27 June 2015

We must find our voice, urges new Methodist Vice-President

  • Photo of Dr Jill Barber at the Conference here
  • The audio of Jill's address will soon be available here
  • Video: the Methodist President and Vice-President talk about their plans

The newly appointed Vice-President of the Methodist Conference has called for the Church to find its distinctive voice in her inaugural address.

Speaking to the Conference gathered at Southport today, Dr Jill Barber questioned 'Where is the Methodist voice?' Jill suggested that through a renewed focus on the four 'P's of Prophesy, Prayer, Passion and Protest Methodism can find its voice, speak out to make a difference and speak more effectively whilst embracing its distinctiveness and diversity.

Introducing the address Jill said, "Part of the problem of course is that we don't and can't speak with one voice. The strength of Methodism is that it is a democratic movement of people, with many different views about how we should work out our Christian discipleship. But we can't stay silent. God calls us to speak out. It is not easy grappling with how to live with contradictory convictions, but that is our calling."       

"Have we lost that passion for living out the gospel through social and political action?  Is there a danger that we have privatised our faith, so that it makes us feel better as individuals, but we fail to relate it to wider community and global issues?  I want to call on Methodists to get involved in local and national politics. To become a voice for change, challenging the politics of self-interest and upholding the politics of the common good."

Ending her address, Jill told the inspiring story of Dorothy Ripley whose prophecy, prayer, passion and protest saw her become the first woman to speak to Congress in Washington, speaking up for those who had no voice.

The full text of the address follows:

Mr President, members of Conference and guests, friends.  I have been enormously touched, and humbled, by the number of people who have said they will be praying for me as I prepare to take up the privilege and responsibility of serving as your Vice President in the coming year.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart, and please keep on praying!

'The Trade Union movement owes more to Methodism than it does to Marx.' I am enormously proud of that.  It draws many visitors to Englesea Brook, where I am the director of a Heritage for Mission project which focuses on the story of Primitive Methodism. One visitor memorably announced, 'I am anti-God, but a Methodist in my DNA.'  It was a great conversation starter!

One of the questions I am frequently asked is, 'Where are the Methodist voices today?' They have heard of Donald Soper, but after that I begin to struggle a bit! What is our distinctive Methodist voice? And how can we gain confidence in sharing our own faith story?

Part of the problem of course is that we don't and can't speak with one voice. The strength of Methodism is that it is a democratic movement of people, with many different views about how we should work out our Christian discipleship. But we can't stay silent. God calls us to speak out. It is not easy grappling with how to live with contradictory convictions, but that is our calling.

How can we find our voice?  I believe this is a key challenge, if we are to make a difference to individual lives, and bring hope to a world whose future is threatened by violence and climate change.

So I am going to offer you my four 'Ps' (and in your conference bags you will find four postcards for you to use in your own prayer and reflection).

'Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions.'(Joel 2.28)

My first 'P' is Prophesy.

Where are the Methodist voices? They are here. We can't pass the responsibility to someone else.  God pours out his Spirit on each one of us, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background. We all have a unique story to share about the transforming love of God in our life.

Equality and empowerment are at the heart of our Methodist identity. Lay people have a voice as well as ordained people. John Wesley accepted that women could have an 'extraordinary call'.  In the early 19th century, when the Wesleyans banned women from preaching, it was the 'Prims' and Bible Christians who recognised that God pours out his Spirit on daughters as well as sons. Women were sent out as evangelists, speaking God's words in places that others sometimes feared to go. 

For the early Methodists it didn't matter how young, or how old you were.  'If you know the love of God in your heart then stand up and share it brother! - or sister!' In the little hamlet of Englesea Brook, Sarah Smith, a farm labourer's wife, taught the children to read and she also taught them how to pray.  She then started a prayer meeting in her cottage, led by the children.  Six of those children went on to become itinerant ministers, including Ann Brownsword and her brother Thomas, known as the 'boy preacher'. The youngest person I have found on a Methodist preaching plan was 11 years and 8 months.

There are no barriers to the outpouring of the Spirit. Desires, hopes and dreams inspire action. What more can we do to empower older people to share their dreams and young people their visions?

The prophetic voice is often counter-cultural, subversive. Sometimes we don't listen to the right voices. To discern what the Spirit is saying to us as a church, we need to listen to the voices of those on the margins. Whose voice is ignored?  Whose voice do we want to silence?      

We need to listen to the uncomfortable voices. We need to take the risk of being hurt when we speak out, and our voice is ignored or rejected. 

'Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.'(1 Thess 5:16-18)

My second 'P' is Pray.

Finding our voice begins with prayer. To pray is to be immersed in the presence of God. Sarah Crosby, the first woman to convince John Wesley that she had a call to preach, had a passion for souls and the ability to attract and hold great crowds. She would start each day at 4am, with an hour of prayer. This gave her a constant sense of God's presence which sustained her through the busiest times. She felt so surrounded and filled with the presence of God that she had a sense of calm even when speaking to huge crowds, like this!

