New Methodist President Calls for Holiness
02 July 2016
Video of Roger's address is available here
The audio of Roger's address is available here
In his inaugural address made earlier today, 2 July, the
Revd Dr Roger Walton, the newly elected President of the Methodist
Conference, has reminded the Church of its calling to spread
Photographs of Rev Dr Roger Walton at the Conference are
At the Conference, held at Methodist Central Hall,
Westminster, his address focused on holiness as being inherent in
everything the Church does and as the echo of God within all of us
"In a world where a multitude of truths and an infinite choice of
lifestyles seem possible, Christians need to shape their lives by
the pattern of Jesus. We have to be Jesus- Shaped" said
The President continued: "Methodism was called to spread spiritual
holiness. Those early Methodists did that, not simply by telling,
but by living inside the biblical story; by journeying regularly to
holy places and living intentional and ethical lives."
Like others who have stood in this place before me, I am not quite
sure why I am here or that I am adequate to the role. I feel
that someone somewhere has made a mistake. Any minute I will
receive a note to say, 'Don't worry, the proper President will be
I am not alone in this. Last September I saw the then new
Secretary of the Conference and I asked him how he was settling
into the new appointment. He told me that ever since the
Conference, he had been expecting a responsible adult to come along
but so far it hadn't happened.
Now I know this might not sound very reassuring - that the
President and the Secretary of Conference are not too confident in
their positions, but in many ways that has been the story of
ministry for me from the beginning. Being pulled out of
college in my last year to go to fill a hole in the stations for a
year seemed like an excellent learning opportunity. On my
first day, I was asked to visit Mr and Mrs Beckley, a couple who
were about to celebrate their 50th Wedding anniversary. The church
had planned a party the next weekend and everyone was looking
forward it. Before I left the house I got a phone call to say
that Mr Beckley had taken ill on his morning walk and had died.
Would I go and speak with Mrs Beckley? The sense of being
unprepared was palpable? The feeling of not knowing what I
would say or do was frightening. And if I am honest that
sentiment has accompanied every move I have made. Arriving
in Liverpool as a probationer minister on a challenging estate,
taking up a post with the Division of Ministries under the
aspirational title of 'Theology for All'; my first day teaching in
a theological college; starting as a Chair of District - all felt
the same. What do you say and how do you do this - surely
there is someone else who could do it better?
I wonder if you have seen the film 'Suffragette'? The basic plot
is about Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress who finds herself
caught up in the movement almost by accident. Her friend
Violet is due to give testimony to members of Parliament but she is
so badly beaten by her abusive husband that she cannot and Maud,
who was going simply to support her friend, finds herself standing
in front of these MPs asked to tell of her experience in the
laundry. She is in the wrong place at the wrong time or, as
it turns out, in the right place at the right time. She
stands for a few moments frozen in the face of these powerful men
and then shares her story.
Maybe that was Isaiah's experience too. Maybe he was simply in
the wrong place at the wrong time. We do not know why he was
in the temple but we do know when. It was in the year that
King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had reigned for over 50 years
and it had been a time of relative stability in Judah. His
death ushered in a period of enormous political upheaval. Now
Assyria was becoming the aggressive superpower intent on
controlling the region. For the whole of Isaiah's life and
ministry there would be wars and political machinations.
Judah was in constant danger of being crushed by this giant
beast of the ancient world or becoming collateral damage in
Assyria's struggles against other regimes. We know what that
looks like. Cities and towns laid waste, people fleeing war,
refugees moving into foreign lands.
It is at this moment that Isaiah encountered the holiness of
He sees the Lord high and lifted up and the temple filled with
smoke. He feels its foundation shaking. He hears the angelic
creatures crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy'. And he realises that he
is in the wrong place at the wrong time and there seems to be no
one else - but he finally says, 'Here I am send me…'
Like Maud and Isaiah, finding myself here, I need to speak what is
on my mind and in my heart.
I want to talk with you on the subject of Holiness. Now
I recognise that this might not be an immediate 'turn on'.
The idea that you will spend the next 30 minutes listening to
someone talk about holiness, may not be what you came for.
