28 June 2014

Newly elected Vice-President lays out four new building blocks for Methodism

  • Photo of Gill Dascombe giving her address to the Conference here
  • Profile photo of Gill Dascombe here

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 the 1700s.

"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 follow me."

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 community life.

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 physical.

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 ergotism.

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 neurochemistry.

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 father.

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 future?

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 1700s.

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 commerce.

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 it?

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 their ministries.

And then, there are the rest of us, called, rather confusingly, the laity. The most numerous, diverse and dispersed group within the laos.

We who are called, not to be set apart, but to be set within.

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


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