04 July 2011

Vice-President's Inaugural Address to Conference

Addressing the annual Methodist Conference, Vice-President Ruth Pickles encouraged the Church to embark on a journey of risk-taking and vulnerability.

As a former district training and development officer, and currently a freelance trainer, Ruth chose 'Learning as Disciples of Jesus,' as the theme of her vice-presidential year.

"Venturing through an open door can enrich us but also can make us vulnerable. It involves risk," She said. "We perpetuate systems that patently have flaws without asking 'Why are we doing it this way?' And if we do ask, all too often the answer is, whether explicit or implicit, 'because we always have'. But because we are Gods church, our reflection and analysing has to be not only about how can we do things more effectively but 'is what we are doing being faithful to the risk-taking, vulnerable God revealed in Jesus?'"

At its best, she said; "the Methodist Church has been at the forefront of helping ordinary people to develop into extra-ordinary people. Miners, fishermen, shop assistants, housewives… learnt how to read, to speak in public, to get engaged in community affairs, trades unions, politics.... all through membership of the chapel and their class meetings. Knowing God's love, they felt valued as individuals; their learning needs were recognised and addressed."

Ms Pickles concluded her address by asking those present what the future might hold for them and the Church: "I have my filled-in diary for the coming year, but don't really know what lies ahead. It looks immense, exciting, daunting. How about you? Where do you find yourself on your journey? Will you too look with hope to the future? What exciting, but risky and costly, opportunities lie ahead for us as a discipleship movement?"

The full text of the address follows:

I have loved Conference since attending for the first time in 1986, and subsequently on perhaps twenty occasions. But when I walked in to the hall in Portsmouth last year, it was with a sense of weariness, and I said to Peter, my Chair of District, I think this will be my last year at Conference - I've had enough!

There was then the customary exchange of greetings between those of us who belonged to the 'best Vice-President Conference never had' club: "are you standing again this year?" "No, are you?" "No, I've put all that behind me".

Then there was a long conversation with a Conference friend who persisted with the idea that I should allow my name to go forward again. He felt that I had gifts to offer that the Church could use at this time. He sowed the seed of a question in my mind. Was this the right time? Or was this madness? The next morning, words in the Conference Worship seemed to nudge me and I had to pay serious attention. I had tea and conversation with a couple who know me well. What do you think it is I have to give, I asked? "You have the ability to challenge and ask the right questions; a clear mind, wide experience of Methodism and an understanding of people's gifts and needs". Prayerful consideration led me to the point where I felt that God was calling me (as God so often does) through the voices of others. So it came to pass that on the Sunday evening I found myself composing 100 words for the nomination sheet whilst saying to myself "I can't believe I'm doing this"!

Little did I realise how much 'this' was to change the course of my life. When the voting had closed and the computer programme had done its work, the General Secretary rang me to offer me the position of Vice-President Designate. I was stunned. "The only person you can tell before it is formally announced is your husband" he said. "Will he be pleased?"

"He doesn't even know my name has gone forward!" I replied.

So I rang him. "How's your day been?" "Not bad", he said, "how's Conference been today". "Well, I said, I think you should sit down. I need to tell you that I decided to put my name forward for Vice-President again…….. and I got the most votes!".

David laughed - rather, I felt along the lines of "Sarah laughed" when the three visitors to the tent at Mamre told Abraham that his aged wife would bear him a child. And in a way, these past 12 months have been a gestation period, during which the awesome responsibilities of the post have become more evident, and many preparations have had to be made. The birthing day has been approached with a mixture of excitement and dread. I think that's where we'll end that metaphor!

Because the preparation year is almost as busy as the year itself, we decided the first thing we needed to do was to remove our house from the property market. Only one couple had shown any interest and they themselves had a house to sell which had a very limited market - it was a converted Methodist chapel! I felt I just couldn't cope with clearing out years of hoarded paperwork, memorabilia and junk, never mind the actual business of moving. Then, at the end of January, a voice on the other end of the phone asked "Is your house still for sale? I've sold mine and the buyer has nothing to sell!"

