The President's Address to the Methodist Conference 2022

A girl fell into a conversation with God and, being inquisitive, asked all kinds of questions about what it’s like to be God.  She asked, ‘What is a minute like for you?’  ‘Well’ said God, ‘a minute is like a thousand years’.  ‘Wow, that is incredible’ said the girl.  ‘So, what is a penny like for you?’  ‘A penny’ said God, ‘well, that’s like a million pounds’.  The girl thought for a while and then she asked, ‘God, can I have a penny?’  God replied, ‘Wait a minute’.

I tell the story not just to get this address started but as some kind of indication as to my hopes for what is going to happen in the next few minutes.  Ideally, that I will speak for a long time and it will only seem like a minute or two for you!  Well, I can always hope!

It does seem, however, like a very long time since I was first designated by the Conference to be this year’s President.  Of course, it is only been a year but what a year it has been.  There have been many personal issues to wrestle with, additional responsibilities in the South West, as well as helping to lead others through the decisions of the last Conference.  And, it has been noticeable in the South West that more time has been given to the implications of Oversight and Trusteeship than to God in Love Unites Us - though both have had their impact.  And all of this in a context and a climate constantly overshowed by Covid and, more recently, a cost of living crisis.

Throughout this last year I have known the incredible and prayerful support of my colleagues - lay and ordained - and of many special friends and I am particularly grateful to those who have given time and money to be here today.  My family is - as ever - a place of grounding as any balloons are soon punctured and my best friend also happens to be my wife - Alison - who is my rock, especially in shifting times.  Thank you to you all.

So much love has been shown to me over recent weeks and months that I am humbled by it.  My sense of not being worthy is intensified in the warmth of such love and yet it is God who makes us worthy.  Whenever possible, I like to include the Prayer of Humble Access in a communion service for it has within it another dichotomy to which we cling.  In the prayer, we pray ‘We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table’.  How true that feels and yet God in Christ has come to us, lifted us out of the miry bog, set our feet upon a rock and put a new song in our mouths.  God in Christ has adopted us into God’s family and made us siblings with Christ and heirs of an inheritance that will never perish.  God in Christ makes us worthy not only to gather up the crumbs under the table but to sit at the table prepared for us, so much so that we are anointed and our cups overflow.

And it is love that makes all this possible.  So let us turn to our reading from Matthew 22.  Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment and He points the questioner to Leviticus and declares, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

We all know that there is a mushy, shallow and often unthought-out kind of love that usually doesn’t last very long.  It is urgent, sometimes tempestuous and usually brings out the worst rather than the best in us.  There is also love that is firm, reliable, deep and worked through.  The kind of love that has been tested in the fires of adversity.  In one of our Marriage Services we reference the fact that we believe in a love that grows and deepens with the years and I want to testify to that.  In fact, I want to give testimony to the fact that it is love that first drew me to the Christian faith.

When my parents’ marriage fell apart, I was still going to a church and a youth group that often spoke about God’s love.  But, being a haphazard teenager, I could not see how God could really love me when my home life had been torn apart.  I can - and sometimes do - go on at length as to the responsibilities that suddenly fell to me as the oldest of four siblings.  Needless to say it was a tough time for us all.  With hindsight I now realise that my father - who stuck with us when my mother left - my father did an incredible job over the next eleven years as he single-handedly brought us up.  And it was my father who became anxious when I rebelled against church and tried to stay away.  The sop to quell his anxiety was a decision to go with a new friend to Crusaders.  And it was there, over three years or more, that I met with leaders who not only spoke of the love of God but who demonstrated the same love in their relationships with us outside of the Sunday afternoon Crusader meeting.  They gave of themselves and it was because of their witness that I decided to take the first steps in faith.  That decision was quickly followed by a change of minister at our home church - Heald Green in what is now the Bramhall and Wythenshawe Circuit.  The new minister was someone who - over a number of years - invested time, faith and love in an increasing group of young people.  It was through the ministry of Peter Willis that my faith began to grow and become more real.  I and many friends in our Circuit Youth Group made our mistakes and, I like to think, er grew because of each one of them and because love - firm, deep, worked through love - was a reality in those years.  Love that grew and deepened with the years.

