18 May 2022

The opportunity to serve and offer people something of value

I sometimes liken us to a couple of bees, travelling round the Connexion, picking up pollen of practice here and dropping it over there.

Barbara Easton reflects on her year of office as Vice-President of the Methodist Conference. This was first published in the Methodist Recorder.

Seeing as this is, as far as I can tell, the last article I will write for The Methodist Recorder as Vice-President, I thought I would offer a more personal reflection on what it’s like to live the enormous privilege of being the Presidency of the Conference for a year. If you want to read a more formal reflection on what we have observed of the life of contemporary Methodism, you will see some of that in the report of the Sunday morning session at Methodist Council which Sonia and I led.

When we were elected in June 2020, someone asked on one of the Methodist Facebook pages, ‘Just who ARE these people? I’ve never heard of them!’. To my mind, that’s rather the point. There is no secret ‘Elect’ from amongst whom the presidency is chosen; I am an ordinary Methodist, involved in church life in my ‘small corner’, who was both nudged by others and felt called by God to offer myself for the role. I bring that ‘normal’ perspective. I’d never been a member of Conference before. When I had the election-day phone call from the Secretary of the Conference addressing me as ‘Madam Vice-President’ I went pale with shock and had to ask him to explain himself!

I have described the presidential year as like the Catherine Wheel that my dad used to pin to the fence on bonfire night. It began very lively but spluttered a bit, then it would go very quiet; eventually it would take off, gradually picking up speed until it finally went so fast that it flew off the fence altogether. In a similar way, the year starts in a big way, presiding as Conference meets. In 2021, we knew that chairing the debate on God in Love Unites Us was going to be a significant moment in the Methodist Church’s story. It was only afterwards that I was told that, when I led the Conference in prayer after the vote, there were 9000 people watching on line – I think I am glad I didn’t know that when I walked to the tribune! But of course, the Conference debates are only one call on the presidency over that week - besides ‘the speech’ there’s the special services, the preaching, the ordinations and facilitation. This was complicated in our year by the re-imposition of Covid restrictions, the sudden move to a hybrid Conference and the failure of the technology for our special Tuesday Love Feast – for the first time anyone can remember, Conference spent almost a whole session in open prayer…

The Presidency is supposed to visit one third of Districts every year, so one of the first tasks after election is to shape a letter to Chairs outlining the kinds of work you would be interested to see. Already the office has a little pile of requests, for special anniversaries such as Hugh Bourne’s  250th, Southlands 150th and Lanesfield Church’s 60th. If you have a special event coming up for which you’d love to invite the presidency, it needs to be in the planning just after the Conference of the previous presidential year – it’s been such a pity to disappoint people who (sensibly) thought 6 months’ notice seemed plenty. What we hadn’t realised, though, was just how much the Presidency does in addition to the District visits – it’s like putting big stones in a jar and thinking that’s it; in actuality, there’s lots of room for sand to be poured in between! In our first 8 months the ‘gaps’ were filled with around 50 events, such as representing the Methodist people at the Remembrance parade at the Cenotaph, or the Action for Children Christmas Celebration. In addition there has been a full programme of writing and broadcasting. Some of this is planned and some unplanned – I was just packing away after a few days in a holiday cottage when I got a message at 7 o’clock in the morning. Russia had invaded Ukraine, so could I please write a prayer? It was with the Comms team by 8am and (to my astonishment) shared, literally, millions of times over the next couple of days.

This is what’s great about being the Presidency – the opportunity to serve and offer people something of value. I sometimes liken us to a couple of bees, travelling round the Connexion, picking up pollen of practice here and dropping it over there. We have seen so many fabulous and inspirational things – it’s my job to keep our Facebook page updated so that others can be informed and inspired. We try to show the Connexion to itself and act as ambassadors for the ‘people called Methodists’ to the world beyond our church. It is our job to give en-courage-ment when things are going well and, also, when they aren’t. There is a strong pastoral element to the role, often exercised in private. We write a lot of letters, and receive lots too.

What’s less great about being the presidency? Nothing – the whole things is a privilege! But it is very demanding, and takes a lot of the year. From February until the beginning of July, I barely spend a weekend at home. I have lost count of the number of different beds I have slept in. Both the garden and the husband are suffering from a degree of neglect – it would be difficult to hold the office without a willing back-up team, keeping the home fires burning and bringing cups of tea as I move from one Zoom to another. Thank you husband; thanks also to Earlsdon Methodist Church for a space on your car park. I have chosen to work part-time for this year, and my manager has been great (thank you, Steve); I have sometimes found it difficult to combine both roles and take my hat off to those who, in the past, have managed the role and a full-time job. People sometimes suggest that the presidency should hold office for 3 years – if they did, it would have to be a very different sort of presidency.

Meanwhile – must dash! I’ve just got back from Scotland but I’m sleeping in Guernsey tonight!


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