04 July 2009

Methodist President: Church must make the world a safer place

In his inaugural presidential address to the annual Methodist Conference, Revd David Gamble spoke of the need for the Church to be a 'safer space' for people from every walk of life.

David spoke particularly of the importance of supporting the survivors of abuse, affirming his commitment to making the Church and the world a safer place. He said; "When I'm talking about creating safer space I'm talking about places, situations, moments, relationships, occasions where and when people feel accepted as they are, able to tell their story, not judged and not put at unnecessary risk."

David was inducted as the President of the Methodist Conference as the first order of business at opening of the Conference in Wolverhampton. He will serve for one year, representing the Church and meeting people across Britain.

Speaking of climate change as 'the biggest issue facing our world today', he said, "In the face of what is happening to this planet as the direct result of how we live, do we just give up, or is there a word of hope and are there possibilities to turn the tide and make this planet a safer space? Christians and churches need to be fully involved, and have things to offer in making our world a safer space."

David also called for greater openness and understanding between people of different perspectives, traditions and faiths, commenting that, "If we really listen to people's different perspectives we may come to a fuller and richer understanding ourselves. We can challenge and be challenged if there is respect between us. Not to seek to cast out those who think differently, but to listen, to understand and to grow."

People can follow David's travels on the President and Vice President's blog (www.methodist-presandvp.blogspot.com).

Download a hi-res image of David The full text follows:

Fresh out of college, when I was young and still had hair, I heard an older minister making his speech to the Synod seeking permission to 'sit down' - the term Methodists use for ministers retiring. He thanked all the people who'd supported him over the years - church members and officers, colleagues, wise Superintendents and superb Chairs of District. And then he said 'In particular, I want to thank my wife. I shall always remember our wedding day. Yorkshire beat Lancashire by an innings and 27 runs!'

This first part of the Presidential Address to the Methodist Conference can be a bit like the speeches at the Oscars ceremony. You are the fantastically attractive and star-studded audience. And I have a whole list of people to thank for sharing my journey with me over the past years.

My family - quite a few of whom are here today, and whom I love more than I can ever say. This script was sent to the Methodist Recorder weeks ago, but I couldn't have known then that this very morning our family would increase in size and I have become a great, great uncle. My colleagues - from Division of Education and Youth days, from the Connexional team, particularly the Joint Secretaries Group (all here today) and my current colleagues within the Governance Support Cluster and in the wider Team. A special word of thanks to members of the Law and Polity Committee - for putting up with me as their convener and for all the work they do behind the scenes to keep us on the straight and narrow (when the crooked and wide seems so much more fun!). People at Muswell Hill Methodist Church for their friendship, for letting me be their assistant organist, and for their gift. Also the New River Circuit, the London District, the Connexional Team and generous friends for all your gifts.

And then there are people who have been important at particular moments on my journey - sadly quite a few of them have died, but their influence has been immense and I shall be forever grateful. Christine Herrington is here today. When I was fourteen, Christine recruited me to play the harmonium for the young people's fellowship. At the time I couldn't read music and played by ear, but she was persuasive and I agreed. My mum paid me 6d (old money) for each of the first 20 hymn tunes I could play note perfect, all four parts, from the Methodist Hymn Book. The young people's fellowship got to know those 20 hymns pretty well (though I can play a few more now). John Vincent, who came to speak to Hull University Methsoc, and challenged us to a Christian commitment that was exciting, made sense and was worth changing your life for. Brian Beck, who tried to teach me Greek at Wesley House and yet, even so, managed to keep smiling and who became a close, valued and loved colleague later. Just one more name - David Deeks, our first General Secretary. Quiet, unassuming, brilliant and the most amazing person to work with.

I have been very blessed and I am very thankful. When asked to select the Biblical text for next year's membership ticket, I chose the one text that is on the special cloth produced by the Methodist Church in The Gambia in preparation for their autonomy, which we celebrated in May this year. I Thessalonians 5.18: 'In every thing give thanks'.

My journey

I came out of theological college uncertain of what direction my ministry would take, but absolutely sure of two things - it would never include a building scheme or a forces chaplaincy. So I spent seven wonderful years in a North Yorkshire brewery town, Tadcaster, with 6 churches (the main one of which had a building scheme), and chaplaincies to 2 prisons and an RAF station. That's Methodism for you. Thank you, Tadcaster.