Some of those who grew up with me in the Circuit Youth Group are here today and others will be watching online.  I am also delighted that Peter and Chris Willis are here, providing a tangible link to the stuttering start of faith as bequeathed to the Methodist Church by the Crusader movement.  My love for my long-standing friends is as real and as deep now - if not more so - as it was in the heady days that we shared together all those years ago.  Thank you for being here today.

The command of Jesus in Matthew 22 is in two parts.  Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is similar, we are love our neighbours as ourselves.

The Westminster Confession reminds us that the primary purpose of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  This is not some vague notion that springs from the dictates of the reformed tradition but it is the natural expression of those who truly love God.  To be so in love that you can do nothing else but take every opportunity to express that deep, abiding love which is the expression of a life given to God who has already given God’s life for love of us.

A young woman was in love and she wanted to introduce her loved one to her family.  As part of this she arranged to visit her grandparents on a Sunday afternoon.  At the agreed time, the young couple arrived and were shown into the sitting room where they sat at each end of the sofa.  As the afternoon unfolded, as tea was served and the conversation flowed, the young couple slowly gravitated towards each other along the sofa until, by the time they left, they were almost coiled in one another.  Once they had left, the grandparents returned to their seats and sat in silence for a while.  Then the grandmother said, ‘It is lovely to see two people so much in love’.  Grandad said nothing.  After a bit more silence, Grandma suddenly said, ‘You know, you never tell me that you love me’.  Grandad thought and replied, ‘I did, I did tell you that I love you’.  ‘When was that?’ she asked.  ‘On the day I asked you to marry me.’  ‘That was fifty-eight years ago!  At that, there was a bit of pause before Grandad said, ‘Well, if anything changes, I’ll let you know!’

And if anything changes about God’s love - eternal love - if anything changes about the love that God has for us, you can be sure that I and others will let you know!  For God has given and provided all for love of us, generation after generation. . . . . . from before time itself existed, as the first records way, way back in Genesis show, right through the judges, kings and prophets of the Old Testament until that moment in time when God set aside the glory of heaven and came among us as Jesus.  In self-giving, all-embracing love, God in Jesus gave up His life and became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, through the cruellest of deaths.  And yet God defeated evil and sin and death and rose again on the first Easter morning to announce new life for all those who put their trust in God.  Such love that invites us to die with Christ that we might rise with Him.  Such love that offers us the abiding presence of God’s Spirit if we will invite God to share our living with us.  Such love as does not impose but offers and invites and encourages and enables and transforms.  And, in such an abiding relationship, who cannot help but be in love with God and want to engage in worship.

In his report to the 2011 Conference, Martyn Atkins expressed some disappointment with Methodist worship when he stated that, having travelled around the country for a few years, he had picked up a prevailing view that Methodist worship ‘neither reaches the heights nor plumbs the depths’.  I can only agree whilst, at the same time confessing my own failures and my own part in this.  But what I find increasingly disturbing about many current acts of worship is the way in which the focus has shifted away from God and onto the worship leader, preacher or congregation. 

Our recent visit to Belize and Guyana at Easter reminded me of the value of liturgical worship.  Its great value is that it doesn’t require any intervention from the worship leader.  Instead, particularly over the Easter Weekend, we heard the authorised words and prayers of the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas.  Now, please do not think that I am against extempore prayers - far from it - my low Methodism prefers it.  But what I do not prefer is continual self-referencing.  For me the three most important persons in our worship should be Father, Son and Holy Spirit rather than the ‘me, myself and I’ approach that we all too often hear today.  Self-referencing should, in my opinion, be limited to telling stories against yourself rather than using phrases that imply greater closeness to God than might be available to the rest of us.  That is my first hobby horse, duly ridden!

