Newly elected Vice-President lays out four new building blocks for Methodism
28 June 2014
- Photo of Gill Dascombe giving her address to the Conference
- Profile photo of Gill Dascombe
The new Vice-President of the Methodist Conference for 2014-15
laid down four building blocks of faith for 21st century Britain in
her inaugural address to the Methodist Conference.
Speaking to the Conference gathered at the Birmingham Metropole
Hotel today, Gill Dascombe suggested that scripture, science,
culture and community should be the blocks upon which Methodists
build their faith.
"Methodism provides us with four building blocks of faith, derived
from the writings of John Wesley," Gill said. "These are scripture,
reason, tradition and experience. But Wesley too was a man of his
time, and Britain is a very different place now from what it was in
"So I'm going to stick my neck out here, and suggest four building
blocks of faith for 21st century Britain. Instead of scripture,
reason, tradition and experience, I suggest scripture, science,
culture and community."
Gill went on to say that when Methodists affirm scripture today,
they make a claim, not of uniformity, but of the embracing of
diversity. She explained that science was important because we no
longer live in the age of reason but the age of science. "Religion
and science have been in conflict for too long," said Gill, a
medical pharmacist. "It's time to take the blinkers off."
Her address also challenged Methodists to think about what is
distinctive about Methodism in 2014: "How can we shape a
spirituality that reflects our time, our place and our world view,
within which we can address our fears, doubts and concerns, and,
yes, our demons, real or perceived, and seek strength and hope and
purpose for the future?"
The full text of the address follows:
One sunny Sunday morning, so the story goes, a young man walked
into his local church, and heard the following words of Jesus being
read out loud:
"Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come and
And, so the story goes, he took those words literally. He did just
that. He disposed of all his property and then went off into the
desert to live the solitary life of a hermit.
The man was called Anthony, later to be St Anthony the Great, the
year was about 270 AD, and his destination was the Egyptian desert.
After a while, others followed him and migrated into the desert,
either to live as alone as hermits, or to join with others in
These small beginnings are credited with being the forerunners of
a major force in Christianity; the great monastic orders such as
the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, right through to the
modern day communities like Taize, Corrymela and Iona. And this
movement of prayer and community, begun by Anthony, was a movement
of the laity.But that is to fast-forward to the end of the story.
For now, we need to get back to the desert.
Anthony deliberately chose to live in the desert because he wanted
to devote himself radically and completely to the life of prayer
where there would be nothing at all to distract him. He was
single-minded, visionary and perhaps a little eccentric. He ate
very sparingly and slept very little. So did he shun the things of
the flesh that he even denied himself the luxury of personal
hygiene, and, it is said, neither washed himself, nor changed his
clothes for up to 35 years!
One of the things I like about the story of Anthony is the sheer
spontaneity of it. He heard the call, and he went, without
hesitation, and without reserve, even though his going did
initially upset the church authorities and presented them with some
difficulties for church order. How, for example, was he going to
receive the Eucharist out there in the middle of nowhere?
The history of the church is riddled with tales of eccentric
characters. Many have been nothing more than that, but there are a
few others who, like Anthony, have struck out on their own, with
conviction and a new compelling vision, have rocked the
establishment, and really made a difference!
Where would we be, for example, if St Paul had not defied the
early church and taken the gospel to the Gentiles? Or if it hadn't
been for Columba, or Francis, or William Tyndale or Martin Luther,
or if John Wesley had not taken to his horse and preached to anyone
who would listen, whoever and wherever they were, throughout the
length and breadth of Britain?
Where would we be? Well, we wouldn't be here sitting in the
Methodist Conference of 2014!
We need to remember that we owe our existence just as much to
spontaneity, dissent and even schism, as to careful deliberation
and orthodoxy. In fact probably more so!
So Anthony went to the desert and began to deal with the huge
challenges of this demanding lifestyle; spiritual, emotional and
Paintings of Anthony often show him undergoing what are called his
temptations. They show him surrounded by all manner of grotesque
and gruesome figures; devils and demons of in many lurid colours
and shapes. These days we might say that these were nothing more
than hallucinations brought on by starvation and lack of sleep, but
in the understanding of the time, these were Satanic beings intent
upon tormenting him relentlessly day and night.
