08 July 2007

Address by the new Vice President of the Methodist Conference

Ruby Beech, new Vice President of the Methodist Conference, called for Christians to "listen to what God had to say to us today." She pointed out that, as people celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Act to abolish the slave trade in Britain, there were many at the time who claimed to have Biblical support for slavery. "We have to be open to the movement of the Spirit as those Christians were who worked as abolitionists over 200 years ago," she said. "They had to make a stand about whether a particular interpretation of scripture really reflected the inclusive love of God, the Christ who brought shalom, the peace of God, for all - and fulfilled the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves."

Ruby, whose day job is Assistant Serjeant of Arms at the House of Commons, has already travelled to India to visit a Peacebuilders project supported by The Methodist Church.

The full text of her address follows. People can also hear a recording of it online at www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentogod.webradio.

Ruby Beech

Good morning. This is an interesting place to be Church this morning isn't it? The last time I came in here, before I arrived for the Conference, was a few months ago on a visit and there was a line dancing weekend. It looked like a lot of fun. I did wonder whether it might be a good idea to get you all line dancing now, but the Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee seemed to think that would be a step too far! Still we have come together in sacred space where God is with us, as God was with the line dancers, although they might not all have realised it.

Some people in this gathering this morning may be as bemused by what is going on here as others would be if they walked into a room full of line dancers. Others will know all the steps and will be feeling comfortable. Our ordinands who are going to be received into full Connexion this morning and ordained later today will recognise all of the steps but may be wondering if they have got them all in the right order - and some may even be wondering if they should be involved in something more like modern dancing where they might not be so visible if they were the one out of step. We are glad that you are here and we look forward to the sense of rhythm you will bring and the steps you will show us. We are pleased that your family and friends are here to support you and to encourage you as you take this next step in your life and ministry.

I am grateful too for those who are here today to support me, family and friends, especially my husband Garry who comes into both of those categories and who is having to put up with so much during this year, even more than he usually does. And I remember gratefully all I received from my parents who would have rejoiced to be here with us.

I would like to thank my Circuit and District for their gifts, reinforcing my recognition that I am part of this Methodist Connexion and to thank those who have given in other ways - to Anthea and Graham for my love feast liturgy, to Jane for writing lovingly about me for the Methodist Recorder and to Brian Houston and Wayne and Ian with their colleagues at the "12 baskets" multi media resources organisation, for the video which we will see shortly. And to those across the wider Connexion including those who were my colleagues for seven years when I worked in the Connexional team - thank you for your love and encouragement which continues on. And for all you do, seen and unseen, to the glory of God through the Methodist Church.

It is good to be part of this gathering, being Church here this morning and I want us to consider some aspects of being Church which have been foremost in my mind as I prepared for this Conference. I am using "Being Church" because that seems to me to speak of continuing to seek out what the Church is meant to be. Being "the Church" sounds as if it is something more static which we are absolutely sure about. So, some aspects of Being Church, whether that is in traditional Church, in fresh expressions, in small groups or when the followers of Jesus are the church dispersed in their daily lives.

Have you ever played Jenga? A tower is built of wooden bricks and each player has to remove a brick until eventually the removal of one brick causes the whole thing to fall down. As bricks are removed you can see that without the support of those around them the bricks that are left are part of a structure which is more vulnerable and considerably less stable.

In our gospel reading we see the disciples feeling pretty vulnerable. There they were, huddled together in a locked house. They had seen Christ die and they were afraid of the authorities. They had heard the good news. That very morning, Mary had told them that she had seen Christ. But it was too good to be true. They were too frightened and traumatised (and probably too sexist!) to believe it simply on the basis of her testimony. And so there they were, huddled together in a locked room. Then someone said something. "Peace be with you,", "Shalom", he said. It was Jesus! He was right there, in person, alive and well, and he blessed them with "shalom" - that peace which speaks of the total absence of fear and of a completely untroubled heart, a peace which God alone can give. He showed them the nail marks in his hands, and the wounds in his side. And the disciples rejoiced. It was true! Christ was alive! They had seen for themselves. Seeing was believing.

Transformation took place in the lives of those individuals.

There are times in the lives of each one of us when things feel pretty wobbly and we need all the support and transformation we can get. Maybe some of us are there now.

I believe that being Church means offering love and support to all, and being especially welcoming to those in need.

For many people church would be the last place they would go in time of need, but sometimes people seek it out for the first time when they are facing real difficulties in their lives. That for me is when a church building or advertised meeting place can be particularly important - when it stands as a visible sign of a place where people being church can be found. A few years ago a young man of sixteen appeared in our congregation for the first time. As I was the leader of the youth group I made a beeline towards him at the end of the service. He told me that he had been to a wedding the previous day and that the minister had said that God's love was for all and David had heard that as a message for him. He was having a terrible time at school with bullying and other problems and came seeking love and support. I felt we were really being Church that morning.