We should be those who so love God that we give of our whole selves to worship, service, loving care and faith sharing.  We should be so in love that our love is seen and known.  We can learn much about this from the Early Church and I am indebted to the insights of Carl Trueman who writes that when the Church of the second century gathered together they offered a powerful witness to the Gospel by simply being the Church and going about the business of worship.  For, when offered to the glory of God in a spirit of love and generosity, worship can be a transformative experience for whoever happens to share in it.  I covet that kind of experience and that kind of engagement for the churches of our Connexion.  And it begins by loving God with our whole selves.

Love of God should be front and centre of our worship and it should be an expression of our relationships one with another.  For, as Jesus declared in our reading, as He ran the two commandments together, the second is like the first, we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

The best thing about being part of the church is all the lovely and fabulous people that make up the Body of Christ.  Being part of a loving community is the best thing in the world.  And the worst thing about the Church is being part of a community that has forgotten how to love, forgive, accept difference and live peaceably with one another.  And, sadly, I have been told more stories about churches who are in dispute than stories about churches who love God and love one another and get on with the business of being Gospel-sharers where they are.  This year, can we correct this imbalance?  Let us do all we can - as I commit to do all that I can – let us all do all we can to share positive and good stories of church life.  And, I wonder, if we cannot properly love the neighbours we have within the Body of Christ, how are we going to love our other neighbours, colleagues, friends and all whom we encounter beyond the life of the church?  For love, like charity, begins at home but then it should spread to the whole world but we are really in trouble if there is no locus for our love.

And who is my neighbour?  We know that Jesus told a story about a good Samaritan in response to this question.  In 2022 we probably don’t want to reference someone travelling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Instead we should reference the person without a home, the person who has been on an NHS waiting list for too long, the person seeking a new life as they flee from warfare, violence or economic uncertainty.  Our neighbours are those who are struggling with long Covid or who remain fearful of Coronavirus.  Those whose island nations are threatened by the effects of climate change on sea temperatures and rising waters.  Those who do not have enough to eat because we eat too much and participate in an economy that sells food to the highest bidder.  People such as these and so many others - and my apologies if I have missed someone you had hoped I would spotlight - it is people such as these who are our neighbours because it is our lifestyles and the choices we make that have an effect on those who are as loved by God as we are.  For we are all equal under God - if only we were in reality.

The phrase ‘global village’ epitomises our world today.  The development of global communications and, particularly, the internet means that my neighbour can live in a different time zone on another continent.  My neighbour can speak a different language and be of a different faith.  My neighbour can identify themselves very differently from me and yet they are still my neighbour and I am called to love them.  And I gladly love because God has created us all in God’s own image.  God in Christ has died for all - whether they know it or not - and it is God who, in response to my love for God and God’s love for me, invites me to love my neighbour as I love myself.

I always thought that I didn’t want to go to India.  When, about fifteen years ago, the idea was first mooted, I was deeply uncomfortable.  I had heard all the horror stories about the sanitation, the food, the insect life and of violence between various political and religious groups.  Other people had been to India and told me what a magnificent country it is but I preferred to listen to the negative stories and resist the idea of going.  In 2012 I found myself as Chair of Churches Together in Cambridgeshire and it was time for Churches Together to renew their covenant with the Diocese of Vellore in the Church of South India.  It was expected that the Chair would be the one to sign the covenant and so in January of that year I found myself in Tamil Nadu.  I could say that I went very reluctantly to Vellore but there my heart was strangely warmed.  Yes, it isn’t straightforward for a Brit to visit India but it is the most wonderful experience in the world.  For what I experienced was a depth of friendship and love from my neighbours in Tamil Nadu.  I was back again a year later and have been delighted that the Plymouth & Exeter District has a strong and developing partnership with the Diocese of Cuttack in the Church of North India and I long to see my beloved friends from there again very soon.