Well, that was a shock. We felt, after a brief period of reflection, that we had to say yes. We had a much loved but hard-to-sell house, and someone had offered to buy it. So we said yes and by the end of the week we had made an offer on a house for ourselves.

And so the sorting began. I cannot bear to throw paperwork away without reading it to check 'whether or not it might come in useful'. Or indeed, whether it contains sensitive information. But why on earth did I keep the agenda and minutes of seemingly every Methodist committee I ever attended, going back to university days? I managed to give them only a cursory glance before tearing them up. However, I couldn't resist spending an evening reading my teenage diaries and my school reports. Here's what my Religious Instruction teacher wrote in my Lower Sixth year report:

'Ruth takes an intelligent interest but could say more in class discussions!'

Ever one to do as I am told, I did my best to say more, evidently to some effect for my next report had the comment:

'Interested and becoming a little more forthcoming in discussion.'

I took that to be a 'must try harder' and have been working at it ever since, as many will testify. Though I don't think I will ever come up to the standard of verbal fluency that my dear predecessor Eunice has set!

I started working on 'what to say on July 2nd'about 9 months ago. After conversations with Leo, a most gracious colleague, and with some handy hints from my predecessor, three things became apparent.

1. As a former District Training and Development Officer, and currently a free-lance trainer, my theme for the year should focus on 'learning as disciples of Jesus',

2. I needed to prepare a set of postcards to distribute which would enable people to reflect on their journey of discipleship. I shall be using the images in my address and the postcards will be available at the close of session for those who would like to take and use them to reflect on their own journey.

3. George Herbert's poem 'the Elixir' had to play a part. We sang it as a hymn a few minutes ago; let me remind you of verse two: A man that looks on glass On it may stay his eye; Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heavens espy.

This particular poem has really taken hold of me this year. I remember singing it in school assemblies, in the School hall which had huge windows. The glass was hard to clean, and so easy to focus on. But it was clear enough to see through to the sky. I was intrigued by the second verse of the hymn; it's shown here set as a beautiful design in a window at St Nicholas Parish church, Newport, Shropshire, photographed by a friend, Caroline Worth. The words are slightly different to how they appear in Hymns and Psalms 803, and will appear in Singing the Faith rephrased in inclusive language. Whichever the version, this verse speaks to me of the choice between reality and possibility; and also the choice between constraint and freedom.

And so, for my first of my set of four postcards, there has to be a window. One on which it is easy to focus and yet can be seen through. Where to find such a window? Perhaps at the very special Tudor Manor House, Little Moreton Hall, just three miles down the road from my home. This window, photographed by friend Doug Gibbons, is contemporary with Herbert. It is composed of glass that was originally colourless, but pigments in the glass have caused the development of these beautiful shades of green and yellow. And yet the sky can still be seen through them. The window is a metaphor for the possibility of starting a journey - glimpses may be caught of what could be, though we are restrained inside and therefore limited.

A journey implies that things will be different as we travel from what they are now; as true for our discipleship journey as any other. Come with me now as I share a little of my own journey, and some significant people who have acted as guides. You may have read a little of this in the Methodist Recorder, but nevertheless I invite you now to journey with me and perhaps in places there will be some resonance with your own journey.

I was born to George and Ethel Raine, who had grown up in the chapel culture of the West Riding of Yorkshire before taking the brave step of moving in 1938 to London where my father took a post as a hospital pharmacist. My brother and I grew up in a home where Bible stories, hymns, and prayers were woven into the fabric of everyday life, and with parents who had a lively faith.

As my father was promoted, so we moved around the country until we settled in North Harrow for my teenage years. How fortunate I was, for those most influential years, to be part of a 100 strong youth group, whose activities included social activities and faith learning. A strong youth committee was an integral part of the planning. We were encouraged to make a personal commitment to Christ and take up the full responsibilities of membership of the Methodist Church. Thank you, Dennis Wilcox and team. You nurtured a learning community that was both valuing and challenging. Through you, I was enabled to catch glimpses of the risks and opportunities of Christian discipleship and without you my journey might have been very different.

