29 June 2018

A year of laughter and lament

This morning,  Friday 29th June 2018, I had an opportunity to share some reflections from this past year as the Vice-President of the Conference, with those who are here in Nottingham for Conference, but are not members of the Presbyteral Session, during their period of closed business.
So, as a final entry on this blog, before handing on to Michaela and Bala tomorrow morning, here are the notes from that session, which I called "A year of laughter and lament".

Some may have been here last year when I used the VP address to speak of the rhythm of “Laughter and Lament”… this has travelled with me and I am very grateful to so many around the Connexion who have shared their stories with me – stories of joy and of sorrow, in personal lives, in the life of the church and in the life of the world.

Is it really a year ago?  Is it only a year ago? It’s been the longest and the shortest year of my life…

It’s been a year which began with the death of Pauline Webb, one of the greatest lay people of our generation and has ended with the death of Colin Morris, one of our greatest presbyters – how are the mighty fallen - does their death offer a charge to us all - lay and ordained, women and men - to be the revolutionaries and prophets of the church in the coming decades?

It’s also been a notable year personally; with the birth of my first grandchild, Martha Grace, to Tim & Hannah in January, and the death of my sister-in-law, Cathi, at the age of 51, in March.  Laughter and lament are with us all the time. 

If I were to share everything I have learned and experienced it would take until next Conference, so I am mainly sharing headlines, but in the hope that there may be some time for discussion at the end.

10 things to laugh about/celebrate, then 10 things to lament and then a few closing thoughts…

1. There is life in the extremities – I live in the extremities and Scotland is a hard field; but been good to see life & growth in other fringes of the Connexion (what Jennie Hurd calls the Celtic Heart, rather than the Celtic Fringe) … Shetland; Isle of Man; Sark (leading a Quiet Day on Holy Saturday in the wonderful new Sanctuary centre) & Cornwall – where I was excited to pay my first visit to Gwennap Pit (& have a Cornish pasty there with the indomitable Steve Wild!)

Stepping beyond our connexion briefly:
2. The work of All We Can and World Church Relations: With All We Can I had an amazing trip to Ethiopia; operating with real partnership ethos, not paternalism. 
Planted a tree – hope it’s still growing!
Feeling of sisterly solidarity as I made eye contact with a woman with whom I shared almost nothing else – language, situation, lifestyle…
(Also brilliant day conference in London in January – raised the bar for church events).
World Church Relations sent me to Russia… in Jan/Feb!  Again too much to say there, but came back with one new concept, after talking with their brilliant Methodist Bishop, Eduard Khegay, that of “Horizontal Connexionalism” … e.g. Youth Forum (& for us; 3-Gen; Connecting Disciples; MWiB…)
In my research for the trip I discovered that, around 1906, 2 Scandinavian pastors working to establish Methodism in Russia published a number of booklets and song books, including a booklet entitled “Methodists: who they are and what they want”.  I would like a copy of that!!

3. Committed and hardworking ministers: but this has a shadow side which we’ll come back to later. 

4. Committed and hardworking laity: again at every possible level, doing every possible job in local churches
also e.g. Connecting Disciples – excellent training and fellowship event for paid lay workers;
special mention of the DMLN team whose work I have seen in many parts of the Connexion and am really impressed – don’t let it become a hidden treasure! 
But also “ordinary” lay people, unpaid, trying to be disciples and getting on with the job wherever they are… unsung heroes and heroines. 

5. Personally the joy of preaching so regularly (e.g. Lent, Holy Week & Easter) & sharing in distribution of communion: again there are other issues we may explore later here about the role of lay people. 

6. Churches engaging with messiness – all of church should be called “Messy Church” –
some city centres; Manchester, Sheffield, housing estate on IoM,
the work of Action for Children (I visited 3 services in Scotland doing excellent work with young carers, respite care for seriously disturbed young adults and provision of accommodation for homeless young people)
lots of examples…

7. Rural work: especially Germinate & the work of the Peak Park Development officer (Deacon Lorraine Brown) working with tiny congregations to find their place in the local situation (also in IoM and Shetland) – potential for pilgrimage here. 
Mention one small rural church which I visited whilst on a pilgrimage with Chester & Stoke which had been redeveloped beautifully, but they put their growth down not to the improved building but to the consistent, good preaching which had been provided for them by nearby Swanbank…

8. Pilgrimage generally: so grateful to districts who have indulged me with this and some great experiences of doing pilgrimage and of learning from the pilgrim ethos… I could talk for 5 days on this without drawing breath – see me later if interested! 
Special highlight was the Pilgrimage conference at Cliff College in April; 70 folk gathered with real energy and potential.
I feel more strongly than ever that the pilgrim ethos is where we need to go & my reflections at Methodist Council in April were in the form of a pilgrimage – (and are available if you would like them). 
Early on in the year, at a pilgrimage event with women from the northern districts at Rydal Hall in Grasmere I noted in my journal, “I feel empassioned to urge us all to embrace liminality, to be prepared to be unsettled, to be vulnerable and to live with uncertainty and so to become an attractive, wounded community!"  I stand by that a year later. 