The prospect might sound as interesting as a lecture on the
mathematics of actuarial calculations or the merits of different
rubber surfaces on table tennis bats!
But on my heart is the need to re-discover the centrality of
holiness in our life as a church and the need to spread the notion
of holiness for others to consider and embrace.
If you don't sit easy with the word holiness, let me offer
some other words for holiness - Spiritual Fitness. This
is the way Graham Tomlin speaks of holiness. He notes that in
our society, going to the gym and getting fit is a major
preoccupation. 68% of us make a New Year's resolution to get
fit, though 37% of folk who join gyms in January stop going before
the end of the month! Whether we do exercise or simply aspire
to it, we have a massive desire to become fitter.
Tomlin suggests that what the church has to offer is spiritual
health and fitness. 'If churches became known as places where
you could learn how to love, to trust, to hope, to forgive, to gain
wisdom for life, then they might be attractive, perhaps even
necessary places to belong to.'
Another way to speak of holiness is as Wholeness. Ever since
Josef Goldbrunner's 1954 book Holiness as Wholeness, the notion has
been around and for many people it conveys better what Christians
mean by holiness in the 21st century. Wholeness, here, is
defined as 'being the best person that you can be, being free of
all that inhibits your growth as a human being, being healed and
complete not in the sense of never facing suffering or loss or
disability but fully human, fully alive, fully open to God and the
Brendan Callaghan says, 'The great religions of the world
offer us ways to live at our best and to express those deepest
cares. In the eyes of a believer, this is a path towards holiness -
a path of responding to the love that God has revealed to us by
living in love in return. But to live in such a way is also
the path to wholeness.'
Another word might be Resilience - In her book Resilient
Pastors Justine Allain-Chapman focuses on human resilience - the
power to bounce back when knocked by failure, illness,
disappointment, tragedy and suffering. It isn't just pastors
who need resilience, of course. It is everyone.
Everyone needs to be able to live in such a way that the
knocks of the world don't disfigure or destroy us but through inner
strength and struggle we become, not less, but more ourselves -
more able to survive, to thrive and to love.
Resilience, spiritual fitness and wholeness are ways of speaking
of holiness. If these images help you, hang on to them.
I will stay with the word holiness.
The roots of Methodism are to be found in a passion for
The desire for a holy life animated John and Charles Wesley
from their Puritan-shaped home-life, through the Holy Club in
Oxford, through the Moravian communities, to the hundreds of small
societies they established, that went by the name Methodist. The
Methodist Societies were for the pursuit of holiness.
John Wesley's picture image of religion was a house.
Imagine, he said, that the porch of the house is repentance.
You cannot get into the house without going on to the porch.
The door of the house is justification by faith (pardon,
forgiveness, reconciliation with God). You cannot get into the
house without going through the door. But the house itself, for
which the porch and door are means of access, is holiness of heart
There can be little doubt that the hymns of his brother are
overwhelmingly about the desire for holiness.
O for a heart to praise my God,
a heart from sin set free
A heart that always feels Thy blood
So freely shed for me.
… A heart in every thought renewed
And full of love divine, Perfect and right and pure and good,
A copy, Lord, of Thine.(StF 501)
Methodism was a holiness movement.
Yes, early Methodism was a missionary movement - taking every
opportunity to preach the faith. In churches and market places, in
pulpits and standing on gravestones, they told the good news to
everyone who would listen.
Yes, early Methodism was a movement of and for the poor,
treating poor people not as fickle and feckless or, to use modern
terms, not as 'scroungers and work shy' but as people made in the
image of God for whom Christ died. And the poor responded.
That is why Richard Heitzenrater can say that you could have hung a
sign outside many of the first Methodist chapels which said 'The
Poor are Us' and it would have been true.
Yes, Early Methodism was a fresh expression of church,
pragmatically responding to the changing culture of 18th century
Britain, so that the gospel could be heard in terms that spoke to
people's lives, circumstances and culture.
Above all Methodism was a company of people seeking holiness
and seeking to spread scriptural holiness through the land.
