26 June 2020

A Year of Two Parts, and Two People

Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh reflect on their year as President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference.

Barbara: We bring a reflection on our Presidential year.  Notice the plural: for this has been a year of collaboration and friendship between us, a lay person and an ordained person, a systematic theologian and a pastoral practitioner, a woman and a man. It therefore felt quite wrong for me to speak as President in any other way than in collaboration with Clive. We started the year by picking a theme and writing a book. It was in the book-writing we first noticed some differences in our approach, Clive writing more in the third person, me in the first person, Clive referencing and using lots of brackets, me telling stories and forgetting to insert verbs! In our presidential addresses, Clive brought a framework of ‘Three Ps’ whereas I told an interweaving narrative of story and reflection. When Clive does a presentation he usually has PowerPoint slides behind him, whilst I have a piece of paper to fold or a bit of wool to knot! True to form, Clive brings three reflections starting with W to these concluding conversations. To humour him I have also brought three Ws but unlike his, which are themes, mine are process words. We will take it in turns with our Ws but within each one we stay with our theme of story, reflect on how our own narrative has changed during the course of the year and also on the stories of those we have encountered on the way.

Clive: It seems right to start with Whiteness. For if there is one aspect of my own story that I have wrestled with keenly during the year then this is it. Readers of our So What’s the Story…? will know that this important thread through my life began starkly when I was a student in Chicago in the mid-1980s. Race, and racism, awareness (my own!) was one thing; fully appreciating the significance and privilege of my Whiteness has taken a lot longer. The past year has taken me much further in this demanding journey, interweaving experiences from the Vice-Presidential role with fresh discoveries through the theological education day jobs I have still been doing. I could never have foreseen how these personal explorations would connect with important current political developments. It is one thing to be working on ‘decolonising the curriculum’, as I have been for many years. It is another to be pressed not just to think about, but to be called to action now, directly and concretely in fresh ways, on the recognition that Black Lives Matter in church and society. Personally I’d be happy to see all statues moved to museums. But what are our equivalents to this in church life? I just hope I can make constructive use of all of this when I begin my new role as Principal of the Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham in September. Readers will, I guess, not believe I had nothing to do with your appointment there, Barbara, but it will be great to have you as a colleague! And what about your year? What’s your first ‘W’?

Barbara: It’s Witness, because during the course of the year we have witnessed a number of things in ways that are a remarkable privilege as well as a challenge: the political upheaval of Brexit, the proroguing of parliament, the party political conferences and a General Election. Internationally I have witnessed the work of Christian Aid and All We Can and the Global Relations team, in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Israel/Palestine and South America. Back home we have witnessed the influence of our Methodist heritage marching at the Tolpuddle festival, sharing the Eucharist in the garden of Epworth for the Susannah Wesley celebrations, calling in at Englesea Brook on my walk to Conference. We have witnessed the work of island ministers and of chaplains to the Forces, in Schools and with Seafarers. As President I have also witnessed rejoicing and lament following the God in Love Unites Us report. As Clive says, we are seeing and hearing, too, the stories of colonialism and racism fracturing our society as we speak, the traces and impact of which are evident within the churches too.

We have also witnessed the faithful and remarkable ministries of many Methodists who would say they were just ordinary people getting on with the job but doing remarkable things, like the work with the homeless at Whitechapel mission and in Clacton, as well as preachers and teachers and stewards. And we have been hugely impressed with MHA as an organisation with all that it has had to face over the past three months. But I’m left with questions: what do we do with the stories we hear? Is God in every story? How do we approach Scripture and witness to the Gospel narrative in ways that are authentic and true? How to witness to God’s love, how to speak for justice, how to bear witness to our faith as Methodists? These are on-going questions for us both, of course, and who knows perhaps one day we’ll try and answer them! In the meantime, perhaps I should mention that some of the President’s prayers are about to be released on a CD called Stories to Tell, with some of the proceeds going to All We Can, a bit of serendipity coming from the prayers I have been writing all year and a chance encounter with a folk musician called Artey Williams (arteywilliams.com/shop). It’s through the prayers and poems that I’ve been posting on our Facebook page that some of my own explorations have been voiced. What’s your next ‘W’?

Clive: It’s Wealth: not because I have a great deal of it, although in global terms, of course, any Western citizen who’s been in paid work for most of their life needs to recognise that they are hugely wealthy in material terms compared to most of the world’s population. Within the UK, lockdown has highlighted very poignantly how wealth is more than the money you have, and that inequality bites in so many ways. Presbyters and deacons have contacted us and made us aware of some of the unequal impact of the coronavirus across the country. Those living in and standing alongside people in tough settings where Zoom meetings would be a delight, where there has been no furloughing, little opportunity to social distance and many Covid-related deaths have kept our feet firmly rooted in reality.

So wealth is my second issue because of this, but also because it’s been a thread running through some of the thinking I’ve been doing about faith in recent years. It’s some time since I came to the conclusion that we mustn’t overspiritualize what Christianity is about. Perhaps it’s better to say that the only Christian spirituality worth having is one that takes matter and bodies very seriously indeed, even as it encourages people to cultivate a rich inner life. I tried to have a look at this in the book I wrote just before our recent one! But, irony of ironies, A Cultural Theology of Salvation is much more expensive than our Presidential book, so you have to be wealthy to afford it. Such is the world of theological publishing. At the end of the year, though, I am left with sharp questions about how we will, as a Church, use our wealth, including our property, in the service of others, and in ‘playing ball with God’s Kingdom’ rather than simply keeping the show on the road. As you well know, Methodism only deserves to exist as a distinct movement when it invites God to make use of us, and of what we’ve got, to welcome God’s reign wherever and in whatever form that should take. What comes next for you?