I was also blessed in that, unlike some of my friends, I had parents who believed that girls had as much right as boys to progress to higher education; thank you, George and Ethel, mum and dad, for valuing me as an individual, and recognising and addressing my learning needs. So it was I took a place at the University of Sheffield for a general science degree. This is where my I need my second post card, for it was in Sheffield that I truly felt a door opening to the next stage of my journey. I love the door pictured here, photographed by my husband David earlier this year when we had a relaxing week on the island of Lanzarotte.

In my first week in Sheffield I was 'found' by the Methodist Chaplain and introduced to the Methodist Society (Meth Soc.) which met at Broomhill Methodist Church. Here was another peer group more than 100 strong, and one that was to take me on from where North Harrow had left off. Here it was natural to do things differently. Here we had our experience acknowledged and were enabled to reflect critically on it. The new Chaplain who arrived in my second year, Revd. John Farley, opened a door into biblical scholarship and gave us an understanding of the Bible which was informed and enlightening. His teaching and preaching took the Bible, us and our context seriously. Some of his sermons were printed as pamphlets, but it was not until after his death in 2006 that a compilation was published under the title TSEDEQH & other sermons. To quote from a more illustrious student of John's, Revd. Dr. Colin Morris, 'John recognised that his hearers had minds to be stimulated and hearts to be warmed'. If only all preachers could meet both needs! Thank you John, for God worked through you to encourage me and countless numbers of students in a faith journey that cherished the biblical principles of justice and righteousness. Tsedeqh.

This was also a time of intense ecumenical activity, and we were able to work and share worship with the other Christian groups, including Roman Catholics. (Though we weren't as ecumenical when it came to the annual entry for the Rag float - Meth Soc had a strong reputation to maintain on that front.) I owe a debt too, to many of other denominations and some of other faiths. The Spirit of God does is not limited by boundaries in the same way that we are, for which I am thankful.

Venturing through an open door can enrich us but also can make us vulnerable. If it is a door we have not encountered before, then we cannot be sure of what will be on the other side. It involves risk. Jesus tells his disciples that very clearly, but says 'Come, follow me'. This it takes us on to the path, my third card. How difficult it was to choose the right photograph. This one is by my colleague Peter Barber.

The path (well, a series of A roads) took me from Sheffield to Congleton in Cheshire. The shock of moving away from University to a local Methodist Church was a difficult one to handle for many Meth Soc members, and some just could not adjust. We had been used to 'running our own show' in a culture of critical questioning, experimental worship, and Meth Soc groups that nurtured individual members, fostered close sharing and constantly aimed to take faith and society seriously. We moved away when we left to churches where these concepts were less, or not at all developed, and it was very difficult. I was fortunate in that Trinity Methodist Church in Congleton was a newly opened church of 300 plus, formed from three local congregations plus a number of incomers working in the electronics or textile industries, and ready to consider new ways of doing things. I soon found a niche in working with young people in a variety of ways, finally co-leading Sunday night youth fellowship (SNYF as it was fondly known) for twenty years. Thus I was able to take responsibility for my own learning alongside those young people with whom I was privileged to journey, as they grappled with issues of faith in contemporary society. Eventually I heard the call to preach. Another learning journey began.

Paths opened up in different directions, and I want to pay tribute to one more person. Revd B Arthur Shaw who was Chairman of the Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District. He encouraged me to get involved in District Committees, so long as we addressed him as 'Sir'- and in the late seventies recommended me as our district's representative on the Connexional General Purposes Committee. Who ….. me? Yet, because Arthur valued me I was able to value myself, and so began a hugely enriching involvement in matters connexional. This was not simply about administration and organisation, but gave me the opportunity to be fed in worship by people who were very gifted and introduced me into forms of spirituality I had never encountered before, and came to value greatly.

