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Pastoral Address to the Presbyteral Session of Conference 2021

Below is the text of the Pastoral Address to the Presbyteral Session of Conference 2021, given by the Revd Richard Teal, President of the Conference 2020-21

Gracious God, may the words I speak and our thoughts and reflections be acceptable to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen

In this very different year to be the President of the Conference, I am deeply conscious of how much I owe to so many people. To the Conference Office and in particular to Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler. To the Media Team and especially to Anna McCrum. To Chairs of District who have in creative ways prepared virtual visits. To Revd Elizabeth Clark our rural officer for her unstinting support. To Revd’s Ron and Diane Hicks, alongside Deacon Jackie Fowler who have graciously in a difficult year cared for the Driffield-Hornsea Circuit. To the Methodist Church in Kenya for its continued encouragement and its unwavering prayers for me. To my Supervisor Revd Dr Michael Paterson for his patience, time, knowledge and wisdom. To the Vice President, Carolyn Lawrence for her passion, humour, and unwavering support as together we have worked as a team expressing the equality of lay and ordained ministry, which to both of us has been so easy and natural. To my wife Susan for her unstinting loyalty and affirmation, to my family and many friends and they know who they are for their encouragement and continual support.

This past year we have explored different ways of relating, of being Christian, of being Christ’s body in this broken world. Covid 19 has changed our lives considerably. Many people have been frozen by grief, or crippled by the virus. The changed world into which we were pushed very quickly offered for many people a chance to have time and space to think, reflect and make changes for the better. Yet we live with conservatism and many people have wanted to get back to normal—how often have we heard that phrase, but ‘normal’ was far from perfect.

Those of you with very good memories may recall something of my Presidential address to the representative session of Conference last year, where I used three words from Walter Bruggeman’s understanding of the Psalms, they were Orientation, Disorientation and Re Orientation. They seemed to me at the time to express where we were as a Country and indeed a growing concern around the world with the onslaught of Covid 19. Who would have thought 12 months ago that we still would be where we are? The Psalms have the power to speak in and out of season to women and men as they naturally turn to the Psalms to find a resource to talk with God about the things which matter most in life. Bruggeman informs us that the Psalms with few exceptions, are not the voice of God addressing us. They are rather the voice of our own common humanity, addressing God gathered over a long period of time. They speak about life the way it really is, as the psalmist experiences it in all its difficulty and grace, its complexity and ordinariness. The same human realities echo down the ages from the psalmist to our own times.

Re-orientation or indeed as Bruggeman sometimes calls it, new -orientation is where we are now hopefully heading. Some of the psalms of re-orientation speak of praise and exultation, of healing, resurrection, rejoicing, dancing, singing and thanksgiving. But the Psalms do not forget or cancel out the loss, lament, bereavement, trauma, anger, confusion, brokenness, doubt, isolation, hopelessness, lack of social contact and human togetherness.

Take for example Psalm 77: Just listen to it:

    I cried out to God for help;
    I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
    at night I stretched out untiring hands,
    and I would not be comforted.

I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
    I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.[b]
You kept my eyes from closing;
    I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
    the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
    My heart meditated and my spirit asked:

“Will the Lord reject forever?
    Will he never show his favour again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
    Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
    Has he in anger withheld his compassion?

John Bell tells the story of a woman he knew for whom life and faith were hard, difficult and fragile. When she heard this Psalm for the first time, she asked why she hadn’t known it before. As a church we have no right to subdue a vocabulary of lament to get out the anger and powerlessness that people sometimes feel.

 Psalms are real: they can be full of pain because they express life as it really can be, because the world must be experienced as it really is. Everything, literally everything must be able to be brought to God.   The remarkable thing about Israel is that it did not banish or deny the darkness of human experience. It embraced the darkness as the very stuff of new life. The compilers of the Psalms are completely committed to saying whatever needs to be said about the human situation and addressing it to God, because they understand that he is the Lord of human experience and he partners with us in it. Many of the things they say to him are raw and real! The Psalms are a prayer and song of common humanity in its rawness and reality. So often we deny and supress the raw edges of life and believe that God is only interested in the happy and jolly. Life is not like that; life is forever moving from disorientation to reorientation. Yet we cannot move from one to the other simply under our own strength and usually it is a slow process. Society and the World has been turned upside down in these past 18 months and life will not and indeed should not return simply to what we knew and was familiar. What we knew was far from being perfect. Reorientation is a Gift. Reorientation is Grace. Re-orientation is Blessing.

As we move towards Re orientation, after this long disorienting time of Covid 19, we must not be dependent on our whim and fancy but on our understanding of who God is and therefore how we journey with God as He creates and shapes our future, how a new thing is brought into being.