If we are to find our voice, first we need to pray. William Clowes, one of the founders of the Primitive Methodist revival, was going to preach at Beverley, a 9 mile walk from his home in Hull.  When John Flesher, who was going with him, called for him, he was told that Clowes could not be disturbed. Later in the afternoon Flesher came back again, only to receive the same answer. When he called for the third time, there was no time to spare.  Clowes appeared from his room, and greeted him with the words, 'Flesher, I am supple with God.' I love that image of prayer as our spiritual workout. I want to be supple with God.

The early Methodists took prayer seriously.  One day in 1823, John Oxtoby's - 'Praying Johnny' as he was known - was at a meeting to discuss what to do about Filey, a fishing village on the Yorkshire coast. All attempts at mission had met with such resistance that it was decided to abandon it altogether. Abandon Filey?! John Oxtoby begged the meeting to give Filey one more chance, saying he would go himself. The meeting agreed to one last try.  When John reached the hill overlooking Filey he knelt down to pray. He told God that he, John Oxtoby, had made a promise that God would revive his work in Filey, and God must do it, or his servant would never be able to hold up his head again. At last, he received an assurance from God, and rose from his knees saying 'Filey is taken!' That was the beginning of a remarkable revival.

In 1832 a cholera epidemic swept through the country, and thousands died. It was reported of one Methodist society in Yorkshire that only 'one praying man' was left. This didn't mean he was the only man left in the church, but the only surviving member of the prayer band.  Praying bands were as important as preachers. They used their voices at camp meetings, and after services, praying people into the kingdom.

Many people lack confidence in praying in public. After his conversion, Hugh Bourne shared his new found faith with Daniel Shubotham and Matthias Bayley. Daniel and Matthias were talking one night and decided they would like to pray together, but neither thought they could do it.  Matthias found a prayer book, but couldn't find a suitable prayer. So they plucked up the courage, had a go, and found God helped them. That led to a prayer meeting in Jane Hall's cottage to which Hugh Bourne was invited. Hugh found he was expected to pray, and actually he'd never prayed in public before. He was particularly nervous because Matthias went first, and Hugh thought it was the best prayer he had ever heard. However, they sang and Hugh Bourne followed. He wrote in his journal, 'The instant I began, heaven opened on my soul', and I felt the Lord had fitted me to be a 'praying labourer'. The next morning Hugh Bourne told Daniel what a blessing he'd received from Matthias' prayer. 'Why', said Daniel, 'He is praying no more because he cannot pray as you did.' The prayer meetings continued, the prayers grew in confidence, and in the words of Hugh Bourne, 'timid, inexperienced Christians were led to become energetic workers for Christ'.

Prayer is at the heart of our walk with God. What steps can we take to help each other to find our voice, so that we can grow in confidence, in praying with each other as we come to faith, and grow as disciples of Christ?

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … Love your neighbour as yourself.'(Matthew 22.37,39)

My third 'P' is Passion.

If there is one word which runs through the early Methodists like a stick of rock, it is enthusiasm. They had a passion for sharing the good news with everyone they met.

My grandson Edwin is not yet two. He is passionate about cooking. He sits on the floor with a saucepan and a wooden spoon stirring away. His passion for cooking comes from copying his parents. We become passionate about loving others by loving God and staying close to him, watching what he does. God's love is not half-hearted but extravagant. He gives everything of himself to us. 

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart. When we come to know the love of Christ for ourselves we want to share our joy with others. At Englesea Brook we have a display of 'loving cups' or 'love feast' cups. One day this sparked a visitor to tell me his story. 'The moment I set out on my path to being a Christian was at a Love Feast. I was five or six years old and sitting on my mother's lap. There was a window with rectangles of red and blue glass, and the sun was shining through. An old man stood up and the light surrounded his white hair, and there were the vivid colours of the red and blue, and he said 'I want to tell you about my Jesus'. And I thought, I want some of that.'

'I want to tell you about my Jesus'. Now that reminded me of Steve Wild. He has an endearing way of talking about his lovely wife as 'my Laura'. I find that really moving, because those words convey the depth of his love for her. Are we prepared to tell others about 'my Jesus'?

A real delight this year has been meeting Megan Thomas, our Youth President, and being inspired by her love for Jesus.  Telling me about her experiences she said, 'I've discovered that if I ask people about their grandchildren, their faces light up, and they can't wait to tell me about them.' As a grandma myself, I found my hand going straight to my phone, I was all ready to show her the pictures! Then she brought me up short as she added, 'If only we could share our love for Jesus like that.' 

'Speak out for those who cannot speak … Defend the rights of the poor and needy.'(Proverbs 31.8-9)

My fourth 'P' is Protest.

If we are passionate about loving God and loving our neighbour, we have to speak out for those who have no voice. For those with mental health issues who have had their benefits sanctioned. For the million people living in poverty who have to use food banks. For migrants seeking a better life and a means to support their families. For Pacific islanders who are suffering the effects of climate change.

