New Vice-President calls on Methodists to push boundaries in the 21st century

The new Vice-President of the Conference, Dr Richard Vautrey,called on Methodists to push boundaries, test new ideas and embracenew technology in order to reach out beyond the walls of churchesand chapels.

In his inaugural speech to the Conference at the Civic Hall inWolverhampton, Richard paid tribute to the thousands of men andwomen who gave up their time freely as part of their service to theChurch and their communities.

Richard, a practising GP in Leeds, also said it was for peoplewithin the Church to ask difficult questions and support others asthey look for answers.

"There are a whole host of moral and ethical issues that face us inour daily 21st century lifestyle that the Church should be taking alead on and seizing the agenda," he said.

"How we care for people at the end of their lives, or with seriousmental illness, or learning disability; the benefits and pitfallsof embryo research; rationing health care at times of nationalemergency such as a serious flu pandemic where we'd have to makedecisions about who were denied hospital care; or how we balancethe health care needs of developing countries with the wants of ourown affluent society or the impact of multinational companies.These are just a few of the many issues where we should beinforming or leading the debate."

Richard also called for Christians to challenge stereotypes aboutthe Church.

"The Church is stereotyped as being riddled with homophobia," hesaid. "We're also seen as hostile to sex, yet this is somethingthat is one of the most natural and beautiful of God's gifts. Animage is created of the Church being almost less Christian andcharitable than our largely secular society. Love breaks down thebarriers that may have been there in theory, but in the reality ofa real relationship they melt away."

The full text of Richard's speech is available here:

Morrissey, from the 80's group The Smiths, once sang:

Panic on the streets of London,
panic on the streets of Birmingham,
I wonder to myself, could life ever be sane again
on the Leeds side-streets that you slip down.

Well, I don't know about London and Birmingham or indeed my hometown of Leeds, but he might have added panic on the stage inWolverhampton. I've had a year to think about chickening out, butnow there is no going back. And to my amazement, after you to havehad a year to think about it, today you still elected me as yourVice President and for that I am extremely grateful, humbled andhonoured.

I would not be stood here now without the support of a lot ofpeople. I want to thank those within my church at Chapel Allerton,the Leeds North East circuit, and all those within the wider LeedsDistrict who have nurtured, supported, encouraged and prayed for meover the years. Thank you for the many kind gifts I've received,including that of access to the Twelvebaskets web resource whichhas supported the visual images in my address this afternoon.

But particular thanks must go to my long suffering family,especially my Mum and Dad, and my parents-in law John and Vera, whohave not only been so tolerant and forgiving of my many failingsbut who I know will be helping and supporting Anne and I throughoutthis year.

I'm going to need all kinds of help this year. So to my sonJonathan I leave the lawn mower, you'll find the grass staysmagically short by using it, and to my younger son Matthew, thebucket and sponge in the garage is all yours, it's just right forwashing the car with.

Finally thanks to my wife Anne whose love I could not do without. Iknow Conference you will find this hard to believe, but she knowsonly too well how often I'm a monosyllabic Yorkshire man. I know Idon't say this very often but I love you dearly, and could not betaking on this role without you.

The Methodist Conference has been part of my life for the last 21years, and I have come to cherish it and the role that it playswithin the life of our Church. It has changed over the years and itwill continue to evolve in the future, but we have something veryspecial here that we should not be afraid to quietly boastabout.

One of the huge strengths of the Conference is the importance itplaces on the whole people of God, lay and ordained, meetingtogether to share their views, hopes and fears; conferringtogether, sharing together, praying together, worshipping together,men and women equal before God.

And that is why I believe the role of Vice President is soimportant. The role is an affirmation of lay ministry, and theimportance we place upon it within the life of our Church. It'salso a sign of the importance we place on holding together lay andordained leadership in all areas of the Church's life. Wecomplement each other, we are intertwined in the same missionaryrope, and all gain strength from that interdependent relationshipas a result. We need each other to be truly affective in our Godgiven mission.

