues too numerous to mention by name, and the many people in the places where I have lived and served, including those in the Darlington District, who through this year have been praying for me, and whose prayers have sustained me and will go on doing so.

I am deeply grateful for, and still rather surprised by the privilege of serving the Methodist Church as President this year. I am fully aware that I can only fulfil the promises that I have just made with God's help and with your prayerful support. Thank you, you are helping me to grow in the knowledge of God.

Among the people who have influenced me was a teacher of religious Studies who introduced me to St Paul's letter to the Romans when I was an A level student. As I studied that text and then read the book on Paul written by Martin Dibelius and given me by my teacher, I was inspired by the depth of Paul's thinking and by the truth of the gospel, and I fell in love with theology, a love that has never left me. But at the heart of the love of theology is the love of Jesus and the love of the God who I meet in scripture, through the written words of others who have scratched the surface of the knowledge of God.

In the Darlington District we are committed to encouraging people to engage more deeply with the Bible and to finding ways to introduce people to this wonderfully rich and exciting, sometimes puzzling and often challenging collection of books. We are committed because we want people to grow in their knowledge of God and we know from the work we have done that there are many Christians who, though they read the Bible do not believe that it is significant in their lives. We grow in our knowledge of God through scripture.

Bible study is part of the tradition of the church and there are other aspects of our Methodist tradition that have led me to a deeper knowledge of God. 

I think of the annual covenant service with its emphasis on offering all to God and receiving all from God. 

I think of the hymns of Charles Wesley with their rich and deep theology and wonderful phrases such as 'Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man' - what a wonderful summary of incarnation.

I think of our emphasis on shared lay and ordained leadership, our passion for social justice, our focus on working in small groups - all of these deepen my understanding of God. 

And in the wider Christian family I have learned to know God more fully from those of other traditions as I have talked, and prayed and worshipped with ecumenical colleagues. I have been challenged and inspired by Christians from other parts of the world. 

Christian tradition has enabled me to grow in my knowledge of God.

Of course, not all traditions are good and wholesome, some grow in the most surprising ways and we need to exercise discernment about the traditions we hold and recognise those which we need to let go.

To be in a living and deepening relationship with God is essential if we are to glimpse the glory of God, especially in the unexpected places.

One day I looked out of the window of the staff room in the school where I was teaching. In the distance, across several playing fields I saw two figures, they were too far away to see their faces or any other distinguishing features. As I watched them walking along I realised that one of them was my daughter, aged about nine. It was not where I expected her to be but I was sure it was her from the way she moved. I knew her so well that I could recognise her when she was in the far distance, at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. 

We should seek to know God that well so that we can recognise the glory of God when it passes by.

There are some times and places where I find it easy to glimpse the glory of God. When I stand on a mountain in Snowdonia and look out at one of the best views in the world, I am conscious of the glory and majesty of God the creator. 

When I was welcomed by people in Bolivia on a recent visit to our partner church I glimpsed the glory of God in their generosity and love.

When I have had the privilege of sharing with people at times of great joy in their lives such as weddings and baptisms - I easily glimpse the glory of God.

In inspirational worship, in deep prayer, in moments with family and friends, I glimpse the glory of God.

At other times it is not so easy and we need to know God well to glimpse the glory. We have to learn to expect to see God in the ordinary, in the mundane, because that is the meaning of incarnation, that is the consequence of God's ceaseless movement into the depths. 

The Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R.S. Thomas knew that it could be difficult to glimpse the glory of God. He once said in a radio interview that, as a naturalist, when out in the countryside he would often put his hand into a hare's form and find it still warm, though the hare had gone. That warm and empty place was like a room that some-one had just left and that is how he encountered and could believe in God. Sometimes it is in the hint of presence that we will find a glimpse of glory.

One of our Venture FX pioneers, Ric Stott explores ways in which the visual arts can help us to engage with life, spirit and community. He will be with us on Wednesday, helping us to glimpse the glory of God in our Conference through art. This is one of a series that Ric painted while in Florence. Among all the beauty of that city, Ric found Christ in the forgotten, ordinary and dirty places and painted his face on pieces of discarded cardboard. Here we see the face of Christ on the pavement and in the background is the Ponte Vecchio where most people's attention would be focused.  This is what it means to expect to glimpse the glory of God in every place.

Another artist who helps me to remember that I can expect to glimpse the glory of God in uncomfortable and hard places is Sieger Koder. In his painting, 'The Washing of Feet', we see Jesus washing Peter's feet. Jesus is bent over, we see his back and his feet and we see Peter's discomfort.  If we want to see the face of Christ, we have to look into the dirty water. It is in all the grime and mess that we glimpse the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Waiting expectantly to glimpse the glory of God means waiting expectantly wherever we are and whatever the circumstances. This recognition of the presence of God is at the heart of mission and of evangelism which are surely about enabling people to recognise God already present with them, about introducing them to Jesus, about being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

The calling of a church which waits expectantly for glimpses of God's glory is no easy calling. Let me be clear, recognising the presence of Christ does not deny the harsh reality of suffering and the existence of evil, of those things that are clearly contrary to the will of a loving God. 

This is the calling to stand alongside people in pain and suffering and to offer something of the love of Christ even there. Our chaplains, presbyters, deacons and pastoral visitors stand in this place as do many others.

This is the calling to recognise the presence of God in the mundane and the ordinary and to help others to find God there as well. Many Methodist people respond to this calling day by day in their communities and places of work.

This is the call to recognise and respond to injustice. One example of this is our response to the stigmatisation of the poor that is happening now in Britain. Our Joint Public Issues Team have led us as we have challenged those in government and the media to tell the truth and avoid misleading statements about those who find themselves in poverty.

This is the call to challenge cruelty, indifference and violence as contrary to the will of God. 

This is the call to do everything we can to ensure that our places are safe places for children and the vulnerable, in the name of Jesus who welcomed the children and reached out to the marginalised. 

This is the call to wait expectantly for glimpses of the glory of God even in our weakness. 

This is the call to follow the wounded and vulnerable saviour knowing that we too may find ourselves wounded and vulnerable and finding glimpses of God's glory, even there.

I have gone into hard places, into difficult and painful situations, wondering how I could offer anything and recognising that all I could do was to pray that somewhere in that place I would glimpse God. Sometimes all that I can do is to be there. Sometimes there is a way forward. Sometimes, like R S Thomas feeling the warmth of the departed hare, all I can do is draw on my conviction that God is present even if I can't see clearly. 

God reaches unceasingly into the depths and there is nowhere we cannot glimpse glory.

We are called to be a people who wait expectantly for glimpses of God's glory.

My prayer is that we will seek to grow in our knowledge of God so that we can recognise the glory of God passing by.

My prayer is that we will be an hopeful people, a people who wait expectantly for glimpses of glory.

My prayer is that we will respond to this calling and will grow in confidence to recognise God, present among us and to share the love and knowledge of Jesus.

May the blessing of the God who reaches unceasingly into the depths,

Father, son and Holy spirit,

Be with us now and forever.

Amen. 

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