If we pay attention to God we won't stay inside the Church - says new Methodist President

The new President of the Methodist Church, Revd Alison Tomlin,emphasised that listening requires action in her inaugural addressto the Methodist Conference.

Alison paused half way through her speech at The Guildhall inPortsmouth to demonstrate how people listen to God. She showed aseries of images played to an eclectic mix of music in order toillustrate that paying attention to God can happen in as manydifferent ways as there are people.

"If we pay attention to God we won't stay inside the Church," shesaid. "If we pay attention to God we will have to do the things Godchallenges us to do. And that will take us out to be among peoplewho need to know that God loves them; the people who have no voice;the people who have doors shut in their faces. It will take us tothat place where we become passionate for justice, passionate to bepeace makers, passionate to make sure other people hear how muchthey are loved."

She explained that every time people look at each other they lookinto the face of God because God loves everyone.

"I pray that we will indeed become a Church paying attention to Godin such a way that the passion of God for people, for God'screation, for our world enlivens us, enthrals us and energises usto be all that God created us to be before the world was made," shesaid. "I pray that in paying attention to God and each other we maybe all that God desires."

Alison began her ordained ministry in Manchester 26 years ago. Shetrained in spiritual direction, accompanying people in prayer andquiet retreats, after discovering that many people wanted todiscuss how they talk and listen to God.

In 2001, Alison was nominated as Chair of the Oxford and LeicesterMethodist District (now the Northampton District) where she servedfor eight years. It was during this time that she was asked if shewould allow her name to be put forward for President of theMethodist Conference.

The full text of Alison's address follows:

I need to start by being very clear that when I use, listening toGod, listening for God, listening mostly to God, I'm talking aboutpaying attention. I'm not talking about the need for - what's theequivalent of hearing, of 20/20 vision? Because I don't know.Anyway, I'm not talking about being… having incredibly healthyhearing. That's not what real listening is about. Real listening isabout paying attention, real, total, authentic attention. You willhave realised that I can't talk if you take my hands away.

Paying attention means noticing and if we are blessed with healthand strength then yes, we use those things; our sight, our hearing.But if we are not blessed with those things, there are 101 otherways in which we can pay proper attention. And we celebrate that inthis part of our Conference by the fact that we have a signer, thatwe have a lip-speaker, that we have translators for those for whomthis language is neither first nor, often, second, but third orfourth. We need to use the collected gifts of us all if we are topay proper attention to the God who loves us.

And for those of you who might give a different name to God for theone… from the one I use, and for those of you who might choose, forwhatever reason, not to name God at all, when I talk about payingattention, really listening to God, I am talking about payingattention, also, to who we are in the depths of our being. I amtalking about the fact that in all of us there is some centre oftruth, of integrity, of love, and we need to pay attention to whatis within us. Those of us who would call ourselves the people ofGod believe that God is within us as well as out there. And we uselong words to talk about that but the vital thing is that, at thevery centre of who we are, there is God.

So for those of us who call ourselves the people of God andparticularly, given that this is the Methodist Conference, forthose of us who call ourselves the Methodist people, but also forall our amazing and wonderful sisters and brothers who givethemselves different names in different places. This is about howwe make sure we really pay proper attention to God. Now, part ofthat means that we might be suggesting that God is at the centre.We talk about God being at the centre of our lives sometimes. Wetalk about God in our midst and we talk about God as central.Except, of course, that the God we serve tends to spend an awfullot of time on the edge, on the periphery, on the outside, notwithin our buildings, not within the places we might choose to callholy, but out there with those who have been discarded or rejected,those who are distressed and distraught.

So if we're serious about paying attention to God at the centre ofour lives, we have to make sure that we're paying attention farwider than just ourselves. We have to make sure we're payingattention to others and to those who are perhaps far off. I wasreminded fairly recently that if we choose to listen, to payattention to God, we have to be willing to pay attention to thosewith whom we profoundly disagree. We have to be willing even to payattention and listen to those we might choose to call enemy,because only then can we be sure that we are paying proper andappropriate attention to everything that is of God, for God said,love your enemies and do good. And we need to make sure that we arepaying proper attention.

And there are so many ways of paying attention. For me, go back ahuge number of years when I was a local preacher and I toldsomebody I was going on a silent weekend and they said, you'll notmanage! You cannot possibly go 48 hours without talking.Interesting reputation one collects. But actually, for me, beingsomewhere where I do not have to talk to anybody and where nobodytalks to me begins to be the place where I can pay attention toGod. I go, these days, to a place in Wales and I arrange it so thatI don't talk with another human being for eight days. Now, some ofyou will immediately think, yes, please! And some of you willthink, argh, never! Because there are as many ways of payingattention to God as there are people in known world - for all Iknow, more than that. We all have our own way of reaching out, oflistening, of paying attention, of discovering for ourselves how wemight be able to listen to the God who loves us and cares for usand wishes to speak with us. We are offered a huge number ofopportunities in our daily living.