Whilst working as a lay Pastoral Assistant in the Sandbach and Alsager Circuit, I was privileged to attend a course at the Urban Theology Unit, under the direction of Revd John Vincent. I was introduced to reading Mark's gospel in ways that emphasised the immediacy and urgency of the gospel stories, and the importance of following Jesus on 'the path' 'the road' 'the way' (the same Greek word that Mark uses can be interpreted in all three ways). We were encouraged to get right into Bible incidents or Jesus' parables by means of members of the group each becoming one of the characters, and challenging the others about their part in the story. I've used this method with numerous groups in churches and found it to be a means of bringing afresh the gospel narrative to those who may have listened to it countless times, but never really heard the message. Another way is to read through the whole of Mark's gospel in one sitting in a small group; it is such a powerful way to tell, or hear, the stories of Jesus.

It was also at UTU that I was first introduced to Personality Type Theory, which has continued to intrigue me. Later, I trained as a Myers-Briggs practitioner at Emmaus House in Bristol, and as I identified my preferred type I began to understand why some people find me so difficult! This has been a wonderful learning journey: co-leading Myers-Briggs workshops with my colleague Charles Worth, we have marvelled at the way in people's growth in self-understanding has enabled them to value their own and other people's gifts; given them a means of enhancing team working and a tool to help with conflict management. All of which contribute to their effectiveness as co-workers for the kingdom. I could go on…. but I think you can see that I am a paid up member of the Myers - Briggs fan club.

An opportunity that was completely different but equally fulfilling, was that of going as enabler with the Methodist Youth Exchange Team to Kenya. How blessed l I was that was able to live in the homes of local Methodists, visit countless church groups and projects, and experience the riches of Kenyan spirituality with its emphasis on living thankfully; spontaneous singing in harmony, and exuberant dance. I learnt so much about God's grace from my Kenyan sisters and brothers in Christ, and continue to do so.

One formal learning opportunity along my journey, was the post graduate/MA course in Consultancy, Mission and Ministry, then based at Cliff College but now at York St. John's University. Based on the work at AVEC of George Lovell and Catherine Widdecombe, the principles that this course propounds must undergird anything we try to do in the church. Collaborative and consultative ministry that takes reflective practice seriously and is based on sound missiological, theological and organisation principles must be the way forward. The church is not a business, but it is an organisation, and must not be afraid to learn insights from organisation studies. This becomes even more important if we want to truly become a discipleship movement shaped for mission. All Christian ministers, lay or ordained, need to be helped to understand how well informed, reflective practice, is the best way to work together.

Maybe this is the point at which I should introduce you to my dining room table!

Not for a meal, I'm afraid, but as an example that I often used when introducing a model called the learning cycle, attributed to David Kolb.

My everyday experience is a dining room table loaded with books and papers, each pile with a different purpose. That pile is next Sunday's service prep, this one here is getting invitations ready for messy church, while the others constitute the reading for or aftermath of various meetings or training sessions. A good place to start in the learning cycle is with a concrete experience, reality. My cluttered up table.

I reflect on this: it's not a really a convenient place to work, because I have to clear it every week when the family comes to dinner. It really is annoying to have to clear things away, often hastily at the last minute, so that I can't find what I want when I need it because I can't remember where I've put it.

So, I analyse what could be done: what are the options?

One: I could work somewhere else. David politely suggests my study; I'm not convinced that's the best place.

Two: I could clear away each pile of books and papers each time I leave that piece of work. Well, I could…. maybe. But that's so time-consuming.

Three: I could concentrate on one piece of work at a time, until it's finished, and then file it away. Does anyone work like that?

But I have to choose. I can carry on with a system with its obvious disadvantage of a blitz every week, or I can do away with it by adopting a different working practice.

I make a decision for putting things away at the end of each day - and put my theory into practice.

So then have a new experience to reflect on - are things better this way?… and so on.

Now for the moment of truth: I was able to use that as a live example for many years. It has taken as drastic and costly a step as moving house to put an end to it. I now have a massive study and an empty dining room table!

