06 July 2008

New Methodist Vice President calls on Church to choose life

David Walton, new Vice President of the Methodist Conference, called on the Church to "choose life" in his inaugural address. Speaking on the second day of the 2008 Methodist Conference, meeting at the Spa Centre in Scarborough, David said that we are all accountable in some ways for our lives, and that how we choose matters.

David is a practising lawyer from Manchester and he started his witty address with a comment that 'it had been so cold in Manchester recently that some lawyers had been seen with their hands in their own pockets.' He spoke of how the Church was helping people to 'choose life' in places as diverse as Guatemala and Derbyshire.

As a practising lawyer, David called on the Church to be aware of the difficult ethical decisions that modern business can force on people: he asked "what does it mean in practical terms to live out our Christian faith when the choices don't always seem that clear cut?"

David went on to talk about he was inspired by a recent youth rugby match, even though he says "I am to football what Amy Winehouse is to morris dancing." He challenged the Church to think about how it handles differences, and spoke of how his local church has a French West African congregation. Many of these are refugees from the Congo, and come from different sides of the civil war. Yet they work together to "walk to a new place together."

As part of David's address, he arranged for each member of Conference to be given an Eccles cake in celebration of his home.

The full text of David's address follows:

'Choose life...'

I am very conscious that we are here today for different reasons - some of us as members of the Conference, whether from these islands or overseas - some as ordinands, on this hugely significant day for you - some as family, visitors and guests. You are all welcome and I hope that you will all feel welcome here.

We will have travelled from very different and sometimes exotic places. I myself have come from Eccles.

I am a lawyer by profession, but I trust you won't hold that against me. I practise in the city of Manchester - I noticed a weather report not so long ago in a national newspaper: 'Manchester was so cold last month that some lawyers could be seen with their hands in their own pockets.'

I have been nurtured in the Methodist Church - bathed in the font if you like - and I am very grateful for the care of my parents, other members of my family and close friends and the congregation at Monton in the Salford Circuit. For it is here in this community, as I grew up, that I began to see in all sorts of practical ways what living Christian faith is all about.

I think of Eileen Wooller, my Sunday School Superintendent, who many years ago was a pioneer in setting up the first Gateway Club in the area through what is now Mencap. She prayed as she lived and she lived as she prayed. I will embarrass Ian Huddleston who for the last thirty or so years has set out the table tennis tables and restocked the drinks and sweets and, come rain or shine every Friday night, has opened the doors of the youth club.

And as a representative lay person, I want to pay tribute to and celebrate those lay people of the Methodist Church who week by week live out their faith in sometimes tough and thankless situations - but where by their commitment they are making a difference.

And what I experienced is what the President yesterday talked about - the transforming grace of God. And as I grew up I was challenged by the conviction that we live not just to ourselves - but to God, and therefore to our neighbours. We are in some way 'accountable' for our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel we heard read just now. (Mark 12 vv 28-35)

And in many situations we have a choice. And how we choose matters - matters ultimately.

I am grateful to one of the ordinands for the inspiration for my principle theme today. I was at the ordinands' testimony service in Manchester when that Old Testament lesson was read. 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life ...so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him...' (Deuteronomy 30 v 19).

CHOOSE LIFE: that's what we are about. As a people of God and members of the human family. What does the Coca-cola advert say? 'A taste of life as it should be'

So often, however, we have to admit that the Church seems to more be about being AGAINST things, not FOR them.

One of my favourite stories is of the Anglican vicar who had invited the Bishop to lunch. He thought he ought to invite the local Methodist minister as well, although he was a rather dour and sanctimonious character.

Before lunch he offered his guests a drink and the Bishop said he would have a gin and tonic which was duly produced. The Vicar asked if the Methodist minister would like the same, to which the reply came: 'I'd rather commit adultery'. At which point the Bishop handed back his glass and said: ' I didn't realise there was choice.'

We have more reason than ever to speak out about the devastating effect of alcohol on so many lives, but we have more reason to celebrate that quality of life which is not based on any drug or artificial stimulant.

1. So what does it mean to 'choose life'?
+ In some places, it will mean to work to provide the very basics of life; water, food , shelter, healthcare.

I was privileged earlier in the year to visit the National Evangelical Primitive Methodist Church in Guatemala - this is where Amilcar Solorzano (who read our second lesson) comes from. I was taken to the village of Pataloupe I, 8000 feet up in the Highlands. There I met Juan Ixtan, the pastor of the Methodist Church. On the lower floor of the Church Juan showed us two rooms which housed a pharmacy and a dental surgery ; he also showed us the map of the village he had drawn. He had divided it into sections - so he knows which houses have latrines and which don't, which families have a higher incidence of sickness than others - in effect he has drawn up a community health programme. The Church now intends to get him to go into other villages to help the local people do the same there.

On the roof of the Church in Pataloupe a group of women were weaving the most beautifully designed and colourful cloth; they were teaching their children to do this too.

+ Another way in which we enable people to choose life is by encouraging their creative gifts- whether in craft, drama, worship, music, or sport. Especially the young - I'm pleased that we in the Methodist Church are developing a new Youth Participation Strategy. I pray it will be a means of releasing talent and creative energy among people of all ages.

