29 August 2012
Trusted Needed and Loved - Transcript of the President's Address to the Conference
Below is the full transcript of the Revd Dr Mark Wakelin's inaugural address as the President of the 2012 Methodist Conference. You can listen to the address here.
They are just one of our local choirs from the circuit. Fabulous. Thank you so much for coming this way and they will tell you when the next bit's on because they are coming to sing again and they are here tomorrow. Thank you so much. That was great. And thanks Anne-Marie for reading the Gospel to us. It's great to hear you and to honour your contribution to part of my journey; but I know to part of the journey of ever so many people around Methodism. And while I do, to thank so many people who have been helpful here, not least for our candle-stand if you can see there, which is a bit hidden by the flowers but is very beautiful and was made by Micky Youngson with the glass at the top, my brother-in-law, who is a minister here, who is a brilliant cabinet maker and a friend of his who is a silversmith. So that's our candle stand, and I hope you noticed the three elements in all that and all the symbolism.
It's strange being nominated as President, which happened a year ago, because of the reaction of people. There was sort of an amazed gasp around Conference at the time, divided between those who thought, 'Who de heck is he?' and the, 'Oh, no, I know him.' I had some extremely charming comments from people, but my absolute tiptop favourite was from Pauline Webb; and Pauline Webb came out and gave me a big thank you. She said, 'If Methodism had had any sense and got its act together about women, it would have been your mother, years ago.' And there's a lot of truth in that and my mother is here to now, and it was wonderful to sing her hymn one of many hymns that invite us into sacrifice.
Well, I'm sure Mike and I will both agree that one of the overwhelming is of just privilege. And the privilege comes out of the horrible sense that the unwarranted and free bit that you come to stand here, and you stand in the place of many fine women and men in the past whom I know I have grown up with and looked up to; and there's a bit of you who thinks, 'Oh, my goodness, they are watching.' And there's a bit of me that says, 'Oh, thank goodness they are watching, because they are cheering us on; and some of them are here and some of them are in heaven, and they are cheering us on. And that's part of the deal.
Pauline Webb's story, which I love and I will steal from her, because she said that to me earlier on. She said that once, when she was a little girl, she went to a church in London with her father, and she saw this very old man in a corner; so she went up to him and said, 'Excuse me, are you Mr Wesley?' I believe the gentleman in question was Luke Wiseman, but I'll check with Pauline. And Luke Wiseman said, 'No, I don't think so; but, when I was a little boy about your age, I shook the hand of a woman who had shaken the hand of Mr Wesley himself.' I have shaken Pauline Webb's hand. That's what I call apostolic succession.
And as you notice and think about privilege, which you do and the privilege of being listened to, you also recognise - Mike and if I may quote him - we talked of this - that the Methodist Church does not easily privilege some people, and part of our responsibility as privileged people here, and particularly my responsibility and Michael's, I think is to bother. And I hope that is part of our Year together, and is something we ask of you; and we use the phrase, 'quieter voices'. How do we pay attention to quieter voices and listen to them?
Well, we've both been told we've got a busy year ahead, and I sometimes think people just say that because they think you've got nothing to do at the moment. But it's great to hear that it's going to be busy. Judith, my dear wife will be glad to know that. And yet the business has already started, and one of the huge privileges - and you just sit and think, 'Wow, this is happening to me!' I went to Sierra Leone for an anniversary, a very important one - it was the first time a British Mission Partner had been asked to go to another country and it's a long story which I wont tell now of how Methodism was already in Sierra Leone before the British were involved at all, a lovely story. And there was in the Warren Memorial Chapel, a service of celebration. And the Rt. Revd. Arnold Temple, who is here with us today, he very graciously welcomed us to be with them and he gave me a part to play in that service. It was a fabulous service. It was Methodism at its utter best; with everything from Judas Maccabeus right through to the most gloriously sung bits from 'Sing the Faith' to 'Hymns & Psalms', brilliantly sung, brilliant preachers, lovely, lovely service; five collections. I might add, I only had rather high denomination notes. So, all I could do was to make it absolutely clear that I was putting a large note in the collection box, because I wanted my reward about then, rather than waiting for it.