To understand the reason why these devils and demons figured so
graphically in religious art, and, incidentally, why St Anthony is
of great interest to pharmacists like me, we have to move about two
thousand miles north west and about a thousand years forward in
time, away from ancient Egypt, and into mediaeval Europe.
From time to time through history, the people of Europe have been
subject to terrifying plagues; illnesses which have swept through
the continent, causing suffering and death to thousands. Of these,
none was more bizarre and lethal than a disease which seemed
to represent a visitation of Satanic power on a grand scale.
Sufferers' arms and legs throbbed with excruciating pain, and
became gangrenous, women aborted their unborn children, and worst
of all, there was a kind of collective madness, with men and women
running wildly in the streets, claiming that, like St Anthony, they
were being tormented by all manner of devils and demons in hideous
forms and colours.
For this reason, this disease was called St Anthony's fire.
Outbreaks of St Anthony's fire continued in Europe right up until
the 20th century, the last recorded one being in France in 1951.
But by that time the science of pharmacognosy had established that
the disease was due, not to infestations of people by demons, but
to infestations of the rye crop by a poisonous fungus, Claviceps
purpurea, or ergot, and this poison had contaminated their bread
and flour, which people ate. And so the disease was re-named
Ergot contains amongst many biologically active chemicals, three
which have been found to be responsible for causing ergotism, and
which still have a role today; ergotamine, which powerfully
contracts the blood vessels, (the cause of the burning and
gangrene), which is still used today as a treatment for migraine;
ergometrine which causes the womb to contract (and still used today
in obstetrics), and lysergic acid, a potent hallucinogenic. This
was later isolated and used as a precursor in the synthesis of a
related drug, lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, a substance which
gained notoriety in the 1960's as a psychedelic drug.
In the 11th century a special order of monks was founded, called
the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, whose mission was to care for
victims of St Anthony's Fire. In the chapel of their monastery,
Isenheim in the Alsace, there hung an altarpiece depicting St
Anthony in the desert, and showing all his demons in vivid detail.
This altarpiece now hangs in the Unterlinden Museum. And as
you look at it, you can imagine how, as the patients and brothers
knelt together in worship, and contemplated the images in front of
them, they could perhaps begin to confront some of their own
personal demons, real or perceived; their delusions and fears,
their anxiety and their pain, their doubts and their concerns, and
seek strength and hope and purpose for the future.
But what a very different world they lived in, from ours today,
and what a very different world-view they held! St Anthony's fire
has now become ergotism, and his demons and apparitions have become
matters, not of supernatural visitation, but of
Knowing that, of course, does not make the disease any less
painful or fear any less paralyzing.
Anthony, and the desert mothers and fathers who followed him into
that way of life, became renowned for their great wisdom. From the
fifth century collections of their sayings were being published and
offered to the whole church as guides for personal prayer, and
still are. Their movement gave rise to a whole new tradition known
as desert spirituality or the way of the heart.
St Anthony, then, is specifically remembered for three things: the
speed and commitment with which he answered his call, his
spirituality, worked out in solitude in the desert, and Christian
community living, of which he is credited with being the founding
And just as he spearheaded a movement of the laity in his time,
those three broad concepts, spontaneity, spirituality of context,
and community, I believe, continue to be the hallmarks of the
distinctive calling of the laity.
So who are we, the laity? And what is our distinctive calling in
Britain in 2014? How can we shape a spirituality that reflects our
time, our place and our world view, within which we can address our
fears, doubts and concerns, and, yes, our demons, real or
perceived, and seek strength and hope and purpose for the
Methodism provides us with four building blocks of faith, derived
from the writings of John Wesley. These are scripture, reason,
tradition and experience. But Wesley too was a man of his time, and
Britain today is a very different place now from what it was in the
So I'm going to stick my neck out here, and suggest four building
blocks of faith for 21st century Britain. Instead of scripture,
reason, tradition and experience, I suggest scripture, science,
culture and community.
