Methodist President: Church must make the world a safer place

In his inaugural presidential address to the annual MethodistConference, Revd David Gamble spoke of the need for the Church tobe a 'safer space' for people from every walk of life.

David spoke particularly of the importance of supporting thesurvivors of abuse, affirming his commitment to making the Churchand the world a safer place. He said; "When I'm talking aboutcreating safer space I'm talking about places, situations, moments,relationships, occasions where and when people feel accepted asthey are, able to tell their story, not judged and not put atunnecessary risk."

David was inducted as the President of the Methodist Conference asthe first order of business at opening of the Conference inWolverhampton. He will serve for one year, representing the Churchand meeting people across Britain.

Speaking of climate change as 'the biggest issue facing our worldtoday', he said, "In the face of what is happening to this planetas the direct result of how we live, do we just give up, or isthere a word of hope and are there possibilities to turn the tideand make this planet a safer space? Christians and churches need tobe fully involved, and have things to offer in making our world asafer space."

David also called for greater openness and understanding betweenpeople of different perspectives, traditions and faiths, commentingthat, "If we really listen to people's different perspectives wemay come to a fuller and richer understanding ourselves. We canchallenge and be challenged if there is respect between us. Not toseek to cast out those who think differently, but to listen, tounderstand and to grow."

People can follow David's travels on the President and VicePresident's blog (www.methodist-presandvp.blogspot.com).

Download a hi-res image of David The full text follows:

Fresh out of college, when I was young and still had hair, I heardan older minister making his speech to the Synod seeking permissionto 'sit down' - the term Methodists use for ministers retiring. Hethanked all the people who'd supported him over the years - churchmembers and officers, colleagues, wise Superintendents and superbChairs of District. And then he said 'In particular, I want tothank my wife. I shall always remember our wedding day. Yorkshirebeat Lancashire by an innings and 27 runs!'

This first part of the Presidential Address to the MethodistConference can be a bit like the speeches at the Oscars ceremony.You are the fantastically attractive and star-studded audience. AndI have a whole list of people to thank for sharing my journey withme over the past years.

My family - quite a few of whom are here today, and whom I lovemore than I can ever say. This script was sent to the MethodistRecorder weeks ago, but I couldn't have known then that this verymorning our family would increase in size and I have become agreat, great uncle. My colleagues - from Division of Education andYouth days, from the Connexional team, particularly the JointSecretaries Group (all here today) and my current colleagues withinthe Governance Support Cluster and in the wider Team. A specialword of thanks to members of the Law and Polity Committee - forputting up with me as their convener and for all the work they dobehind the scenes to keep us on the straight and narrow (when thecrooked and wide seems so much more fun!). People at Muswell HillMethodist Church for their friendship, for letting me be theirassistant organist, and for their gift. Also the New River Circuit,the London District, the Connexional Team and generous friends forall your gifts.

And then there are people who have been important at particularmoments on my journey - sadly quite a few of them have died, buttheir influence has been immense and I shall be forever grateful.Christine Herrington is here today. When I was fourteen, Christinerecruited me to play the harmonium for the young people'sfellowship. At the time I couldn't read music and played by ear,but she was persuasive and I agreed. My mum paid me 6d (old money)for each of the first 20 hymn tunes I could play note perfect, allfour parts, from the Methodist Hymn Book. The young people'sfellowship got to know those 20 hymns pretty well (though I canplay a few more now). John Vincent, who came to speak to HullUniversity Methsoc, and challenged us to a Christian commitmentthat was exciting, made sense and was worth changing your life for.Brian Beck, who tried to teach me Greek at Wesley House and yet,even so, managed to keep smiling and who became a close, valued andloved colleague later. Just one more name - David Deeks, our firstGeneral Secretary. Quiet, unassuming, brilliant and the mostamazing person to work with.

I have been very blessed and I am very thankful. When asked toselect the Biblical text for next year's membership ticket, I chosethe one text that is on the special cloth produced by the MethodistChurch in The Gambia in preparation for their autonomy, which wecelebrated in May this year. I Thessalonians 5.18: 'In every thinggive thanks'.

My journey

I came out of theological college uncertain of what direction myministry would take, but absolutely sure of two things - it wouldnever include a building scheme or a forces chaplaincy. So I spentseven wonderful years in a North Yorkshire brewery town, Tadcaster,with 6 churches (the main one of which had a building scheme), andchaplaincies to 2 prisons and an RAF station. That's Methodism foryou. Thank you, Tadcaster.