Yet when I've told people that I'd been designated as VicePresident of the Methodist Conference, most people are simplypuzzled or confused. The standard response is, well does that meanyou'll be President next time then? Others point out that churchesare only really interested in seeing and hearing the President andfeel short changed if his or her deputy turns up instead. We alsohave a tendency in the autumn of our days to remember Conferencesnot by the year but by the place they were held and by who wasPresident at the time.

Now please don't misunderstand me. You have not elected a VicePresident with a huge chip on his shoulder. I fully understand therole and the importance that this Conference places in it, and asI've already said, I am deeply honoured to be asked to fulfil it.However as in many other areas of discrimination and diversity, thewords we use can give totally the wrong message.

For those that don't understand our tradition, the words VicePresident signal second best, a deputy, or an apprentice. Theimplication therefore is that whilst we know and understand theimportance of partnership between lay and ordained in telling thegood news of the gospel, the majority take home the message thatlay ministry is second best.

The reality though is that God calls us all. As Jesus said, "Theharvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few". We cannot affordto waste the skills and talents of a single member of our Church.All are called to join in God's mission and all are needed.

Throughout the Connexion lay volunteers play an increasinglyimportant part in the life of our Church. We've always placed greatemphasis on lay leadership within the local church and circuit.Whether it be acting as a church or circuit steward, treasurer,Sunday school teacher, local preacher or the countless other jobsand roles that are essential to the working of our Church. Weshould recognise and pay tribute to the thousands of men and womenwho week in week out give freely of their time and energy as partof their discipleship.

For example, let me publicly say how immensely impressed andthankful I am for those who give so much of their time working withmy own children. We should not underestimate or undervalue thededication, commitment and sacrifice made by those women and menwho, week after week, prepare and share lessons and activities witha group of lively children, or of cub and scout leaders whoregularly give up their weekends to sleep in a tent in a wet fieldalong with a large group of boys more used to playing onPlaystations and watching DVDs, or of the leaders from a variety ofdifferent churches locally who commit to our weekly youth groups orof individuals who go out of their way to support parents withbabies or young children.

We understandably worry about the falling number of children andyoung adults that we are connecting with, and yet it can often be ashortage of people willing to act as leaders for our children andyouth groups that is the real problem, so it is vital that we offerour support and encouragement to all those who are willing and ableto act as leaders in youth work.

There are also countless others who have taken on almost full timevoluntary roles for the Church. Let me just mention one group ofvolunteers, but they represent the large number of individuals towhom we owe an increasing debt. Peter Grubb has been theco-ordinator of a group of volunteers working tirelessly for theWesley Guild Nigeria Health Care Project since the early 1990s.Through their unstinting dedication and commitment the project hasraised nearly £1 million which has helped put a significant numberof clinics and small hospitals in Nigeria back on track and made areal difference to the lives of people living near them.

These roles, and many others like them, would once have been doneby paid officers. Increasingly we are now relying on dedicatedindividuals who are very often lay people offering their time andthemselves in addition to their routine work or family commitments.These people are the unsung heroes of our Church and on which ourfuture depends; volunteers up and down the country who give freelyof their time in response to God's call to them and we should bemore ready to recognise the personal sacrifices many of them make.In the years to come the role of lay volunteers will become moreand more important as they share the workload currently carried bymany of our presbyters and deacons.

Increasingly we are seeing a pattern of lay and ordained peopleworking together in full partnership in teams within circuits. Ashas often been said, the genius of the Methodist circuit andConnexional system gives us a God given structure that we can useto empower this joint working. In 1996 during his presidentialaddress, Nigel Collinson talked of the need for a pastor for everychurch. He said "we have given people unrealistic jobs and by doingso we have settled for a ministry on a care and maintenance basis."Over a decade later are we any nearer avoiding this? By fullynurturing and utilising the skills and talents of local layleaders, working in partnership with ordained colleagues we canachieve the goal Nigel set for us.