Barbara: There’s a good link here, in fact. Part of what you’ve just been referring to is how we live, and how we acquire and use the resources we have. That connects with thinking about a Way of Life. One of the delights of the year has been to work very creatively with the Connexional media team and one of the things they have been teaching us is how to tell a story and how to communicate effectively. We Methodists can, it seems, be a bit coy about blowing our own trumpet. We do a lot of good work but we forget to mention it to anyone! That is not to say we should be cocky or superior in any way. But we could be more outward focussed and keep addressing the issues of the world. I have found it frustrating that so much of our church conversation is about church! People do love to talk to the President about the church as if I was some sort of religious obsessive! Personally, I believe if we live openly and graciously as Christians and don’t stress too much about the church then actually church happens. I have also appreciated hugely being part of a small Connexional community who are endeavouring to live by the Methodist Way of Life. I was initially quite anxious about the structures of accountability the Way of Life envisages. In fact I have found it helpful and also fun at times to talk with this small group, to pray and to challenge how we live from day to day. I long for us all to be able to find these new patterns of accountability, and this applies to our structures as well as to our local engagement. Sometimes Methodist structures seem to be  too risk averse and not open to the possibility of the transforming power of the Spirit. What’s your final theme from the year?

Clive: I’ve got a communication-related theme here too. Mine’s the WorldWideWeb, which I include as a symbol for all things to do with communication. Whatever we think of the Internet, it’s proved its value over the last quarter of our Presidential year. We have, of course, in our different ways, and befitting our respective skills (!), used diverse forms of communication during the year. Not being a Facebook user I’m grateful you’ve kept that alive, and we know how much your weekly prayers and poems have been appreciated. With Dave Webster’s help, I’ve kept the Presidential blog-page on the Methodist Church’s web-site supplied with articles, making use too of the Methodist Recorder articles we’ve each been writing. The inter-active platforms we’ve been using so much more, though, in recent months (Zoom, Skype, Blackboard, Moodle and so on) has given many of us rich experiences of what might be possible beyond lockdown. We’ll have to be very careful about how we move on so that all people are included in the different patterns of church life which are likely to emerge. But so long as we respect the distinction between ‘transmission’ and ‘participation’ understandings of communication we should be OK. There’s a time and place for ‘talking to’ people – ‘getting a point over’ (transmission). But more of the time we need to see what goes on between people (participation). If only we could tap the full theological significance of that throughout Christianity across the world. And if only we could have done that for centuries! What’s your final ‘W’?

Barbara: I’m wondering about Wondering. As a pastoral theologian I am left wondering what impact we will feel as a society and as a church as a result of lockdown and the melting of so much that we have taken for granted. We can already see the upsurge of anger that we would associate with bereavement and I wonder how we as Methodist people will be able to speak into that in ways that are wise and peaceful. People often say to the President of Conference ‘Why doesn’t the church SAY something’ and it is true to say that we have written our fair share of statements and letters to those in power, but we are not the church! The church does say things locally but how do we keep outward-facing and challenging structures that are unjust? I wonder whether we will find a world transformed by new values. Will future generations have the privileges of travel that have been a feature of my lifetime? I wonder how we can embody a simpler lifestyle and a greater generosity in everyday relations. I wonder how the church can live more sacrificially so that we can see the loss of our buildings as a new freedom to engage differently with neighbours. And as you and I both move to Queens, I wonder how we can find new ways to equip people, lay and ordained, to live the story of God’s love and grace, to witness to the good news of Jesus that make sense and to be courageous in campaigning for and practicing everyday justice and reconciliation. So, this has been a year of two parts, the first part story-full and relational, the second part with the single story of Covid-19 and lived in social isolation. It was always going to be an interesting year but I didn’t quite realise how weird it was going to become!

Clive: Nor me! I sense, though, that our ‘So, what’s the story …?’ theme has worked imaginatively and well and given people confidence to speak up a bit more, and also to dig into their own stories. It would be wonderful to think that people will go on doing this as a sort of habit. In that way, all of the Ws we’ve come up with can go on being explored by others too. ‘Honesty’, even ‘ruthless honesty’ are words I’ve found myself using a lot during the year, whether that’s about owning up to how we use the Bible, being open about when we’ve made mistakes, or ‘working with’ bits of our own stories which are uncomfortable.  I realise now this has simply been a way of encouraging people to have a look at all the kinds of things which we are drawing attention to here: ethnicity, truth-telling, honesty about riches, clear communication, living more simply, focusing on the heart of justice and all of this centred in prayer and accountability. And where we do this, as you said earlier, within an understanding that this is our (Methodist) Way of Life, then we know that God is in the mix helping us at every step of the way.

Barbara: Well it’s clear from all we have said that the year has raised more questions than answers! We have been shaken as a nation and as a church to re-evaluate our priorities and to live differently. We are less secure, more anxious and isolated, more vulnerable and also, so it seems, more prayerful. As I say this I am aware that our world situation can lurch again, into another crisis, a second peak or a fissure between ethnic groups or cultures. In the midst of all this, I have seen a remarkable resilience in the people called Methodist but also a fragility. And my ‘catch phrase’ has been to be ‘resolutely kind’ because when we feel cornered we can easily be angry or threatened but being resolved to be kind however we are feeling brings the transformation the gospel envisages.

Barbara and Clive together: So it’s been a wonderful year and we are both hugely grateful to everyone who has made this possible through their generosity and prayer. It has changed us in ways that we had neither expected nor fully know.

We are thankful for the challenges and the blessings it has brought. And as we step down and step out into other work, we pray God’s blessing on Richard and Carolyn, all our colleagues in the Connexional Team and all those in Methodist churches and local communities whom we continue to serve together.

 Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh.

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