We have rightly focused in the last few years on the term
discipleship, wanting to re-capture what it means to be a follower
of Jesus and to live in the pattern of Jesus - and I have attempted
to contribute to that conversation. But the word that needs
to be at the centre of all our talk of discipleship is the word
holiness. I was delighted when Andrew Roberts' new book on
discipleship Holy Habits came out, for it connects again
discipleship with holiness.
So what is holiness and how can we speak about it in the
What it isn't:
Holiness is not blind zeal … it doesn't call us to narrowness of
perception and living. It doesn't desire the harming of
others. Rather it widens our view and makes us more aware,
sensitive and compassionate.
Holiness is not moral superiority … it doesn't look down on
others. Indeed, it is marked by humility and love.
Holiness puts others' needs first and delights in the image
of God in every person.
Holiness is not isolated existence away from the tarnishing of the
world. It is a social holiness that grows in contact, conversation
and commitment to others.
Holiness, as Morna Hooker tells us, begins in the revealed
character of God. For holiness is primarily the nature of
God; the core character of God - God's purity, and love and beauty.
God's Otherness. Our experience of holiness begins in
encounter with God.
That is what Isaiah 6 tells us. This extraordinary
passage captures the essence of the biblical story: that the glory
of God breaks into human life. God comes to the world in love
to redeem humanity. Isaiah sees and is amazed, awestruck and
frightened because it is beyond his experience.
In the face of God's utter holiness, Isaiah recognises his own
sinfulness, the brokenness of his society and his helplessness to
redeem himself. But God gives His Holiness to cleanse Isaiah
and calls him to share God's Holy endeavour to produce a Holy
In other words, Holiness is God's yet God gives it to us. It
is a gift which God shares with human persons and communities and
calls us to share this character.
Holiness breaks into our world in many various places.
This was my experience as a 16-year-old. God's love - a love
above and beyond anything I had known - broke into my life,
accepting me as I was, and calling me to become what God wanted me
This experience of God breaking in is more commonly felt than we
realise. David Hay and Rebecca Nye have spent many years
researching and collecting accounts of people's experiences of the
transcendent: moments where something beyond them broke into
their lives - many of these people not connected to church or
religion. Here is one example:
'One day, I was sweeping the stairs, down in the house in
which I was working, when suddenly I was overcome, overwhelmed,
saturated … with a sense of most sublime and living love. It not
only affected me, but seemed to bring everything around me to life.
The brush in my hand, my dustpan, the stairs, seemed to come alive
with love. I seemed no longer me, with my petty troubles and
trials, but part of this infinite power of love, so utterly and
overwhelmingly wonderful that one knew at once what the saints had
grasped. It could only have been a minute or two, yet for that
brief particle of time it seemed eternity …'
Hay and Nye argue that people are often afraid to share these
experiences either because they do not have the language to make
sense of them; or because they think that folk will consider them
Living according to the revealed character of God begins,
therefore, in encountering God's otherness and when we feel it, it
always contains a call, a call to discover more of this amazing
God. As Gerard Hughes put it:
'The call to holiness is the echo of God's longing for each
If Holiness begins in encounter with God, how is it nurtured
in us? How are we to continue to grow into a holy people? Let
me offer you three ways in which holiness can grow in us as we seek
to respond to the gracious, unmerited and glorious holy love of God
breaking into our lives.
1.Holiness is nurtured by living in the story of God
When I worked at the Open Learning Centre, I received a letter one
day. It said that a couple were clearing out their uncle's
house after his death and had found a Greek Bible. They asked
whether we could use it. I wrote back saying that we would be
delighted to receive it. We ran a small 'Learn New Testament
Greek' course and we could pass it on to one of our students.
When it arrived, however, I released that we could not give
it to anyone, for there were scribbled notes on every margin of
every page. The letter that accompanied the Bible was,
however, even more stunning. It said that their uncle had
left school after elementary education - around 11 or 12 -
and gone to work on the railways. He became a signalman and
worked on the railways all his life. He also became a Christian and
a Local Preacher and, in order to be the best preacher he could be,
he taught himself New Testament Greek. Clearly, he had worked
his way through his Greek New Testament time after time after time,
in order that his life might be shaped by its content.