Let me use an example from my own working life. GPs and hospitalconsultants work closely together. For years the consultant wasalways seen as the top dog (isn't that right Professor Howdle?),with the stereotype being that general practice was the placefailed hospital doctors sort sanctuary. However, in recent yearsgeneral practice is being recognised as a complex speciality on apar with any other in a hospital. GPs now provide care to manypatients with complex health needs who once would have had to go tohospital clinics for their care instead, with some GPs developing aspecial interest in specific areas such as diabetes or minorsurgery. Although there can be many barriers put in the way ofthese developments, some related to power and status, some relatedto money or tradition, where these barriers can be overcomepartnerships between GPs and consultants working together in thecommunity have resulted in real benefits patients.

This may be the pattern for lay and ordained ministry in the futureof our Church. Generalist pastors and workers both lay andordained, working alongside each other with those with specialistskills. We've said it so often but really now is the time to freeup more of our trained ministers, many with specialist skills, andto use those skills for all within a circuit and not just in thechurches for which they have pastoral oversight. It's starting tohappen in some circuits, and we need to learn from them and supportthat model more generally. We have huge talent within ourpresbyters and deacons which will be clearly seen in those who areto be ordained tomorrow, men and women brimming with ideas,enthusiasm and a desire to serve God. I'm sure all of them havegeneralist skills developed through their years of training, but wereally must use their specialist skills too in a more targeted waythan we currently do.

As a Church we've spent time making our structures more flexibleand adaptable to meet the challenges of our rapidly changingsociety. Now we need to use these flexibilities to their fullestextent. Let's not get bogged down in committees and looking inwardsbut instead let's push the boundaries, test new ideas, embrace newtechnology, share ideas, use our buildings and our resources asimaginatively as possible and let's free up more of our mostvaluable resource, our people, to reach out beyond the walls of ourchurches and chapels, supporting them as they take risks forChrist.

All are called to join in God's mission and all are needed.

God calls us all, and that means all are included. I mentionedearlier that we sometimes run in to communication problems. Weassume everyone talks the same language as we do, and understandwords and phrases in the way that we do. It happens to all groupsand professions, the medical profession being a case in point, andit can be hard not to fall in to the trap of using words andconcepts that I and my colleagues are very familiar with but whichmean absolutely nothing to those outside. The result is that we cancreate barriers between ourselves and those we are trying to reachout to.

As an example of this, let's just for a moment focus on sex, drugs,and rock and roll. Sex sells; it also has a habit of waking up ahot congregation. Any mention of sex triggers a Pavlovian responsein the media and the related story is sure to get coverage. Mix sexand the church and you'll hit the headlines. Now I don't know whatthe after service conversation is like in your church, but talkabout sex over the coffee and biscuits after the service is notcommonly heard in the churches I've attended. Maybe I am going tothe wrong churches. And yet according to the media, all churchesare obsessed and divided by it.

Now clearly we must challenge those that use sex in an exploitativeway, in a degrading or dehumanising way. The excellent work done byNetwork highlighting the appalling situation of sex trafficking isexactly what we should be doing. However the Church is stereotypedas being riddled with homophobia. We're also seen as hostile tosex, yet this is something that is one of the most natural andbeautiful of God's gifts. An image is created of the Church beingalmost less Christian and charitable than our largely secularsociety. Where society has made great strides to challengediscrimination and encourage equality and diversity, the Church isstereotyped as being bigoted, backward and blatantly obstructive tochange.

Yes these issues are important, yes they need to be sensitively andcarefully handled, and yes, were the stereotype has evidence ofsome foundation it should be challenged, but my experience is thatwhen Christians meet and get to know their neighbour, they reachout in love towards them. Their sexuality counts for little. Lovebreaks down the barriers that may have been there in theory but inthe reality of a real relationship they melt away.

So much for sex, let's turn to drugs. Can a Methodist Conference goby without mention of alcohol? Just in case it becomes an expose inthe Sunday tabloids, I ought to come clean now. I have to admitthat I gave up drinking alcohol when it became legal for me to doso. I didn't stop drinking through any religious conviction, butbecause I didn't actually like it, and despite the best efforts ofmy friends and family, many sitting up there, I still haven'tacquired the taste for it.

