The text of the address to the Methodist Conference 2024 by the Vice-President, Carolyn Godfrey.

Madam President, family and friends, Conference,

Starting this address here in Leeds I have to smile. For one thing, it is great to be in Yorkshire, a place I love deeply, have family roots and where I have spent a good chunk of my life so far.

But I have to confess that Leeds is also a city with special memories for me, not only as a place where my in laws lived for a while, but it is also that well-known romantic destination where David and I spent our honeymoon 35 years ago. It may not have golden beaches and wall-to-wall sunshine like some more conventional destinations, but a stroll round the lake at Roundhay Park and a visit to Tropical World gives some of the same romantic vibes, even if on a slightly different scale.

My life to this point has been in the company of some wonderful people, many of whom are here today. There are those I have known for a long time and some I have gotten to know more recently, but I would thank you all for your friendship, colleagueship, patience, inspiration, gentle and sometimes less gentle challenge and encouragement.

Thank you for those who have believed in me and built up my confidence. Thank you to those who have, in words and deeds, made me feel that it is ok to be standing here, even though my brain is wired a little differently, and I will admit, I’m somewhat out of my comfort zone. I give thanks here, especially, for the Youth Representatives over the last few years, and Youth Presidents whose leadership and example has been a source of inspiration.

I would take a moment to pay tribute to those who are no longer with us, but whose love and support have been like scaffolding in my life. That scaffolding may no longer be there, but their support and example has given me strength and allowed me to grow and stand strong.

My family, Rachel, Ruth, Rob, Ethan, Ibby and my David are the people who know best my ups and downs. They have been, and continue to be, the best companions on that journey. They know when encouragement is needed, when to suggest a rest and when a very full cup of tea is the best solution. Thank you for everything, and for all the cups of tea!

I am someone who is fascinated by people, how we interact and especially the way we as humans learn. This is not just an academic interest but a very practical one. We learn in different ways. For each of us, what we find difficult and easy to learn varies. We too often judge others through the lens of our own experiences.

My own experience is of people assuming that, if I just tried harder and put in a bit of effort, I would be able to spell better or do the other things that my dyslexia makes more challenging. What people are so often saying is that, if only you would try harder and put more effort in you could be more like me. Wouldn’t life be dull if we were all the same and all thought and responded to life and faith in the same way!

In the Justice-seeking Church report there is the quote from John Wesley’s ‘Sermon 39’ that says “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” This is not just true where we differ in our political or theological thinking, but also in the more fundamental aspects of thinking and cognitive processing.

We do not all experience faith in the same way and we do not all need to do church in the same way. The joy of being a Connexional Church is the rich diversity that makes up who we are.

We are blessed to be part of what makes up such a varied Connexion, but there are key values that bind us. This was bought home to me keenly on my overseas visit, where the love and welcome expressed in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands District was palpable. Our context, geography and history may be different, but I felt like I was being welcomed by a branch of my own family. The fundamental values of our faith are what link us.

For our presidential year, Helen and I have chosen the theme 'Learn to do right, seek justice and defend the oppressed’. Encapsulated in these words from Isaiah is what underpins much of what the Methodist Church has been working on in recent years. We can trace Conference reports and initiatives that go back over the years that have led us to more recent pieces of work including the Justice-seeking Church work, the Justice Dignity and Solidarity Strategy and the Theology of Safeguarding report.

But all this work also reflects the three key rules that John Wesley spoke of the in the early days of the Methodist movement, “Do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend to the ordinances of God”. These three golden threads should weave through our lives and all we do as individuals and as an organisation.

The exhortation of Isaiah to learn to do right sounds fairly simple at first glance. We are all pretty sure we know what is right, but if we dig a little deeper into what that actually might mean for us, it can be a real challenge. We might find the need to move on from views, opinions attitudes and actions we have held for a long time. We may also need to critically reflect on the power and privilege that we hold, and not just point this out in others.

We read earlier the passage from Mark’s Gospel about the calling of the first disciples. One definition of the word disciple is someone who learns from Jesus to live like him. A disciple is a follower or learner. This is something that we are all called to be. At the heart of being called to follow Christ is the call to learn. Learning is something to embrace.

A friend was about to head off to college to start his ministerial formation. Someone from his home church said to him “Whatever you do, don’t let them change you!” They might as well have said “Whatever you do, don’t learn anything!”