Reflective practice is not what we seem to be good at in the church, for we perpetuate systems that patently have flaws without asking 'why are we doing it this way'. And if we do ask, all too often the answer is, whether explicit or implicit, 'because we always have'. But because we are Gods church, our reflection and analysing has to be not only about 'how can we do things more effectively' but 'is what we are doing being faithful to the risk-taking, vulnerable God revealed in Jesus?

Let me give you an example of a local church that was prepared to take a risk. Six years ago David and I felt God was calling us to work at a church five miles away, Biddulph Methodist Church. A few years previously, the members had become discouraged, disheartened, and seriously dwindling in number. They could see no clear path ahead of them. Then God worked through the stationing process to send them a minister who opened up a window, then a door for them. He helped them to see that they had the only church building in the centre of town, and there was little else in the way of community rooms. Here was a wonderful opportunity to become 'the church at the centre'. They worked hard and raised money to build a community centre adjoining the worship area, and became a centre of hospitality for the town. Worship was revitalised. New initiatives evolved. Messy church has been a blessing for those who come and those who run it. A Fair Trade policy was adopted. What a journey, still of course in progress. But God is good.

I have deliberately payed tribute to only five people who have encouraged me on my journey as a Christian disciple - George, Ethel, Dennis, John and Arthur -, for they are ones representing others who are now part of the 'company of heaven'. Many other guides and companions to whom I am indebted are in this hall, or will hear this address at home, or read it in the Methodist Recorder - you know who you are - and I thank you for helping me to experience what I have, and to become the person I have become, though far from finished. You have taken seriously, long before it was published, the principles of a report that came to the Conference exactly 10 years ago: Connexional Training Strategies, of which, section one had the hugely significant heading 'Learning and developing as the whole people of God'.

It began by saying: The Church expects that each one of us, young and old, will grow and develop in our Christian discipleship. This happens when we feel valued as individuals, our learning needs are addressed; our experience is acknowledged and we are enabled to reflect critically on it; we have the opportunity to learn from each other; we are asked to question our current assumptions and practice; we are expected to take responsibility for our own learning; we are able to use our existing gifts and talents.

It added: The Church is committed to providing an ethos and opportunities which enable the above to happen. Of course, this is what the Methodist Church, at its best, has been doing since its inception. It has been at the forefront of helping ordinary people to develop into extra-ordinary people. Miners, fishermen, shop assistants, housewives… learnt how to read, to speak in public, to get engaged in community affairs', trades unions, politics.... all through membership of the chapel and their class meetings. Knowing God's love, they felt valued as individuals; their learning needs were recognised and addressed, and so on through the principles.

And although the report was written very much with formal training programmes in mind, it was also intended to cultivate an ethos of continuing learning and developing as disciples of Jesus who sought to play their part in God's mission.

I come now to my fourth and final postcard. This photo, taken by my daughter Joanna, shows one of her daughters at the seashore.

This picture does not show the end of the path, but a whole new beginning.

A toddler with the whole world ahead of her, a vast horizon. Who knows what lies ahead?

"Behold, I show you a new thing", says the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah. "Do you not perceive it"?

I think that is how I feel right now. I have my filled-in diary for the coming year, but don't really know what lies ahead. It looks immense, exciting, daunting.

But my granddaughter feels secure because her mummy and daddy are right close by, and I am comforted and supported by the love and prayers of so many people surrounding me like a great cloud of witnesses. And Jesus' promise: "I will be with you always, to the ends of the age".

How about you? Where do you find yourself on your journey? Will you too look with hope to the future?

And what about us, corporately, the people called Methodist?

What exciting, but risky and costly, opportunities lie ahead for us as a discipleship movement?

We shall consider this more as Conference progresses. We as a church shall be challenged to look outside, go through the door, take to the path of risky and costly discipleship, leaving behind that which is familiar and secure, for the sake of the gospel.

And we shall tale courage from the words of John Wesley, co-founder of the movement that came to be known as Methodism - "the best of all is, God is with us". Words spoken shortly before dying and being raised to new life. Amen. 

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