Monday, 17 July 2017

Celebrating Methodist lay leaders at Tolpuddle

"Tolpuddle" is a name I seem to have known all my life.  I think it was probably in Sunday School that I first learned about the Tolpuddle Martyrs - six Dorsetshire labourers who, in a desperate attempt to save their families from total degradation in 1834 at a time when wages were falling, formed one of the earliest trade unions.  Because they then also took an oath to secrecy, they were tried and sentenced to seven years' transportation to Australia - an extremely harsh sentence which caused major public outcry.  After three years they were pardoned and able to return, and their names and their courageous actions have lived on ever since.  You can read much more about them and their stories on the Methodist Heritage webpages.

Annually in July the Trades Union Congress (TUC) organise a festival in the village of Tolpuddle which now attracts about 10,000 visitors and yesterday (Sunday 16th July) I made my first visit.  It was everything a festival should be - sunny and hot (with no mud in sight), happy and noisy, celebratory and yet serious, as all sorts of unions, groups and organisations took the opportunity to highlight their desire for justice and holiness (although they may not all have put it in those words!)

I was proud to march under the church's banner, which, on the reverse listed the names of the six martyrs along with their Methodist connections.  Rev. Steph Jenner, the local superintendent minister, has done much to increase the involvement of local Methodists and other Christians in the festival and to take this opportunity to bear witness to the faith of the martyrs which led them to take their courageous actions.  As Rev. Inderjit Bhogal commented to me as we marched, "all these people are here because of the commitment, faith and actions of Methodist lay preachers" - Wow!

We did glimpse the festival's most famous visitor - Jeremy Corbyn - who has been attending regularly for over thirty years, but now draws crowds in his own right of course!  Inderjit preached powerfully at the service which ended the Festival in the "new" Methodist chapel (around 150 years old, but newer than the "old" chapel, which is the focus of a major restoration project) and I was glad to lead prayers there too.  In a day which focused on justice, liberty, faith, government, heritage and celebration, there is still much to pray for around the world.  Jill

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Honouring Pauline Webb

On Saturday 8th July I had the great privilege of attending the Memorial Service for Pauline Webb at Wesley's Chapel, London. Pauline was an outstanding lay woman in the life of the Methodist Church - and on a much broader platform too - and much has already been written about her in many places which I will not duplicate here.  (See the Guardian obituary for example).

My reason for being there was as one of her many successors in the role of Vice-President of Conference, an office which she held in 1965-66 at the age of 38; the youngest person ever to have served as Vice-President.

It was during her year of office, when I was about 7, that I first heard of Pauline Webb. As chance would have it, I had a friend in Sunday School with the same name; when the JMA awards were given in church that year there was a ripple of laughter as "Pauline Webb" was called - I later asked my mother why and still remember her reply; "Pauline Webb is the Vice-President of the Methodist Conference and one of the greatest Methodist women of all time"! I didn't understand what "Vice-President of the Methodist Conference" meant but was intrigued. Her name - and her great achievements, especially in the areas of world mission, gender and racial justice and religious broadcasting, have woven like a thread through my life ever since and have blessed and challenged me and so many.

I left Glasgow in cool, damp weather at 6:30am and returned there (after the hottest hours on a train I have ever experienced) at 11pm, but I was more than glad to be there; to bring a short greeting from Conference this year, where Pauline was remembered with great affection and respect, and to read from Romans 8 in the church and then the 23rd Psalm outside as her ashes were interred - close to the feet of John Wesley's statue.

But it was at the feet of Christ that Pauline lived her life - receiving and acting on the challenge of the Gospel to work for the coming of God's kingdom of justice, peace and righteousness. Thanks be to God.