Then I became minister of what is now the Central Methodist Church in the beautiful city of York for 6 years. When I arrived they told me they'd had bachelor ministers before, but they never left that way! I smiled the smile of one who knows better.

However, in 1987 Liz and I, plus Sam and Sophie, moved south, to London - to be joined, eighteen months later, by Joe. And I've held connexional posts since that time - responsible for Children's work, Education and Youth, Family issues and, for the last few years, Legal and Constitutional Practice. I now have this very snappy job title, which someone criticised in the Methodist Recorder a few weeks back on the grounds, I think, that it was a bit long and not self-explanatory. Officer for Legal and Constitutional Practice and Head of the Governance Support Cluster. (It's what I always wanted to be when I grew up!).

As President of the Conference, in your presidential address and on your travels, you're expected to have a theme or two. Some thing or things that really matter to you. Well, my theme today is taken from the title of a report presented to the Conference two years ago, in 2007.

Creating Safer Space

I want to look at this from five angles.

1 Creating Safer Space - Safeguarding

First, Safeguarding. The 2007 Conference report was about Safeguarding/Child Protection training in the Church. And though I couldn't have imagined it and wouldn't necessarily have chosen it, safeguarding and related matters have been a major part of my work for over 20 years now, both within Methodism and ecumenically.

When, in 1987 I became Children's Work Secretary of the then Division of Education and Youth, there were almost daily press stories about child abuse - horror stories of what went on in families; or sensational counter-claims about social workers and other professionals over-reacting. Sadly, stories like these have hardly been out of the media ever since.

Initially our emphasis was on helping youth and children's workers to know how to respond to suspicions or allegations that children or young people were being abused at home or elsewhere. But abuse sometimes happened in Christian homes and in church contexts, so we developed policies and procedures to encourage good practice in church life. We call this Safeguarding. And I want to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in this around the connexion, particularly Judy Jarvis and Pearl Luxon. And also Shaun Kelly, of Action for Children. We owe them an enormous debt.

But it wasn't just about protecting children, though that was important enough. Many people who told their stories of abuse were adults who maybe at the time it happened were too frightened to talk about it or didn't think they'd be believed. Or sometimes they'd bravely shared their story with someone they trusted and then found that trust betrayed. Or they'd been told they should forgive whoever it was who had abused them, and had been made to feel guilty when they couldn't do so.

And there was the question of how we should respond to people who had abused others, some of whom had been convicted and imprisoned. How could we enable them to be part of a church community when they were released? How could we create an environment that didn't put others at risk, and at the same time helped prevent them from re-offending or having false allegations made against them?

We have had a whole series of reports to the Methodist Conference over the past 20 years on matters to do with Safeguarding. The most recent I've already mentioned, Creating Safer Space. A year before that the Conference debated its response to an ecumenical report called Time for Action: sexual abuse, the churches and a new dawn for survivors. Our Methodist report was called Tracing rainbows through the rain.

My preaching scarf, given to me by Muswell Hill Methodist Church, picks up that theme. Tracing rainbows through the rain. It comes from a line in a hymn, 'I trace the rainbow through the rain'. In the Old Testament, the rainbow is a sign of God's promise of a better future. A sign of God's saving love for the whole of the world.

But you don't get rainbows without rain. So, in a sense, the rainbow is a sign of hope seen through pain and suffering. And in preparing that report for the Conference, we listened to survivors of abuse and heard stories that were devastatingly painful. But stories, too, of healing and hope. So we called our report Tracing Rainbows through the Rain. And I shall wear the scarf as a sign of hope, a sign of God's love for the whole creation. And I shall wear it in solidarity with those whose pain continues and often remains unspoken, and in ongoing commitment to doing what I can to make the Church and the world safer places.

Creating safer space

Just a couple more comments here. Initially the group that produced the Tracing Rainbows report talked of creating 'safe' spaces. But when we met a group of survivors in Liverpool, one of them said that such a claim went too far. You can't guarantee that a place will be safe. Life is not and cannot be risk free. What you can do is to remove unnecessary risks and demonstrate that you are 'aspiring to be' safe. So it's 'safer' rather than 'safe' space.

