Newly elected Vice-President lays out four new building blocks for Methodism

  • Photo of Gill Dascombe giving her address to the Conference here
  • Profile photo of Gill Dascombe here

The new Vice-President of the Methodist Conference for 2014-15laid down four building blocks of faith for 21st century Britain inher inaugural address to the Methodist Conference.

Speaking to the Conference gathered at the Birmingham MetropoleHotel today, Gill Dascombe suggested that scripture, science,culture and community should be the blocks upon which Methodistsbuild their faith.

"Methodism provides us with four building blocks of faith, derivedfrom the writings of John Wesley," Gill said. "These are scripture,reason, tradition and experience. But Wesley too was a man of histime, and Britain is a very different place now from what it was inthe 1700s.

"So I'm going to stick my neck out here, and suggest four buildingblocks of faith for 21st century Britain. Instead of scripture,reason, tradition and experience, I suggest scripture, science,culture and community."

Gill went on to say that when Methodists affirm scripture today,they make a claim, not of uniformity, but of the embracing ofdiversity. She explained that science was important because we nolonger live in the age of reason but the age of science. "Religionand science have been in conflict for too long," said Gill, amedical pharmacist. "It's time to take the blinkers off."

Her address also challenged Methodists to think about what isdistinctive about Methodism in 2014: "How can we shape aspirituality that reflects our time, our place and our world view,within which we can address our fears, doubts and concerns, and,yes, our demons, real or perceived, and seek strength and hope andpurpose for the future?"

The full text of the address follows:

One sunny Sunday morning, so the story goes, a young man walkedinto his local church, and heard the following words of Jesus beingread out loud:

"Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come andfollow me."

And, so the story goes, he took those words literally. He did justthat. He disposed of all his property and then went off into thedesert to live the solitary life of a hermit.

The man was called Anthony, later to be St Anthony the Great, theyear was about 270 AD, and his destination was the Egyptian desert.After a while, others followed him and migrated into the desert,either to live as alone as hermits, or to join with others incommunity life.

These small beginnings are credited with being the forerunners ofa major force in Christianity; the great monastic orders such asthe Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, right through to themodern day communities like Taize, Corrymela and Iona. And thismovement of prayer and community, begun by Anthony, was a movementof the laity.But that is to fast-forward to the end of the story.For now, we need to get back to the desert.

Anthony deliberately chose to live in the desert because he wantedto devote himself radically and completely to the life of prayerwhere there would be nothing at all to distract him. He wassingle-minded, visionary and perhaps a little eccentric. He atevery sparingly and slept very little. So did he shun the things ofthe flesh that he even denied himself the luxury of personalhygiene, and, it is said, neither washed himself, nor changed hisclothes for up to 35 years!

One of the things I like about the story of Anthony is the sheerspontaneity of it. He heard the call, and he went, withouthesitation, and without reserve, even though his going didinitially upset the church authorities and presented them with somedifficulties for church order. How, for example, was he going toreceive the Eucharist out there in the middle of nowhere?

The history of the church is riddled with tales of eccentriccharacters. Many have been nothing more than that, but there are afew others who, like Anthony, have struck out on their own, withconviction and a new compelling vision, have rocked theestablishment, and really made a difference!

Where would we be, for example, if St Paul had not defied theearly church and taken the gospel to the Gentiles? Or if it hadn'tbeen for Columba, or Francis, or William Tyndale or Martin Luther,or if John Wesley had not taken to his horse and preached to anyonewho would listen, whoever and wherever they were, throughout thelength and breadth of Britain?

Where would we be? Well, we wouldn't be here sitting in theMethodist Conference of 2014!

We need to remember that we owe our existence just as much tospontaneity, dissent and even schism, as to careful deliberationand orthodoxy. In fact probably more so!

So Anthony went to the desert and began to deal with the hugechallenges of this demanding lifestyle; spiritual, emotional andphysical.

Paintings of Anthony often show him undergoing what are called histemptations. They show him surrounded by all manner of grotesqueand gruesome figures; devils and demons of in many lurid coloursand shapes. These days we might say that these were nothing morethan hallucinations brought on by starvation and lack of sleep, butin the understanding of the time, these were Satanic beings intentupon tormenting him relentlessly day and night.

