New Methodist Vice President calls on Church to choose life

David Walton, new Vice President of the MethodistConference, called on the Church to "choose life" in his inauguraladdress. Speaking on the second day of the 2008 MethodistConference, meeting at the Spa Centre in Scarborough, David saidthat we are all accountable in some ways for our lives, and thathow we choose matters.

David is a practising lawyer from Manchester and he started hiswitty address with a comment that 'it had been so cold inManchester recently that some lawyers had been seen with theirhands in their own pockets.' He spoke of how the Church was helpingpeople to 'choose life' in places as diverse as Guatemala andDerbyshire.

As a practising lawyer, David called on the Church to be aware ofthe difficult ethical decisions that modern business can force onpeople: he asked "what does it mean in practical terms to live outour Christian faith when the choices don't always seem that clearcut?"

David went on to talk about he was inspired by a recent youthrugby match, even though he says "I am to football what AmyWinehouse is to morris dancing." He challenged the Church to thinkabout how it handles differences, and spoke of how his local churchhas a French West African congregation. Many of these are refugeesfrom the Congo, and come from different sides of the civil war. Yetthey work together to "walk to a new place together."

As part of David's address, he arranged for each member ofConference to be given an Eccles cake in celebration of hishome.

The full text of David's address follows:

'Choose life...'

I am very conscious that we are here today for different reasons -some of us as members of the Conference, whether from these islandsor overseas - some as ordinands, on this hugely significant day foryou - some as family, visitors and guests. You are all welcome andI hope that you will all feel welcome here.

We will have travelled from very different and sometimes exoticplaces. I myself have come from Eccles.

I am a lawyer by profession, but I trust you won't hold thatagainst me. I practise in the city of Manchester - I noticed aweather report not so long ago in a national newspaper: 'Manchesterwas so cold last month that some lawyers could be seen with theirhands in their own pockets.'

I have been nurtured in the Methodist Church - bathed in the fontif you like - and I am very grateful for the care of my parents,other members of my family and close friends and the congregationat Monton in the Salford Circuit. For it is here in this community,as I grew up, that I began to see in all sorts of practical wayswhat living Christian faith is all about.

I think of Eileen Wooller, my Sunday School Superintendent, whomany years ago was a pioneer in setting up the first Gateway Clubin the area through what is now Mencap. She prayed as she lived andshe lived as she prayed. I will embarrass Ian Huddleston who forthe last thirty or so years has set out the table tennis tables andrestocked the drinks and sweets and, come rain or shine everyFriday night, has opened the doors of the youth club.

And as a representative lay person, I want to pay tribute to andcelebrate those lay people of the Methodist Church who week by weeklive out their faith in sometimes tough and thankless situations -but where by their commitment they are making a difference.

And what I experienced is what the President yesterday talkedabout - the transforming grace of God. And as I grew up I waschallenged by the conviction that we live not just to ourselves -but to God, and therefore to our neighbours. We are in some way'accountable' for our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel weheard read just now. (Mark 12 vv 28-35)

And in many situations we have a choice. And how we choose matters- matters ultimately.

I am grateful to one of the ordinands for the inspiration for myprinciple theme today. I was at the ordinands' testimony service inManchester when that Old Testament lesson was read. 'I call heavenand earth to witness against you today that I have set before youlife and death, blessings and curses. Choose life ...so that youand your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeyinghim, and holding fast to him...' (Deuteronomy 30 v 19).

CHOOSE LIFE: that's what we are about. As a people of God andmembers of the human family. What does the Coca-cola advert say? 'Ataste of life as it should be'

So often, however, we have to admit that the Church seems to morebe about being AGAINST things, not FOR them.

One of my favourite stories is of the Anglican vicar who hadinvited the Bishop to lunch. He thought he ought to invite thelocal Methodist minister as well, although he was a rather dour andsanctimonious character.

Before lunch he offered his guests a drink and the Bishop said hewould have a gin and tonic which was duly produced. The Vicar askedif the Methodist minister would like the same, to which the replycame: 'I'd rather commit adultery'. At which point the Bishophanded back his glass and said: ' I didn't realise there waschoice.'

We have more reason than ever to speak out about the devastatingeffect of alcohol on so many lives, but we have more reason tocelebrate that quality of life which is not based on any drug orartificial stimulant.

1. So what does it mean to 'choose life'?
+ In some places, it will mean to work to provide the very basicsof life; water, food , shelter, healthcare.

I was privileged earlier in the year to visit the NationalEvangelical Primitive Methodist Church in Guatemala - this is whereAmilcar Solorzano (who read our second lesson) comes from. I wastaken to the village of Pataloupe I, 8000 feet up in the Highlands.There I met Juan Ixtan, the pastor of the Methodist Church. On thelower floor of the Church Juan showed us two rooms which housed apharmacy and a dental surgery ; he also showed us the map of thevillage he had drawn. He had divided it into sections - so he knowswhich houses have latrines and which don't, which families have ahigher incidence of sickness than others - in effect he has drawnup a community health programme. The Church now intends to get himto go into other villages to help the local people do the samethere.

On the roof of the Church in Pataloupe a group of women wereweaving the most beautifully designed and colourful cloth; theywere teaching their children to do this too.

+ Another way in which we enable people to choose life is byencouraging their creative gifts- whether in craft, drama, worship,music, or sport. Especially the young - I'm pleased that we in theMethodist Church are developing a new Youth Participation Strategy.I pray it will be a means of releasing talent and creative energyamong people of all ages.