And what do I mean by 'space'? Well, it might be a building. It might be a group, a meeting or an organisation. It might be a relationship. It might be a journey. And if that sounds a bit vague, well in a sense it is. When I'm talking about creating safer space I'm talking about places, situations, moments, relationships, occasions where and when people feel accepted as they are, able to tell their story, not judged and not put at unnecessary risk.

So, the issue of creating safer space arose mainly in the context of Safeguarding and responding to the experiences of survivors of abuse. But there are much wider implications. The Tracing Rainbows report said: 'A community that has taken time to consider how to become safer for survivors is likely to be safer for everyone.' And my second way of thinking of safer space is as Sanctuary.

2 Creating Safer Space - Sanctuary

Churches have a long history here - places of 'Sanctuary'. And think of the shock when they don't live up to it. I've recently read Mary Grey's book To Rwanda and Back, and relived the sense of outrage so many felt when, in 1994, 5000 people took sanctuary in a church in that troubled country and were massacred, after the priest informed the militia that they were there.

Sanctuary is supposed to be a safer space.

But I believe there's a strong link between the idea of 'sanctuary' and a recurring theme in previous Presidential and Vice-Presidential addresses - Judy Jarvis' emphasis on 'hospitable space', Inderjit Bhogal's 'Table for all', Stephen Poxon's words on hospitality.

Many local churches have provided safer space for all sorts of people: homeless people; asylum seekers; those who have experienced domestic violence; separated families, through contact centres; young people, through other adults who take them seriously and maybe offer a listening ear at a time when parents seem to be more of the problem than the solution.

One of my colleagues at the Division of Education and Youth, John Morgan, was known way beyond church circles for his involvement in creating safer play environments for children. (Some of you will know John. I'm delighted that he and Geraldine are here today. But, do you know, I discovered that it was John Morgan who first brought Methodism to The Gambia in 1821. However, I've done a bit of further research and it may not be the same John Morgan.)

Safer space - sanctuary.

The work of Action for Children (whose 140th anniversary we shall celebrate on Thursday) and MHA has always been and still is very much about providing safer space, particularly for those who are especially at risk and vulnerable.

In March this year, my wife Liz and I were privileged to visit the Methodist Church in Brazil. An amazing and exciting experience, with lively worship, large, young congregations, and new churches being built month by month. But I was particularly impressed by how local congregations responded directly to needs in their area - after school clubs, work with children and young people on favelas, a project with street people and, one that moved me particularly, a project with street children. Creating safer space.

Nearer home, I think of Somewhere Else, the Bread Church, in Liverpool; or, in different ways, Ashram community houses and projects - I've just been reviewing John Vincent's telling of the Ashram Community story in his book A lifestyle of sharing. I don't have a book of my own to advertise in this address, so I'll advertise John's.

Creating safer space - sanctuary. I want to come back to sanctuary a bit later. But for the moment let me move on to my third way of thinking about safer space. Because safer space in a church context is not just about protecting those at risk of physical harm.

3 Creating Safer Space - Safer to be different

Let me quote the Tracing Rainbows report again. 'The Church must hold ever before it a vision of itself as that place where all are welcome, where all feel themselves to have their place of belonging, where we can each come as we are and know ourselves to be accepted and loved as we are, as Christ accepts, loves and welcomes each one. Then our personal story, whatever it may contain, can be embraced within that accepting, loving welcome and be neither a source of guilt or shame to be hidden, nor the only thing that defines who we are or can become. To be welcomed truly, we must first feel safe.'

A safer space is one where we accept that people are very different. Having read my profile in the Methodist Recorder, I know there is a sense in which the world would be a much better place if everybody were exactly like me. But they're not. People are different. We are different ages. We come from different backgrounds. We have had different experiences. We look different, sound different, believe different things, enjoy different things, care deeply about different things. Great! That's how it's meant to be.

I don't often think of St Paul as having much of a sense of humour, but in his description of the Church as the body of Christ, in I Corinthians 12, when he considers what a body would be like if it were one big eye or ear, well he comes quite close to 'My dog's got no nose. How does it smell? His point was simple - but no less true for that. The body needs its different parts. And it needs those parts to be different.