To understand the reason why these devils and demons figured sographically in religious art, and, incidentally, why St Anthony isof great interest to pharmacists like me, we have to move about twothousand miles north west and about a thousand years forward intime, away from ancient Egypt, and into mediaeval Europe.

From time to time through history, the people of Europe have beensubject to terrifying plagues; illnesses which have swept throughthe continent, causing suffering and death to thousands. Of these,none was more bizarre and lethal  than a disease which seemedto represent a visitation of Satanic power on a grand scale.Sufferers' arms and legs throbbed with excruciating pain, andbecame gangrenous, women aborted their unborn children, and worstof all, there was a kind of collective madness, with men and womenrunning wildly in the streets, claiming that, like St Anthony, theywere being tormented by all manner of devils and demons in hideousforms and colours.

For this reason, this disease was called St Anthony's fire.

Outbreaks of St Anthony's fire continued in Europe right up untilthe 20th century, the last recorded one being in France in 1951.But by that time the science of pharmacognosy had established thatthe disease was due, not to infestations of people by demons, butto infestations of the rye crop by a poisonous fungus, Clavicepspurpurea, or ergot, and this poison had contaminated their breadand flour, which people ate. And so the disease was re-namedergotism.

Ergot contains amongst many biologically active chemicals, threewhich have been found to be responsible for causing ergotism, andwhich still have a role today; ergotamine, which powerfully contracts the blood vessels, (the cause of the burning andgangrene), which is still used today as a treatment for migraine;ergometrine which causes the womb to contract (and still used todayin obstetrics), and lysergic acid, a potent hallucinogenic. Thiswas later isolated and used as a precursor in the synthesis of arelated drug, lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, a substance whichgained notoriety in the 1960's as a psychedelic drug.

In the 11th century a special order of monks was founded, calledthe Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, whose mission was to care forvictims of St Anthony's Fire. In the chapel of their monastery,Isenheim in the Alsace, there hung an altarpiece depicting StAnthony in the desert, and showing all his demons in vivid detail. This altarpiece now hangs in the Unterlinden Museum. And asyou look at it, you can imagine how, as the patients and brothersknelt together in worship, and contemplated the images in front ofthem, they could perhaps begin to confront some of their ownpersonal demons, real or perceived; their delusions and fears,their anxiety and their pain, their doubts and their concerns, andseek strength and hope and purpose for the future.

But what a very different world they lived in, from ours today,and what a very different world-view they held! St Anthony's firehas now become ergotism, and his demons and apparitions have becomematters, not of supernatural visitation, but ofneurochemistry.

Knowing that, of course, does not make the disease any lesspainful or fear any less paralyzing.

Anthony, and the desert mothers and fathers who followed him intothat way of life, became renowned for their great wisdom. From thefifth century collections of their sayings were being published andoffered to the whole church as guides for personal prayer, andstill are. Their movement gave rise to a whole new tradition knownas desert spirituality or the way of the heart.

St Anthony, then, is specifically remembered for three things: thespeed and commitment with which he answered his call, hisspirituality, worked out in solitude in the desert, and Christiancommunity living, of which he is credited with being the foundingfather.

And just as he spearheaded a movement of the laity in his time,those three broad concepts, spontaneity, spirituality of context,and community, I believe, continue to be the hallmarks of thedistinctive calling of the laity.

So who are we, the laity? And what is our distinctive calling inBritain in 2014? How can we shape a spirituality that reflects ourtime, our place and our world view, within which we can address ourfears, doubts and concerns, and, yes, our demons, real orperceived, and seek strength and hope and purpose for thefuture?

Methodism provides us with four building blocks of faith, derivedfrom the writings of John Wesley. These are scripture, reason,tradition and experience. But Wesley too was a man of his time, andBritain today is a very different place now from what it was in the1700s.

So I'm going to stick my neck out here, and suggest four buildingblocks of faith for 21st century Britain. Instead of scripture,reason, tradition and experience, I suggest scripture, science,culture and community.

