04 July 2009

New Vice-President calls on Methodists to push boundaries in the 21st century

The new Vice-President of the Conference, Dr Richard Vautrey, called on Methodists to push boundaries, test new ideas and embrace new technology in order to reach out beyond the walls of churches and chapels.

In his inaugural speech to the Conference at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton, Richard paid tribute to the thousands of men and women who gave up their time freely as part of their service to the Church and their communities.

Richard, a practising GP in Leeds, also said it was for people within the Church to ask difficult questions and support others as they look for answers.

"There are a whole host of moral and ethical issues that face us in our daily 21st century lifestyle that the Church should be taking a lead on and seizing the agenda," he said.

"How we care for people at the end of their lives, or with serious mental illness, or learning disability; the benefits and pitfalls of embryo research; rationing health care at times of national emergency such as a serious flu pandemic where we'd have to make decisions about who were denied hospital care; or how we balance the health care needs of developing countries with the wants of our own affluent society or the impact of multinational companies. These are just a few of the many issues where we should be informing or leading the debate."

Richard also called for Christians to challenge stereotypes about the Church.

"The Church is stereotyped as being riddled with homophobia," he said. "We're also seen as hostile to sex, yet this is something that is one of the most natural and beautiful of God's gifts. An image is created of the Church being almost less Christian and charitable than our largely secular society. Love breaks down the barriers that may have been there in theory, but in the reality of a real relationship they melt away."

The full text of Richard's speech is available here:

Morrissey, from the 80's group The Smiths, once sang:

Panic on the streets of London,
panic on the streets of Birmingham,
I wonder to myself, could life ever be sane again
on the Leeds side-streets that you slip down.

Well, I don't know about London and Birmingham or indeed my home town of Leeds, but he might have added panic on the stage in Wolverhampton. I've had a year to think about chickening out, but now there is no going back. And to my amazement, after you to have had a year to think about it, today you still elected me as your Vice President and for that I am extremely grateful, humbled and honoured.

I would not be stood here now without the support of a lot of people. I want to thank those within my church at Chapel Allerton, the Leeds North East circuit, and all those within the wider Leeds District who have nurtured, supported, encouraged and prayed for me over the years. Thank you for the many kind gifts I've received, including that of access to the Twelvebaskets web resource which has supported the visual images in my address this afternoon.

But particular thanks must go to my long suffering family, especially my Mum and Dad, and my parents-in law John and Vera, who have not only been so tolerant and forgiving of my many failings but who I know will be helping and supporting Anne and I throughout this year.

I'm going to need all kinds of help this year. So to my son Jonathan I leave the lawn mower, you'll find the grass stays magically short by using it, and to my younger son Matthew, the bucket and sponge in the garage is all yours, it's just right for washing the car with.

Finally thanks to my wife Anne whose love I could not do without. I know Conference you will find this hard to believe, but she knows only too well how often I'm a monosyllabic Yorkshire man. I know I don't say this very often but I love you dearly, and could not be taking on this role without you.

The Methodist Conference has been part of my life for the last 21 years, and I have come to cherish it and the role that it plays within the life of our Church. It has changed over the years and it will continue to evolve in the future, but we have something very special here that we should not be afraid to quietly boast about.

One of the huge strengths of the Conference is the importance it places on the whole people of God, lay and ordained, meeting together to share their views, hopes and fears; conferring together, sharing together, praying together, worshipping together, men and women equal before God.

And that is why I believe the role of Vice President is so important. The role is an affirmation of lay ministry, and the importance we place upon it within the life of our Church. It's also a sign of the importance we place on holding together lay and ordained leadership in all areas of the Church's life. We complement each other, we are intertwined in the same missionary rope, and all gain strength from that interdependent relationship as a result. We need each other to be truly affective in our God given mission.

Yet when I've told people that I'd been designated as Vice President of the Methodist Conference, most people are simply puzzled or confused. The standard response is, well does that mean you'll be President next time then? Others point out that churches are only really interested in seeing and hearing the President and feel short changed if his or her deputy turns up instead. We also have a tendency in the autumn of our days to remember Conferences not by the year but by the place they were held and by who was President at the time.

Now please don't misunderstand me. You have not elected a Vice President with a huge chip on his shoulder. I fully understand the role and the importance that this Conference places in it, and as I've already said, I am deeply honoured to be asked to fulfil it. However as in many other areas of discrimination and diversity, the words we use can give totally the wrong message.

For those that don't understand our tradition, the words Vice President signal second best, a deputy, or an apprentice. The implication therefore is that whilst we know and understand the importance of partnership between lay and ordained in telling the good news of the gospel, the majority take home the message that lay ministry is second best.

The reality though is that God calls us all. As Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few". We cannot afford to waste the skills and talents of a single member of our Church. All are called to join in God's mission and all are needed.

