The text of the address to the Methodist Conference 2024 by the President, the Revd Helen Cameron.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah 1:17a we read,

“Learn to do what is right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (NIV).

Beloved in Christ,

I want to begin by expressing gratitude to and for a number of people – some with us today in Leeds or on line, and others part of the communion of saints and with us in a different way. In this moment I give thanks for the lives of my parents Wilf and Bunty Dixon, faithful Yorkshire Methodists who nurtured me and my life of faith.

To my husband Iain and children Sandy and Beth, Iona and Morven, thank you for your love, for being my anchors and for encouraging me to consider making myself available for this year of Presidency when I might have retired and been in the garden every day. Please keep an eye on the greenhouse.

To beloved colleagues in places where I have worked and ministered – circuits in the Birmingham District, the community of the Queens Foundation, the Conference Office, Peterborough Diocese and Cathedral, the saints of God in the Northampton District, the Nottingham & Derby District, and the Chairs Meeting – thank you for the way you have supported, challenged, shaped and equipped me. I am grateful to the Secretary of the Conference and to all the Connexional Team for their guidance and support in our year of preparation. Most particularly I want to thank the Revd Dr Andrew Ashdown, Global Partnership Co-ordinator for Africa, who introduced me to the Methodist Church in Kenya and Uganda. That has been an immense gift and I am glad of all I learned from the Church in Uganda and Kenya about faithful witness, persistence in mission and ministry, and continued presence and proximity in demanding circumstances during my brief visits. Thank you to the Conference for voting to make this Yorkshire lass your President while meeting in Leeds.

Carolyn, Madam Vice-President, thank you for being my partner in the gospel, in the shared task of Presidency. I know that I, and the service I offer to the Church is not complete without you.

Carolyn and I seek to share with you this year, a vision of the Church and the world transformed, not by might or power but by love and justice, mercy and compassion, truth and grace. We do so in support of the Justice-seeking Church work begun by members of the Connexional Team. We wish to encourage the Methodist Church to continue to be a Justice-seeking Church, and where we may have been hesitant or uncertain, to urge one another to be bolder. We believe that justice is what love looks like in public.

Abandoning pretence – truthful witness

The words of Isaiah in our text contain verbs, or doing words. They suggest that justice does not occur accidentally or incidentally. Rather the text emphasises that justice needs searching out, it involves us listening to others and so learning about how others experience life. This Scripture demands something of us, it calls us to become more aware of our privilege, and to embrace the audacity of risk by being willing to set aside the privilege we have inherited even though that might be frightening for us.

The translation of the third part of our key text from Hebrew can be read as “rebuke the oppressors” ( rather than “defend the oppressed”) and when we as Church use the prophetic language of ‘oppressors’ we need to consider the uncomfortable truth that at times this group might include us.

The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are uncompromising in their message to Gods people – God’s people need to stop being uncaring and ignoring the suffering of those people who are poor. More than that, God’s people must also stop actively courting catastrophe by failing to be what they are in essence called to be. The potential catastrophe for us now as a Methodist Church might be that we fail to live out our calling by abandoning the lowest income communities of our nations and islands as we retreat from the most challenging and demanding contexts for mission and ministry.

Last year at an ecumenical conference the former Archbishop Rowan Williams explored the question of what it means to be blessed, or fortunate and how that question impacts the way churches relate to today’s world.

He said: “Those who are not anxious about stockpiling their resources but acknowledge their dependence on mercy and gift; those who are hungry not for more security for themselves, but for a justice that is shared with all; those who are compassionate and without aggression, who are not afraid to be wounded, who labour for reconciliation – all these are people who have left behind the passion to be the possessors and managers of their destiny. They have become people who know that it is only in relation to God, and to their siblings under God, that they will be fully human.”

So, I believe we should listen for the call of God and look for the gift of God in the needs of the world, and find the courage to embrace the risks that this looking and listening and learning can bring.

I believe that the foundation to us becoming justice-seeking disciples is that firstly we offer truthful witness to ‘what is’. Let’s not pretend we have all the answers when we need to be taught the answers by those whose lived experience is of those things we seek to change. Peruvian theologian and priest on the margins Gustavo Gutierrez said, “You say you care about the poor – now tell me their names”. Those who experience poverty describe it as a web of poverty. It isn’t simply about having less money, which we could call a poverty of resources, but that economic hardship can lead to poverty of relationship and to poverty of identity. Choosing to stay alongside lower income communities and weave relationships of friendship and neighbourliness rather than withdrawing to more resourced communities is something the Methodist Church needs to do more of as part of our commitment to work to tackle injustice and end poverty. We must avoid taking refuge in the illusion that our ways and practices, our priorities are always just ones but instead pay attention to, and engage with the truth of what is. What might be required of us is a recognising of the “waking life of love”. Malcolm Guite (Sounding the Seasons) in his sonnet for the beginning of Lent imagines Jesus talking to Satan on a high mountain. Satan says to Jesus,

wake up from this foolish dream of love…

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.

