We must find our voice, urges new Methodist Vice-President

  • Photo of Dr Jill Barber at the Conference here
  • The audio of Jill's address will soon be available here
  • Video: theMethodist President and Vice-President talk about their plans

The newly appointed Vice-President of the Methodist Conferencehas called for the Church to find its distinctive voice in herinaugural address.

Speaking to the Conference gathered at Southport today, Dr JillBarber questioned 'Where is the Methodist voice?' Jill suggestedthat through a renewed focus on the four 'P's of Prophesy, Prayer,Passion and Protest Methodism can find its voice, speak out to makea difference and speak more effectively whilst embracing itsdistinctiveness and diversity.

Introducing the address Jill said, "Part of the problem ofcourse is that we don't and can't speak with one voice. Thestrength of Methodism is that it is a democratic movement ofpeople, with many different views about how we should work out ourChristian discipleship. But we can't stay silent. God calls us tospeak out. It is not easy grappling with how to live withcontradictory convictions, but that is our calling."      

"Have we lost that passion for living out the gospel throughsocial and political action?  Is there a danger that we haveprivatised our faith, so that it makes us feel better asindividuals, but we fail to relate it to wider community and globalissues?  I want to call on Methodists to get involved in localand national politics. To become a voice for change, challengingthe politics of self-interest and upholding the politics of thecommon good."

Ending her address, Jill told the inspiring story of DorothyRipley whose prophecy, prayer, passion and protest saw her becomethe first woman to speak to Congress in Washington, speaking up forthose who had no voice.

The full text of the address follows:

Mr President, members of Conference and guests, friends.  Ihave been enormously touched, and humbled, by the number of peoplewho have said they will be praying for me as I prepare to take upthe privilege and responsibility of serving as your Vice Presidentin the coming year.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart,and please keep on praying!

'The Trade Union movement owes more to Methodism than it does toMarx.' I am enormously proud of that.  It draws many visitorsto Englesea Brook, where I am the director of a Heritage forMission project which focuses on the story of Primitive Methodism.One visitor memorably announced, 'I am anti-God, but a Methodist inmy DNA.'  It was a great conversation starter!

One of the questions I am frequently asked is, 'Where are theMethodist voices today?' They have heard of Donald Soper, but afterthat I begin to struggle a bit! What is our distinctive Methodistvoice? And how can we gain confidence in sharing our own faithstory?

Part of the problem of course is that we don't and can't speakwith one voice. The strength of Methodism is that it is ademocratic movement of people, with many different views about howwe should work out our Christian discipleship. But we can't staysilent. God calls us to speak out. It is not easy grappling withhow to live with contradictory convictions, but that is ourcalling.

How can we find our voice?  I believe this is a keychallenge, if we are to make a difference to individual lives, andbring hope to a world whose future is threatened by violence andclimate change.

So I am going to offer you my four 'Ps' (and in your conferencebags you will find four postcards for you to use in your own prayerand reflection).

'Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shalldream dreams and your young men shall see visions.'(Joel 2.28)

My first 'P' is Prophesy.

Where are the Methodist voices? They are here. We can't pass theresponsibility to someone else.  God pours out his Spirit oneach one of us, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation orethnic background. We all have a unique story to share about thetransforming love of God in our life.

Equality and empowerment are at the heart of our Methodistidentity. Lay people have a voice as well as ordained people. JohnWesley accepted that women could have an 'extraordinarycall'.  In the early 19th century, when theWesleyans banned women from preaching, it was the 'Prims' and BibleChristians who recognised that God pours out his Spirit ondaughters as well as sons. Women were sent out as evangelists,speaking God's words in places that others sometimes feared togo. 