Throughout the Connexion lay volunteers play an increasingly important part in the life of our Church. We've always placed great emphasis on lay leadership within the local church and circuit. Whether it be acting as a church or circuit steward, treasurer, Sunday school teacher, local preacher or the countless other jobs and roles that are essential to the working of our Church. We should recognise and pay tribute to the thousands of men and women who week in week out give freely of their time and energy as part of their discipleship.

For example, let me publicly say how immensely impressed and thankful I am for those who give so much of their time working with my own children. We should not underestimate or undervalue the dedication, commitment and sacrifice made by those women and men who, week after week, prepare and share lessons and activities with a group of lively children, or of cub and scout leaders who regularly give up their weekends to sleep in a tent in a wet field along with a large group of boys more used to playing on Playstations and watching DVDs, or of the leaders from a variety of different churches locally who commit to our weekly youth groups or of individuals who go out of their way to support parents with babies or young children.

We understandably worry about the falling number of children and young adults that we are connecting with, and yet it can often be a shortage of people willing to act as leaders for our children and youth groups that is the real problem, so it is vital that we offer our support and encouragement to all those who are willing and able to act as leaders in youth work.

There are also countless others who have taken on almost full time voluntary roles for the Church. Let me just mention one group of volunteers, but they represent the large number of individuals to whom we owe an increasing debt. Peter Grubb has been the co-ordinator of a group of volunteers working tirelessly for the Wesley Guild Nigeria Health Care Project since the early 1990s. Through their unstinting dedication and commitment the project has raised nearly £1 million which has helped put a significant number of clinics and small hospitals in Nigeria back on track and made a real difference to the lives of people living near them.

These roles, and many others like them, would once have been done by paid officers. Increasingly we are now relying on dedicated individuals who are very often lay people offering their time and themselves in addition to their routine work or family commitments. These people are the unsung heroes of our Church and on which our future depends; volunteers up and down the country who give freely of their time in response to God's call to them and we should be more ready to recognise the personal sacrifices many of them make. In the years to come the role of lay volunteers will become more and more important as they share the workload currently carried by many of our presbyters and deacons.

Increasingly we are seeing a pattern of lay and ordained people working together in full partnership in teams within circuits. As has often been said, the genius of the Methodist circuit and Connexional system gives us a God given structure that we can use to empower this joint working. In 1996 during his presidential address, Nigel Collinson talked of the need for a pastor for every church. He said "we have given people unrealistic jobs and by doing so we have settled for a ministry on a care and maintenance basis." Over a decade later are we any nearer avoiding this? By fully nurturing and utilising the skills and talents of local lay leaders, working in partnership with ordained colleagues we can achieve the goal Nigel set for us.

Let me use an example from my own working life. GPs and hospital consultants work closely together. For years the consultant was always seen as the top dog (isn't that right Professor Howdle?), with the stereotype being that general practice was the place failed hospital doctors sort sanctuary. However, in recent years general practice is being recognised as a complex speciality on a par with any other in a hospital. GPs now provide care to many patients with complex health needs who once would have had to go to hospital clinics for their care instead, with some GPs developing a special interest in specific areas such as diabetes or minor surgery. Although there can be many barriers put in the way of these developments, some related to power and status, some related to money or tradition, where these barriers can be overcome partnerships between GPs and consultants working together in the community have resulted in real benefits patients.

This may be the pattern for lay and ordained ministry in the future of our Church. Generalist pastors and workers both lay and ordained, working alongside each other with those with specialist skills. We've said it so often but really now is the time to free up more of our trained ministers, many with specialist skills, and to use those skills for all within a circuit and not just in the churches for which they have pastoral oversight. It's starting to happen in some circuits, and we need to learn from them and support that model more generally. We have huge talent within our presbyters and deacons which will be clearly seen in those who are to be ordained tomorrow, men and women brimming with ideas, enthusiasm and a desire to serve God. I'm sure all of them have generalist skills developed through their years of training, but we really must use their specialist skills too in a more targeted way than we currently do.

As a Church we've spent time making our structures more flexible and adaptable to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing society. Now we need to use these flexibilities to their fullest extent. Let's not get bogged down in committees and looking inwards but instead let's push the boundaries, test new ideas, embrace new technology, share ideas, use our buildings and our resources as imaginatively as possible and let's free up more of our most valuable resource, our people, to reach out beyond the walls of our churches and chapels, supporting them as they take risks for Christ.

All are called to join in God's mission and all are needed.

God calls us all, and that means all are included. I mentioned earlier that we sometimes run in to communication problems. We assume everyone talks the same language as we do, and understand words and phrases in the way that we do. It happens to all groups and professions, the medical profession being a case in point, and it can be hard not to fall in to the trap of using words and concepts that I and my colleagues are very familiar with but which mean absolutely nothing to those outside. The result is that we can create barriers between ourselves and those we are trying to reach out to.