Scripture brings us face to face with the divine, the ineffable,the sacred, and the astonishing reality of God incarnate. In ourProtestant tradition, we affirm Scripture as revealing all thingsnecessary for salvation. But what does that mean? The past 200years have seen a revolution in the scope of Biblical scholarship,such that we have represented here today a whole spectrum of viewsabout the nature of the Bible, from those who uphold it as theinerrant word of God, to those who see it as the human record ofone peoples' struggle to make sense of life.

So today, when we affirm Scripture, amongst many things, we make aclaim, not of uniformity, but of the embracing of diversity.

Science; because we no longer live in the age of reason, we livein the age of science. Whether or not we would consider ourselvesscientists we all use its benefits everyday: electricity,telecommunications, motor transport, modern medicine, computers.And science brings us face to face with the nature of reality. TheBig Bang, the immeasurable universe, the interplay of space andtime, of energy and gravity and matter. The complexity andvulnerability of our bodies and our minds and of our planet. Theevolution of life on earth and all that tells us of our place inthe family of living things. Religion and science have been inconflict for too long. It's time to take the blinkers off.

And culture; many cultures, not just our own. Because our societytoday is plural, multicultural, and global. Culture brings us faceto face with the nature of humanity. The customs, beliefs andcenturies of wisdom enshrined in the great world faiths, thestruggles for freedom and human rights, the wordless beauty ofmusic and art, the outrage of war, the quest for peace andunderstanding; politics, literature, education industry andcommerce.

Within many of our lifetimes there have been great changes inBritish society. The Church has gained a reputation for living inthe past and wanting other people to do so. Is it possible, or isthis just a pipe-dream, for us to have a spirituality which livesand grows within our culture, instead one which exists in spite ofit?

We may be declining in numbers, but Christ is alive, and Love iscreative beyond our wildest imaginings.

The risen Christ refused to be entombed by the ideas andexpectations of his disciples, and when they looked for him, theyfound he'd already gone on ahead, leaving them vainly seeking theliving amongst the dead.

And community.  Because any insights or gifts or blessings orexperiences we have received are as nothing until they are sharedin some way with others. Because we were commanded to love oneanother. And because in 2,000 years we have only just begun toscratch the surface of what that means. Community brings us face toface with each other.Lay people are called to community. We forwhom the local church is not somewhere where are stationed butwhere we remain, owning its story. Scripture, science, culture andcommunity. Hallmarks of the calling of the laity.

So, then, who are we, the laity? Well the technical answer is us,all of us here, because all of us together are the laos, the wholepeople of God. And amongst this whole, multicoloured people of Godthere are many different gifts and callings.

Some are called to ordination; to be set apart for the specialministries of word and sacrament, in the case of presbyters, andfor the special ministry of service within a rule of life in thecase of deacons. Theirs is a wonderful and profound calling, andtomorrow we shall be celebrating and affirming those who haveresponded to this call within the life of our own Methodist Church,and pledging ourselves to support them, through all the days oftheir ministries.

And then, there are the rest of us, called, rather confusingly,the laity. The most numerous, diverse and dispersed group withinthe laos.

We who are called, not to be set apart, but to be setwithin.

We who are called, not to administer the bread and wine but toaccept it, literally to incorporate it, and carry it with us beyondthe boundaries of church life, bearing witness in our lives, in thewords of Michel Quoist, that nothing is secular, neither things,nor people nor events; but that on the contrary, everything hasbeen made sacred by its origin in God, and is part of one longthrob of love towards love eternal.

The laity are those who are not ordained, and therefore confined,to any specific role or function or discipline within the church;and therein lies the strength of our calling. Its veryamorphousness and open-endedness is what allows it the freedom forspontaneity, for exploration, innovation, imagination, and allowsfor the all-important spirituality forged from context which can beoffered for the growth and enrichment of the whole people of God,in the same way that Anthony and those who followed him offered thefruits of their desert life.

But lest we get too preoccupied with this whole question ofcalling, let us remember that it is not about our various roles andresponsibilities or our preferences or abilities or an individualsense of worth. It is all about the kingdom of God: a worldtransformed by God's love. Nothing else matters.

I began this address with the story of a young man who simplyheard the call of God one day and then and responded to it.

So, we pray: Gracious God, God of desert and city, God inscripture and science and culture and community, as we yourMethodist Conference gather together this week, call us, and findus ready to hear and to go. Amen