But we had this lovely service and at the end of it, this very lovely young girl came up to me and said, very politely, 'Excuse me, may I ask you a question?' I said, 'Of course, it will be lovely.' And she said, 'If somebody wanted to be like you, what would they have to do?' Well, I thought for a moment, and said, 'Eat too much and don't exercise - that would help.' But the Lord restrained me from such flippancy, and I said as gently as I may, 'It depends rather much on what that person would like to be like.' And she said, rather confidentially, 'Actually, that person is me.' And she said, 'I am tired of the suffering and poverty (and words to that effect) in my country. I want to help. I want to be a preacher. I thought, 'I can't imagine many, any, people in this country believing the way to change things is to become a preacher. But that's what she asked. And we had a lovely conversation, and she was most encouraging. And I listened to her and I said, 'One thing you might like to try is to preach to people when you can.' And she said, 'I already do.' She said, 'I preach to the youths.' I said, 'But that's fabulous.' And she said, 'May I preach to you?' I said, 'Of course.' So she stood in front of me, very politely, and she preached a sermon to me. Perfect sermon - three minutes long; explaining why she wanted to change the world.
I wonder - if someone came up to you and said, 'What would I have to do to be like you?' Which bit of you would you hope they would want to be like? Tell somebody next to you. It's a good question, isn't it? What would you like people to be like if they want to be like you in whatever way? The Section Assistant Secretary of Conference, quite understandably, just said, 'It would much easier to say what you wouldn't want to be like.' I'd find that much quicker to answer. The Methodist Church, we often tell each other, lacks confidence and there are various things we seek to try to do to help that.
The Methodist Recorder and - I cannot see someone from the Recorder right here, but we are very grateful to them. They come to Conference every year and faithfully report this and do a huge service to the Church in that way. They have been running a series quite recently called Proud to be Methodists and I think they sense among their readership many Methodists around that there is a tremendous lack of confidence - confidence in preaching, which wasn't shared by that young girl; confidence in Church and whatever - people feel lack of confidence. So, partly to boost that confidence is to ask what makes people proud.
As I read that I was just uneasy, partly because I realise that my understanding is, for me, is slightly more desperate than that. I love that song, 'Hungry'. Now, this is not whether you have a vague lifestyle choice, in Christianity. For me, it's far more a choice of life. There is that hunger and need in me to be a Christian. And, because of my life experience, a huge sense that God has provided for me through the Methodist family. But I can't say only through that and I would have to say it's far broader than that. And my experience of Church today is of the richness of the Church today. From the highest to the lowest; from the quietest to the loudest; from the most theologically extroverts to the most theologically introvert. I have been blessed; and as I think about that blessing, the word that keeps coming to my mind is one of gratitude, of profound gratitude. And, as Jesus said, 'You are more grateful when there are grater things that have been forgiven.'
I was trying to talk about this in a draft to this address and I used the word 'needy'. I sense I am a needy person. When I was young, we used to use that expression, that 'so-and-so is needy.' I don't think we meant it entirely complimentarily. You have a needy person to tea and you wish they'd go. You know that sense of the human black hole who absorbs. But I think there is something truthful. I feel Christianity is far closer to being a recovery programme, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous or whatever, a place for people to gather, who know they are needy. They need something. We don't all need the same thing; we are strong in some areas and weak in others. But I recognise, the older I get, that I am needy. And it's the Church that has met that need for me, whether it's Methodist or other parts of God's family that have made me feel so profoundly grateful.
So proud is great, but I want to go deeper for me and I want to say, grateful, profoundly grateful. And, as I think about that, I realise some of my needs, some might resonate with you, and I don't want to be particularly self-indulgent and I want to point out things that you may share; and one of them is a profound need to belong; to feel that somebody somewhere knows who I am and even though they know me, care.
And I have been so grateful to the Methodist family throughout my life a Methodist in the Methodist family for that caring and loving and that sense of belonging; to little Mendi boys, when Mary and I were little ones, out in Sierra Leone, who took us under their wing and, admittedly they taught us some pretty poor things, like gambling and stoning lizards, but they welcomed us; to when we got slightly older, we went to Mauri in Kenya, and what a lovely variety for us as children, where Mary and I used to sneak out and we used to wake the night nurses on their daytime sleeping so that they would play with us. And Matron used to scold them terribly when they discovered us. The welcome they gave us, the welcome that you receive throughout the Christian family, where you are precious and known. So, whether that is in Sherringham or whether it's in Sunday School or in Readon Chapel or in Kingswood School, or whether that's as you grow up at different time in Meth Oxon, through a life where people care, I have experienced belonging. And then travelling around the world, turning up in Sierra Leone, being valued and owned. How gracious a gift! Or turning up in other parts of the world and we saw that lovely display, just a tiny taste of seventy five million Methodists who are with us today.