I suppose, given that this is the Methodist Conference, I couldstart by saying, we'll use scripture, but I think we'll leavescripture on one side for just a moment because that's so obviousfor the church, isn't it? And actually people pay attention to Godthrough art, through music, through the art they create, throughpictures they draw, through other writings, through other books,through their own writing, through their own activity. People payattention to God through 101 different activities. I have a friendwho finds that she can pay attention to God in a nightclub, and whynot? They accused Jesus of eating and drinking too much. For me,that would be difficult but for her that is superb. We have so manyways, so many possibilities, so much that is offered to us.

If you think of the range of music, if I asked you to name onepiece of music that you liked, that you really enjoyed, I guesswe'd have, what - how many of you are there? I don't know. But, Una[?], some people would come up with the same thing, wouldn't they?Can we just do a hand-wave? How many people would go on theclassical side? And how many really wouldn't? And if we starteddividing it up, would you want to specify…? Those of you on theclassical side, would you want to specify particular composers?Yes? And those of you who are definitely not classical, would youwant to specify very particularly style and group and…? And it allspeaks to us.

Or think of it another way; think about each other. Those of youwho are sitting near the front, look round, please. Look howdifferent we all are. Look how very different we all are. Thankyou. And every time you look at each other, you look into the faceof God because God loves each one, each person, each individual,and God loves the whole community of people round you. And for eachone, that is an option to begin to pay attention to God. Whensomebody says something and it strikes a spark, when somebody sayssomething and you feel good, when somebody says something and youfeel cared-for or involved or challenged, just maybe God hassomething to say in that.

It goes on for all of us all the time in so many ways. I talkedabout how much silence, stillness, being on my own matters to me.For some, that would be adding insult to injury and for others itwould just be deeply unhelpful. I am married to a man who will talkto anyone, anyone at all, but that means that, at his best, he willlisten to anyone at all as well. But he experiences how much Godgives in the conversation, in the talking, in the gathering, not,any more, in the dancing. We are invited, therefore, by God to payattention and I will come to scripture. But I took a while to getthere because…

Have you ever tried to count how many translations we now have ofthe thing we call the Bible? And if you add in all the ones thataren't really translations but are all sorts of other things aswell, there's even more. And sometimes some people complain becausethey don't know what the… how the reading's going to sound but Iactually think that's quite good for us because it helps us to stopand think. There are so many versions in so many ways andscripture, the Bible, the… whatever word you want to use, is a veryprofound way of God communicating again and again and again. Wecall it the living word. God's word is alive and active and if thatis true, it means that each time we may find new meaning, newpossibilities, new challenges.

And, again, I was reminded only last night that, although itwouldn't have occurred to me, actually for many of you here, theplace to find God's word will be somewhere on the internet, variousonline sites. And since I can do the language even if I can't dothe thing, try Facebook and Twitter and all the others and see whatother people have to say about the words they've discovered there,even if they'd never heard them from a book in their lives. So manyways of actually paying attention to God, so much that is offeredto us all that we might be able to open who we are, whether we'reable to open our eyes and our ears or not, to open who we are tothe God who loves us and longs to speak with us.

I want to invite you, those of you who are able, to look andlisten. It may be that some of you don't want to and some of youaren't able to and I remind you that you have that great gift ofGod; your mind, your heart, your imagination. So if what we'reabout to show is not for you, don't let it worry you. That's fine.But try and sit and relax and be as comfortable as you can and asthis is played, think about what helps you, what speaks to you,what might brighten your day, what makes you feel alive.

And why do we need to remember to pay attention to the God wholoves us? Part of the reminder comes out of having been aco-superintendent for a year when it hit me again really hard howoften - and I apologise to our partners if it's not true anywhereexcept Methodism - how often we make all our plans in our meetingsand then ask God to bless it afterwards, and how often we hold ameeting where we do a sort of top and tail, a prayer but actuallyeverything that happens in between doesn't make… isn't changed oramended or altered by the praying we've done. It's so easy to fallinto the trap of being busy for God, doing good things for God,serving God in ways that we are quite sure are right without payingattention to God first.

And we're such a busy church, and rightly. But think of a meetingthat found a dozen different ways of paying attention to God andthen did the business, and see what happens. But more importantlythan inside the church, if we pay attention to God, we won't stayinside the church. If we pay attention to God, we will have to dothe things God challenges us to do. And that will take us out to beamong the people who need us and the people who need to hear themessage that God loves them, the people who need to know that theymatter.

It will take us to the people who have no voice. It will take us tothe people who have had doors shut in their faces. It will take usto people that others reject and despise. And isn't that an echo ofwhat they did to Jesus? It will take us to that place where webecome passionate for justice, passionate to be peacemakers,passionate to make sure that other people hear how much they areloved, how much they are cared for and how it is that somehow Godwraps inside God's love for us the truth that sets us free.

We are called as God's people to put out our hand, both hands, toour neighbours, to our friends, to our enemies, to whoever wehappen to meet, because we are called to put our hand in the handof God. So I pray with all I am that we will indeed become, again,a church paying attention to God in such a way that the passion ofGod for people, for God's creation, for our world, enlivens us andenthrals us and energises us to be all that God called us to bebefore the world was made. I pray that in paying attention to Godand to each other, we may be all that God desires.