However, I am forever trying to explain this away when peopleassume I don't drink because I'm a Methodist, and frankly I'm fedup of seeming to apologise for being a Methodist. I find myselfsaying that most Methodists I know drink, although to be honest Idon't say how much some of you drink. I do though try to dispel thecommonly held stereotype that we are nothing more than puritanicalnay-sayers and party-poopers.

Again we've got major communication problems. There is absolutelynothing wrong with reasonable and responsible drinking, indeed theevidence is that I'm less healthy by not drinking alcohol than youare that do. Alcohol can be good, but it can also be devastating.With levels of binge drinking and alcohol abuse rising rapidly,especially amongst the young, there is no more important time forthe Church to be leading an informed debate on raising the price ofalcohol, setting standards for labelling and the responsibilitiesof the drinks industry.

I know we try to do this but our messages are largely ignoredbecause of the assumption that we are completely anti-alcohol, oralternatively we're seen as hypocrites because we don't generallypractice what the wider world thinks we preach. If we were morehonest and open about our current use of alcohol, may be morepeople outside the church would take us more seriously when we tryto address the bigger picture. And it is not just on alcohol thatwe need to re-think our communication and undermine the stereotype,there are a whole host of moral and ethical issues that the Churchshould be taking a lead on and seizing the agenda. How we care forpeople at the end of their lives, or with serious mental illness,or learning disability; the benefits and pitfalls of embryoresearch; rationing health care at a time of national emergencysuch as a serious flu pandemic when it is possible that we'd haveto make decisions about who can or cannot be admitted hospitalcare; or how we balance the health care needs of developingcountries with the wants of our own affluent society or the impactof multinational companies.

These are just a few of the many issues where we should beinforming or leading the debate. We live in a world of challengesand uncertainty. The recent financial melt-down and the rise inunemployment levels across the world will only add to theseproblems. Our Church did great work on the issues relating tounemployment back in the 1980's, it time we urgently revisited thatso that we are in a position to proactively support those affectedas well as challenge the systems that have led to this situationhappening all over again. It is for us within the Church to ask thedifficult questions and support others as we all look for theanswers.

And finally rock and roll, well to be honest hymns and choruses. Itnever ceases to amaze me how heated we can get about this. In hisMethodist Recorder article at the end of last year's Conference, mygood friend Leslie Griffiths felt compelled to voice his concernabout the hymns sung, or should that have been the lack ofthem.

We have a rich and treasured musical heritage and how we blend thenew and the old is a constant challenge, but we shouldn't expecteveryone to like the same music. As the President has already said,we cherish peoples' differences and diversity so it should be nosurprise that we all find slightly different ways to worship andconnect with God. Whether it be songs, hymns, chants or silence itis important that we embrace and enhance this ability to connect,and we are relevant to where people are. Again, to quote from thesame Smiths song that I started with, Morrissey goes on tosing:

"Hang the blessed DJ,
because the music that they constantly play,
it says nothing to me about my life".

Now I sense a degree of fear in the organists amongst you. Don'tworry, I've got Wesley hymns on my iPod, for if anyone speaks to meabout my life then Charles Wesley certainly still does. But howmuch of our church music truly speaks to our congregations, orperhaps more importantly those outside our congregations?

Driving down to Wolverhampton we had the same discussions as weoften do about which CD we would listen to or which radio stationto tune in to. I don't expect to convert Anne to the music ofRadiohead, although much to my two sons' frustration she keepstrying to indoctrinate them in to listening to our local radiostation Magic 828 - sounds of the 60s and 70s. So far they're stillholding out but they do need your prayerful support.

During this Conference and over the coming months as we continue todiscuss the music, hymns and songs that we will use within theChurch life let's look for the broadest range of resource thatreflects our faith and belief, recognising too the need to help asmany as possible to hear God speaking to us through the words thatwe sing. God calls us all, that's all of us with our differencesand our diversity, our likes and our dislikes.

Communication failures and stereotypes, whether justified or not,act as barriers and keep people apart. This is certainly the casewhen it comes to the missing men in our Church. Paul talks of therebeing neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, foryou are all one in Christ Jesus, and yet when you look around thevast majority of our churches, where are the men, and in particularwhere are the fathers of school age children?