Then I became minister of what is now the Central Methodist Churchin the beautiful city of York for 6 years. When I arrived they toldme they'd had bachelor ministers before, but they never left thatway! I smiled the smile of one who knows better.

However, in 1987 Liz and I, plus Sam and Sophie, moved south, toLondon - to be joined, eighteen months later, by Joe. And I've heldconnexional posts since that time - responsible for Children'swork, Education and Youth, Family issues and, for the last fewyears, Legal and Constitutional Practice. I now have this verysnappy job title, which someone criticised in the MethodistRecorder a few weeks back on the grounds, I think, that it was abit long and not self-explanatory. Officer for Legal andConstitutional Practice and Head of the Governance Support Cluster.(It's what I always wanted to be when I grew up!).

As President of the Conference, in your presidential address and onyour travels, you're expected to have a theme or two. Some thing orthings that really matter to you. Well, my theme today is takenfrom the title of a report presented to the Conference two yearsago, in 2007.

Creating Safer Space

I want to look at this from five angles.

1 Creating Safer Space - Safeguarding

First, Safeguarding. The 2007 Conference report was aboutSafeguarding/Child Protection training in the Church. And though Icouldn't have imagined it and wouldn't necessarily have chosen it,safeguarding and related matters have been a major part of my workfor over 20 years now, both within Methodism andecumenically.

When, in 1987 I became Children's Work Secretary of the thenDivision of Education and Youth, there were almost daily pressstories about child abuse - horror stories of what went on infamilies; or sensational counter-claims about social workers andother professionals over-reacting. Sadly, stories like these havehardly been out of the media ever since.

Initially our emphasis was on helping youth and children's workersto know how to respond to suspicions or allegations that childrenor young people were being abused at home or elsewhere. But abusesometimes happened in Christian homes and in church contexts, so wedeveloped policies and procedures to encourage good practice inchurch life. We call this Safeguarding. And I want to pay tributeto all those who have been involved in this around the connexion,particularly Judy Jarvis and Pearl Luxon. And also Shaun Kelly, ofAction for Children. We owe them an enormous debt.

But it wasn't just about protecting children, though that wasimportant enough. Many people who told their stories of abuse wereadults who maybe at the time it happened were too frightened totalk about it or didn't think they'd be believed. Or sometimesthey'd bravely shared their story with someone they trusted andthen found that trust betrayed. Or they'd been told they shouldforgive whoever it was who had abused them, and had been made tofeel guilty when they couldn't do so.

And there was the question of how we should respond to people whohad abused others, some of whom had been convicted and imprisoned.How could we enable them to be part of a church community when theywere released? How could we create an environment that didn't putothers at risk, and at the same time helped prevent them fromre-offending or having false allegations made against them?

We have had a whole series of reports to the Methodist Conferenceover the past 20 years on matters to do with Safeguarding. The mostrecent I've already mentioned, Creating Safer Space. A year beforethat the Conference debated its response to an ecumenical reportcalled Time for Action: sexual abuse, the churches and a new dawnfor survivors. Our Methodist report was called Tracing rainbowsthrough the rain.

My preaching scarf, given to me by Muswell Hill Methodist Church,picks up that theme. Tracing rainbows through the rain. It comesfrom a line in a hymn, 'I trace the rainbow through the rain'. Inthe Old Testament, the rainbow is a sign of God's promise of abetter future. A sign of God's saving love for the whole of theworld.

But you don't get rainbows without rain. So, in a sense, therainbow is a sign of hope seen through pain and suffering. And inpreparing that report for the Conference, we listened to survivorsof abuse and heard stories that were devastatingly painful. Butstories, too, of healing and hope. So we called our report TracingRainbows through the Rain. And I shall wear the scarf as a sign ofhope, a sign of God's love for the whole creation. And I shall wearit in solidarity with those whose pain continues and often remainsunspoken, and in ongoing commitment to doing what I can to make theChurch and the world safer places.

Creating safer space

Just a couple more comments here. Initially the group that producedthe Tracing Rainbows report talked of creating 'safe' spaces. Butwhen we met a group of survivors in Liverpool, one of them saidthat such a claim went too far. You can't guarantee that a placewill be safe. Life is not and cannot be risk free. What you can dois to remove unnecessary risks and demonstrate that you are'aspiring to be' safe. So it's 'safer' rather than 'safe'space.