The process of learning new things changes our brains and how we think and act. Learning is not just what others need to do. There are attitudes, thoughts and actions within each of us, that, if we are honest, could benefit from the effects of the challenge of change through learning. Those assumptions we make about people because of the way they look, speak, dress, act and many other things, may benefit from that challenge.

The Methodist Way of Life information on the Methodist website tells us that “For some people learning might be formal theological education, but we also learn through our day-to-day lives and encounters with other people. There are lots of things that can block learning. We might be over-nostalgic and sceptical of the unknown. Or get stuck in an ideology that limits curiosity. Or just get distracted. But, by definition, disciples are learners, so stay open-minded!” This takes us right back to our calling to be disciples.

One powerful lesson for many adults is that children learn by watching and copying, whether it is what we want them to learn and copy or not. This was bought home to me when our younger daughter, aged about 2, was found with all her cuddly toys lined up in rows and was shouting at them. I didn’t manage to catch all that she was shouting, but it did include the words “Alleluia” and “Amen”. When asked what she was doing her simple reply was, “I am shouting at the people like daddy does”. I am not sure this accurately sums up David’s preaching style, but it was another lesson for me that children learn from what is modelled to them, even though this may not be quite what we intend.

The same is so true for us as individuals and as a Church. All that we say and do is modelling behaviour and attitudes that others will learn from. It will also, more often than not, be a greater witness to those around us than any sermon, or carefully crafted church social media post.

We ourselves learn from others and how they live and act. There are so many faithful and saintly people who can inspire and teach us. I thank God for all those people in my life who I have learnt from, some are in this room and may never be aware of the way they have taught and inspired me, and continue to do so.

Like with a child picking up unintended lessons from watching those around them, our attitudes to learning and training opportunities will say more to those round us than producing a certificate with our names on.

We are hardwired to learn, change and develop in our thinking. Experiences that challenge our thinking may not always be comfortable but are part of that very proactive exhortation by Isaiah and being called as disciples, and this helps us personally and collectively grow and mature in our thinking.

As the Methodist Way of Life says, “disciples are learners, so stay open-minded.”

Spurgen ­– the Victorian preacher – got to the heart of things when he said, “A little faith will take you to heaven, but I pray for the kind of faith that will bring heaven to earth”. This faith is what drives us to learn to do right, seek justice and defend the oppressed.

I can assure you that I am not on commission, but I can recommend the book, Revive us Again by author and Chair of District, Leslie Newton. In this book he says,

It was anthropologist Margaret Mead who famously said ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has’ ... The growth of the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century is a dynamic proof of this statement. A growing vibrant network of small groups of people up and down the land all set about changing their world, and together created a fire across much of the nation.

The challenge to change the world now sits with us all, and our generations. Not with someone else. Each of us here and throughout the Church has a part to play in this.

But how? I am just one ordinary person, and there is so much to do and I don’t know where to start and I am so tired, there are always so many emails to answer! The problems are too big, what can I do, my voice won’t be heard. I imagine all these thoughts are echoing round all our heads to varying degrees.

So, what do we do to set about being agents of change and agents of a justice-seeking God? My vision is that each of us starts by changing or doing just one new thing.

We can each find one thing that we can do or change that will help to make the Church a justice seeking and safe place, and if we break this down it need not be overwhelming.

It might be:

  • thinking about and changing the language we use
  • baking for the coffee morning or warm space
  • looking at how information is presented on websites and notice boards so that it is clear and more accessible
  • writing to our MP
  • voting in elections
  • doing an assessment of the energy efficiency of our buildings
  • phoning someone who is housebound for a chat
  • crocheting hats for the local special care baby unit
  • attending training with willingness
  • praying each day with the JPIT prayers shared on social media
  • worrying less about always sitting in the same place on a Sunday morning as that might be the very seat needed for someone to feel safe in that space.

And underpinning all our actions is prayer. We can all pray. In many different ways, we can pray. We can all pray that we learn to do what is right, seek justice and defend the oppressed.

If everyone in this room changes or starts doing one new thing, and then changes or starts doing just one more, and then another, those small changes will come together to create a great wave of change. Multiply that by all those joined by the Methodist Connexion and the wider Church, and we can begin to see what a great force for transformation this could be.

In the words of Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Hobbit,

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.

There is a great deal of truth in this. All our small deeds and changes will build together into something unstoppable and transformational. The kingdom of heaven on earth.

Learn to do right. Seek Justice. Defend the oppressed. But do not be overwhelmed. Let’s all take the first step and start by doing one new thing.