Even after 35 years of women being ordained as Methodist ministerswe still have some way to go to remove all the barriers thatprevent women from taking a full role in senior leadership withinour Church. However that should not stop us from also asking thefundamental reasons why boys and men are staying away from ourchurches. You don't need a medical degree to know that men andwomen are different. Just as we like different types of music itmay be that men have a perception that elements of worship orchurch life are designed with feminine characteristics in mindrather than masculine ones and therefore they may think that theChurch is not for them.

In days gone by some churches had football and cricket teams,snooker rooms and even tennis courts. They found ways of engagingwith young men that made them feel valued and understood.Replicating what was done then may not be the answer today, but wedo need to learn from those who have adapted and changed what theydo in order to remain relevant to the boys and young men within ourchurches as well as to reach out to those on the fringes.

I was struck by the fact that all the Methodist churches I visitedrecently in Bulgaria had areas within them to provide free use ofcomputers and internet access. It was just one way they were usingto engage with young people and boys in particular. We urgentlyneed to ask young men themselves what it is about the Church thatputs them off setting foot within it, for it is within our power toadapt our activities, our mission and our worship to respond to thechanging pattern of society and the changing needs of young men inparticular.

It's also possible for us to look at the times we hold eveningmeetings and consider how easy they are for working parents to getto them. It's possible for us to provide parenting support, andindeed pastoral support if Mum and Dad go their separate ways. Wemay see Mum and the children in church, but how much effort do wemake to keep in contact with Dad? I don't come with any easyanswers, but I do call on us all to take the issue of reaching outto the men on the fringes of our Church more seriously than we dobefore we lose touch with them altogether.

God calls us all - and that also means all people everywhere. Weare richly blessed in the Methodist Church to have so many strongand dynamic links with our world church partners. We are bombardedwith negative images from around the world on a daily basis, and soit does us good to reflect on the wonderful things being done inthe name of the Methodist Church right around the world. So oftenthis is work with people on the edge of society, the vulnerable orthe outcast, the poor or the marginalised, a work that continues todemonstrate our valuable tradition of social holiness.

In Macedonia the Methodist Church has a long history of workingalongside the most vulnerable and marginalised people. In Kocani Imet a man from the Roma community who told me how he and his familyhad struggled to be able to worship as Methodists for 20 years, andwho had faced abuse and prejudice from many in his community as aresult. The small Methodist congregation there had been forced tomove from rented accommodation that they'd used as a church atleast four times, once finding their belongings thrown out on tothe street at midnight. But this only served to strengthen theirfaith and determination to maintain their discipleship andChristian witness. Through the wider support of MacedonianMethodists, and their connexions with the wider church, they nowhave a church building of their own, and can worship freely withoutfear of attack. Despite the great adversity they have and continueto face, they worship God with joy and thanksgiving. And they sendyou, their sisters and brothers in Christ, warmest greetings andthanks for your prayers and support.

It saddens and shames me therefore to come from a Yorkshire regionthat has just elected its first British National Party member torepresent our great county in the European Parliament. Despite aconcerted effort made by religious leaders both locally andnationally a political party advocating division and discriminationhas managed to persuade enough people to vote for it. And it alsohorrifies me that in 2009 we can witness a group of Roma men, womenand children being hounded out of their homes and even a churchbuilding by a small minority of people in Belfast. We cannot ignoreor play down what is happening in some of our communities. We mustredouble our efforts to reconnect and communicate with everyone whoseems to believe that this is the way that society should go.

God calls us all. He calls us all, women and men, lay and ordained.He calls you, he calls me. He calls us all to remove the remainingbarriers of misunderstanding, prejudice or tradition that get inthe way. He calls us all to work alongside men and women who may bevery different from ourselves, but who have the same calling - totell of the good news of God's love for all and to show thatthrough our love of one another. It is our calling. It is awonderful thing that God thinks we are up to the task, but he does,and we are.

God calls us all - it's time for us all to respond.