How we understand God and imagine God is critically important for how we envision ministry and go about its practice. Bryan Stone in one of his writings is very clear about this. He writes that if we imagine God as a unilateral and uninfluenced lawgiver or judge who proclaims an arbitrary set of moral rules, we should not be surprised, if ministry becomes legalistic and oppressive.

He goes on to say if we imagine God as supreme controlling power who determines every detail of the world and already knows the outcome of any act of freedom, we should not be astonished if ministry becomes slavish, uncreative and protective of the status quo.

Or if we conceive God as a divine goodie-giver who rewards the obedient with prosperity, success, power and health, we should not be surprised if ministry turns in on itself, insulated and isolated from suffering.

Finally, he says if God is thought of as sentimental love, a softy who makes no demands and bends to every pressure, we should not be shocked if ministry tends to disregard issues of justice, obedience and discipleship. Our understanding of God, informs and shapes our practice of ministry.

So how do we understand this invisible God and allow our understanding to shape our practice of ministry as we move from disorientation to reorientation?

 For the Christian the answer is to be found in the historical encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. It is here that we find the understanding of God that is normative for guiding our practice of ministry.

The Brazilian theologian Rubem Alvez captures this understand wonderfully in one of his writings and I quote:

‘’Sometimes we would like to know what God is made of. To know his sacred substance. And many pages of theological books and catechisms have been written to describe the marvellous properties of God’s flesh: spirit, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. And with words like these we write essays on sacred and anatomy and physiology.

Waste of time. The Christians discovered that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is God’s answer to the question ‘’Who are you?’’ And he answers us, not with a treatise but by telling us about his desires. God is love. And he tells us about his dream of love. He places it alive, among us. Jesus of Nazareth is God’s desire. He is his choice. A lovelier, more beautiful, more delightful thing there cannot be’’.

If therefore Jesus becomes in the words of John Robinson the ‘window to God,’ what do we find?

If Jesus is our window to God, where we find the central character of God, his desires, will and purpose we certainly come across a God of reorientation, who helps us to reorientate our practice and purpose of ministry. Who then is this Jesus Christ?

Christian history reminds us of both his Divinity and his Humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation is that the Holy One, the Lord of all, comes into a risky world in Jesus Christ. Incarnation is about God getting into the boat with us, at our side. R S Thomas in his poem ‘’The Coming’’ wrote of the Incarnation, ‘the Son looked at human misery and said ‘’let me go there’’.

I became a Christian in my teenage years by being drawn to the man Jesus—to his humanity and what I found there. The feet washer, the man who associated with prostitutes, the people who were ill and the poorest in society: the person who mixed with women and those pictures feature highly in the gospels, but in so doing he was breaking all the rules of social and religious convention: he put people’s needs before the law, his living was about servanthood, love was always above the letter. Forgiveness was central to his living. As far as we know he had no home, job or steady income. He was poor. In a Circuit service I preached at recently I mentioned that Jesus was like a ragamuffin. In reflection it may not have been the best image to use. After the service there was a time to question me about the sermon and people picked up on this picture of Jesus as a ragamuffin, they did not like it! But I think he was, which allowed him to identify with the poor and those who struggled. It seems we prefer our God tidy and well-presented. And yet the gospels portray a God who was no stranger to dust and the dirt, the ragged and the unkempt.  The Word became flesh and we saw his glory in raw bleeding humanity.

Now if Christianity is to be of relevance today this image of Jesus, allows us like the Psalms before to be real to people in the dirt and grime, rawness and humanity of living and loving. Christianity is not an abstract idea; it is a living presence.

During the crisis of the second world war a meeting was convened by the then Archbishop of York William Temple at Malvern in Worcestershire. It was a meeting of thinking people of the day, to reimagine post war British Society and was attended by people like the writer and academic TS Eliot and the author Dorothy Sayers. At the meeting there was also William Beveridge who later became Lord Beveridge and he used some of the thinking of Malvern Conference in his plans for post war Great Britain, one of which of course was the creation of the National Health Service. People then thought outside of the box about how the future could be.

We have been in crisis and indeed still are but so much of the world now is continuing to bear the pain and suffering and sadness which COVID 19 has brought and is bringing. What do we need as ministers of the gospel to help shape this new future as we move from disorientation to reorientation? I want to suggest three things. The first is nourishment.