What do people going through problems receive from those being church? No easy explanations can be given to parents of dying children or to the victims of horrific incidents which maim and kill innocent people, to those who have themselves been abused or rejected or to those who are worried about unemployment or family strife.

When people are at their most vulnerable they do not want to be told what they ought to be thinking or believing. They need to be accepted as they are and given love and support. Paul Claudel said that "Jesus did not come to explain suffering nor to take it away; he came to fill it with his presence".

When we read about the resurrection appearances we think about death and new life. Garry and I moved into our house at the end of October 12 years ago. Our garden is quite small and seemed pretty dull. Yet in the Spring we saw new life that we did not know would be there - snowdrops, daffodils, and other plants that I still don't know the names of. After their death they had been protected under the ground until it was time to bloom once more.

When a partner, a parent, a child or a close friend dies it seems as if the world has come to an end, but after some time new life can be experienced. It is the same when our lives are knocked by other bad experiences; we need to take time just to recover. During those times Church has an immeasurable service to offer, making space where new life can develop. Where transformation can take place.

Those who experience spiritual yearnings and want to know more about God should be able to find out more through Church - the people of God.

Dr Sheila Cassidy has spoken about "icon people" who show us what God is like. "Icon" is Greek for picture/image/likeness and the Orthodox churches, in particular, use them in worship. If you presented a Picture Gallery of people who really show what God is like and have helped you, - who would be in this gallery?

For me there would be some Methodist ministers in particular, who have been there for me when things were tough and who nurtured my faith. Also some friends from my fellowship group when I was a teenager who have grown with me and we are still there for one another, and many others who I have known through my church life. Some are people who have received training and are recognised by the Church for their skills and others are less so.

I think of a particular elderly man from my previous church and an incident which provides a snapshot of how he reflected the closeness of God. It happened when my first husband was terminally ill, just a few weeks before he died. I was leading a Sunday morning service where I'd asked a number of people to do readings which I'd written out for them. At the door at the end of the service this elderly man gave me back my piece of paper with another one and he said "you wrote down something for me and now I've written something for you". As I left church I unfolded the paper and read "Ruby, you are surrounded by our love" That was twenty years ago now but it still brings a lump to my throat as I think about it and it makes me feel closer to God.

I think too of the times when I have felt distant from God and I have spoken with some of the young people in groups which I have been involved with and some of that fresh awe and wonder that they've shared about their Christian life has rubbed off on me. Restoration and renewal have taken place. Who are your "icon people"? Take time to think of them now and become aware too of the closeness of God.

As well as learning about what God is like from the people of God we can also learn of the nature of God from the Bible. But that can be more difficult than it sounds when the images and pictures that people are used to may be very different from those which we find in the Bible. I became a Christian as a teenager when I was converted at Cliff College. I really wanted to know what this living God was like and through the witness of other Christians, Bible studies and in worship and prayer, I built up a picture of God which continues to develop. I share just two of the key passages which have spoken to me of God and helped form my thinking on being church.

In Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd, we learn more of the nature of God as caring and merciful and as gracious host. We hear of the psalmist's experience of God and how that transformed into images of what God is like. In a short while we are going to hear a version of Psalm 23 sung by Brian Houston and whilst he does not use entirely inclusive language about God, I hope that the words, along with the images put alongside them by "12 baskets", will speak to you of the love of God as they have to me.

When asked what was the most important commandment Jesus said "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

As we discover what God is like through the witness of others and listening to God in prayer, worship and reading the bible, we can gain confidence to open ourselves up to the Spirit of God enabling us and empowering us in being Church, transforming us to be the people of God, both when we are gathered and when we are apart. Christianity is not just about filling a hole or gap in our lives but transforming the whole of our lives.

In 2 Timothy we read "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness".

That sounds fantastic - I can discover what is right and wrong in my life and become a better person, the person God wants me to be and understand what life is all about. Wow! But hearing what God has to say to us through the Bible today is not always that easy. Discovering what words are directly spoken to us and how they connect directly with our lives requires contemplation and rigorous engagement. I also think it needs us to be open to God showing us that we may have got it wrong and need to keep revisiting what we think we know. As Church we need to help each other as we listen for what God is saying.

Lessons on the anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act

In this year when we have celebrated the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade act, we need to remember and reflect on the fact that Christians were very much involved in the slave trade as well as being involved as abolitionists. Reverend Raymond Harris wrote in 'Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave-Trade', "The Oracular Decisions of God have positively declared that the Slave-Trade is intrinsically good and licit, [and that the holding of slaves] is perfectly consonant to the principles of the Law of Nature, the Mosaic Dispensation, and the Christian Law." Thus, he said, slavery has "the positive sanction of God in its support." Others supported this view. How difficult it must have been for people to be Church together with those conflicting convictions.