As an example of this, let's just for a moment focus on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Sex sells; it also has a habit of waking up a hot congregation. Any mention of sex triggers a Pavlovian response in the media and the related story is sure to get coverage. Mix sex and the church and you'll hit the headlines. Now I don't know what the after service conversation is like in your church, but talk about sex over the coffee and biscuits after the service is not commonly heard in the churches I've attended. Maybe I am going to the wrong churches. And yet according to the media, all churches are obsessed and divided by it.

Now clearly we must challenge those that use sex in an exploitative way, in a degrading or dehumanising way. The excellent work done by Network highlighting the appalling situation of sex trafficking is exactly what we should be doing. However the Church is stereotyped as being riddled with homophobia. We're also seen as hostile to sex, yet this is something that is one of the most natural and beautiful of God's gifts. An image is created of the Church being almost less Christian and charitable than our largely secular society. Where society has made great strides to challenge discrimination and encourage equality and diversity, the Church is stereotyped as being bigoted, backward and blatantly obstructive to change.

Yes these issues are important, yes they need to be sensitively and carefully handled, and yes, were the stereotype has evidence of some foundation it should be challenged, but my experience is that when Christians meet and get to know their neighbour, they reach out in love towards them. Their sexuality counts for little. Love breaks down the barriers that may have been there in theory but in the reality of a real relationship they melt away.

So much for sex, let's turn to drugs. Can a Methodist Conference go by without mention of alcohol? Just in case it becomes an expose in the Sunday tabloids, I ought to come clean now. I have to admit that I gave up drinking alcohol when it became legal for me to do so. I didn't stop drinking through any religious conviction, but because I didn't actually like it, and despite the best efforts of my friends and family, many sitting up there, I still haven't acquired the taste for it.

However, I am forever trying to explain this away when people assume I don't drink because I'm a Methodist, and frankly I'm fed up of seeming to apologise for being a Methodist. I find myself saying that most Methodists I know drink, although to be honest I don't say how much some of you drink. I do though try to dispel the commonly held stereotype that we are nothing more than puritanical nay-sayers and party-poopers.

Again we've got major communication problems. There is absolutely nothing wrong with reasonable and responsible drinking, indeed the evidence is that I'm less healthy by not drinking alcohol than you are that do. Alcohol can be good, but it can also be devastating. With levels of binge drinking and alcohol abuse rising rapidly, especially amongst the young, there is no more important time for the Church to be leading an informed debate on raising the price of alcohol, setting standards for labelling and the responsibilities of the drinks industry.

I know we try to do this but our messages are largely ignored because of the assumption that we are completely anti-alcohol, or alternatively we're seen as hypocrites because we don't generally practice what the wider world thinks we preach. If we were more honest and open about our current use of alcohol, may be more people outside the church would take us more seriously when we try to address the bigger picture. And it is not just on alcohol that we need to re-think our communication and undermine the stereotype, there are a whole host of moral and ethical issues that the Church should be taking a lead on and seizing the agenda. How we care for people at the end of their lives, or with serious mental illness, or learning disability; the benefits and pitfalls of embryo research; rationing health care at a time of national emergency such as a serious flu pandemic when it is possible that we'd have to make decisions about who can or cannot be admitted hospital care; or how we balance the health care needs of developing countries with the wants of our own affluent society or the impact of multinational companies.

These are just a few of the many issues where we should be informing or leading the debate. We live in a world of challenges and uncertainty. The recent financial melt-down and the rise in unemployment levels across the world will only add to these problems. Our Church did great work on the issues relating to unemployment back in the 1980's, it time we urgently revisited that so that we are in a position to proactively support those affected as well as challenge the systems that have led to this situation happening all over again. It is for us within the Church to ask the difficult questions and support others as we all look for the answers.

And finally rock and roll, well to be honest hymns and choruses. It never ceases to amaze me how heated we can get about this. In his Methodist Recorder article at the end of last year's Conference, my good friend Leslie Griffiths felt compelled to voice his concern about the hymns sung, or should that have been the lack of them.

We have a rich and treasured musical heritage and how we blend the new and the old is a constant challenge, but we shouldn't expect everyone to like the same music. As the President has already said, we cherish peoples' differences and diversity so it should be no surprise that we all find slightly different ways to worship and connect with God. Whether it be songs, hymns, chants or silence it is important that we embrace and enhance this ability to connect, and we are relevant to where people are. Again, to quote from the same Smiths song that I started with, Morrissey goes on to sing:

"Hang the blessed DJ,
because the music that they constantly play,
it says nothing to me about my life".

Now I sense a degree of fear in the organists amongst you. Don't worry, I've got Wesley hymns on my iPod, for if anyone speaks to me about my life then Charles Wesley certainly still does. But how much of our church music truly speaks to our congregations, or perhaps more importantly those outside our congregations?