I want us to reflect on the choices we make as a Church as we seek to live the waking life of love, here and now. The choice to ignore racial injustice, for example, to not have to engage with it on a daily basis, is a key aspect of what is known as white privilege.

As a white woman, I can choose whether to educate myself about Black British history, or to choose to notice micro-aggressions directed against Black colleagues, friends or strangers, or walk away pretending I did not see or hear anything. When paying attention to racism feels uncomfortable or challenging, I can turn up the ‘white noise machine’ (a phrase taught to me by a former colleague Dr Rachel Starr) and block out any disturbing voices or events. I can walk away. We can walk away. We have walked away. Some of us can choose to walk away from those who are misgendered. We can fail to notice the micro-aggression and physical violence and threat offered to trans people. Transphobia is not someone else’s problem. It is ours. So, be an ally and an advocate. Don’t look away.

Prejudice and discrimination are not someone else’s problem. The racism that flourishes in British society is the result of white people’s actions, past and present. To quote a Sri Lankan colleague of mine, “we are here, because you were there”. As a white person it is my responsibility to wrestle with my own identity and privilege, in order to learn how I might work with others to disrupt, challenge and transform racial injustice.

Whiteness is not often spoken about in our churches. But unless those of us who identify as white come to acknowledge and reflect on our own ethnic and colour identity, we will fail to understand both how we benefit from racism and how we might better confront it and be an ally with those who experience exclusion, and not be those who collude with prejudice and injustice.

We must learn how to do what is right and that might mean first recognising and then unlearning our own behaviours. This is demanding, scary, risky but right.

We must be honest about the world as it is experienced by many and honest about the Church we belong to. The British Methodist Church is smaller than it was. Globally there are 75 million Methodists. I invite the British Methodist Church not to be anxious about what we do not have, or be deluded about our status and role. I want us to be truthful witnesses to what is. I want us to be a truth-bearing community. I want us to be those who in their rigorous thinking challenge current prejudice, disturb the complacent, question the foundations of all about us and in Harry Blamires words, “be a nuisance” to those promoting falsehoods and labelling every asylum seeker an ‘illegal immigrant’ and ignoring growing levels of child poverty and hunger.

As God’s people we are called to abandon pretence and collusion and stand up to those who abuse and misrepresent the vulnerable and speak truth to power. We are called to live the waking life of love. To refer to those on the front line of poverty as ‘scroungers’ removes people’s dignity, denies the reality of their lives and removes their dreams of living with dignity and hope.

We are smaller and frailer as a denomination on our own but we are also part of a glorious, diverse and dynamic body of Christ. Standing one evening in Lambeth Palace library enjoying conversation with the church leaders of England gathered together, my friend and colleague Bishop Mike Royal commented, “the world is here.” I looked around me and it was true. There were leaders of churches with Iranian, Indian and Pakistani heritage, with Ghanian, Zimbabwean and Nigerian heritage, from Europe, from Egypt and Greece, the Caribbean, Ukraine and may many more nations, all serving the churches of England. It was a gloriously diverse gathering – and that diversity is God’s intention for us. It is a true gift of God.

Living untruthfully, hiding from truth really doesn’t help and perpetuates injustice.

James Baldwin, the American writer, poet and social critic spoke of the need to build nations capable of bearing the truth and of the need to build truth-telling communities. In his book Remember This House, which reflects on race by tracing the lives and assassinations of his three friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr he said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

I would want to assert that the beginnings of forming a truth-bearing, justice-seeking community who can witness to ‘what is’ requires a willingness to face those things which discomfort us, challenge us and even de-stabilise what we have, in our privilege, become accustomed to.

Belden Lane reminds us in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes that,

We cringe from the idea of relinquishing, in any moment, all but one of the infinite possibilities offered by our culture. Plagued by a highly diffused attention, we give ourselves to everything lightly. That is our poverty. In saying yes to everything we attend to nothing. One can only love what one stops to observe.

We need to be attentive to, and focused on, what needs to change beginning with ourselves and our behaviours. There is no place amongst us for ableism, for transphobia, for misogyny, for homophobia, for racism. All are contrary to the gospel and if we persist in these ways and behaviours we abandon the gospel. I have loved Wendell Berry’s sabbath poems for a long time, they are a testimony to close and persistent scrutiny of the world as it is. He wrote in 2011,

“I saw a hummingbird stand mid-air and scratch his cheek with his foot, as he might have done perched on a branch… I never dreamed of such a thing and now after 77 years of watching. I have seen it.”

