22 December 2020

The President's Methodist Recorder Advent message

When the news was announced about a vaccine for the present pandemic my heart jumped for joy. At long last it seemed that there was now real hope for society and indeed the world to move forward into the future. I write this article just three days after that announcement and I trust by the time you read this, that hope has really moved forward.

Two days after that announcement I was privileged to attend Westminster Abbey for the Service to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior. In August 1920 the Reverend David Railton, who had served as an army chaplain in France during the First World War, wrote to the Dean of Westminster with a simple but unprecedented suggestion. Recalling a rough wooden cross in a French garden on which had been written ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, and reflecting on the anguish of bereaved families who would never know the final resting place of loved ones killed in action, he asked the Dean, Dr Herbert Ryle, to consider burying the body of one such ‘unknown comrade’ in Westminster Abbey. King George V, to whom Dean Ryle presented the idea, was initially cautious lest such an act re-open bitter wounds. But he was soon persuaded of the merits of the idea by the Prime Minister Lloyd George, and it was agreed that the burial of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ would take place in Westminster Abbey on the approaching Armistice Day, immediately after the unveiling of the Cenotaph. Once announced, the idea quickly caught the imagination of both the public and the press.

As I sat in Westminster Abbey for the most moving centenary service, which concluded in a most hopeful vain, I looked down at the floor around me. On the floor there were many memorial stones to former Deans of Westminster Abbey and  at my feet was the name of Michael Mayne, who served as the Dean from 1986- 1996. I was reminded about a number of books I have read where he was the author. His words were always full of hope. I recall him talking about when Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite were held hostage. Three men who lost their liberty but not their freedom. For even when life was reduced to a grubby six foot by four, even when chained to a wall in a dark and claustrophobic cell, they never lost hope. The hope that they had a future, the belief that things would change, a dogged expectancy when things were at their most hopeless that in the end good would prove more powerful than evil.

I will never forget visiting a village coffee morning in West Cumbria two days after the shootings on the West Coast of that beautiful county. The community had gathered in the chapel hall. I talked to many people and one man shouted out ‘Give us some hope, Vicar’.

As we walk through this season of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the hope which begins in a small, fragile, vulnerable baby, born to two young parents Mary and Joseph, into a world of war and darkness, injustice and insecurity. In him hope was born and seen. I believe it from the bottom of my heart. In him, his birth, his life and his cross are more persuasive than all the worlds darkness. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Let us allow this season of Advent to prepare us to renew our faith in Christ, whose hope is the light that shines in the darkness which can never be extinguished.

Richard J Teal President of the Methodist Conference. This article appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 27 November.

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