Vice-President's Inaugural Address to Conference

Addressing the annual Methodist Conference, Vice-President RuthPickles encouraged the Church to embark on a journey of risk-takingand vulnerability.

As a former district training and development officer, andcurrently a freelance trainer, Ruth chose 'Learning as Disciples ofJesus,' as the theme of her vice-presidential year.

"Venturing through an open door can enrich us but also can make usvulnerable. It involves risk," She said. "We perpetuate systemsthat patently have flaws without asking 'Why are we doing it thisway?' And if we do ask, all too often the answer is, whetherexplicit or implicit, 'because we always have'. But because we areGods church, our reflection and analysing has to be not only abouthow can we do things more effectively but 'is what we are doingbeing faithful to the risk-taking, vulnerable God revealed inJesus?'"

At its best, she said; "the Methodist Church has been at theforefront of helping ordinary people to develop into extra-ordinarypeople. Miners, fishermen, shop assistants, housewives… learnt howto read, to speak in public, to get engaged in community affairs,trades unions, politics.... all through membership of the chapeland their class meetings. Knowing God's love, they felt valued asindividuals; their learning needs were recognised andaddressed."

Ms Pickles concluded her address by asking those present what thefuture might hold for them and the Church: "I have my filled-indiary for the coming year, but don't really know what lies ahead.It looks immense, exciting, daunting. How about you? Where do youfind yourself on your journey? Will you too look with hope to thefuture? What exciting, but risky and costly, opportunities lieahead for us as a discipleship movement?"

The full text of the address follows:

I have loved Conference since attending for the first time in 1986,and subsequently on perhaps twenty occasions. But when I walked into the hall in Portsmouth last year, it was with a sense ofweariness, and I said to Peter, my Chair of District, I think thiswill be my last year at Conference - I've had enough!

There was then the customary exchange of greetings between those ofus who belonged to the 'best Vice-President Conference never had'club: "are you standing again this year?" "No, are you?" "No, I'veput all that behind me".

Then there was a long conversation with a Conference friend whopersisted with the idea that I should allow my name to go forwardagain. He felt that I had gifts to offer that the Church could useat this time. He sowed the seed of a question in my mind. Was thisthe right time? Or was this madness? The next morning, words in theConference Worship seemed to nudge me and I had to pay seriousattention. I had tea and conversation with a couple who know mewell. What do you think it is I have to give, I asked? "You havethe ability to challenge and ask the right questions; a clear mind,wide experience of Methodism and an understanding of people's giftsand needs". Prayerful consideration led me to the point where Ifelt that God was calling me (as God so often does) through thevoices of others. So it came to pass that on the Sunday evening Ifound myself composing 100 words for the nomination sheet whilstsaying to myself "I can't believe I'm doing this"!

Little did I realise how much 'this' was to change the course of mylife. When the voting had closed and the computer programme haddone its work, the General Secretary rang me to offer me theposition of Vice-President Designate. I was stunned. "The onlyperson you can tell before it is formally announced is yourhusband" he said. "Will he be pleased?"

"He doesn't even know my name has gone forward!" I replied.

So I rang him. "How's your day been?" "Not bad", he said, "how'sConference been today". "Well, I said, I think you should sit down.I need to tell you that I decided to put my name forward forVice-President again…….. and I got the most votes!".

David laughed - rather, I felt along the lines of "Sarah laughed"when the three visitors to the tent at Mamre told Abraham that hisaged wife would bear him a child. And in a way, these past 12months have been a gestation period, during which the awesomeresponsibilities of the post have become more evident, and manypreparations have had to be made. The birthing day has beenapproached with a mixture of excitement and dread. I think that'swhere we'll end that metaphor!

Because the preparation year is almost as busy as the year itself,we decided the first thing we needed to do was to remove our housefrom the property market. Only one couple had shown any interestand they themselves had a house to sell which had a very limitedmarket - it was a converted Methodist chapel! I felt I justcouldn't cope with clearing out years of hoarded paperwork,memorabilia and junk, never mind the actual business of moving.Then, at the end of January, a voice on the other end of the phoneasked "Is your house still for sale? I've sold mine and the buyerhas nothing to sell!"