A recording of the live stream can be found on Wesley's Chapel website

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Methodist Church has expressed its disappointment and concern following a ruling of the High Court, announced earlier this week, allowing the UK to continue to export weapons to Saudi Arabia. 
The High Court judged that the UK Government had gathered sufficient information to entitle it to rationally conclude that there was no 'clear risk' of a 'serious violation of International Humanitarian Law.'
Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of forces against Houthi militias in Yemen, a conflict which has claimed the lives of over 10,000 civilians since 2014.
Despite atrocities taking place on both sides, the largest single cause of civilian deaths is thought to be air strikes by Saudi-led coalition forces; which have come under criticism from the UN, human rights groups and NGOs.
A UN panel of experts concluded that the bombing campaign of Sa'dah in 2015 represented a grave violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution defined within International Humanitarian Law. 
Yemen is now in the grip of a severe famine and cholera epidemic exacerbated by the destruction of infrastructure and health facilities.
Steve Hucklesby, Policy Advisor for the Methodist Church, made the following comment following the High Court judgement: "Our Government told the High Court that it tracks all allegations of strikes on civilians and shares this data with the Saudi military who engage in constructive dialogue over incidents of concern. However in the case of the majority of these strikes, the UK Government was 'unable to identify a legitimate military target'. In the light of evidence from the UN and elsewhere, it is difficult to understand how the High Court can say this is okay."
The Revd Loraine N Mellor, President of the Methodist Conference, added: "The judgement of the High Court yesterday will do nothing to provide civilians in Yemen with the protection that they so desperately need.
Our hearts go out to the people of Yemen who have come under attack from both sides in this brutal civil war and we will continue to pray. It is difficult to see how a lasting peace can be achieved through a conflict that kills over 10,000 civilians and leaves 300,000 people infected with cholera."
Jill Baker, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference said: "Many of us try to express our ethical standpoints through the way in which we spend our money. It seems only right that we also expect ethical standards from our government in engaging in trading relationships that respect human rights and international law. We hold the people of Yemen and those providing assistance in our prayers."

Monday, 10 July 2017

On Friday I travelled to Southport to take part in the ‘FIRE FEST' weekend.  I had been invited by one of the trustees of ‘Summer Fire’ Revd Rob Cotton, which is the new name for the ‘Southport Holiness convention' which began in Southport in 1885. Now the conference  travels all around the country and local churches host Fire Fest events. Some  reading this may remember the tent on Mornington Road where the event was held for many years, but now the hosts are Leyland Rd Methodist church which stands on the corner of Manchester Road and Leyland Rd with its grand steeple, wonderful worship area and suite of rooms. 

Friday night  started with a celebration when Rob Cotton preached on ’Movement or Monument’ and encouraged is to think about if we are dying or being raised to new life which very much chimed with my thoughts in my presidential address. Saturday morning was my first opportunity to unpack Acts 2: 42-47 which was the biblical stream running through the weekend. This was  followed by  a seminar when we  looked at what we do well in our churches, what we wished we could  do better and what are the key factors for growing churches and of course the key question for us all how can we do better at sharing our faith so that we can make new disciples. 

We were ably led over the weekend by the local team working away in the back ground and upfront by Revs Sally Ratcliffe and Phil Gough  and a very accomplished worship band made up of Leyland Rd folk and Phil Nankivell. 

Saturday was also the anniversary for many of our presbyters who were received not full connexion at the Southport conference and  were ordained 10 years ago and so it was for Revd Sally Ratcliffe  who had been ordained at Leyland Rd and I was her assisting minister  we took a photograph in the same positions as 10 years ago, special memories.

I preached on Saturday night at a celebration and again on Sunday morning  and also shared in a family event when the whole  of the worship was based around our five a day spiritual practices  which gave me lots of ideas for the coming year.   I had so many positive conversations it was a real blessing. 

After  we left Andrew Roberts was leading another seminar  on his book ‘Holy Habits’,  based on Acts 2:42-27  which was eagerly anticipated and the weekend was concluding with a  evening celebration. 

‘SummerFire’ was once described as 'Methodism's  best kept secret as holiness is part of our DNA' and this weekend bore that out,  so why not  give it a try next year  and watch out for FireFest events around the country.  


Friday, 7 July 2017

To be a pilgrim

From Tuesday until Friday this week I have been at Rydal Hall, Grasmere with 40 women from the five northern districts (Shetland, Scotland, Newcastle, Darlington and Cumbria) leading a retreat about pilgrimage.  Not so much about how to do pilgrimage as about how to adopt “Pilgrim Attitudes” in our lives.  Our mornings have been spent in study, reflection, discussion and some silence on these themes.

Rydal Hall is a wonderful venue set in beautiful grounds (with its own waterfall) and the surrounding area has also offered opportunities to walk “in the footsteps of the poets and writers”, with visits on Wednesday afternoon to places associated with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. 

On Thursday afternoon groups ventured out in different directions to experience the “Sacred Centre” of our pilgrimage together, some walked to St. Bega’s Chapel, others visited Allen Bank, some chose to remain in Rydal Hall’s own quiet garden.  

I was part of a small group making a mini-pilgrimage to the nearby Rydal Cave, which was indeed cavernous.  Great to stop to pray, sing and reflect along the way – then there were the unexpected encounters with people along the way including a Methodist from Maryland, USA and a family whose roots were in Methodism in Roker and who were amazed to discover that members of our group also originated there!  Coincidences?  Serendipity?  The Holy Spirit?    