He lived inside the New Testament.
Now this is a metaphor for our discipleship. We are not to
learn the facts of the scripture to be good at general knowledge or
to be able to quote texts to support this view or that.
Something much more is called for. We are to enter
into, and live in, and see the world from the story of God. The
call of holiness is the call to live inside the story of God.
In many ways the story of the people of Israel begins when God
breaks into their lives as slaves in Egypt. This was an
unmerited act of liberation. They were led out from being
slaves into the wilderness and it is at this point that they are
called to be holy. The first occasion that Israel is called
to be holy as God is holy is found in Leviticus 11.45:
For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt,
to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy.
What this means is learning to live differently. For their
experience up to this point is one of oppression, relentless work
and brutal punishments. But now in the wilderness they are
called to be holy. And they are given the Ten Commandments.
Now I was taught in school and Sunday school these ten basic rules
that God had given had a timeless character. We learnt them
by heart and were quizzed on them. They were not tied to
their context or history but a set of rules for living that could
be applied everywhere and at all times. But they mean much
more, if you read them as spoken to a people who have been slaves
and known no other models about how to live than in the regime they
had just escaped.
The God that gave the Ten Commandments was very different from
the gods they had met in Egypt. Those gods legitimised oppression
and relentless work. At Sinai they learned of a God who
rested, a God who encouraged community, a God who desired good
relationships with parents and neighbours; a God who wanted justice
for everyone and who protected each from the extremes of
punishment. The models they had in their heads from their
experiences in Egypt were very different from this new God.
They did not learn the Commandments off by heart as a I did in
Sunday school to be able to answer questions, but they had to start
to live them, to live in them and through them, to take on a
different kind of lifestyle and make a different kind of community.
That is what it meant to be holy.
In the New Testament the revealed character of God is seen in the
life and person of Jesus: his teaching, his ministry, his death and
his resurrection and here we have a new insight into the character
Much of the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus is precisely
about holiness. For the Pharisees, the key to holiness was
separation from anything that was unclean and contaminating.
For Jesus, holiness was something else. Jesus fell out
with the Pharisees because he did unclean stuff - he touched
lepers, he laid his hand on corpses, he allowed unclean people to
come close and touch him, he associated with tax collectors and
sinners. He did all the things that the Pharisees thought
were forbidden and would make you lose your holiness. But as
Jimmy Dunn points out, Jesus reversed the equation. Instead
of Jesus becoming unclean, the leper is made well, the dead are
raised to life, the tax collectors and sinners are brought back
into the kingdom. He gives his holiness to others and they
are made holy. In this he does what God does in the temple
with Isaiah. He imparts holiness and enables all to come to God.
He gives us another model of holiness as the outpouring of
love. He provides a new story to live within.
We who hear the call of Jesus, are to live in this new story
of outgoing, selfless love.
2.Holiness is nurtured by visiting holy spaces
Methodists are known for promoting what we call 'social holiness'.
It is one of the lines from John Wesley that has become
widely quoted. The original is as follows:
'the gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social
religion; no holiness but social holiness'
Like so many of Mr Wesley's thoughts, it has often come to be used
to describe other ideas different from his original intention -
anything from an afternoon tea party to Christian Socialism, but as
Andrew Thompson has argued, for Wesley social holiness meant
something different. To understand this, we need to pay
attention to the original context. For the original and only
use of this term occurs in the Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems in
1739. Wesley here is making the case for congregational hymn
singing - a new thing in the 18th century - and he is attacking the
idea that holiness can be found by going off on one's own and
living as a solitary. It is a sideswipe at individualistic
retreating to the desert. In fact, the longer quote
' 'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel
than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no
religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.'
What Wesley meant, therefore, was environments in which
holiness can grow; corporate contexts conducive to the growth of
holiness or, to use Andrew Robert's term, 'holy habitats'.