9. Attendance at Labour Party Conference: similarities & differences to Methodist Conference; “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” sung with evangelistic fervour unmatched in much of our worship – standing on seats to attract attention… but good engagement with MPs who wanted to hear what the Free Church leaders group had to say (& excellent ecumenical cooperation amongst the Free Churches, led by Salvation Army)

10. Finally… : in a wonderful “celebration of Cornish Methodism” at Truro Cathedral, with Holy Communion celebrated by Methodist rites for  first time, seeing the Anglican servers refilling not just the chalices which were being used, but also the trays of little glasses with (non-alcoholic) communion wine!!!

Situations and attitudes to Lament or which have given rise to lament in me and in the wider church/world:

1. Grenfell Tower: I have to begin here - the fire took place just before Conference last year and in a sense we have all lived with this all year.  I went to Notting Hill Methodist Church in March to meet Mike Long and to record an interview on lament for BBC R4 which was used as part of the meditation on Good Friday. 
Found myself very moved by the site of the burnt-out Tower – some of you live with that daily – and so awed by Mike and the work he and the congregation have done there. 
And it’s so right to use the word “Lament” here – on lots of levels.  It is not just about the church providing “aid” or even moral support, but about the church leading the way in helping people to lament and to weep and to believe that that is what God is doing in this situation – discovering the heart of God. 

2. Starvation in Ethiopia: meeting with 80-100 farmers on the last day and hearing how they had eaten leaves throughout the previous winter when frost had killed their crops.  But they were not looking for handouts, but so grateful to All We Can’s partner on the ground who are offering not handouts, but training in cultivation which can resist a changing climate.

3. Heartbroken people not always finding church the place to be: people have shared many stories with me – particularly around suicide of course. 
Last year at Conference the music group sang the Proclaimers’ song, “Shadows Fall”.  Shadows are still falling on people’s lives and we share the brokenness of the world to which we are called, for we are broken people too.
A common feature of the stories people have shared with me has been that they are not telling these stories at church because of the stigma or sense that they are failing God… by being heartbroken… how do we rediscover and share the broken heart of God?

4. Terrible theology: during this year I have just about managed to continue as LP tutor in my circuit and so have encountered Module 4 of the new WLP course. Section 1 of this module is called “Encountering God in difficult times” and it is excellent – read it if you haven’t done!
It calls out “Terrible Theology” where (as in my last point) we make God out to be an unfeeling tyrant and condemn people who are bruised reeds and dimly-burning wicks. 
Sorry to say I have encountered some of this theology around the Connexion – including in a few people we have trained for ministry.  Lord have mercy.

5. A very male God…: just an observation – but worship and even some key events within Methodism do not reflect the inclusive God we find (generally) at Conference…
Maybe this is partly why I still wear black on Thursdays – that age-old campaign raising awareness of gender-based violence
Maybe this is partly why I now find myself asked to do some listening around the area of sexual harassment in our church… hard stories.
We’ve come a long way in our theology and practice, but there is still an instinctive default to the male God  and the consequent imbalance of the sexes which is holding us back in so many ways. 
Maybe discovering more about a non-genderised God would help us to be more inclusive of those who don’t identify as male or female in our churches and in our society?

6. Limited horizons:  one of the lessons I have learned from going on pilgrimage to Lindisfarne is that small islands have bigger physical horizons than great cities… but this doesn’t always extend to mental or spiritual horizons. 
I have found small, limited horizons in lots of places – from the Isle of Man, to inner City Glasgow and other places too: an example over a church tea party:
Me: “What do you see as the future for your church?
Neighbour: “We just have to hope and pray that people will come in”.
God is bigger and wilder than we think – something else I have learned from pilgrimage. 

7. Lack of grace: while I’m in whingeing mode, I have to say that despite a great deal of wonderful hospitality, love and care there have been times when I have encountered poor grace… and have wondered, if that’s how they treat the VP, how do they treat folk who might just drop in when they are in need…? So that (not my own treatment) worries me. 
Having to buy my own lunch from the canteen at an event where I was the keynote speaker is just a tiny example… we don’t always live out what we say we believe. 
Grace in human relationships says a lot more to me than polished worship, beautifully refurbished buildings or erudite preaching.
Just occasionally I have left places (& I do mean Methodist churches) fully understanding what Jesus meant when he talked about shaking the dust off your feet. 
It’s been a tiny minority of places but it has happened and I am risking losing all the friends I still have in Methodism by calling it out. 