And what do I mean by 'space'? Well, it might be a building. Itmight be a group, a meeting or an organisation. It might be arelationship. It might be a journey. And if that sounds a bitvague, well in a sense it is. When I'm talking about creating saferspace I'm talking about places, situations, moments, relationships,occasions where and when people feel accepted as they are, able totell their story, not judged and not put at unnecessary risk.

So, the issue of creating safer space arose mainly in the contextof Safeguarding and responding to the experiences of survivors ofabuse. But there are much wider implications. The Tracing Rainbowsreport said: 'A community that has taken time to consider how tobecome safer for survivors is likely to be safer for everyone.' Andmy second way of thinking of safer space is as Sanctuary.

2 Creating Safer Space - Sanctuary

Churches have a long history here - places of 'Sanctuary'. Andthink of the shock when they don't live up to it. I've recentlyread Mary Grey's book To Rwanda and Back, and relived the sense ofoutrage so many felt when, in 1994, 5000 people took sanctuary in achurch in that troubled country and were massacred, after thepriest informed the militia that they were there.

Sanctuary is supposed to be a safer space.

But I believe there's a strong link between the idea of 'sanctuary'and a recurring theme in previous Presidential andVice-Presidential addresses - Judy Jarvis' emphasis on 'hospitablespace', Inderjit Bhogal's 'Table for all', Stephen Poxon's words onhospitality.

Many local churches have provided safer space for all sorts ofpeople: homeless people; asylum seekers; those who have experienceddomestic violence; separated families, through contact centres;young people, through other adults who take them seriously andmaybe offer a listening ear at a time when parents seem to be moreof the problem than the solution.

One of my colleagues at the Division of Education and Youth, JohnMorgan, was known way beyond church circles for his involvement increating safer play environments for children. (Some of you willknow John. I'm delighted that he and Geraldine are here today. But,do you know, I discovered that it was John Morgan who first broughtMethodism to The Gambia in 1821. However, I've done a bit offurther research and it may not be the same John Morgan.)

Safer space - sanctuary.

The work of Action for Children (whose 140th anniversary we shallcelebrate on Thursday) and MHA has always been and still is verymuch about providing safer space, particularly for those who areespecially at risk and vulnerable.

In March this year, my wife Liz and I were privileged to visit theMethodist Church in Brazil. An amazing and exciting experience,with lively worship, large, young congregations, and new churchesbeing built month by month. But I was particularly impressed by howlocal congregations responded directly to needs in their area -after school clubs, work with children and young people on favelas,a project with street people and, one that moved me particularly, aproject with street children. Creating safer space.

Nearer home, I think of Somewhere Else, the Bread Church, inLiverpool; or, in different ways, Ashram community houses andprojects - I've just been reviewing John Vincent's telling of theAshram Community story in his book A lifestyle of sharing. I don'thave a book of my own to advertise in this address, so I'lladvertise John's.

Creating safer space - sanctuary. I want to come back to sanctuarya bit later. But for the moment let me move on to my third way ofthinking about safer space. Because safer space in a church contextis not just about protecting those at risk of physical harm.

3 Creating Safer Space - Safer to be different

Let me quote the Tracing Rainbows report again. 'The Church musthold ever before it a vision of itself as that place where all arewelcome, where all feel themselves to have their place ofbelonging, where we can each come as we are and know ourselves tobe accepted and loved as we are, as Christ accepts, loves andwelcomes each one. Then our personal story, whatever it maycontain, can be embraced within that accepting, loving welcome andbe neither a source of guilt or shame to be hidden, nor the onlything that defines who we are or can become. To be welcomed truly,we must first feel safe.'

A safer space is one where we accept that people are verydifferent. Having read my profile in the Methodist Recorder, I knowthere is a sense in which the world would be a much better place ifeverybody were exactly like me. But they're not. People aredifferent. We are different ages. We come from differentbackgrounds. We have had different experiences. We look different,sound different, believe different things, enjoy different things,care deeply about different things. Great! That's how it's meant tobe.

I don't often think of St Paul as having much of a sense of humour,but in his description of the Church as the body of Christ, in ICorinthians 12, when he considers what a body would be like if itwere one big eye or ear, well he comes quite close to 'My dog's gotno nose. How does it smell? His point was simple - but no less truefor that. The body needs its different parts. And it needs thoseparts to be different.

