Address by the new Vice President of the Methodist Conference

Ruby Beech, new Vice President of the MethodistConference, called for Christians to "listen to what God had to sayto us today." She pointed out that, as people celebrate the 200thanniversary of the Act to abolish the slave trade in Britain, therewere many at the time who claimed to have Biblical support forslavery. "We have to be open to the movement of the Spirit as thoseChristians were who worked as abolitionists over 200 years ago,"she said. "They had to make a stand about whether a particularinterpretation of scripture really reflected the inclusive love ofGod, the Christ who brought shalom, the peace of God, for all - andfulfilled the commandment to love our neighbour asourselves."

Ruby, whose day job is Assistant Serjeant of Arms at the House ofCommons, has already travelled to India to visit a Peacebuildersproject supported by The Methodist Church.

The full text of her address follows. People can also hear arecording of it online at www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentogod.webradio.

Ruby Beech

Good morning. This is an interesting place to be Church thismorning isn't it? The last time I came in here, before I arrivedfor the Conference, was a few months ago on a visit and there was aline dancing weekend. It looked like a lot of fun. I did wonderwhether it might be a good idea to get you all line dancing now,but the Chair of the Conference Arrangements Committee seemed tothink that would be a step too far! Still we have come together insacred space where God is with us, as God was with the linedancers, although they might not all have realised it.

Some people in this gathering this morning may be as bemused bywhat is going on here as others would be if they walked into a roomfull of line dancers. Others will know all the steps and will befeeling comfortable. Our ordinands who are going to be receivedinto full Connexion this morning and ordained later today willrecognise all of the steps but may be wondering if they have gotthem all in the right order - and some may even be wondering ifthey should be involved in something more like modern dancing wherethey might not be so visible if they were the one out of step. Weare glad that you are here and we look forward to the sense ofrhythm you will bring and the steps you will show us. We arepleased that your family and friends are here to support you and toencourage you as you take this next step in your life andministry.

I am grateful too for those who are here today to support me,family and friends, especially my husband Garry who comes into bothof those categories and who is having to put up with so much duringthis year, even more than he usually does. And I remembergratefully all I received from my parents who would have rejoicedto be here with us.

I would like to thank my Circuit and District for their gifts,reinforcing my recognition that I am part of this MethodistConnexion and to thank those who have given in other ways - toAnthea and Graham for my love feast liturgy, to Jane for writinglovingly about me for the Methodist Recorder and to Brian Houstonand Wayne and Ian with their colleagues at the "12 baskets" multimedia resources organisation, for the video which we will seeshortly. And to those across the wider Connexion including thosewho were my colleagues for seven years when I worked in theConnexional team - thank you for your love and encouragement whichcontinues on. And for all you do, seen and unseen, to the glory ofGod through the Methodist Church.

It is good to be part of this gathering, being Church here thismorning and I want us to consider some aspects of being Churchwhich have been foremost in my mind as I prepared for thisConference. I am using "Being Church" because that seems to me tospeak of continuing to seek out what the Church is meant to be.Being "the Church" sounds as if it is something more static whichwe are absolutely sure about. So, some aspects of Being Church,whether that is in traditional Church, in fresh expressions, insmall groups or when the followers of Jesus are the churchdispersed in their daily lives.

Have you ever played Jenga? A tower is built of wooden bricks andeach player has to remove a brick until eventually the removal ofone brick causes the whole thing to fall down. As bricks areremoved you can see that without the support of those around themthe bricks that are left are part of a structure which is morevulnerable and considerably less stable.

In our gospel reading we see the disciples feeling prettyvulnerable. There they were, huddled together in a locked house.They had seen Christ die and they were afraid of the authorities.They had heard the good news. That very morning, Mary had told themthat she had seen Christ. But it was too good to be true. They weretoo frightened and traumatised (and probably too sexist!) tobelieve it simply on the basis of her testimony. And so there theywere, huddled together in a locked room. Then someone saidsomething. "Peace be with you,", "Shalom", he said. It was Jesus!He was right there, in person, alive and well, and he blessed themwith "shalom" - that peace which speaks of the total absence offear and of a completely untroubled heart, a peace which God alonecan give. He showed them the nail marks in his hands, and thewounds in his side. And the disciples rejoiced. It was true! Christwas alive! They had seen for themselves. Seeing wasbelieving.

Transformation took place in the lives of those individuals.

There are times in the lives of each one of us when things feelpretty wobbly and we need all the support and transformation we canget. Maybe some of us are there now.

I believe that being Church means offering love and support toall, and being especially welcoming to those in need.

For many people church would be the last place they would go intime of need, but sometimes people seek it out for the first timewhen they are facing real difficulties in their lives. That for meis when a church building or advertised meeting place can beparticularly important - when it stands as a visible sign of aplace where people being church can be found. A few years ago ayoung man of sixteen appeared in our congregation for the firsttime. As I was the leader of the youth group I made a beelinetowards him at the end of the service. He told me that he had beento a wedding the previous day and that the minister had said thatGod's love was for all and David had heard that as a message forhim. He was having a terrible time at school with bullying andother problems and came seeking love and support. I felt we werereally being Church that morning.