8. Presbyters who find it difficult to treat lay people as fellow-disciples: again here I risk any friends who are still with me.  Again this is a small minority, but, as a lay person, I have sometimes been made to feel “what would you know?” and I don’t want that to creep into Methodism, which at one level prides itself on the ministry of the whole people of God, and on lay-ordained collaboration – that’s the whole point of this role really.  But we don’t all “get it”!
How many times have I been asked “So you will be President next year?” (By Methodists as well as non-Methodists).  “So you are some sort of deputy for the President?”
In Westminster Abbey at the celebrations of 500 years since the Lutheran Reformation I was the only lay person in a procession of about 80.  I relish that – not for myself but for what it says about Methodism – let’s not fail at ground level what we celebrate in our leadership structures. 
(in Westminster Cathedral at the Solemn Vespers for the Dead after the death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor I was the only woman in a procession of over 100, but that’s another story!)
During Moving Mountains, the ecumenical mission in Cumbria, in conversation with sundry bishops when I was trying to explain my lay role, one said “but we’re going to ordain her” and laid hands on me… in a car park!  (Well stranger things have happened in car parks in recent years)  Somehow I had to explain that I wouldn’t see that as a promotion or a privilege… more friends lost!
Sorry to harp on about this, but from conversations with others too, I sense a real danger of going backwards here, just at a time when we desperately need to move forwards and grasp full collaboration in ministry – with all the questions that might raise about why we ordain in the first place and what we expect of those we ordain. 
Lay people are not "The Great Uncalled" - many of us feel strongly called to non-ordained discipleship & ministry.
Lay people do not exist to help the minister with his/her job… if anything it’s the other way round. 

Sorry – it’s going to get more depressing before it gets any better again!...

9. A sense of futility: just before the end of the year I was gripped by a real sense that the year had been for nothing and that I was exhausted for nothing and had left my husband on his own for more than half the year for nothing… and I felt like giving it all up. 
And that sense is not confined to the last weeks of a year like this – many of us are living with it all the time, and it’s terrible. 
We preach our hearts out (which I have loved doing) and then wonder if it has made any difference at all…  this leads me back to what I said earlier about very hard-working laity and ordained people.
And leads on to my final thing to lament…

10. Weariness:  Everyone is tired.  
This struck me particularly in February, preaching in mid-Derbyshire, when the lectionary reading was Isaiah 40… “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…” we all know it, we love it, we sing it with all the energy we can summon up… but does it work? 
I asked the congregation where I was preaching on that day if they were tired or full of energy… and you can guess their response! 
This may be nothing new – at Wesley House Brian Beck took me around the archives and put a copy of the 1st issue of the MR into my hands; there on the front, under the title, it said “Any proceeds from the sale of this paper will be given to the Fund for Worn-out Ministers and Widows”!
What do we do?  This is, to me, the most vital of all my observations.  How do we redress the balance of our lives so that we are doing more of the stuff which gives us energy and less of the stuff that drains us?  More “waiting on God” (whatever that means in your situation) and less ticking boxes… we can’t answer this today I know!  How do we structure our lives and rhythms to be energising?

In the communion service last year I preached on manna in the wilderness and used that really as an apologetic for stopping the business for an hour or two and putting worship central… but sometimes it feels as though we have to make an effort to do that… how do we allow spirituality – allow God – to infiltrate everything else we do?  That’s what I am taking into the next year – particularly if Conference affirms my appointment as the next chair of the Methodist Council!

So, I hope the “Day by Day”/“Five-A-Day” ideas which Loraine and I introduced last year may continue  and undergird our new emphasis which Micky and Bala will share tomorrow… for me one of the 5-a-day, Keep Silence, has been particularly energising and sustaining in a busy year.
Please pray for Micky and Bala – and pray for Sandy, Robert and Tamsin too, and for Sylvia, Dinesh & Shamila.  There is a huge personal cost in these roles.  I don’t want to elaborate on that now, other than to suggest that the reason may be that the roles are seen primarily as a “ministry of visitation”, in other words of presence, of incarnation, of physically BEING in the districts.  And that has been really important…
I just wonder aloud if we need to find ways to spread that ministry of presence across the Connexional Team and beyond… ?

I hope we will keep exploring how laughter might be a mission strategy, so one final story, and then questions or comments if you wish:
When arriving at churches where I am preaching I always introduce myself, and don’t expect people to know who I am; in one large church (which shall be nameless!) the steward happened to have a copy of the presidential prayer card in her hand as I arrived. 
"Hello, I’m Jill" (I said to her)
"Yes, I can see that", (she replied), "I recognise you from your photograph… very flattering photograph”!

Jill Baker

Back to The blog of the President and Vice President of Conference

Share this