One area of responsibility within the Governance Support Cluster isour work on equalities and diversity, now headed up by MargaretSawyer. And in a safer space, diversity is accepted and celebrated.This is not about political correctness. It's about valuing,cherishing, celebrating each person for who they are and what theybring. And it can be a challenge to us.

What does it mean to be a community that really values everyone,regardless of age? That encourages its children and young people tobe fully involved and to share in decision-making that affectsthem. That is willing not only to hang around until young peoplestop being young, and come to see it our way, but a community thatwill actually change because the young have serious things to sayand offer about how to be a better place and a better world. Butthe challenge is for the same community also to value those who areolder. Not just to cater for their needs, but to appreciate theircontribution, their wisdom, their experience, their spirituality. Iwas struck by this in The Gambia, where older people were treatedwith respect, and the joy and exuberance of young people wasequally celebrated.

What does it mean to be a community that relishes and celebrateshaving members with different backgrounds and cultures? Differentexperiences, different perspectives, different histories - some ofwhich, like the whole history of slavery and colonisation forexample, are still difficult to handle. How do we take up thechallenge not just of assimilation but of growth into a communitythat is bigger and better and deeper because of the rich diversityof human life present?

What about gender? Methodists sometimes point out to people inother churches that we have been ordaining women to our ministrynow for 35 years. Maybe, but we have still got a long way to go toget it right.

And sexuality. This continues to be such a difficult and painfulissue in the life of many Christians and churches. In the BritishMethodist Church we are committed to an ongoing 'pilgrimage offaith', following the resolutions of the Conference in 1993. We arecommitted to travelling on a pilgrimage together and to listeningto each other's stories, perspectives and experiences. And that'swhether we be a lesbian or gay person wondering how safe it is tobe honest about who we are, or a person who finds all this verythreatening to everything we were taught and what we believe withabsolute certainty and integrity is the will of God on thesematters. A safer space allows us to see things very differently andstill respect and accept each other. I notice that the YouthConference has expressed its concern that we can't sweep thesethings under the carpet. We do need to keep discussing them. Wecan't just keep quiet and hope they'll go away. Safer to bedifferent.

And disability. How do we become a community where some of usaren't constantly disadvantaged and unable to contribute fully eventhough we have much to offer?

Creating safer space - safer to be different.

4 Creating Safer Space - Safer to explore

The Tracing Rainbows report again: 'There are many people who needa safe place to explore difficult questions and things that reallymatter.'

For me this can be quite a challenging one for churches. The factthat we don't all hold the same beliefs in the same way. A saferspace is one where we know that differences are OK. That peopleneed to be able to come bringing their doubts as well as theircertainties. 'The church needs also to be a place where people canexpress doubts and fears safely and explore belief without havingto get it 'right'' (Tracing Rainbows).

My Mum's favourite hymn (I think it was one of my 20!), one ofCharles Wesley's greatest, has this verse:

E'en now we think and speak the same, And cordially agree.Concentred all in Jesus' name In perfect harmony.

Well, I'll sing this, I'll (I can certainly play it) but I wouldn'tsign it.

Because that's not actually my experience of church, or society, orfamily. Often we disagree deeply with other people. And if we havecreated a safer space, then that's OK. It's not surprising. It'sperfectly natural cordially to disagree! It's good. Because if wereally listen to people's different perspectives we may come to afuller and richer understanding ourselves. We can challenge and bechallenged if there is respect between us. Not to seek to cast outthose who think differently, but to listen, to understand and togrow. On really important matters, about faith, about life, aboutGod, we don't all believe exactly the same. We are not clones. Somepeople have deep and simple faith. Others have asked or faceddifficult questions and moved a long way from where they started.Some have doubts, questions, uncertainties - we probably all do attimes - and it needs to be safe to express them.

Creating Safer Space - safer to explore.

I want to say a word here about the importance ofaccompanying.

I shall always be grateful for my university chaplain, Gerald Burt.His model of chaplaincy was not to protect students from the worldoutside, like fragile young plants in a cloche or a greenhouse.Rather, he accompanied us on our journey as we asked difficultquestions, without being sure what answers we'd find.