Well, that was a shock. We felt, after a brief period ofreflection, that we had to say yes. We had a much loved buthard-to-sell house, and someone had offered to buy it. So we saidyes and by the end of the week we had made an offer on a house forourselves.

And so the sorting began. I cannot bear to throw paperwork awaywithout reading it to check 'whether or not it might come inuseful'. Or indeed, whether it contains sensitive information. Butwhy on earth did I keep the agenda and minutes of seemingly everyMethodist committee I ever attended, going back to university days?I managed to give them only a cursory glance before tearing themup. However, I couldn't resist spending an evening reading myteenage diaries and my school reports. Here's what my ReligiousInstruction teacher wrote in my Lower Sixth year report:

'Ruth takes an intelligent interest but could say more in classdiscussions!'

Ever one to do as I am told, I did my best to say more, evidentlyto some effect for my next report had the comment:

'Interested and becoming a little more forthcoming indiscussion.'

I took that to be a 'must try harder' and have been working at itever since, as many will testify. Though I don't think I will evercome up to the standard of verbal fluency that my dear predecessorEunice has set!

I started working on 'what to say on July 2nd'about 9 months ago.After conversations with Leo, a most gracious colleague, and withsome handy hints from my predecessor, three things becameapparent.

1. As a former District Training and Development Officer, andcurrently a free-lance trainer, my theme for the year should focuson 'learning as disciples of Jesus',

2. I needed to prepare a set of postcards to distribute which wouldenable people to reflect on their journey of discipleship. I shallbe using the images in my address and the postcards will beavailable at the close of session for those who would like to takeand use them to reflect on their own journey.

3. George Herbert's poem 'the Elixir' had to play a part. We sangit as a hymn a few minutes ago; let me remind you of verse two: Aman that looks on glass On it may stay his eye; Or, if he pleaseth,through it pass, And then the heavens espy.

This particular poem has really taken hold of me this year. Iremember singing it in school assemblies, in the School hall whichhad huge windows. The glass was hard to clean, and so easy to focuson. But it was clear enough to see through to the sky. I wasintrigued by the second verse of the hymn; it's shown here set as abeautiful design in a window at St Nicholas Parish church, Newport,Shropshire, photographed by a friend, Caroline Worth. The words areslightly different to how they appear in Hymns and Psalms 803, andwill appear in Singing the Faith rephrased in inclusive language.Whichever the version, this verse speaks to me of the choicebetween reality and possibility; and also the choice betweenconstraint and freedom.

And so, for my first of my set of four postcards, there has to be awindow. One on which it is easy to focus and yet can be seenthrough. Where to find such a window? Perhaps at the very specialTudor Manor House, Little Moreton Hall, just three miles down theroad from my home. This window, photographed by friend DougGibbons, is contemporary with Herbert. It is composed of glass thatwas originally colourless, but pigments in the glass have causedthe development of these beautiful shades of green and yellow. Andyet the sky can still be seen through them. The window is ametaphor for the possibility of starting a journey - glimpses maybe caught of what could be, though we are restrained inside andtherefore limited.

A journey implies that things will be different as we travel fromwhat they are now; as true for our discipleship journey as anyother. Come with me now as I share a little of my own journey, andsome significant people who have acted as guides. You may have reada little of this in the Methodist Recorder, but nevertheless Iinvite you now to journey with me and perhaps in places there willbe some resonance with your own journey.

I was born to George and Ethel Raine, who had grown up in thechapel culture of the West Riding of Yorkshire before taking thebrave step of moving in 1938 to London where my father took a postas a hospital pharmacist. My brother and I grew up in a home whereBible stories, hymns, and prayers were woven into the fabric ofeveryday life, and with parents who had a lively faith.

As my father was promoted, so we moved around the country until wesettled in North Harrow for my teenage years. How fortunate I was,for those most influential years, to be part of a 100 strong youthgroup, whose activities included social activities and faithlearning. A strong youth committee was an integral part of theplanning. We were encouraged to make a personal commitment toChrist and take up the full responsibilities of membership of theMethodist Church. Thank you, Dennis Wilcox and team. You nurtured alearning community that was both valuing and challenging. Throughyou, I was enabled to catch glimpses of the risks and opportunitiesof Christian discipleship and without you my journey might havebeen very different.