For the early Methodists it didn't matter how young, or how oldyou were.  'If you know the love of God in your heart thenstand up and share it brother! - or sister!' In the little hamletof Englesea Brook, Sarah Smith, a farm labourer's wife, taught thechildren to read and she also taught them how to pray.  Shethen started a prayer meeting in her cottage, led by thechildren.  Six of those children went on to become itinerantministers, including Ann Brownsword and her brother Thomas, knownas the 'boy preacher'. The youngest person I have found on aMethodist preaching plan was 11 years and 8 months.

There are no barriers to the outpouring of the Spirit. Desires,hopes and dreams inspire action. What more can we do to empowerolder people to share their dreams and young people theirvisions?

The prophetic voice is often counter-cultural, subversive.Sometimes we don't listen to the right voices. To discern what theSpirit is saying to us as a church, we need to listen to the voicesof those on the margins. Whose voice is ignored?  Whose voicedo we want to silence?      

We need to listen to the uncomfortable voices. We need to takethe risk of being hurt when we speak out, and our voice is ignoredor rejected. 

'Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in allcircumstances.'(1 Thess 5:16-18)

My second 'P' is Pray.

Finding our voice begins with prayer. To pray is to be immersedin the presence of God. Sarah Crosby, the first woman to convinceJohn Wesley that she had a call to preach, had a passion for soulsand the ability to attract and hold great crowds. She would starteach day at 4am, with an hour of prayer. This gave her a constantsense of God's presence which sustained her through the busiesttimes. She felt so surrounded and filled with the presence of Godthat she had a sense of calm even when speaking to huge crowds,like this!

If we are to find our voice, first we need to pray. WilliamClowes, one of the founders of the Primitive Methodist revival, wasgoing to preach at Beverley, a 9 mile walk from his home inHull.  When John Flesher, who was going with him, called forhim, he was told that Clowes could not be disturbed. Later in theafternoon Flesher came back again, only to receive the same answer.When he called for the third time, there was no time tospare.  Clowes appeared from his room, and greeted him withthe words, 'Flesher, I am supple with God.' I love that image ofprayer as our spiritual workout. I want to be supple with God.

The early Methodists took prayer seriously.  One day in1823, John Oxtoby's - 'Praying Johnny' as he was known - was at ameeting to discuss what to do about Filey, a fishing village on theYorkshire coast. All attempts at mission had met with suchresistance that it was decided to abandon it altogether. AbandonFiley?! John Oxtoby begged the meeting to give Filey one morechance, saying he would go himself. The meeting agreed to one lasttry.  When John reached the hill overlooking Filey he kneltdown to pray. He told God that he, John Oxtoby, had made a promisethat God would revive his work in Filey, and God must do it, or hisservant would never be able to hold up his head again. At last, hereceived an assurance from God, and rose from his knees saying'Filey is taken!' That was the beginning of a remarkablerevival.

In 1832 a cholera epidemic swept through the country, andthousands died. It was reported of one Methodist society inYorkshire that only 'one praying man' was left. This didn't mean hewas the only man left in the church, but the only surviving memberof the prayer band.  Praying bands were as important aspreachers. They used their voices at camp meetings, and afterservices, praying people into the kingdom.

Many people lack confidence in praying in public. After hisconversion, Hugh Bourne shared his new found faith with DanielShubotham and Matthias Bayley. Daniel and Matthias were talking onenight and decided they would like to pray together, but neitherthought they could do it.  Matthias found a prayer book, butcouldn't find a suitable prayer. So they plucked up the courage,had a go, and found God helped them. That led to a prayer meetingin Jane Hall's cottage to which Hugh Bourne was invited. Hugh foundhe was expected to pray, and actually he'd never prayed in publicbefore. He was particularly nervous because Matthias went first,and Hugh thought it was the best prayer he had ever heard. However,they sang and Hugh Bourne followed. He wrote in his journal, 'Theinstant I began, heaven opened on my soul', and I felt the Lord hadfitted me to be a 'praying labourer'. The next morning Hugh Bournetold Daniel what a blessing he'd received from Matthias' prayer.'Why', said Daniel, 'He is praying no more because he cannot prayas you did.' The prayer meetings continued, the prayers grew inconfidence, and in the words of Hugh Bourne, 'timid, inexperiencedChristians were led to become energetic workers for Christ'.