I always remember us taking a group of young people to Derbyshire- one of the joyous tasks was to go abseiling off a railway bridgedown into a river bed. One of the girls found it difficult to joinin the group - and they weren't always too friendly to her. Therewas no way she was going abseiling. But remarkably, little bylittle, and rather to my surprise the others persuaded her to getkitted out in harness and ropes, to lean out over the parapet ofthe bridge - and after much banter - eventually to let herself go.I was standing at the bottom to catch her. I shall never forget themassive grin of pride and satisfaction in her previouslyinconceivable achievement.

+ But there are many areas where choosing life and how we do it isnot always all that obvious (this week in Conference, for example,we will be debating the issues surrounding human embryology).

Much of my time is spent at work. Like you I'm aware of manypeople who are working too hard and others - whether because ofhealth or education or discrimination - find themselves excludedfrom paid employment.

My hope that during this year we might as a Church engage moreactively with those who are in the midst of all this - some whohave to make difficult ethical decisions about the sort of workthey should or shouldn't do; or who have to take tough decisionswhich affect other people's jobs or employment prospects - where dothey look for help, a place to reflect and talk thingsthrough?

What about the Bank employee I met who is under severe pressure tosell customers products she feels they don't need and can't afford.But her livelihood is riding on her sales.

Business itself is asking many of these questions: corporatesocial responsibility is very much on the agenda - can you actethically and run a successful business?

I'm very conscious of some of those decisions I've been involvedin - or failed to take - which seem to have brought curses ratherthan blessings. What does it mean in practical terms to live outour Christian faith where the choices don't always seem that clearcut?

I would like to think that the Church can be a place where wecould talk openly about these things - between ourselves and withthose we work alongside - and to explore what the Bible and ourChristian experience and ethical understanding have to contributeto a debate, a debate which is going on now with or without us. Howcan our business practices and the decisions we make at work belife giving and not death dealing?

But to do this we must be a place, a people, where we can trusteach other enough to debate and differ and still to live together.And we're not afraid to do it.

2. Living with difference - walking together to a new place.
I have to confess I'm not a sportsman - I am to football what AmyWinehouse is to Morris dancing.

But I went to see my nephew Tim play rugby last year. I wasimpressed by how many 16 and 17 year old girls are keen rugby fans;impressed too by the fierceness of attack and tackling during thematch and then at the end the handshakes and ritual cheering of theopponents side; the contrast between the intensity of the battle onthe field and the relative camaraderie off it.

It's not of course always like that elsewhere.

The drama which was presented this morning was inspired by anassignment undertaken for foundation training. Julie Herbert got agroup of us together in our local church on three Sunday eveningsto talk about Britishness and whether as Christians we should havea view about the Government's drive to stimulate a new sense ofBritish identity. We certainly had a lively debate.

Peter Moreton's dramatic take on this - I hope entertainingly -pointed up how easily we stereotype people and the fear ofdifference we all have - even if we don't always admit it toourselves.

As a counterpoint, those words we heard from 1 John are the mostlife-giving I know : 'There is no fear in love - but perfect lovecasts out fear.' (I John 4 v17).
We live in a society where so much of our conflict is based onfear of people we don't know or who look a bit different or whosebeliefs we're suspicious of. We live in a Church where so much ofour conflict is based on fear of people we don't know or who look abit different or whose beliefs we're suspicious of.

And we need in both places to develop a new level of trust andrespect and openness. We all know that it's so much more difficultto stereotype another person - or dismiss their views as rubbish -if we have have sat and talked - shared a pizza- with them and havebegun to get to know them as a person - not just 'that ManchesterUnited supporter' or whatever; this is the practical starting pointof 'loving our neighbour'.

But truly loving our neighbour - or indeed our enemy - is not justabout having an argument or a debate, agreeing to differ and goingour separate ways - but somehow travelling to a new placetogether.

The American Roman Catholic priest Vincent Donovan discovered thisas he lived among the Masai people - in a culture he found verydifferent to his own:

Do not try to call people back to where they were, and do not tryto call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place mightseem to you. Instead you must have the courage to go with them to aplace that neither you nor they have ever been before.

In our own Circuit in Salford we have a French West Africancongregation; many of these are refugees or asylum seekers from theCongo. But there is a tension, because some of them come fromopposite sides in the civil war they have escaped from - and haveexperienced things which will fundamentally colour their view ofthose on the other side. Their Minister was telling me howimpressed he has been at the practical ways they are giving careand support to one another; the differences remain but they aretentatively learning to walk to a new place together.

Those of you who are deacons and ministers have a great privilege.You are called to be enablers and encouragers of communities where- because Jesus is at the centre - perfect love can begin to castout fear. (These may be established churches or entirely newgroupings of people.)

These are not places of impossible conformity where all must thinkand act alike - but they are places where people trust each otherenough to be open to listen and explore their differences - who areprepared to journey to a new place together. Who know what it is tolive not just to themselves.

And because of this the Church - whether it gathers in a cathedralor a pub -can become a place which others are drawn to . Why?Because they know their experiences are respected and valued - butalso because here is a place where the historic truths of Christianfaith actually begin to make some sense of their lives and givesome steer to those tough choices, choices which can mean thedifference between life and death, despair and hope, folly andwisdom.

It was clear from our local discussions on Britishness that we aslay people need to be much more theologically equipped to grapplewith this sort of issue, to speak with confidence about the God whohas become real to us in Jesus Christ; and what that looks like andthinks like and acts like - in the hospice, at the jobcentre, onthe rugby field, in the boardroom, at the supermarket - and on thetrain.

And the exciting, challenging, life changing task that you have isto help equip the people where you are to become an open communityof sense-making and invigorating faith - where perfect love iscasting out all kinds of fears and suspicion. So that for all ofus, lay or shortly to be ordained, sceptical or searching,convinced or not yet certain - we may be brought up short by theeternal challenge that God places before each one of us: 'Today Ihave set before you life and death - blessings and curses. Chooselife...'