I was also blessed in that, unlike some of my friends, I hadparents who believed that girls had as much right as boys toprogress to higher education; thank you, George and Ethel, mum anddad, for valuing me as an individual, and recognising andaddressing my learning needs. So it was I took a place at theUniversity of Sheffield for a general science degree. This is wheremy I need my second post card, for it was in Sheffield that I trulyfelt a door opening to the next stage of my journey. I love thedoor pictured here, photographed by my husband David earlier thisyear when we had a relaxing week on the island of Lanzarotte.

In my first week in Sheffield I was 'found' by the MethodistChaplain and introduced to the Methodist Society (Meth Soc.) whichmet at Broomhill Methodist Church. Here was another peer group morethan 100 strong, and one that was to take me on from where NorthHarrow had left off. Here it was natural to do things differently.Here we had our experience acknowledged and were enabled to reflectcritically on it. The new Chaplain who arrived in my second year,Revd. John Farley, opened a door into biblical scholarship and gaveus an understanding of the Bible which was informed andenlightening. His teaching and preaching took the Bible, us and ourcontext seriously. Some of his sermons were printed as pamphlets,but it was not until after his death in 2006 that a compilation waspublished under the title TSEDEQH & other sermons. To quotefrom a more illustrious student of John's, Revd. Dr. Colin Morris,'John recognised that his hearers had minds to be stimulated andhearts to be warmed'. If only all preachers could meet both needs!Thank you John, for God worked through you to encourage me andcountless numbers of students in a faith journey that cherished thebiblical principles of justice and righteousness. Tsedeqh.

This was also a time of intense ecumenical activity, and we wereable to work and share worship with the other Christian groups,including Roman Catholics. (Though we weren't as ecumenical when itcame to the annual entry for the Rag float - Meth Soc had a strongreputation to maintain on that front.) I owe a debt too, to many ofother denominations and some of other faiths. The Spirit of Goddoes is not limited by boundaries in the same way that we are, forwhich I am thankful.

Venturing through an open door can enrich us but also can make usvulnerable. If it is a door we have not encountered before, then wecannot be sure of what will be on the other side. It involves risk.Jesus tells his disciples that very clearly, but says 'Come, followme'. This it takes us on to the path, my third card. How difficultit was to choose the right photograph. This one is by my colleaguePeter Barber.

The path (well, a series of A roads) took me from Sheffield toCongleton in Cheshire. The shock of moving away from University toa local Methodist Church was a difficult one to handle for manyMeth Soc members, and some just could not adjust. We had been usedto 'running our own show' in a culture of critical questioning,experimental worship, and Meth Soc groups that nurtured individualmembers, fostered close sharing and constantly aimed to take faithand society seriously. We moved away when we left to churches wherethese concepts were less, or not at all developed, and it was verydifficult. I was fortunate in that Trinity Methodist Church inCongleton was a newly opened church of 300 plus, formed from threelocal congregations plus a number of incomers working in theelectronics or textile industries, and ready to consider new waysof doing things. I soon found a niche in working with young peoplein a variety of ways, finally co-leading Sunday night youthfellowship (SNYF as it was fondly known) for twenty years. Thus Iwas able to take responsibility for my own learning alongside thoseyoung people with whom I was privileged to journey, as theygrappled with issues of faith in contemporary society. Eventually Iheard the call to preach. Another learning journey began.

Paths opened up in different directions, and I want to pay tributeto one more person. Revd B Arthur Shaw who was Chairman of theChester and Stoke-on-Trent District. He encouraged me to getinvolved in District Committees, so long as we addressed him as'Sir'- and in the late seventies recommended me as our district'srepresentative on the Connexional General Purposes Committee. Who….. me? Yet, because Arthur valued me I was able to value myself,and so began a hugely enriching involvement in matters connexional.This was not simply about administration and organisation, but gaveme the opportunity to be fed in worship by people who were verygifted and introduced me into forms of spirituality I had neverencountered before, and came to value greatly.