Scripture brings us face to face with the divine, the ineffable,
the sacred, and the astonishing reality of God incarnate. In our
Protestant tradition, we affirm Scripture as revealing all things
necessary for salvation. But what does that mean? The past 200
years have seen a revolution in the scope of Biblical scholarship,
such that we have represented here today a whole spectrum of views
about the nature of the Bible, from those who uphold it as the
inerrant word of God, to those who see it as the human record of
one peoples' struggle to make sense of life.
So today, when we affirm Scripture, amongst many things, we make a
claim, not of uniformity, but of the embracing of diversity.
Science; because we no longer live in the age of reason, we live
in the age of science. Whether or not we would consider ourselves
scientists we all use its benefits everyday: electricity,
telecommunications, motor transport, modern medicine, computers.
And science brings us face to face with the nature of reality. The
Big Bang, the immeasurable universe, the interplay of space and
time, of energy and gravity and matter. The complexity and
vulnerability of our bodies and our minds and of our planet. The
evolution of life on earth and all that tells us of our place in
the family of living things. Religion and science have been in
conflict for too long. It's time to take the blinkers off.
And culture; many cultures, not just our own. Because our society
today is plural, multicultural, and global. Culture brings us face
to face with the nature of humanity. The customs, beliefs and
centuries of wisdom enshrined in the great world faiths, the
struggles for freedom and human rights, the wordless beauty of
music and art, the outrage of war, the quest for peace and
understanding; politics, literature, education industry and
Within many of our lifetimes there have been great changes in
British society. The Church has gained a reputation for living in
the past and wanting other people to do so. Is it possible, or is
this just a pipe-dream, for us to have a spirituality which lives
and grows within our culture, instead one which exists in spite of
We may be declining in numbers, but Christ is alive, and Love is
creative beyond our wildest imaginings.
The risen Christ refused to be entombed by the ideas and
expectations of his disciples, and when they looked for him, they
found he'd already gone on ahead, leaving them vainly seeking the
living amongst the dead.
And community. Because any insights or gifts or blessings or
experiences we have received are as nothing until they are shared
in some way with others. Because we were commanded to love one
another. And because in 2,000 years we have only just begun to
scratch the surface of what that means. Community brings us face to
face with each other.Lay people are called to community. We for
whom the local church is not somewhere where are stationed but
where we remain, owning its story. Scripture, science, culture and
community. Hallmarks of the calling of the laity.
So, then, who are we, the laity? Well the technical answer is us,
all of us here, because all of us together are the laos, the whole
people of God. And amongst this whole, multicoloured people of God
there are many different gifts and callings.
Some are called to ordination; to be set apart for the special
ministries of word and sacrament, in the case of presbyters, and
for the special ministry of service within a rule of life in the
case of deacons. Theirs is a wonderful and profound calling, and
tomorrow we shall be celebrating and affirming those who have
responded to this call within the life of our own Methodist Church,
and pledging ourselves to support them, through all the days of
And then, there are the rest of us, called, rather confusingly,
the laity. The most numerous, diverse and dispersed group within
We who are called, not to be set apart, but to be set
We who are called, not to administer the bread and wine but to
accept it, literally to incorporate it, and carry it with us beyond
the boundaries of church life, bearing witness in our lives, in the
words of Michel Quoist, that nothing is secular, neither things,
nor people nor events; but that on the contrary, everything has
been made sacred by its origin in God, and is part of one long
throb of love towards love eternal.
The laity are those who are not ordained, and therefore confined,
to any specific role or function or discipline within the church;
and therein lies the strength of our calling. Its very
amorphousness and open-endedness is what allows it the freedom for
spontaneity, for exploration, innovation, imagination, and allows
for the all-important spirituality forged from context which can be
offered for the growth and enrichment of the whole people of God,
in the same way that Anthony and those who followed him offered the
fruits of their desert life.
But lest we get too preoccupied with this whole question of
calling, let us remember that it is not about our various roles and
responsibilities or our preferences or abilities or an individual
sense of worth. It is all about the kingdom of God: a world
transformed by God's love. Nothing else matters.
I began this address with the story of a young man who simply
heard the call of God one day and then and responded to it.
So, we pray: Gracious God, God of desert and city, God in
scripture and science and culture and community, as we your
Methodist Conference gather together this week, call us, and find
us ready to hear and to go. Amen