As Christians continue to read the Bible and listen for what God wants to say to us today, we have to be open to the movement of the Spirit as those Christians were who worked as abolitionists over 200 years ago. They had to make a stand about whether a particular interpretation of scripture really reflected the inclusive love of God, the Christ who brought shalom, the peace of God, for all - and fulfilled the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

For me it has always been a difficult concept - to accept that I might not always be right in my interpretation and to come back and take direction. I found this story helpful;

During the Second World War there were a number of men on a battleship sailing through the Mediterranean on a very foggy night. The man on watch was standing on top looking out front, hoping to see something. Suddenly he saw a light and immediately signalled down to the deck "Send the following message "Alter your course 10 degrees to the North". They sent the message and quickly received a reply, "Alter your course ten degrees to the South". The watchman called for the Captain, who came up and said to send another message "Alter your course ten degrees North. This is the Captain speaking". The battleship received an instant response. "Alter your course ten degrees South. This is second class seaman Johnson speaking". The Captain was furious. He said "send the following message right now! "Alter your course ten degrees North, this is a battleship"". The immediate reply was "Alter your course ten degrees South. This is a lighthouse".

Does our reading of scripture really resonate with loving God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength and our neighbour as ourselves, the commandments that Jesus told us were most important?

I visited the North India at Easter to be involved in the launch of the Peacebuilders - Children for peace project and to visit the diocese of Durgapur. I found a Church which, whilst very much a minority faith group, was witnessing to the love of God in word and action and being church alongside those of other faiths. There was much evidence of the biblical concepts of being salt and light in the world. Those Christians were listening to God talk to them through the Bible in a multi faith society. I saw many examples of people of different faiths treating each other with respect and working together for the good of the local community. We have much to learn about being church from partners around the world.

In considering how our interpretation of the Bible resonates with loving God and our neighbour, I have been greatly moved by what Bishop Desmond Tutu said in a sermon at Southwark Cathedral in 2004:

"The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself could not have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing - their race - and then have kept quiet as women were being penalized for something they could do nothing about - their gender, and hence my support inter alia, for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. And equally", he said, "I could not myself keep quiet whilst people were being penalized for something about which they could do nothing, their sexuality. For it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who are lesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation, for me is as totally unacceptable and unjust as Apartheid ever was".

We need to grapple with what our interpretations of scripture have to say about God to people around us, particularly those who struggle with the possibility of a loving God as they suffer from abuse, prejudice or rejection, from mental health problems or the stress of over work or unemployment. Being church, helping each other to hear God speak through the Bible today.

Transformed, we find ourselves seeking, like those first disciples, to be agents of transformation in the world around us. As we learn to love ourselves as people loved by God, this has a great impact on the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. As Bono said at a recent awards ceremony - Jesus reminded us to love our neighbours as ourselves, not as a piece of advice, but as a commandment.

The Conference report "Called to Love and Praise", looking at Church in a Methodist context asked what kind of community a church might be and the answers given were:
* A community of all ages, different races, varying backgrounds and occupations - richly diverse, but united around the Lord's Table.
* A community which praises God.
* A community nourished each week by great songs of faith, by prayers steeped in the wealth of the Christian tradition and contemporary experience, and by preaching which engages with contemporary life and with the Bible at depth and with integrity. (Maybe this won't be read literally for fresh expressions)
* A community whose warm fellowship is matched by the warmth of its welcome, offering a 'home from home' for all who will come.
* A community bearing, but not bowed down by, particular acts of service to which it has been called in its particular time and place.
* A community resilient with the hope inspired by a vision of God's kingdom.
* A community committed to working for justice and peace.
* A community the daily lives of whose members make it easier for others to believe in the goodness of God.
* A community gentle with each others' failures, as each sustains and is sustained by others through forgiveness, love and prayer.
* A community characterized by joy.

When we see the disciples in our second reading, from the book of Acts, something dramatic seems to have happened to them. They have been empowered to go out and share the good news. They are part of a community that exists for the sake of others. They are being true followers of Jesus - being church. They were not perfect but in spite of their failures God was able to use them and wants to use us.

Jesus offered peace, showed what God was like in word and action then sent his disciples out to share what they had discovered.

That is what we are being asked to do today, all of us, not just those who are, or are being, ordained but all of us who are called to be Church.

In being Church let us see that we too can be transformed and transforming, a community which moves from cowering behind our closed doors to being a community that shows what God is like and shares the love of God with others.

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