So what do we see and who do we notice? Please look for Stephen Martin’s exhibition of portraits called, ‘Dreams and realities’ as it tours the UK. Stephen Martin has painted acrylic portraits of nine people living in poverty in Sheffield, including himself. Each picture shows the person with something that depicts their economic reality (the back ground of his self-portrait is dark to reflect that he cannot afford to rewire his home so lives in darkness without electricity). Each portrait shows something that represents the dreams and ambitions each person would pursue if they were not held back by poverty and unjust systems.

Sharing power

Our truthful witness about our nature, our convictions and our priorities matters. If when someone enters their local Methodist Church it is warm and welcoming, if they encounter disciples sharing a love which is generous and for all, then our witness is truthful and faithful. But, if there are restrictions on access which stop someone getting around church with their wheelchair or getting into leadership then we diminish the gospel. If joining in worship gets hard because disciples are deaf or blind and no-one can be bothered to make the worship accessible for all who belong, then the story of love and grace is diminished, not by God, but by us. If we fail to recognise the call of all disciples and commission only the abled bodied then we have abandoned the gospel. When we speak for the perceived ‘voiceless’ but silence them by our arrogance, we diminish the gospel. When we abandon people living with a disability “at the gates” (to quote theologians Emily Richardson and Naomi Lawson-Jacobs who both live with a disability) waiting for entry to the church as guests to be cared for (however generously), when they are members of God’s household and a vital part of the body of Christ, we diminish the gospel. Those living with disabilities (visible or invisible) need to experience justice, equality and access as others do.

If we abuse the power and privilege that comes with our role the story of love and grace is diminished. If we refuse to listen to the voices and experiences of the survivors of abuse and having listened, then fail to change our ways, then we fail in our essential calling – to be good news. I look forward to meeting with the Disability Solidarity Circle and learning from them.

The Justice Seeking Church report said,

God was fully present in the person of Jesus Christ, and chooses to be present through the followers of Christ in the messiness of everyday life. Justice may be a form of kenosis, or self-emptying. Too often, this is unequally expected of certain (often already marginalised) groups, but when we all give of ourselves freely for others, surrendering the privilege that we hold, the imbalance of power which leads to injustice gives way to a commitment to the good of the other. Paradoxically, this self-emptying leads to a society in which all can be fulfilled. Irenaeus of Lyons reminds us that Christ “became what we are so that we may become what he is,” and Mary sings that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52, NRSVA).

I grew up in Dormanstown Methodist Church in the Redcar, Saltburn and Guisborough Circuit of the Darlington District where there was fierce competition to be the little girl who got to wear a blue cloth on her head and represent Mary in the Sunday School nativity play. It took me years to notice that when the blue cloth was folded up at the end of that service and placed in a cupboard until next year, so was Mary. I was late to discover the hymn of praise and protest that is the Magnificat and late to discover the prophetic witness of Mary. In accepting an account of Mary’s compliance and obedience, as we are sometimes invited to do, we ignore the great truth that this narrative of redemption can only continue with Mary’s co-operation. Only by her courage, knowledge and skill can Jesus be brought safely to birth. It is Mary’s love and tenderness and her capacity to make space for his growing body which will allow the Saviour of the world to grow to adulthood and learn what it is to be human. These ideas are reflected beautifully in John Burt’s Sonnets for Mary of Nazareth


What did he have in mind? She thought at nights

While patient Joseph snored and shepherds woke.

It came to her at last: he didn’t know;

He himself would catch it up from her.

What could he want, except to want like her?

I am encouraged by the thought that when God comes among us, and is born as one of us, God in Christ grows in understanding of how to offer his identity as unreserved gift. Jesus learns how to act liberatively, and, through what looks to others like passivity and defeat, transform us and all the world. Jesus learns from Mary that human weakness is not something to be frightened of, that weakness and vulnerability can be gifts to others.

We need to be reminded about this because the Church can sometimes struggle with ideas of weakness and fragility. This is connected with some distorted ideas we cling to about greatness, power and victory.

The use of power in the Church is something we need to be much more reflective about. It is noteworthy that the use of power in the New Testament is almost always to do with the freedom to release people from bondage, the power to heal, the power to forgive or in the most wonderful phrase in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, “the power to become children of God”. Power can be defined in the human context as the capacity to influence the behaviour, thoughts, emotions and attitudes of others. Scripture leads us to understand that power can be used destructively to oppress others or in ways that are liberative and which enable the flourishing and growth of others.