Our Cumbrian hosts have been assembling a Fellowship Quilt for some years, started through their strong partnership connections with Methodist women in Argentina, and this time the “visiting” districts were invited to bring squares along to contribute.  I was delighted to discover that the making of my Methodist Tartan kilt (my wonderful gift from the Methodist Church in Scotland) had created the opportunity for the Scottish women to purloin a square of this tartan as their contribution - and very smart it looks too!

Our final morning at Rydal Hall began with an unplanned gathering in the courtyard as the fire alarm sounded at 6:40am.  Thankfully no fire and no rain, so an opportunity for grace and fellowship!

On Saturday I will be attending the Memorial Service for Pauline Webb in Wesley’s Chapel, London – a great privilege to do so – more of this in due course.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Religious persecution in Sri Lanka

The Revd Loraine N Mellor, President of the Methodist Conference, has written to MP Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, expressing the concern of the Methodist Church over the escalating level of religious persecution in Sri Lanka.
The letter was in response to a Notice of Motion received by the Methodist Conference, which met in Birmingham last week (22-29 June). At the Conference, members heard of the ongoing situation from the President-Bishop of the Sri Lankan Methodist Church, the Revd Asiri P Perera. 
You can find out more about the situation by reading the  Notice of Motion and watching the relevant section of the Conference proceedings at 1 hour and 19 minutes in  this video clip.
In the letter to the Secretary of State, the President highlighted the recent attacks against places of worship in Sri Lanka and asked for appropriate representations to be made to the Government of Sri Lanka. The Methodist Conference called on all Methodist people to act for justice, peace and freedom and to hold the people of Sri Lanka in their prayers.
I had the opportunity to talk privately to Bishop Perera about this and I know he would value our prayers for this escalating situation. 

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

My first visit as President happened on Saturday the 1st of July to Lidgett Park in Leeds to share in the celebration of the district before a new district is formed in September, Yorkshire West. It was a joy to meet colleagues I had served with in previous districts and to meet many people who had been at conference last week or who had been watching on line. 
After a very splendid tea, the worship began with a very moving prayer reflection with photographs of the district. We then encountered the many ways in which the district engaged with the world church and we received greetings in person from Bishop Asiri Perera from Sri Lanka when we learned that the very first Methodist missionary to Sri Lanka was from Leeds. Deacon Jenny Jones shared with us the many ways in which the district engages in mission before we heard about chaplaincy in the university and the airport. 
The Wesley and the Ashfield singers graced our worship which was led by Revd Anne Brown the district chair and it was good to have four Vice Presidents all resident in the district with us Professor and Mrs Susan Howdle, Dr Edmund Marshall and Dr Richard Vautrey. Our reading from the Gospel of Luke was read to us by Revd Roger Ducker a previous chair of district and it was really good to catch up wit Revd Dr Liz Smith also previous chair. looking so well. Brian Hoare’s hymn ‘Looking back but moving forward’ was sung with great gusto before the Gaelic blessing by Rutter.
A very important occasion when the connexion through the presidency was represented on such a significant moment in the life of the district as it moves to a new beginning. I was struck with and thought how pertinent the last verse of Brian’s hymn was:
Looking back but moving forward
as we celebrate today.
giving thanks for all that’s past, we
pledge ourselves to walk your way.
Holy Spirit , lead us onward;
keep is faithful to your call.
May this ever spur our mission:
Jesus Christ is Lord of all! 
God bless

Friday, 28 April 2017

The Shetlands: Island Methodism and my second encounter with sheep

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, outdoor and natureI arrived in the Shetlands just as the national weather forecast was warning of extreme weather in the north of the UK.  My visit there showed that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing!   Luckily the warmth of my clothes along with the welcome of the people there made this a really special visit for me.

Image may contain: grass, outdoor, text and natureMethodism came to the Shetland Islands in the 1820s with John Nicholson, a former soldier, who returned home to Shetland and began preaching.  Very early on, the Methodist Conference provided practical support, in the form of ministers to station and additional funding.  This recognition of the particular needs of Methodism in these islands has continued with additional financial support for the ministers stationed here, and a recognition that a higher proportion of ministers is needed than the membership might suggest.