Loving our neighbour means being concerned for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, both locally and globally. It means speaking out on their behalf. It means challenging systems that enslave people. Now, this is where it gets messy. Should Christians get involved in politics? Yes! 

We have a proud heritage of Methodists at the heart of local government. One of my heroines, Charlotte Edwards in Norfolk, one of the first women district councillors, challenged and changed the unjust system of paying poor relief in kind, and the unjust treatment of unmarried mothers in the workhouse. Methodist local preachers became the first trade union leaders, men like Tommy Hepburn and the Durham miners, and Joseph Arch and the agricultural workers. Most of the first working class MPs were Methodists.

Have we lost that passion for living out the gospel through social and political action? Is there a danger that we have privatised our faith, so that it makes us feel better as individuals, but we fail to relate it to wider community and global concerns? I want to call on Methodists to get involved in local and national politics. To become a voice for change, challenging the politics of self-interest and upholding the politics of the common good.

One way we can have a voice is by writing to our MP. Our MPs represent us in decisions that are made in Parliament. How will they know our views unless we tell them? If we lack confidence in understanding the issues, there is help at hand. JPIT, the Joint Public Issues Team of the Methodists, Baptists, URC and now the Church of Scotland, produce a newsletter, Praxis. This keeps me up to date with key issues and provides templates for action. JPIT's latest report, on benefit sanctions,shows that they disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people, affecting 100,000 children last year.

At times the church has been very risk averse. In the early 19th century, new chapels were even named Hanover or Brunswick, after the Royal Family, to demonstrate that Methodists were loyal citizens.

In 1819, in Manchester, protesters met in St Peter's Fields, to call for parliamentary reform.  15 people were killed and 400-700 injured after the cavalry charged into the crowd. 400 Wesleyan Methodists were excluded from the church for speaking out against the 'Peterloo' massacre. 

In 2015, in Manchester, protesters set up a tent camp in St Peter's Square, to call for proper support for homeless people, following £2 million in funding cuts. I was really challenged when my friend Susan asked me, 'With the homeless who set up their tent camp in Manchester, where is the Church in this? What if all the Christians stood in solidarity with these people?' What if …? 

Civil disobedience may be a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Speaking out can get us into trouble, although today I hope we would not be excluded from the Methodist Church.  Methodists have a history of passive resistance. In the early 20th century, many faced imprisonment for non-payment of taxes in protest at the government's education policy. In 2014, one of our Methodist ministers in training was arrested for taking part in a demonstration against the arms trade. 

Who is God calling you to speak out for?

Finally, I want to tell you about Dorothy Ripley, whose story has inspired me, and which shows that we don't need to wait for the church to speak out. We just need to obey God's call and find our own voice.

Dorothy Ripley lived in Whitby, where her father built the first Methodist Church, and John Wesley was a frequent visitor. Dorothy experienced a call to preach, but as a woman, the church would not accept her. One day, while she was praying, Dorothy heard God calling her to go to America to preach freedom for enslaved people, and convict slave holders of their sin, so they would set people free. This was before the Anti-Slavery Society in England, let alone America, but Dorothy felt she had to obey God's call.

A single woman, with no money, she set out to walk to London to find a boat that would take her to America. Eventually, she found a Quaker sea captain in Bristol who would take her.  On arriving in America, Dorothy decided she must go first to Washington, to tell the President what she planned to do. Everyone thought she was mad, but she told them she had to obey God not man. Amazingly, Dorothy got an interview with Thomas Jefferson, and had the courage to ask about his own slave holding, urging him to have compassion for his 300 slaves. When she asked for his approval for her mission, he warned her that she would have an uphill struggle, but they parted 'in peace'. 

The Dorothy decided to make her base in Charleston, the stronghold of Southern slavery. (Its legacy is still with us.And of course that place is very much in our minds. It was here, only last week, that nine people were killed in a racial attack at the African Methodist Episcopal Church.) For Dorothy, it was an immensely brave move, and she narrowly escaped several attempts on her life.

Dorothy must have made a tremendous impression on Jefferson, because in 1806 she became the first woman to speak to Congress. Apparently, she preached to a crowded audience with the same evangelical fervour as if she was at a camp meeting!

Dorothy saw herself as an evangelist. She traveled for over 30 years throughout America, and crossing the Atlantic at least 9 times. In 1818, we find her in Nottinghamshire, where she opened the first Primitive Methodist chapel in the county at Bingham, and was thrown into prison for open air preaching and inciting a riot. She was an amazing woman, who was not owned by the church, because her voice was too radical.

Dorothy Ripley was a woman of prayer, and lived by what she called the 'Bank of Faith'. She had a passion for sharing the love of God with others. She acted on God's call to love her neighbour, and spoke out for those who did not have a voice. She was prepared to challenge individual sin and sinful systems that enslaved people. She changed lives.

God calls you, and me, to find our voice.

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