Driving down to Wolverhampton we had the same discussions as we often do about which CD we would listen to or which radio station to tune in to. I don't expect to convert Anne to the music of Radiohead, although much to my two sons' frustration she keeps trying to indoctrinate them in to listening to our local radio station Magic 828 - sounds of the 60s and 70s. So far they're still holding out but they do need your prayerful support.

During this Conference and over the coming months as we continue to discuss the music, hymns and songs that we will use within the Church life let's look for the broadest range of resource that reflects our faith and belief, recognising too the need to help as many as possible to hear God speaking to us through the words that we sing. God calls us all, that's all of us with our differences and our diversity, our likes and our dislikes.

Communication failures and stereotypes, whether justified or not, act as barriers and keep people apart. This is certainly the case when it comes to the missing men in our Church. Paul talks of there being neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus, and yet when you look around the vast majority of our churches, where are the men, and in particular where are the fathers of school age children?

Even after 35 years of women being ordained as Methodist ministers we still have some way to go to remove all the barriers that prevent women from taking a full role in senior leadership within our Church. However that should not stop us from also asking the fundamental reasons why boys and men are staying away from our churches. You don't need a medical degree to know that men and women are different. Just as we like different types of music it may be that men have a perception that elements of worship or church life are designed with feminine characteristics in mind rather than masculine ones and therefore they may think that the Church is not for them.

In days gone by some churches had football and cricket teams, snooker rooms and even tennis courts. They found ways of engaging with young men that made them feel valued and understood. Replicating what was done then may not be the answer today, but we do need to learn from those who have adapted and changed what they do in order to remain relevant to the boys and young men within our churches as well as to reach out to those on the fringes.

I was struck by the fact that all the Methodist churches I visited recently in Bulgaria had areas within them to provide free use of computers and internet access. It was just one way they were using to engage with young people and boys in particular. We urgently need to ask young men themselves what it is about the Church that puts them off setting foot within it, for it is within our power to adapt our activities, our mission and our worship to respond to the changing pattern of society and the changing needs of young men in particular.

It's also possible for us to look at the times we hold evening meetings and consider how easy they are for working parents to get to them. It's possible for us to provide parenting support, and indeed pastoral support if Mum and Dad go their separate ways. We may see Mum and the children in church, but how much effort do we make to keep in contact with Dad? I don't come with any easy answers, but I do call on us all to take the issue of reaching out to the men on the fringes of our Church more seriously than we do before we lose touch with them altogether.

God calls us all - and that also means all people everywhere. We are richly blessed in the Methodist Church to have so many strong and dynamic links with our world church partners. We are bombarded with negative images from around the world on a daily basis, and so it does us good to reflect on the wonderful things being done in the name of the Methodist Church right around the world. So often this is work with people on the edge of society, the vulnerable or the outcast, the poor or the marginalised, a work that continues to demonstrate our valuable tradition of social holiness.

In Macedonia the Methodist Church has a long history of working alongside the most vulnerable and marginalised people. In Kocani I met a man from the Roma community who told me how he and his family had struggled to be able to worship as Methodists for 20 years, and who had faced abuse and prejudice from many in his community as a result. The small Methodist congregation there had been forced to move from rented accommodation that they'd used as a church at least four times, once finding their belongings thrown out on to the street at midnight. But this only served to strengthen their faith and determination to maintain their discipleship and Christian witness. Through the wider support of Macedonian Methodists, and their connexions with the wider church, they now have a church building of their own, and can worship freely without fear of attack. Despite the great adversity they have and continue to face, they worship God with joy and thanksgiving. And they send you, their sisters and brothers in Christ, warmest greetings and thanks for your prayers and support.

It saddens and shames me therefore to come from a Yorkshire region that has just elected its first British National Party member to represent our great county in the European Parliament. Despite a concerted effort made by religious leaders both locally and nationally a political party advocating division and discrimination has managed to persuade enough people to vote for it. And it also horrifies me that in 2009 we can witness a group of Roma men, women and children being hounded out of their homes and even a church building by a small minority of people in Belfast. We cannot ignore or play down what is happening in some of our communities. We must redouble our efforts to reconnect and communicate with everyone who seems to believe that this is the way that society should go.

God calls us all. He calls us all, women and men, lay and ordained. He calls you, he calls me. He calls us all to remove the remaining barriers of misunderstanding, prejudice or tradition that get in the way. He calls us all to work alongside men and women who may be very different from ourselves, but who have the same calling - to tell of the good news of God's love for all and to show that through our love of one another. It is our calling. It is a wonderful thing that God thinks we are up to the task, but he does, and we are.

God calls us all - it's time for us all to respond.

Back to All News

Share this