In Mark 10:42-45 we read: “So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and who ever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

We do need to exercise power if we are going to make things happen. But power is not usually a matter of all or nothing, of some having it all while others do not. Power is usually a matter of more or less, because the capacity to influence another is relative to who the other is in a given context.

We see that Jesus, in his life and ministry, both exercises power in response to human need when invited to do so, but also relinquishes power and control when he chooses to do so. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again”

(John 10:17-18).

Power can be picked up and laid down. I want to suggest that we need to become a humbler Church, led by lay and ordained leaders who are immersed in humility, able to be relaxed and non-anxious about being in receptive or listening mode rather than always being in broadcast or assertive mode. We are called to live, as Jesus did, in the liminal space between power and authority, and vulnerability and weakness, and we must therefore constantly ask “How do we use our power?”

We need to open to learn from the margins and be willing ourselves to be de-centred and displaced.

Rollo May describes how power can be used to oppress others or to expand another’s freedom. Exploitative and manipulative actions are expression of domination. They presume a relationship of inequality and a determination not to change that. Nutrient power is that applied for the benefit of someone with less power – it enables or empowers them. Integrative power respects the freedom of others and is expressed as co-operation and collaboration with the gifts of others and makes team working possible.

I want to suggest that the whole Church needs to reflect more carefully than we have done so far on the power we hold and the responsibility this confers on us.

Being present and awake to love

Finally, we need to put our money (or our brass, as we say in Yorkshire) where our mouth is.

Our policies regarding our use of funds must be shaped and led by our justice-seeking Church agenda. When we give up church buildings in communities caught in that web of poverty we should be more willing to create roles for people to live and work in communities the Church has otherwise withdrawn from. This is happening in some locations but perhaps not sufficiently frequently or part of a vision for how we should engage with communities. The buildings we have closed are often in communities with lowest incomes and poorest service provision. The buildings may be unsuitable and not fit for purpose but people participating in the lives of lower income communities are needed, not for the evangelisation of those living with poverty but rather the reverse. When we are present in these communities we might well be the first recipients of the expertise, gifts and knowledge that those living in poverty in that location possess. Our Church at the Margins work in the Methodist Church shares core values of celebration, inclusion and participation, “We recognise our need for the gifts of those at the economic margins and believe the whole Church needs to receive these gifts in order to be fully transformed by the gospel of Christ.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer preaching in London in 1933 had this to say about the important of Mary’s witness recorded in the Magnificat,

The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in the manger. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly.

So, I am really challenged because I know which side of this equation I currently find myself. What kind of reversal does the gospel offer? Is it enough that “the rich” are now empty and “the poor” are now full? Should anyone be exalted over another? Is it true that there must always be “the poor and the marginal” or is it possible to weave a beloved community which shares together in mutual trust, compassion, truth, justice and love? I believe it is, but we must be willing to take our part in weaving and re-weaving community when it breaks or tears and that might mean dismantling or giving up things we love and treasure. I want to be clear that I am not just speaking about urban, or inner-city locations. Rural communities know they have been abandoned too and know all about poverty of resources, relationships and identity.

I am reminded that we find our identity and worth not in what we possess materially but in standing before God as God’s beloved. We must learn to see the world, to see one another as God sees us, from the perspective of the Cross.

We are called to a waking life of love where we know we become fully human in and through our relationships based on justice, truth, mercy and love. Most importantly we must recognise the fundamental truth that the locus of God’s authority and activity does not lie within the Church. We must not imagine God resides there and moves out with us as we engage with the world. Rather, as we busy ourselves in the Church waiting for others to come and join us, God is already in the world with people who have been dispossessed, abandoned and those with least power. We may die as a Church waiting for the world to come and join us – no matter how beautiful our worship is.

Consider a model of church as ‘workers hut’ – somewhere to store the tools and useful for making a cup of tea in but not somewhere which is the actual location of the real work of transformation.

So, I invite us into a period of reflection as a Church in order to examine our life robustly. We must pay attention to the structures of society and Church which are unjust, and to look to the margins, to the people who our structures and resourcing decisions so often exclude, silence and render invisible.

In this period of reflection may we learn to do what is right, to seek justice and rebuke all those who oppress (including ourselves, our systems and structures). May we begin by doing just one thing differently. May we wake up from our slumbers, from complacency and avoidance of that which discomforts us and embrace the waking life of love and justice.

We are called to be salt and light, to hold together the personal and social gospel, re-weaving the places where we live, not as aid or service providers, but living “alongsiders”, as Jenny Sinclair puts it. The Spirit of God is moving among us longing to connect and re-connect us in an act of resistance to the fragmentation of society we are witnesses to. Our prayer must be:

Come Holy Spirit,

fill the hearts of your faithful people,

and kindle in us, the fire of your love. Amen.