But belonging isn't something I've always experienced and I wonder if that if some of you know that too. We have grandchildren. Now, I know you are looking at me and thinking, 'How can that be possible?' Oh, you weren't - someone so young - and something lovely when they are young and they are here now so I won't embarrass you, I hope. They are so lovely because they know they are loved. They know they are loved with a confidence that I ache for. So, on New Year's Eve, when Judith and I babysat, and Bec and Richard went out and partied, partied, partied till 8 - 9 o'clock, late in the evening, when - it's what you do when you get rid of children. So the little girls came into our room - cold feet and all - at 5 o'clock in the morning, and they didn't doubt for one microsecond that that wouldn't be the happiest thing that we would experience that day.
When did you last feel that loved? When did you last feel that who you were mattered that much? But they didn't doubt it because that is the life they have so far experienced. But you get it knocked out of you as you get older. And so, dear Rebecca, their mother, I won't say this again, Becca, my oldest and most expensive daughter, is only because she made the fatal mistake of marrying within the clergy, which I told her not to from a very early age. 'Marry for money', I said. Rebecca, when she was about six, she used to come to our bedroom door, she used to quietly come in and say, 'Is it Good Morning time yet?' Because, you see, there are times when it isn't Good Morning time. But I feel this profound gratitude for the Church and a sense of challenge to the Church that we must be the place that welcomes people.
And a lovely, fantastic vision yesterday from the Partners Consultation, and may I quote again my friend, Arnold Temple, came with this vision of a future Church, and he said this, that rather shook me and puzzled me, 'A Church that smelt of cannabis and alcohol.' You'd think that's a weird picture. But no, what he was meaning was, a Church that welcomes people as they actually were, rather than cleaned up, dusted down, civilized, tamed and then put in a pew to hear about the God who loves them. I found that profound. I'm still working with it, so don't worry about it too much. I am not going to advocate that as an odour for Methodism.
But it's not just belonging that matters to me. And I suspect have that need but some do. Some of you will have that need with me, which is a need to be different. My very worst school report ever, from the gym teacher, was, 'Mark has done his best'. He meant nothing kindly by it.
I am grateful to the Church, that it has never believed that I have done my best. I have never believed that. Because the Church has always had what Martyn calls 'disquiet', a sense that there is more. That is a fabulous image of people who are called not only to belong but to become. There is yet more in you; and more to come and more to come. One of the many reasons why I am grateful to Methodism is my wife, Judith. And, all my life I have been given things by Methodism.
I went to a Methodist Mission compound as a child; I grew up in Kenya and Sierra Leone; I was brought to England; I was brought to a Methodist prep-school, a Methodist boarding school; I was dropped in a Methsoc, and I met my wife at a Methodist Guild Holiday. They closed it down since then, actually. And I am deeply grateful to the Methodist Church for Judith. And, in fact, my family were. At my wedding, all my family - my father, my aunts - came up to Judith and just said, 'Thank you.' But one of the things Judith gave to me, ever so many years ago, and I quoted this a million times - she gave me a card, which is 'God loves you as you are, but too much to leave you that way'.
Who you are is precious - you are made in the image of God; destined for eternal life; purposed for salvation; made little lower than an angel. C S Lewis said of us, 'If human beings could see each other as God sees them, they would be tempted to worship.' Who you are is extraordinary. You are precious in His sight. You do not need to be afraid. But it's nothing compared to what we are meant to be. For we are called to be transformed, from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before Him, lost in wonder, love and praise. I am grateful to this Church that it has never given up and has never accepted that what they see is what they will always get. And there is a challenge there still. The challenge to us to still believe in people, even though we have been let down and let down. To not give up on those that image of the Church do things that we wish they didn't. To let belonging precede behaving, so that their affirmation and acceptance and the challenge and the accomplishment of the Gospel may go before anything else.
But it's not just belonging and being different, being transformed that matters to me; it is also that I sense something that aches in every heart in this room. And that's an aching desire to make a difference. Another lovely thing about grandchildren is that you rediscover birthdays. You try to hide them at a certain age, but they don't want them hidden. So I had a lovely birthday party a little while ago when Elizabeth was about 3½ - 4. And she came at my front door, so excited at my birthday and I wasn't, and she made me excited. And she came in full princess outfit. She had a lovely, lovely dress on, with wings. I'm not sure why, but they were there. She had a tiara at a slight angle, which gave her a slightly wild look. But there she was. I thought she needed the loo, because she was stepping from one foot to the other, but it wasn't. She was just so excited. And she had in her hand a bag, and in the bag were pirates hats; and she gave one to me and she said, 'They are for you, Granddad, because you are a boy.' There is no point to that bit of the story - I just thought, 'Why?'