Whilst working as a lay Pastoral Assistant in the Sandbach andAlsager Circuit, I was privileged to attend a course at the UrbanTheology Unit, under the direction of Revd John Vincent. I wasintroduced to reading Mark's gospel in ways that emphasised theimmediacy and urgency of the gospel stories, and the importance offollowing Jesus on 'the path' 'the road' 'the way' (the same Greekword that Mark uses can be interpreted in all three ways). We wereencouraged to get right into Bible incidents or Jesus' parables bymeans of members of the group each becoming one of the characters,and challenging the others about their part in the story. I've usedthis method with numerous groups in churches and found it to be ameans of bringing afresh the gospel narrative to those who may havelistened to it countless times, but never really heard the message.Another way is to read through the whole of Mark's gospel in onesitting in a small group; it is such a powerful way to tell, orhear, the stories of Jesus.

It was also at UTU that I was first introduced to Personality TypeTheory, which has continued to intrigue me. Later, I trained as aMyers-Briggs practitioner at Emmaus House in Bristol, and as Iidentified my preferred type I began to understand why some peoplefind me so difficult! This has been a wonderful learning journey:co-leading Myers-Briggs workshops with my colleague Charles Worth,we have marvelled at the way in people's growth inself-understanding has enabled them to value their own and otherpeople's gifts; given them a means of enhancing team working and atool to help with conflict management. All of which contribute totheir effectiveness as co-workers for the kingdom. I could go on….but I think you can see that I am a paid up member of the Myers -Briggs fan club.

An opportunity that was completely different but equallyfulfilling, was that of going as enabler with the Methodist YouthExchange Team to Kenya. How blessed l I was that was able to livein the homes of local Methodists, visit countless church groups andprojects, and experience the riches of Kenyan spirituality with itsemphasis on living thankfully; spontaneous singing in harmony, andexuberant dance. I learnt so much about God's grace from my Kenyansisters and brothers in Christ, and continue to do so.

One formal learning opportunity along my journey, was the postgraduate/MA course in Consultancy, Mission and Ministry, then basedat Cliff College but now at York St. John's University. Based onthe work at AVEC of George Lovell and Catherine Widdecombe, theprinciples that this course propounds must undergird anything wetry to do in the church. Collaborative and consultative ministrythat takes reflective practice seriously and is based on soundmissiological, theological and organisation principles must be theway forward. The church is not a business, but it is anorganisation, and must not be afraid to learn insights fromorganisation studies. This becomes even more important if we wantto truly become a discipleship movement shaped for mission. AllChristian ministers, lay or ordained, need to be helped tounderstand how well informed, reflective practice, is the best wayto work together.

Maybe this is the point at which I should introduce you to mydining room table!

Not for a meal, I'm afraid, but as an example that I often usedwhen introducing a model called the learning cycle, attributed toDavid Kolb.

My everyday experience is a dining room table loaded with books andpapers, each pile with a different purpose. That pile is nextSunday's service prep, this one here is getting invitations readyfor messy church, while the others constitute the reading for oraftermath of various meetings or training sessions. A good place tostart in the learning cycle is with a concrete experience, reality.My cluttered up table.

I reflect on this: it's not a really a convenient place to work,because I have to clear it every week when the family comes todinner. It really is annoying to have to clear things away, oftenhastily at the last minute, so that I can't find what I want when Ineed it because I can't remember where I've put it.

So, I analyse what could be done: what are the options?

One: I could work somewhere else. David politely suggests my study;I'm not convinced that's the best place.

Two: I could clear away each pile of books and papers each time Ileave that piece of work. Well, I could…. maybe. But that's sotime-consuming.

Three: I could concentrate on one piece of work at a time, untilit's finished, and then file it away. Does anyone work likethat?

But I have to choose. I can carry on with a system with its obviousdisadvantage of a blitz every week, or I can do away with it byadopting a different working practice.

I make a decision for putting things away at the end of each day -and put my theory into practice.

So then have a new experience to reflect on - are things betterthis way?… and so on.

Now for the moment of truth: I was able to use that as a liveexample for many years. It has taken as drastic and costly a stepas moving house to put an end to it. I now have a massive study andan empty dining room table!