 1: Nourishment

A number of years ago I stood alongside the shore of Galilee with 80 pilgrims. People of different denominations and none and it was early morning. The sun was already shinning and a new day had begun. The small fishing boats could be seen with their nets away from shore line. On the beach we lit a small fire—all so resonant of the resurrection appearance of Jesus at the end of St John’s gospel. Remember how the disciples were now back at work-fishing. They had fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus shouts to them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they draw in a huge catch of fish. Jesus invites them to have breakfast with him on the beach. These disciples probably were tired for they had been out all night long, possible they had been cold, because it is so during the darkness and were undoubtedly hungry and he invites them to eat with him. Food plays a very important role in the gospel stories. Feeding and nourishing are so important in Jesus’ ministry.

Notice in this story that the invitation and feeding comes before the conversation between Jesus and Peter. The nourishment comes before sorting out their relationship with each other. The order is important.

As ministers of the gospel may I suggest we all need to hear this invitation to nourish ourselves and to nourish others before sorting out how we are going to relate to one another. Or to put it another way: I think we need to recognise, first and foremost, what we have in common - hunger and the need for food - and then when no-one is hungry, more complex conversation becomes possible. It’s a waste of time to debate complex issues on an empty stomach.

As President this year I have had the real privilege of speaking to many Presbyters and others who have done an amazing work during a hugely difficult period. We have learned new skills quickly and adapted to a new context. Some people have been energised by this and it has completely revolutionised their ministries and others have found what they had known and knew simply taken away from them and found it hard to come to terms with! Someone said to me ’Richard it is like wading through treacle and after a time that is exhausting’.

We need to be honest and admit that our personality types are different and some people are raring to get going as lockdown hopefully ends and others feel tired and drained. There needs to be recovery before there can be we can move fully towards reorientation. Ministers and other leaders need to recover before there can be rebuilding. We need to honour the disorientation of the past months and we simply cannot take our exhausted selves into a new situation and this will take courage for many to admit. It is amazing that we are still standing. We all need first of all to be nourished. We need that time to visit family who we haven’t seen for so long. Parents, friends, children. To go out and party and meet and share and have a meal. Recreate community. That nourishment is vital to help to renew us. I hope churches will remember that and give people permission to do it. We need to set the tempo not of rushing and activity but gentleness and grace. A period of time is needed for us to reflect on what has happened to us as a church and society before we can move forward in the right direction. We haven’t met together for such a long period of time and there are many things to sort out and they are important, (Peter and Jesus needed to do that with each other) but nourishment so the bible story reminds us needs to come first.

In our worship we will need to emphasise what the Lord has done for us.  That extravagant grace and love are at the centre of our faith and have brought us together.  The privilege of being together again, singing hymns to the glory of God, and receiving Bread and Wine.

We will also need to ensure that absolutely everyone is welcome: new people are turning up to Worship in the Circuit where I am Superintendent , people coming to express thanksgiving that they are alive and well, being thankful for the online worship and prayer which has sustained them over this difficult period, coming in response to the love and care offered through a time of bereavement and loss where the, church has  continued to offer support and care in different ways, coming for the first time in deep appreciation of how the church has responded to the needs of the community where people have been struggling and it will be the same where you are and we must ensure that everyone is truly welcome and there are no barriers of race or class, or disability, or sexuality or gender. We cannot put a barrier around the all-encompassing love and extravagant grace of God.

A few weeks ago, the Vice President and I met with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York for an hour to do nothing other than read scripture together and pray. It was the first time this had happened. We had no agenda other than to deepen our fellowship with each other and God and to receive. It was one of the most powerful l meetings I have ever been in and it was on zoom! We talked together about Jesus and in particularly the passage from St John 6 about The Bread of Life and what that meant. Nourishment featured highly in our conversation and praying.  Archbishop Justin said at the end of the meeting with a huge smile on his face, ‘my heart has really been strangely warmed in this hour. We have to do this on a regular basis’.

I would like to suggest that in this period of time in the coming days and weeks as we come together again slowly, anew, feeling vulnerable and expectant, joyful and glad I do pray that our main focus and agenda will simply be Jesus and we centre around his Word and are fed and nourished. This is the way we ourselves will be able to be nourished, sustained and restored in Gods calling of us.

The second thing we need as ministers in shaping the transition from disorientation to re orientation is humility.