And, as I looked at her I thought of another girl - and my family will know this story. It was another girl, the same age, different country. She was from the children's ward of the hospital where my father was a superintendent. And she had pushed her way through to our garden. We have a picture of her. I was going to put a picture up of all the things I have talked about. And it was a funny feeling because I said I had some pictures and somebody on the team said, 'You'll need the permission of the people.' And I thought, 'I can't get her permission.' And I don't want to show that picture. She was a lovely young girl but very poorly. And we have a picture of her on her own and a picture of her with my brother Michael, who is here. And Michael, as now, looked lovely and gorgeous and blond, and she looked poorly. We remember her among many, many people we met, because she was the first person as children we ever met who died. And she died, not because of some exotic, foreign illness that they have over there. She died because from the moment she was born to the day she died, she had been hungry. Hungry, hungry in a world where people like me are desperate to lose weight. What nonsense is that?
There is a sense in me and in you that things shouldn't be this way; an aching belief that the world isn't as it should be. You didn't learn that from a book. You didn't learn that at your mother's knee, even if it was a missionary mother's knee. You knew it because it was written in your bones by your Maker, who has called us to be part of His recreating work of healing and forgiveness in the world. And we need to have the courage to long, with the same passion that children long for Christmas Day, long for their birthdays or long for their Granddad to put a pirate's hat on so the partying can begin. Because that little girl, the quietest voice of all, will not be heard unless we act.
I am grateful to the Methodist Church because here I have found people who care and long for justice and peace and dare to believe that things could be different. And that is my final thought on this. You see, Methodism, Christianity has given me language to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land. We are faced with such great things, such mighty thoughts and feelings, what language can we borrow? One of the sadness's for me at the declining of religion, or faith, or Christianity, is the loss of language, of story, that we can inhabit and embrace, and use. We do not what to say of things that are so beautiful, so wonderful, so tragic and so agonising and the Church gives us a community, which holds ancient stories and powerful language that enable us to articulate the deepest feelings and express the hardest questions.
So, in Church, we buried my father, when he died young. In Church, as a minister, I have been with people, as their little babies were interred, or I have been in times when tragic splits and breakings and we have found words and stories that have made sense of it. But it's not just the sad things that hurt you if you can't articulate them, it's the wonderful things; it's the marriages and the baptisms. It's those extraordinary moments, when you don't know whether to laugh and cry and you are lifted up and you find the song that says it all; you find the people who know the words because you live in a story that makes sense of a world that is beautiful and tragic, broken and being created. I once had somebody came - people say sometimes this happens; it did. She came to the door and she wanted to talk about thankfulness. She had just had a baby, and she didn't know what to do with all her thankfulness. She didn't know what to do with all her thankfulness ... so she became a Methodist ... Yes!
There's so much joy, we need to articulate it. And there's a struggle here for the Church too, a challenge to boldly giving the language and telling the stories that people can inhabit. But Methodism, grateful though I am, has lost its confidence. Where may we find it? Some believe that if we have good management theory, some may believe (he says with mild .rye smile) that if we restructure, everything will be OK; some that if we reshape our governance or Standing Orders everything will be all right. But none of us really believe that. It's something deeper and bigger than that.
We are not very good at some things, you know. We don't do grand cathedrals. We don't do fabulous grand choirs; unless you go to the Warren Memorial. We don't have fabulous vestments and wonderful, wonderful bishops and priests and panoply, lovely, lovely beauty, transcendence. We don't do that very well. We don't do hats, you know. I always think we should do hats, but we never got our minds round it. What we do, it seems to me, is a young, frustrated, longing priest, in a room, who, after hearing the Preface, or while hearing the Preface to Luther's Commentary on the Romans, was overwhelmed with the sense that his sins were forgiven and he was loved. We are a rational, enthusiastic movement. We are an enlightened, charismatic movement. We believe that God can speak into our hearts and tell us what we need to know. That that telling lets us know things not just with our heads but with our hearts, that speaks deeply into us and warms us, and lets us know that we are needed, that we are loved and that we are being trusted.
And not a sort of wishy-washy pat-on-the-head trusted a genuine trusting that says, 'I trust you, my good people. I trust you for the vows that you've made in marriage and the vows that you've made in partnerships. I trust you for the gracious way you sought to follow me. I trust you with the children that you have and with the friends that you have. I trust you. I trust you and I know. There is this graciousness in God that God imparts into our hearts by His Holy Spirit a sense of belonging. John Wesley knew his sins forgiven. He felt his sins forgiven. And the thing I believe we need as a people is an outpouring of God's Holy Spirit upon us, to bypass some of the things that we put in the way, and simply overwhelm us with the sense that we are needed, that we are loved and we are trusted.