I always remember us taking a group of young people to Derbyshire - one of the joyous tasks was to go abseiling off a railway bridge down into a river bed. One of the girls found it difficult to join in the group - and they weren't always too friendly to her. There was no way she was going abseiling. But remarkably, little by little, and rather to my surprise the others persuaded her to get kitted out in harness and ropes, to lean out over the parapet of the bridge - and after much banter - eventually to let herself go. I was standing at the bottom to catch her. I shall never forget the massive grin of pride and satisfaction in her previously inconceivable achievement.

+ But there are many areas where choosing life and how we do it is not always all that obvious (this week in Conference, for example, we will be debating the issues surrounding human embryology).

Much of my time is spent at work. Like you I'm aware of many people who are working too hard and others - whether because of health or education or discrimination - find themselves excluded from paid employment.

My hope that during this year we might as a Church engage more actively with those who are in the midst of all this - some who have to make difficult ethical decisions about the sort of work they should or shouldn't do; or who have to take tough decisions which affect other people's jobs or employment prospects - where do they look for help, a place to reflect and talk things through?

What about the Bank employee I met who is under severe pressure to sell customers products she feels they don't need and can't afford. But her livelihood is riding on her sales.

Business itself is asking many of these questions: corporate social responsibility is very much on the agenda - can you act ethically and run a successful business?

I'm very conscious of some of those decisions I've been involved in - or failed to take - which seem to have brought curses rather than blessings. What does it mean in practical terms to live out our Christian faith where the choices don't always seem that clear cut?

I would like to think that the Church can be a place where we could talk openly about these things - between ourselves and with those we work alongside - and to explore what the Bible and our Christian experience and ethical understanding have to contribute to a debate, a debate which is going on now with or without us. How can our business practices and the decisions we make at work be life giving and not death dealing?

But to do this we must be a place, a people, where we can trust each other enough to debate and differ and still to live together. And we're not afraid to do it.

2. Living with difference - walking together to a new place.
I have to confess I'm not a sportsman - I am to football what Amy Winehouse is to Morris dancing.

But I went to see my nephew Tim play rugby last year. I was impressed by how many 16 and 17 year old girls are keen rugby fans; impressed too by the fierceness of attack and tackling during the match and then at the end the handshakes and ritual cheering of the opponents side; the contrast between the intensity of the battle on the field and the relative camaraderie off it.

It's not of course always like that elsewhere.

The drama which was presented this morning was inspired by an assignment undertaken for foundation training. Julie Herbert got a group of us together in our local church on three Sunday evenings to talk about Britishness and whether as Christians we should have a view about the Government's drive to stimulate a new sense of British identity. We certainly had a lively debate.

Peter Moreton's dramatic take on this - I hope entertainingly - pointed up how easily we stereotype people and the fear of difference we all have - even if we don't always admit it to ourselves.

As a counterpoint, those words we heard from 1 John are the most life-giving I know : 'There is no fear in love - but perfect love casts out fear.' (I John 4 v17).
We live in a society where so much of our conflict is based on fear of people we don't know or who look a bit different or whose beliefs we're suspicious of. We live in a Church where so much of our conflict is based on fear of people we don't know or who look a bit different or whose beliefs we're suspicious of.

And we need in both places to develop a new level of trust and respect and openness. We all know that it's so much more difficult to stereotype another person - or dismiss their views as rubbish - if we have have sat and talked - shared a pizza- with them and have begun to get to know them as a person - not just 'that Manchester United supporter' or whatever; this is the practical starting point of 'loving our neighbour'.

But truly loving our neighbour - or indeed our enemy - is not just about having an argument or a debate, agreeing to differ and going our separate ways - but somehow travelling to a new place together.

The American Roman Catholic priest Vincent Donovan discovered this as he lived among the Masai people - in a culture he found very different to his own:

Do not try to call people back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. Instead you must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.

In our own Circuit in Salford we have a French West African congregation; many of these are refugees or asylum seekers from the Congo. But there is a tension, because some of them come from opposite sides in the civil war they have escaped from - and have experienced things which will fundamentally colour their view of those on the other side. Their Minister was telling me how impressed he has been at the practical ways they are giving care and support to one another; the differences remain but they are tentatively learning to walk to a new place together.

Those of you who are deacons and ministers have a great privilege. You are called to be enablers and encouragers of communities where - because Jesus is at the centre - perfect love can begin to cast out fear. (These may be established churches or entirely new groupings of people.)

These are not places of impossible conformity where all must think and act alike - but they are places where people trust each other enough to be open to listen and explore their differences - who are prepared to journey to a new place together. Who know what it is to live not just to themselves.

And because of this the Church - whether it gathers in a cathedral or a pub -can become a place which others are drawn to . Why? Because they know their experiences are respected and valued - but also because here is a place where the historic truths of Christian faith actually begin to make some sense of their lives and give some steer to those tough choices, choices which can mean the difference between life and death, despair and hope, folly and wisdom.

It was clear from our local discussions on Britishness that we as lay people need to be much more theologically equipped to grapple with this sort of issue, to speak with confidence about the God who has become real to us in Jesus Christ; and what that looks like and thinks like and acts like - in the hospice, at the jobcentre, on the rugby field, in the boardroom, at the supermarket - and on the train.

And the exciting, challenging, life changing task that you have is to help equip the people where you are to become an open community of sense-making and invigorating faith - where perfect love is casting out all kinds of fears and suspicion. So that for all of us, lay or shortly to be ordained, sceptical or searching, convinced or not yet certain - we may be brought up short by the eternal challenge that God places before each one of us: 'Today I have set before you life and death - blessings and curses. Choose life...'

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