What do people going through problems receive from those beingchurch? No easy explanations can be given to parents of dyingchildren or to the victims of horrific incidents which maim andkill innocent people, to those who have themselves been abused orrejected or to those who are worried about unemployment or familystrife.

When people are at their most vulnerable they do not want to betold what they ought to be thinking or believing. They need to beaccepted as they are and given love and support. Paul Claudel saidthat "Jesus did not come to explain suffering nor to take it away;he came to fill it with his presence".

When we read about the resurrection appearances we think aboutdeath and new life. Garry and I moved into our house at the end ofOctober 12 years ago. Our garden is quite small and seemed prettydull. Yet in the Spring we saw new life that we did not know wouldbe there - snowdrops, daffodils, and other plants that I stilldon't know the names of. After their death they had been protectedunder the ground until it was time to bloom once more.

When a partner, a parent, a child or a close friend dies it seemsas if the world has come to an end, but after some time new lifecan be experienced. It is the same when our lives are knocked byother bad experiences; we need to take time just to recover. Duringthose times Church has an immeasurable service to offer, makingspace where new life can develop. Where transformation can takeplace.

Those who experience spiritual yearnings and want to know moreabout God should be able to find out more through Church - thepeople of God.

Dr Sheila Cassidy has spoken about "icon people" who show us whatGod is like. "Icon" is Greek for picture/image/likeness and theOrthodox churches, in particular, use them in worship. If youpresented a Picture Gallery of people who really show what God islike and have helped you, - who would be in this gallery?

For me there would be some Methodist ministers in particular, whohave been there for me when things were tough and who nurtured myfaith. Also some friends from my fellowship group when I was ateenager who have grown with me and we are still there for oneanother, and many others who I have known through my church life.Some are people who have received training and are recognised bythe Church for their skills and others are less so.

I think of a particular elderly man from my previous church and anincident which provides a snapshot of how he reflected thecloseness of God. It happened when my first husband was terminallyill, just a few weeks before he died. I was leading a Sundaymorning service where I'd asked a number of people to do readingswhich I'd written out for them. At the door at the end of theservice this elderly man gave me back my piece of paper withanother one and he said "you wrote down something for me and nowI've written something for you". As I left church I unfolded thepaper and read "Ruby, you are surrounded by our love" That wastwenty years ago now but it still brings a lump to my throat as Ithink about it and it makes me feel closer to God.

I think too of the times when I have felt distant from God and Ihave spoken with some of the young people in groups which I havebeen involved with and some of that fresh awe and wonder thatthey've shared about their Christian life has rubbed off on me.Restoration and renewal have taken place. Who are your "iconpeople"? Take time to think of them now and become aware too of thecloseness of God.

As well as learning about what God is like from the people of Godwe can also learn of the nature of God from the Bible. But that canbe more difficult than it sounds when the images and pictures thatpeople are used to may be very different from those which we findin the Bible. I became a Christian as a teenager when I wasconverted at Cliff College. I really wanted to know what thisliving God was like and through the witness of other Christians,Bible studies and in worship and prayer, I built up a picture ofGod which continues to develop. I share just two of the keypassages which have spoken to me of God and helped form my thinkingon being church.

In Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd, we learn more of the natureof God as caring and merciful and as gracious host. We hear of thepsalmist's experience of God and how that transformed into imagesof what God is like. In a short while we are going to hear aversion of Psalm 23 sung by Brian Houston and whilst he does notuse entirely inclusive language about God, I hope that the words,along with the images put alongside them by "12 baskets", willspeak to you of the love of God as they have to me.

When asked what was the most important commandment Jesus said"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souland with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second isthis: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no othercommandment greater than these."

As we discover what God is like through the witness of others andlistening to God in prayer, worship and reading the bible, we cangain confidence to open ourselves up to the Spirit of God enablingus and empowering us in being Church, transforming us to be thepeople of God, both when we are gathered and when we are apart.Christianity is not just about filling a hole or gap in our livesbut transforming the whole of our lives.

In 2 Timothy we read "All scripture is inspired by God and isuseful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for trainingin righteousness".

That sounds fantastic - I can discover what is right and wrong inmy life and become a better person, the person God wants me to beand understand what life is all about. Wow! But hearing what Godhas to say to us through the Bible today is not always that easy.Discovering what words are directly spoken to us and how theyconnect directly with our lives requires contemplation and rigorousengagement. I also think it needs us to be open to God showing usthat we may have got it wrong and need to keep revisiting what wethink we know. As Church we need to help each other as we listenfor what God is saying.

Lessons on the anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave TradeAct

In this year when we have celebrated the 200th anniversary of thepassing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade act, we need toremember and reflect on the fact that Christians were very muchinvolved in the slave trade as well as being involved asabolitionists. Reverend Raymond Harris wrote in 'ScripturalResearches on the Licitness of the Slave-Trade', "The OracularDecisions of God have positively declared that the Slave-Trade isintrinsically good and licit, [and that the holding of slaves] isperfectly consonant to the principles of the Law of Nature, theMosaic Dispensation, and the Christian Law." Thus, he said, slaveryhas "the positive sanction of God in its support." Others supportedthis view. How difficult it must have been for people to be Churchtogether with those conflicting convictions.