I tell this story against myself because I could have allowed my own instincts and self-imposed barriers to deny me a life-changing opportunity.  Please do not limit yourself to what you know and feel but - as God invites through God’s people - respond in love to your neighbours and both you and they will be changed. 

Jack Martin was a Supernumerary in Southwell, Nottinghamshire when I served there in the nineties.  Jack had some wonderful one liners.  The one I often quote is, ‘Generally speaking, Methodists are generally speaking’.  But he also used to say, ‘Every encounter with another person changes you.’  The first quote was about the use of silence in worship and the second is about pastoral visiting.  But, it is more than that because every meeting, every conversation we have with another person changes us.  Just as, almost imperceptibly over time, a drop of water falls into a lake, the lake is never the same again.  Every drop makes a difference.

So, what am I trying to say?  Love your neighbours as you love yourself.  Our neighbours are worldwide.  However, such love will not only enhance and enrich their lives but every encounter we have with our neighbours will change us too.  We miss out on so much when we fail to do what God asks us to do!

Love God, love your neighbours and love yourself.  If we are to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves, there is a prior requirement to love ourselves.  We all have an inbuilt desire for self-preservation.  We eat when we are hungry, we drink when we are thirsty, we sleep when we are tired, we run when we are frightened and we fight if we are threatened.  But self-preservation is different from love.  There is much about myself that I don’t like but, you will be pleased to know, I am not going to use this occasion to air my uncertainties or lie on the counselling couch of the Conference!   But what I do want to remind us all is that God created us and God loves us.  God also created us with the capacity to love and be loved because we are created in God’s image - the image of a loving God.  And if we are good enough for God, surely we are simply ‘good enough’.  Good enough to love and be loved and that includes loving ourselves.

When I was Chair of the East Anglia District, I lived in a part of the country that had one of the best provisions for people suffering from problems with their mental health.  The Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust won many awards for its innovative and responsive approach.  Then along came cuts in health provision and what was once a flagship trust is now consistently one of the worse performing in the country.  We have a mental health crisis in our land that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and our inability to respond effectively to those in great need.  Add to this the fact that many of us still prefer to hide or ignore our own mental health problems, as well as the problems of others. 

I say all this because I am very aware that it can seem impossible to love yourself if you are not well in mind or body.  And it is all very well for people like me to spout on about being made in the image of God when the image we bear is cracked, even broken.  It is at such times that I find some consolation in a short phrase to be found in 1 Peter 5, ‘The God of all grace mend you’.  It reminds us that Jesus can and does take the broken and shattered pieces of our lives and mends them.  He stretches out His hands on the cross and all things are made new.  He gives up His life and we are made whole.  ‘He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good - He died that we might go at last to heaven - saved by His precious blood.’  For, on the cross we see the carpenter at work - forgiving and restoring but, more than anything, mending - mending our broken lives.

As well as a cost of living crisis, we are facing a mental health crisis in our country.  Today we need to put ourselves and our resources into meeting the needs of those who endure so much because we need to join with God in the work of mending.  And we need to play our part in helping the Government and those responsible for meeting the health needs of our nation to see that we need more resources to meet the current crisis and we need them now. 

Even so, we continue to believe in a God who loves us even when we cannot love ourselves.  We believe in a God of love who calls us to love with all our heart and soul and mind.  We believe in a God who calls us to love our neighbours and we believe in a God who calls us to love ourselves as much as God loves us.  And how much is that?  If you need an answer, look again at the cross and see the self-sacrificial, unconditional love of God at work.  For there God in Christ stretches out His nail-pierced hands and embraces the whole world.  There, victory over sin and death is accomplished and announced in the resurrection.  There, on the cross God, is at work mending a sin-filled and broken world and that includes you.  For all, for all my Saviour died.  Have no mistake, that includes you.

When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, He declared, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  Let us be those who hear and do what Jesus says.  Let us be those who fulfil the greatest commandment of all.