Prayer is at the heart of our walk with God. What steps can wetake to help each other to find our voice, so that we can grow inconfidence, in praying with each other as we come to faith, andgrow as disciples of Christ?

'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all yoursoul, and with all your mind … Love your neighbour asyourself.'(Matthew 22.37,39)

My third 'P' is Passion.

If there is one word which runs through the early Methodistslike a stick of rock, it is enthusiasm. They had a passion forsharing the good news with everyone they met.

My grandson Edwin is not yet two. He is passionate aboutcooking. He sits on the floor with a saucepan and a wooden spoonstirring away. His passion for cooking comes from copying hisparents. We become passionate about loving others by loving God andstaying close to him, watching what he does. God's love is nothalf-hearted but extravagant. He gives everything of himself tous. 

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart. Whenwe come to know the love of Christ for ourselves we want to shareour joy with others. At Englesea Brook we have a display of 'lovingcups' or 'love feast' cups. One day this sparked a visitor to tellme his story. 'The moment I set out on my path to being a Christianwas at a Love Feast. I was five or six years old and sitting on mymother's lap. There was a window with rectangles of red and blueglass, and the sun was shining through. An old man stood up and thelight surrounded his white hair, and there were the vivid coloursof the red and blue, and he said 'I want to tell you about myJesus'. And I thought, I want some of that.'

'I want to tell you about my Jesus'. Now that reminded me ofSteve Wild. He has an endearing way of talking about his lovelywife as 'my Laura'. I find that really moving, because those wordsconvey the depth of his love for her. Are we prepared to tellothers about 'my Jesus'?

A real delight this year has been meeting Megan Thomas, ourYouth President, and being inspired by her love for Jesus. Telling me about her experiences she said, 'I've discovered that ifI ask people about their grandchildren, their faces light up, andthey can't wait to tell me about them.' As a grandma myself, Ifound my hand going straight to my phone, I was all ready to showher the pictures! Then she brought me up short as she added, 'Ifonly we could share our love for Jesus like that.' 

'Speak out for those who cannot speak … Defend the rights of thepoor and needy.'(Proverbs 31.8-9)

My fourth 'P' is Protest.

If we are passionate about loving God and loving our neighbour,we have to speak out for those who have no voice. For those withmental health issues who have had their benefits sanctioned. Forthe million people living in poverty who have to use food banks.For migrants seeking a better life and a means to support theirfamilies. For Pacific islanders who are suffering the effects ofclimate change.

Loving our neighbour means being concerned for the weakest andmost vulnerable in society, both locally and globally. It meansspeaking out on their behalf. It means challenging systems thatenslave people. Now, this is where it gets messy. Should Christiansget involved in politics? Yes! 

We have a proud heritage of Methodists at the heart of localgovernment. One of my heroines, Charlotte Edwards in Norfolk, oneof the first women district councillors, challenged and changed theunjust system of paying poor relief in kind, and the unjusttreatment of unmarried mothers in the workhouse. Methodist localpreachers became the first trade union leaders, men like TommyHepburn and the Durham miners, and Joseph Arch and the agriculturalworkers. Most of the first working class MPs were Methodists.

Have we lost that passion for living out the gospel throughsocial and political action? Is there a danger that we haveprivatised our faith, so that it makes us feel better asindividuals, but we fail to relate it to wider community and globalconcerns? I want to call on Methodists to get involved in local andnational politics. To become a voice for change, challenging thepolitics of self-interest and upholding the politics of the commongood.