As Christians continue to read the Bible and listen for what Godwants to say to us today, we have to be open to the movement of theSpirit as those Christians were who worked as abolitionists over200 years ago. They had to make a stand about whether a particularinterpretation of scripture really reflected the inclusive love ofGod, the Christ who brought shalom, the peace of God, for all - andfulfilled the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

For me it has always been a difficult concept - to accept that Imight not always be right in my interpretation and to come back andtake direction. I found this story helpful;

During the Second World War there were a number of men on abattleship sailing through the Mediterranean on a very foggy night.The man on watch was standing on top looking out front, hoping tosee something. Suddenly he saw a light and immediately signalleddown to the deck "Send the following message "Alter your course 10degrees to the North". They sent the message and quickly received areply, "Alter your course ten degrees to the South". The watchmancalled for the Captain, who came up and said to send anothermessage "Alter your course ten degrees North. This is the Captainspeaking". The battleship received an instant response. "Alter yourcourse ten degrees South. This is second class seaman Johnsonspeaking". The Captain was furious. He said "send the followingmessage right now! "Alter your course ten degrees North, this is abattleship"". The immediate reply was "Alter your course tendegrees South. This is a lighthouse".

Does our reading of scripture really resonate with loving God withall our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and withall our strength and our neighbour as ourselves, the commandmentsthat Jesus told us were most important?

I visited the North India at Easter to be involved in the launchof the Peacebuilders - Children for peace project and to visit thediocese of Durgapur. I found a Church which, whilst very much aminority faith group, was witnessing to the love of God in word andaction and being church alongside those of other faiths. There wasmuch evidence of the biblical concepts of being salt and light inthe world. Those Christians were listening to God talk to themthrough the Bible in a multi faith society. I saw many examples ofpeople of different faiths treating each other with respect andworking together for the good of the local community. We have muchto learn about being church from partners around the world.

In considering how our interpretation of the Bible resonates withloving God and our neighbour, I have been greatly moved by whatBishop Desmond Tutu said in a sermon at Southwark Cathedral in2004:

"The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those whovilify and persecute an already oppressed minority. I myself couldnot have opposed the injustice of penalizing people for somethingabout which they could do nothing - their race - and then have keptquiet as women were being penalized for something they could donothing about - their gender, and hence my support inter alia, forthe ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. Andequally", he said, "I could not myself keep quiet whilst peoplewere being penalized for something about which they could donothing, their sexuality. For it is so improbable that any sane,normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him orher to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, evendeath. To discriminate against our sisters and brothers who arelesbian or gay on grounds of their sexual orientation, for me is astotally unacceptable and unjust as Apartheid ever was".

We need to grapple with what our interpretations of scripture haveto say about God to people around us, particularly those whostruggle with the possibility of a loving God as they suffer fromabuse, prejudice or rejection, from mental health problems or thestress of over work or unemployment. Being church, helping eachother to hear God speak through the Bible today.

Transformed, we find ourselves seeking, like those firstdisciples, to be agents of transformation in the world around us.As we learn to love ourselves as people loved by God, this has agreat impact on the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. AsBono said at a recent awards ceremony - Jesus reminded us to loveour neighbours as ourselves, not as a piece of advice, but as acommandment.

The Conference report "Called to Love and Praise", looking atChurch in a Methodist context asked what kind of community a churchmight be and the answers given were:
* A community of all ages, different races, varying backgroundsand occupations - richly diverse, but united around the Lord'sTable.
* A community which praises God.
* A community nourished each week by great songs of faith, byprayers steeped in the wealth of the Christian tradition andcontemporary experience, and by preaching which engages withcontemporary life and with the Bible at depth and with integrity.(Maybe this won't be read literally for fresh expressions)
* A community whose warm fellowship is matched by the warmth ofits welcome, offering a 'home from home' for all who willcome.
* A community bearing, but not bowed down by, particular acts ofservice to which it has been called in its particular time andplace.
* A community resilient with the hope inspired by a vision ofGod's kingdom.
* A community committed to working for justice and peace.
* A community the daily lives of whose members make it easier forothers to believe in the goodness of God.
* A community gentle with each others' failures, as each sustainsand is sustained by others through forgiveness, love andprayer.
* A community characterized by joy.

When we see the disciples in our second reading, from the book ofActs, something dramatic seems to have happened to them. They havebeen empowered to go out and share the good news. They are part ofa community that exists for the sake of others. They are being truefollowers of Jesus - being church. They were not perfect but inspite of their failures God was able to use them and wants to useus.

Jesus offered peace, showed what God was like in word and actionthen sent his disciples out to share what they haddiscovered.

That is what we are being asked to do today, all of us, not justthose who are, or are being, ordained but all of us who are calledto be Church.

In being Church let us see that we too can be transformed andtransforming, a community which moves from cowering behind ourclosed doors to being a community that shows what God is like andshares the love of God with others.