Or I think of a minister from the States who came on an exchange toMuswell Hill a few years ago. On her first Sunday she introducedherself. She said she'd like to get to know us, but that she wasonly here for six weeks and there might be people who'd really liketo make good use of someone who would only be around for 6 weeks,to talk through some big thing in their life. A decision. A changeof direction. Quite a few people took her up on that offer.Accompanying on the journey.

Maybe there's something about being able to go into less safeplaces if you trust who is with you. That could be friends orfamily; it could be about the role of a minister or pastoralvisitor (and I believe it often is); and maybe most of all it'sabout awareness of being in the presence of God

Psalm 23 v.4 'Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fearno evil; for you are with me.' Safer space? Wherever we are,whatever is going on.

And does this perhaps say something here, too, about creating andmaintaining safer space within ourselves? And may it be that aperson who attends to that creation of safer space within hassomething to offer in the wider community? Are you more likely tofeel safe, to create a safe environment for others if you are atone with yourself and have your own inner safe space?

5. Creating Safer Space - Safer all round

I've talked at length about the church being and creating and howit can and should be and create safer space. And I'm not justtalking about improving the quality of church life, for those weirdpeople who happen to be that way inclined and get involved in achurch for some reason or another. I believe this is something weoffer to our wider community and world, where people so often seemto concentrate on their differences - and disagree, fall out,fight, exclude, hurt, wage war.

Think of Prime Minister's question time in our Parliament. Longbefore the stories of abuse of the expenses system, I wasincreasingly saddened by the sight of two sides sitting facing eachother. Pointing fingers. Laughing with their side and at the other.Calling each other names - within the bounds of parliamentaryprivilege. Does it have to be that way? Opposing sides. Where rightcan only be with one side. And you don't listen to or respect whatthe other side has to say.

We have things to offer to do with safer space, way beyond thewalls of any church. That's obvious in what many of our localchurches do, pieces of work and in organisations like Action forChildren and MHA. But there are so many ways in which we canpotentially contribute to providing safer space for importantthings to happen in our wider society. In closing, I'll quote justfour examples.

First example. I talked about 'sanctuary'. And just a few days agoI received a copy of Inderjit Bhogal's co-authored book Becoming aCity of Sanctuary. It tells how individuals and groups and faithcommunities became involved in a movement which led to the City ofSheffield becoming Britain's first 'City of Sanctuary' - a placethat positively welcomes the presence and contribution of peopleseeking sanctuary. (Asylum seekers, as they have become known.) Andtwo District Synods, Sheffield and London, are asking the rest ofus to get involved so that other places become cities of sanctuary- 'safer spaces'.

Second example, from my own area of work. Mediation. How do peoplehandle conflicts and disputes? I'm impressed by the work of theMennonite Bridgebuilders Network, and other ways in which churchesand individual Christians are becoming involved in offeringmediation as a better way of handling disputes between individuals,couples and groups. Offering a safer space for people to face andsort out disagreements in ways that can leave people standing tall,rather than having winners and losers. We're using mediation morein the Church, but we could also offer it more widely within ourcommunities.

Third example. Interfaith relationships dialogue. This year'sMethodists for World Mission Conference looked at how Christiansengage with people of other faiths, particularly Muslims. In ourworld, and particularly in the light of 9/11 and the 2005 Londonbombings, surely it is in everyone's interest for us to createsafer spaces for people of different faith traditions and none tocome together and share their experience and their understandingand their commitment to a better life for everyone?

To mention The Gambia just one more time. One of the most strikingthings there is the relationship between the small minority 4%Christian and majority 95% Muslim communities.

Relationships between people of different faiths is not just aLondon or larger city issue, it's for all of us, though it'sparticularly relevant as we meet here in Wolverhampton, and I amdelighted that we have with us today representatives of other faithcommunities. We need safer spaces to listen, and to understand eachother.

Last example. On Tuesday this Conference will be discussing thereport: Hope in God's Future: Christian Discipleship in the Contextof Climate Change. This is in many ways the biggest issue facingour world today. In the face of what is happening to this planet asthe direct result of how we live do we just give up, or is there aword of hope and are there possibilities to turn the tide and makethis planet a safer space? Christians and churches need to be fullyinvolved, and have things to offer in making our world a saferspace.

Creating safer space
- safeguarding
- sanctuary
- safer to be different
- safer to explore
- safer all round.

Creating safer space. Not just the name of a report or the themefor a Presidential address. But it's a task, a role and a challengefor the Church and for each person here today, every single one ofus.

Creating safer space.