The fact that this occurs in the preface to a hymn book,
tells us that Wesley thought Christians gathering together to sing
hymns was such an environment. For Wesley, hymn singing was a
means of grace - like prayer, fasting, holy communion and Christian
conferring - where we can expect to meet the love of God over and
over again and so be transformed. We are to take ourselves to
places where we can encounter, in the company of others, the holy
life of God.
I wonder where you go to find God? Where are the holy
spaces? Are they in in our churches, our worship, our home
We are to visit holy spaces and help make holy places. I am
convinced that were Wesley following the agendas of Conference for
the last few years he would recognise that safeguarding is an
important part of creating a holy space - for where people are safe
they are more likely to grow - and that supervision of pastoral
practice, done well, will help create more accountable and holy
ministers that makes for ministry which allows holiness to
But there is another word to say on holy spaces.
Mission and encounter moments can also be holy spaces.
Wesley went to preach in the open air. As he put it, he
'consented to become more vile'. He visited prisoners condemned to
death, he went out among and listened to the poor, he got involved
in campaigns against the distillers, not primarily because they
fermented alcohol but because they exploited the poor, he opposed
slavery and set up work opportunities for those who would otherwise
be destitute or in prostitution. In all those places he
encountered the grace of God. In other words, his actions
tell us that mission is a place of holiness. We are formed
and transformed by God in mission.
Charles Elliot, in his book Praying the Kingdom, suggested the
translation of the first word of the Beatitudes, which we normally
translate as 'blessed', might be better translated,
'You are in the right place.'
You are in the right place among the poor in spirit, for there
is the kingdom of heaven.
You are in the right place alongside those who mourn.
You are in the right place with the meek.
You are in the right place with those who hunger and thirst
You are in the right place among the merciful.
You are in the right place working with peacemakers.
You are in the right place when you are persecuted for
righteousness' sake, for there is the kingdom of heaven.
You are in the right place because, surprising as it seems, this
is where God's blessing is to be found.
In preparation for this year, I went with All We Can to Jordan and
met many refugee families from Syria. On each visit, as we
were welcomed into a family's home - often as basic as can be - it
felt like we were treading on holy ground. For we were
privileged to receive their hospitality and listen to their often
tragic and terrifying stories. I thought of Charles Elliot's
translation - 'You are in the right place'.
3.Holiness is nurtured by intentional and ethical living
We grow in holiness as we seek to embody in our actions the deep
convictions that flow from our faith and our relationship with God.
We need to translate these convictions into commitments that
express the life we have discovered in Christ.
Paying our taxes properly and holding to account those
companies who don't; seeking fair and just trade in the world;
offering hospitality to refugees and asylum seekers; making space
for the excluded and forgotten; being faithful in our
relationships; campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons;
working to halt the downhill ski-slope towards environmental and
ecological disaster; these are not optional extras for us. They are
essential. They are ways of pursuing the hard path to
holiness, for it is both free gift and demands everything we have
to receive it.
And we should not underestimate the power of intentional,
ethical living. It is attractive. It witnesses by action to
what we believe. Frances Young suggests that the early
Christian church didn't grow because it had public evangelistic
campaigns but because it connected with society, it told the story
of Jesus and it lived by ethical standards derived from the
I know how my children's spirituality and faith was shaped by the
MAYC campaign of the 1990s. Sleeping out to draw attention to
homelessness; writing to local supermarkets about fair trade goods;
they learned that it was not only what you said with your words but
what you said with your lives that counted.
As Bishop J C Ryle said over a century ago:
'Our lives will always be either doing good or harm to those
who see them. They are a silent sermon which all can read ...
far more is done for Christ's kingdom by the holy living of
believers than we are aware of.'
We need to learn from new monasticism that to tell the story of
Jesus we need ourselves to have lives patterned by a rhythm of life
rooted in Christ. For in a world where a multitude of truths
and an infinite choice of lifestyles seem possible, Christians need
to shape their lives by the pattern of Jesus. We have to be
Methodism was called to spread scriptural holiness.
Those early Methodists did that, not simply by telling, but
by living inside the biblical story; by journeying regularly to
holy places; and by living intentional and ethical lives.
I believe that is still our calling.