Throughout their lives, both John and Charles Wesley believed that that gift was a free gift. They preached about it and taught it as a free gift. But though it was free and remains free, it was never cheap. It was a gift that came out of struggle, of the struggling of Jacob with the stranger, murmuring his flesh to contend so long; who felt the pain of the struggle. And for the Wesley's it was a disciplined life, their discipleship with discipline in it. Their Methodism was called Methodism because there was method in their Methodism. And it was a round and inward journey, a piety, of struggling in personal prayer, of Bible reading, of seeking to put God back on the map; of making sense of their lives in terms of God's providence and grace. An effort, a struggle - heart struggle and head struggle. It was a journey towards other people. The trouble with people is that they are alright as long as you don't have to meet them. It's human being that you can love, it's people that you don't have to stand. And actually, working our what love means in a group of people, a small group of people, larger groups of people, enormous groups of people, the Methodists were expected to make friends and love ordinary people like you and me. And there was a discipline in their discipleship, a method in their Methodism that was acted never difference. Our equivalent of fighting for justice or campaigning for development or debt. Out there street-pasturing. There was an activity in their disciplined discipleship.
The Connexional Team, one of the places that are more precious to me in belonging, are doing an extraordinary amount of things, thinking through with local and local circuits and districts, about what we can do as a Church to encourage people in their discipleship. And I have one little card that some of you have got, that will have some references there, of the work that we are doing. And I commend that work to you and invite you to help us with it, as you already have been doing by helping us explore what are the disciplines today of our discipleship. It was free but not cheap.
And two images to end.
The first image is of a beautiful mahogany finished clinker-built boat, polished, old, grand, lovely. It's there on the Norfolk Broads. I can picture it - choppy day, waves slapping against the wooden sides. The polished top, the beautiful finish, all there. But the boat is just bouncing around, not going anywhere, motionless. Then some of the crew pull up the sails. The sails go up to the top; they flap around and make a bit of a noise and then the wind catches it. And the boat begins to move with graceful, peaceful ease. The noise of the wind buffeting subsides, as the boat catches the breeze and moves across the water.
And the other image is this. It's the image of John chapter 20. Jesus comes to a group of disciples. They are afraid. The door is locked for fear of the Jews in the story. And that locked door prevents the people moving out, fulfilling their ministry, the ministry of the women and the men in that room. It stops them growing, it stops them becoming. And into that room filled with women and men who followed Jesus, who longed for justice, who longed for the Gospel, Jesus appears. He shows them his hands and his sides. This is how much I love you. This is what its cost. This is who I am. You mark me by my scars. He gives them a sense of peace. My peace I give you. Calm yourselves. But not just a peace of the head, but a peace of the whole body. That sense of shalom, of community and life. He sends them, 'Go and get on with it'. But the heart of it is this: He breathes on them and says, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'.
I think for a moment we need to set aside some of our battles, some of the oddities and the strangenesses that we associated with some of the charismatic movement. Set this aside for a moment. You see, in John, the essence of God is love. 'God is love', he says in his letter. And I believe that Jesus breathed on them, what He filled them with, is what Wesley well knew. They were filled with love divine, all loves excelling; joy from heaven to earth come down. He breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. They were overwhelmed with their preciousness, of how important they were, of the fact that they were loved, needed and trusted. They were overwhelmed with the power of God as the Holy Spirit, the creator of all things. And that love, as John says in his letter also, drives out fear. And the door opened and they were able to go out and thus started something of the movement of God's Spirit through the Christian Church.
The Methodist Church does need good rules, standing orders, brilliant governance. It also needs good management and leadership and organisation and all the rest. It does also need excellent people like our chairs, who and our superintendents who I have been meeting with. It does need our presbyters and our deacons and our lay leaders. It does need all the volunteers of the Church who gracefully give of their time. It does need all that. But above all it needs God's Holy Spirit to be poured into our hearts so that we can know and feel our sins forgiven. And my image is this - how close do you have to be to somebody to feel their breath? For Jesus breathed on them. How close do you have to be to somebody to feel their breath? You have to be as close as a mother and her baby. You have to be as close as two lovers. That's how close.
So my challenge to myself, to you, and together, to the Church, is if you long to belong, draw so close to Jesus that you can feel His breath upon your face. If you long to be transformed, healed, restored and forgiven, then come close to the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, in whom God was pleased to dwell. If you long to make a difference, to be part of a people that long and long and long for justice and righteousness, then draw so close to the Son of a carpenter that His breath is upon your check and you sense His presence in your life. And if you want to articulate in Gospel preaching and in worship singing in praise and adoration, in anguish and hurt, in joy and in thanksgiving, then the challenge is this, come so close to your Maker, that you feel His presence that you feel His presence in your life.