Reflective practice is not what we seem to be good at in thechurch, for we perpetuate systems that patently have flaws withoutasking 'why are we doing it this way'. And if we do ask, all toooften the answer is, whether explicit or implicit, 'because wealways have'. But because we are Gods church, our reflection andanalysing has to be not only about 'how can we do things moreeffectively' but 'is what we are doing being faithful to therisk-taking, vulnerable God revealed in Jesus?

Let me give you an example of a local church that was prepared totake a risk. Six years ago David and I felt God was calling us towork at a church five miles away, Biddulph Methodist Church. A fewyears previously, the members had become discouraged, disheartened,and seriously dwindling in number. They could see no clear pathahead of them. Then God worked through the stationing process tosend them a minister who opened up a window, then a door for them.He helped them to see that they had the only church building in thecentre of town, and there was little else in the way of communityrooms. Here was a wonderful opportunity to become 'the church atthe centre'. They worked hard and raised money to build a communitycentre adjoining the worship area, and became a centre ofhospitality for the town. Worship was revitalised. New initiativesevolved. Messy church has been a blessing for those who come andthose who run it. A Fair Trade policy was adopted. What a journey,still of course in progress. But God is good.

I have deliberately payed tribute to only five people who haveencouraged me on my journey as a Christian disciple - George,Ethel, Dennis, John and Arthur -, for they are ones representingothers who are now part of the 'company of heaven'. Many otherguides and companions to whom I am indebted are in this hall, orwill hear this address at home, or read it in the MethodistRecorder - you know who you are - and I thank you for helping me toexperience what I have, and to become the person I have become,though far from finished. You have taken seriously, long before itwas published, the principles of a report that came to theConference exactly 10 years ago: Connexional Training Strategies,of which, section one had the hugely significant heading 'Learningand developing as the whole people of God'.

It began by saying: The Church expects that each one of us, youngand old, will grow and develop in our Christian discipleship. Thishappens when we feel valued as individuals, our learning needs areaddressed; our experience is acknowledged and we are enabled toreflect critically on it; we have the opportunity to learn fromeach other; we are asked to question our current assumptions andpractice; we are expected to take responsibility for our ownlearning; we are able to use our existing gifts and talents.

It added: The Church is committed to providing an ethos andopportunities which enable the above to happen. Of course, this iswhat the Methodist Church, at its best, has been doing since itsinception. It has been at the forefront of helping ordinary peopleto develop into extra-ordinary people. Miners, fishermen, shopassistants, housewives… learnt how to read, to speak in public, toget engaged in community affairs', trades unions, politics.... allthrough membership of the chapel and their class meetings. KnowingGod's love, they felt valued as individuals; their learning needswere recognised and addressed, and so on through theprinciples.

And although the report was written very much with formal trainingprogrammes in mind, it was also intended to cultivate an ethos ofcontinuing learning and developing as disciples of Jesus who soughtto play their part in God's mission.

I come now to my fourth and final postcard. This photo, taken by mydaughter Joanna, shows one of her daughters at the seashore.

This picture does not show the end of the path, but a whole newbeginning.

A toddler with the whole world ahead of her, a vast horizon. Whoknows what lies ahead?

"Behold, I show you a new thing", says the Lord, through theprophet Isaiah. "Do you not perceive it"?

I think that is how I feel right now. I have my filled-in diary forthe coming year, but don't really know what lies ahead. It looksimmense, exciting, daunting.

But my granddaughter feels secure because her mummy and daddy areright close by, and I am comforted and supported by the love andprayers of so many people surrounding me like a great cloud ofwitnesses. And Jesus' promise: "I will be with you always, to theends of the age".

How about you? Where do you find yourself on your journey? Will youtoo look with hope to the future?

And what about us, corporately, the people called Methodist?

What exciting, but risky and costly, opportunities lie ahead for usas a discipleship movement?

We shall consider this more as Conference progresses. We as achurch shall be challenged to look outside, go through the door,take to the path of risky and costly discipleship, leaving behindthat which is familiar and secure, for the sake of thegospel.

And we shall tale courage from the words of John Wesley, co-founderof the movement that came to be known as Methodism - "the best ofall is, God is with us". Words spoken shortly before dying andbeing raised to new life. Amen.