One area of responsibility within the Governance Support Cluster is our work on equalities and diversity, now headed up by Margaret Sawyer. And in a safer space, diversity is accepted and celebrated. This is not about political correctness. It's about valuing, cherishing, celebrating each person for who they are and what they bring. And it can be a challenge to us.

What does it mean to be a community that really values everyone, regardless of age? That encourages its children and young people to be fully involved and to share in decision-making that affects them. That is willing not only to hang around until young people stop being young, and come to see it our way, but a community that will actually change because the young have serious things to say and offer about how to be a better place and a better world. But the challenge is for the same community also to value those who are older. Not just to cater for their needs, but to appreciate their contribution, their wisdom, their experience, their spirituality. I was struck by this in The Gambia, where older people were treated with respect, and the joy and exuberance of young people was equally celebrated.

What does it mean to be a community that relishes and celebrates having members with different backgrounds and cultures? Different experiences, different perspectives, different histories - some of which, like the whole history of slavery and colonisation for example, are still difficult to handle. How do we take up the challenge not just of assimilation but of growth into a community that is bigger and better and deeper because of the rich diversity of human life present?

What about gender? Methodists sometimes point out to people in other churches that we have been ordaining women to our ministry now for 35 years. Maybe, but we have still got a long way to go to get it right.

And sexuality. This continues to be such a difficult and painful issue in the life of many Christians and churches. In the British Methodist Church we are committed to an ongoing 'pilgrimage of faith', following the resolutions of the Conference in 1993. We are committed to travelling on a pilgrimage together and to listening to each other's stories, perspectives and experiences. And that's whether we be a lesbian or gay person wondering how safe it is to be honest about who we are, or a person who finds all this very threatening to everything we were taught and what we believe with absolute certainty and integrity is the will of God on these matters. A safer space allows us to see things very differently and still respect and accept each other. I notice that the Youth Conference has expressed its concern that we can't sweep these things under the carpet. We do need to keep discussing them. We can't just keep quiet and hope they'll go away. Safer to be different.

And disability. How do we become a community where some of us aren't constantly disadvantaged and unable to contribute fully even though we have much to offer?

Creating safer space - safer to be different.

4 Creating Safer Space - Safer to explore

The Tracing Rainbows report again: 'There are many people who need a safe place to explore difficult questions and things that really matter.'

For me this can be quite a challenging one for churches. The fact that we don't all hold the same beliefs in the same way. A safer space is one where we know that differences are OK. That people need to be able to come bringing their doubts as well as their certainties. 'The church needs also to be a place where people can express doubts and fears safely and explore belief without having to get it 'right'' (Tracing Rainbows).

My Mum's favourite hymn (I think it was one of my 20!), one of Charles Wesley's greatest, has this verse:

E'en now we think and speak the same, And cordially agree. Concentred all in Jesus' name In perfect harmony.

Well, I'll sing this, I'll (I can certainly play it) but I wouldn't sign it.

Because that's not actually my experience of church, or society, or family. Often we disagree deeply with other people. And if we have created a safer space, then that's OK. It's not surprising. It's perfectly natural cordially to disagree! It's good. Because if we really listen to people's different perspectives we may come to a fuller and richer understanding ourselves. We can challenge and be challenged if there is respect between us. Not to seek to cast out those who think differently, but to listen, to understand and to grow. On really important matters, about faith, about life, about God, we don't all believe exactly the same. We are not clones. Some people have deep and simple faith. Others have asked or faced difficult questions and moved a long way from where they started. Some have doubts, questions, uncertainties - we probably all do at times - and it needs to be safe to express them.

Creating Safer Space - safer to explore.

I want to say a word here about the importance of accompanying.

I shall always be grateful for my university chaplain, Gerald Burt. His model of chaplaincy was not to protect students from the world outside, like fragile young plants in a cloche or a greenhouse. Rather, he accompanied us on our journey as we asked difficult questions, without being sure what answers we'd find.