One way we can have a voice is by writing to our MP. Our MPsrepresent us in decisions that are made in Parliament. How willthey know our views unless we tell them? If we lack confidence inunderstanding the issues, there is help at hand. JPIT, the JointPublic Issues Team of the Methodists, Baptists, URC and now theChurch of Scotland, produce a newsletter, Praxis. This keeps me up to date with key issues and providestemplates for action. JPIT's latest report, on benefitsanctions,shows that they disproportionately impact the mostvulnerable people, affecting 100,000 children last year.

At times the church has been very risk averse. In the early19th century, new chapels were even named Hanover orBrunswick, after the Royal Family, to demonstrate that Methodistswere loyal citizens.

In 1819, in Manchester, protesters met in St Peter's Fields, tocall for parliamentary reform.  15 people were killed and400-700 injured after the cavalry charged into the crowd. 400Wesleyan Methodists were excluded from the church for speaking outagainst the 'Peterloo' massacre. 

In 2015, in Manchester, protesters set up a tent camp in StPeter's Square, to call for proper support for homeless people,following £2 million in funding cuts. I was really challenged whenmy friend Susan asked me, 'With the homeless who set up their tentcamp in Manchester, where is the Church in this? What if all theChristians stood in solidarity with these people?' What if…? 

Civil disobedience may be a necessary part of Christiandiscipleship. Speaking out can get us into trouble, although todayI hope we would not be excluded from the Methodist Church. Methodists have a history of passive resistance. In the early20th century, many faced imprisonment for non-payment oftaxes in protest at the government's education policy. In 2014, oneof our Methodist ministers in training was arrested for taking partin a demonstration against the arms trade. 

Who is God calling you to speak out for?

Finally, I want to tell you about Dorothy Ripley, whose storyhas inspired me, and which shows that we don't need to wait for thechurch to speak out. We just need to obey God's call and find ourown voice.

Dorothy Ripley lived in Whitby, where her father built the firstMethodist Church, and John Wesley was a frequent visitor. Dorothyexperienced a call to preach, but as a woman, the church would notaccept her. One day, while she was praying, Dorothy heard Godcalling her to go to America to preach freedom for enslaved people,and convict slave holders of their sin, so they would set peoplefree. This was before the Anti-Slavery Society in England, letalone America, but Dorothy felt she had to obey God's call.

A single woman, with no money, she set out to walk to London tofind a boat that would take her to America. Eventually, she found aQuaker sea captain in Bristol who would take her.  On arrivingin America, Dorothy decided she must go first to Washington, totell the President what she planned to do. Everyone thought she wasmad, but she told them she had to obey God not man. Amazingly,Dorothy got an interview with Thomas Jefferson, and had the courageto ask about his own slave holding, urging him to have compassionfor his 300 slaves. When she asked for his approval for hermission, he warned her that she would have an uphill struggle, butthey parted 'in peace'. 

The Dorothy decided to make her base in Charleston, thestronghold of Southern slavery. (Its legacy is still with us.And ofcourse that place is very much in our minds. It was here, only lastweek, that nine people were killed in a racial attack at theAfrican Methodist Episcopal Church.) For Dorothy, it was animmensely brave move, and she narrowly escaped several attempts onher life.

Dorothy must have made a tremendous impression on Jefferson,because in 1806 she became the first woman to speak to Congress.Apparently, she preached to a crowded audience with the sameevangelical fervour as if she was at a camp meeting!

Dorothy saw herself as an evangelist. She traveled for over 30years throughout America, and crossing the Atlantic at least 9times. In 1818, we find her in Nottinghamshire, where she openedthe first Primitive Methodist chapel in the county at Bingham, andwas thrown into prison for open air preaching and inciting a riot.She was an amazing woman, who was not owned by the church, becauseher voice was too radical.

Dorothy Ripley was a woman of prayer, and lived by what shecalled the 'Bank of Faith'. She had a passion for sharing the loveof God with others. She acted on God's call to love her neighbour,and spoke out for those who did not have a voice. She was preparedto challenge individual sin and sinful systems that enslavedpeople. She changed lives.

God calls you, and me, to find our voice.