2:  Humility

I greatly appreciate the writings of Steven Croft and he writes so powerfully about the gentleness and humility of Jesus. Perhaps these are not qualities we would be expecting to explore today but, in my experience, as I have travelled albeit virtually for a year, these are very much the qualities we need to hear about at this

time of moving towards reorientation. I am not talking about a pious sentimental understanding of gentleness and humility. I am talking about a biblical understanding. The kind of humility we read of in Philippians chapter 2 where Jesus,

‘Who being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself’ (Philippians 2 v 6-7)

What does it mean to have the mind and heart of this humbled Christ? This Christ who didn’t cling to power and status but who emptied himself? Christ didn’t save us by a mighty act of power. He saved us by an extraordinary act of self-emptying. The Resurrection shows God’s power but it was in the Cross—where Jesus was at his weakest – that God makes the most significant change in human history.

We think often of humility at a personal level, at the level of our own discipleship, as so we should. But what would a church which takes on the mind and heart, the gentleness and humility of Christ look like?

Covid 19 has brought our church to its knees and called us to ask whether we want a kenotic or puffed-up life. Some churches have thrived. Others have withered. Some churches have spoken to the world more clearly than ever. Others have used all their energy and resources to only reach their own members. But what would a post pandemic humble church look like?

  • A church which doesn’t always play the host but learns to be a guest in people’s lives:
  • A church which doesn’t think it has a monopoly on good news to be taken and shared with the poor but which has the humility to realise that it has a lot of good news to learn and receive from the poor. During my virtual visit to Shetland over Easter I met and heard the story of Peter a recovering addict enabling the Methodist Church in Shetland to fulfil its mission to the vulnerable in providing food, friendship and support through ‘food for hope’. Peter is the co-ordinator!
  • A humble church knows that life beyond the pandemic will not be easy and that many people will continue to feel frightened and unsafe and will simply not be ready to regather when our doors open and life returns to apparent normality, particularly those who have been shielding for such a long period of time. How then should we minister and serve our communities and God’s world in this period of moving towards reorientation? I want to offer two nuggets of wisdom from our Christian spiritual tradition.

The first is from the Prologue to the Rule of Benedict in which St Benedict says that the Rule is intended to establish ‘a school of the Lord’s service’ in which ‘we hope to establish nothing harsh or oppressive’. I wonder what that could mean for us ministers in the post-pandemic church?

The second nugget comes from Richard Hare (one time Bishop of Pontefract) who tells the story about his great mento William Greer who had been the Bishop of Manchester. He was too frail to attend the consecration of Richard Hare, so the day before the service he went to see his friend and mentor. This is what he writes:

It was a warm, sunny September day and he was sitting in a deck chair in the garden. He knew I would remember what he said for the rest of my life and I am sure he had spent the morning deciding what it should be. We sat in silence for a time and then it came: ‘The most important thing for a bishop to learn is how to increase his gentleness.’  Richard Hare comments that not a day went by when, as a Bishop he was not conscious of those words of William Greer.

I wonder what impact it would have on our ministries -yours and mine - if we re-emerged from this pandemic having adopted those wise words as our personal mantra?  'The most important thing for ministers to learn is how to increase their gentleness.’

Surely all of us need to increase humility and gentleness. I certainly do.  It is the path to good leadership which we are all involved in. ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’ Paul writes in Philippians.

Wise leadership at this time when so many, ourselves included, are struggling calls us to deeper levels of gentleness: gentleness with ourselves; gentleness with our battered minds and bodies and gentleness with our people many of whom have been through the wars this past year. And wise leadership calls us to humility: the humility to ask for help as well as provide it; the humility to have our feet washed as well as washing others and the humility to do all we can while coming up against our limitations.

I truly believe that humility and gentleness are part of what the world needs right now and that in embracing rather than shunning them we give expression to the very love and grace of our extravagant God.

My third and last suggestion for what we need to help shape the new future as we move from disorientation to reorientation is Courage. Buckets full of it.

3: Courage

  • Courage to stay in dialogue with each other rather than shout each other down
  • Courage to not simply think we can pick up where we left off pre-Covid
  • Courage to name the ways in which we puff ourselves up and shun the self-emptying call of Christ
  • Courage to face those things in our church and community life which are harsh and oppressive and self-serving
  • Courage to resist the temptation – post-Covid – and spend our energies only looking after our own to the neglect of our suffering world
  • And above all courage to believe that God
    • redeems messes
    • Creates order out of chaos

The first Pentecost did not happen in a retreat centre or under a rainbow on Lindisfarne.

The first Pentecost happened in lockdown among scared and bewildered disciples in the upper room.

At the end of this Presidential Year, at the end of a year marked by lockdown,

I pray for a fresh outpouring of Pentecostal COURAGE on each and every one of us. Because, it will take a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for us, the Methodist people, to, have the courage of our convictions and tell our war-weary world that ‘The best of all is God is with us’. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Richard J Teal: 2021

 

Quote: Rubem Alvez: I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body: page 4