Or I think of a minister from the States who came on an exchange to Muswell Hill a few years ago. On her first Sunday she introduced herself. She said she'd like to get to know us, but that she was only here for six weeks and there might be people who'd really like to make good use of someone who would only be around for 6 weeks, to talk through some big thing in their life. A decision. A change of direction. Quite a few people took her up on that offer. Accompanying on the journey.

Maybe there's something about being able to go into less safe places if you trust who is with you. That could be friends or family; it could be about the role of a minister or pastoral visitor (and I believe it often is); and maybe most of all it's about awareness of being in the presence of God

Psalm 23 v.4 'Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.' Safer space? Wherever we are, whatever is going on.

And does this perhaps say something here, too, about creating and maintaining safer space within ourselves? And may it be that a person who attends to that creation of safer space within has something to offer in the wider community? Are you more likely to feel safe, to create a safe environment for others if you are at one with yourself and have your own inner safe space?

5. Creating Safer Space - Safer all round

I've talked at length about the church being and creating and how it can and should be and create safer space. And I'm not just talking about improving the quality of church life, for those weird people who happen to be that way inclined and get involved in a church for some reason or another. I believe this is something we offer to our wider community and world, where people so often seem to concentrate on their differences - and disagree, fall out, fight, exclude, hurt, wage war.

Think of Prime Minister's question time in our Parliament. Long before the stories of abuse of the expenses system, I was increasingly saddened by the sight of two sides sitting facing each other. Pointing fingers. Laughing with their side and at the other. Calling each other names - within the bounds of parliamentary privilege. Does it have to be that way? Opposing sides. Where right can only be with one side. And you don't listen to or respect what the other side has to say.

We have things to offer to do with safer space, way beyond the walls of any church. That's obvious in what many of our local churches do, pieces of work and in organisations like Action for Children and MHA. But there are so many ways in which we can potentially contribute to providing safer space for important things to happen in our wider society. In closing, I'll quote just four examples.

First example. I talked about 'sanctuary'. And just a few days ago I received a copy of Inderjit Bhogal's co-authored book Becoming a City of Sanctuary. It tells how individuals and groups and faith communities became involved in a movement which led to the City of Sheffield becoming Britain's first 'City of Sanctuary' - a place that positively welcomes the presence and contribution of people seeking sanctuary. (Asylum seekers, as they have become known.) And two District Synods, Sheffield and London, are asking the rest of us to get involved so that other places become cities of sanctuary - 'safer spaces'.

Second example, from my own area of work. Mediation. How do people handle conflicts and disputes? I'm impressed by the work of the Mennonite Bridgebuilders Network, and other ways in which churches and individual Christians are becoming involved in offering mediation as a better way of handling disputes between individuals, couples and groups. Offering a safer space for people to face and sort out disagreements in ways that can leave people standing tall, rather than having winners and losers. We're using mediation more in the Church, but we could also offer it more widely within our communities.

Third example. Interfaith relationships dialogue. This year's Methodists for World Mission Conference looked at how Christians engage with people of other faiths, particularly Muslims. In our world, and particularly in the light of 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, surely it is in everyone's interest for us to create safer spaces for people of different faith traditions and none to come together and share their experience and their understanding and their commitment to a better life for everyone?

To mention The Gambia just one more time. One of the most striking things there is the relationship between the small minority 4% Christian and majority 95% Muslim communities.

Relationships between people of different faiths is not just a London or larger city issue, it's for all of us, though it's particularly relevant as we meet here in Wolverhampton, and I am delighted that we have with us today representatives of other faith communities. We need safer spaces to listen, and to understand each other.

Last example. On Tuesday this Conference will be discussing the report: Hope in God's Future: Christian Discipleship in the Context of Climate Change. This is in many ways the biggest issue facing our world today. In the face of what is happening to this planet as the direct result of how we live do we just give up, or is there a word of hope and are there possibilities to turn the tide and make this planet a safer space? Christians and churches need to be fully involved, and have things to offer in making our world a safer space.

Creating safer space
- safeguarding
- sanctuary
- safer to be different
- safer to explore
- safer all round.

Creating safer space. Not just the name of a report or the theme for a Presidential address. But it's a task, a role and a challenge for the Church and for each person here today, every single one of us.

Creating safer space.

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