Image may contain: 4 people, people standing and suitThe islands are run by the Shetland Islands Council.  With a population of under 25,000 this would be the equivalent of a small town council.  Yet it owns ferry services and power companies, runs schools (with boarding pupils), and does all the things that a large metropolitan borough would be expected to do.  Together with Revd Andrew Fox, the Superintendent of the Shetlands, I met with Malcolm Bell, the elected Convenor of the Council and Frank Robertson, a Methodist member and councillor, and learned about the issues facing the islands’ population.  The meeting ended with an invitation from Mr Bell to explore more of the ways in which the Churches and the Council could work together.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, mountain, shoes, sky, outdoor and natureImage may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoorThe Shetlands are rich in their archaeological history, with Iron Age and Viking settlements.  The Shetland Archaeologist, Dr Val Turner, is a Methodist and is much respected internationally for her contribution to the understanding of Shetland history.  Val took us on a tour of Old Scatness where she led the excavations beginning in the 1990s.  At the centre is a large Broch, a form of tower found around the Shetlands and beyond, surrounded by round dwellings.  At the corner of the site a dwelling has been reconstructed to give a sense of the way people lived.  It was so cold, with snow and hail falling – I was wearing six layers of clothing yet I still felt numb – I did wonder how people used to cope before the invention of central heating and Gortex.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and indoorImage may contain: 3 people, people sittingOn Tuesday I went to the farthest reaches of the Islands.  Andrew drove me, via two ferries, to the island of Unst.  I met folk at the most northerly Methodist Church, Haroldswick.  This church was re-built a few years ago, and the members of the church did it all themselves.  It is a much loved place.  Then we drove onto the island of Yell and met people at East Yell Methodist Church.  They are a tiny chapel, facing all the challenges of small societies everywhere and more, but I had a real sense that they are up for growth.  They are looking at ways in which they can reach out to their small community, offering love and sharing the good news.  In the evening I joined a small bible study at North Roe, near where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, and again witnessed the desire of these people to engage with the bible and respond to the love of God.

Image may contain: foodImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, dog and outdoorOn Wednesday I visited a Methodist local preacher, Alma, who lives on a croft.  She soon had me kitted out in wellies and waterproof trousers, and we went off to feed the ducks and hens and collect eggs.  Then she gave me a shepherd’s crook, and had me catching a young lamb, just a few hours old, and iodine its cord.  My second encounter as Vice-President, after my West Yorkshire visit, with a newborn lamb!  Alma spoke about the hard life experienced by crofters, most of whom also maintain at least one other job in order to earn a living.  But she also spoke movingly about the delight and privilege of living close to the land, seeing the birds and animals around her. 

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing and indoorIn the evening I joined the well-attended Shetland Easter Offering service.  I spoke about my visit to the Church of Pakistan last year, about the experiences of Christians there and the way in which the British Methodist Church World Church Fund supports the work of the Church.  The Shetland Island Methodists, with a membership of just over 200 people, raised an astonishing £1,500 for the World Church Fund, a real example of the generosity of the people on the islands.

The British Methodist Church has a history of supporting Methodism in the Shetland Islands, and it is good to see this continuing with the imminent arrival of a new probationer, who I met at Queens earlier in the year.  The membership may be small, but it is disproportionate in terms of population and strong in faith.

Thank you to Andrew and Susie Fox, and all the people who welcomed me with such generous hospitality.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Half Shilling Curate

This book was sent to me by the author, Sarah Reay, the granddaughter of the Revd Herbert Cowl aka The Half Shilling Curate.  It tells the story of him as a young Wesleyan minister, serving as an Army Chaplain in WW1. It is carefully researched and lovingly written.  Sarah is fortunate to have many original letters and photographs from Herbert and his family, which makes the narrative come alive. You often feel you are listening in to conversations that took place 100 years ago.  At the same time, she has found corroborative evidence from a range of sources, ensuring that this personal story is anchored in the wider historical context and the Wesleyan Church of the era.

I found it an easy read, which helped me to glimpse something of the work of those early chaplains. Herbert and many others won much admiration from the serving men for their bravery in being alongside them in the trenches and tending to their practical, pastoral and spiritual needs.

The most moving part of the story, for me, was when Herbert was being transported home after a sudden and serious injury (Chapters 5 and 6).  The hospital ship carrying the wounded was hit by a mine, four miles off Dover and the 400 injured men on board were in danger of being lost in the sinking ship or in the freezing ocean.  Barely able to walk and having witnessed horrific scenes, Herbert finds himself trapped in a dead-end corridor with water rising.  Not only did he manage to get to the deck but he also got life rafts into the sea for a group whose lifeboat had failed.  Although 139 of the 400 people died that day, the death toll would, almost certainly, have been higher had it not been for his swift and self-sacrificing action.  For this, he received the Military Cross. 

The Methodist Church Heritage News has featured this book in its Autumn edition (2016) because it tells something of our rich history as a Church.  For in addition to Herbert’s story, there is a tribute to many others with whom he served.  The account also gives some insight into the training and stationing of ministers and the work of the Wesleyan Church in a time of war.  
Not many in Methodism have experienced the work of chaplains first hand.  I would be one of those, having never served in the military and never having been a chaplain to the forces.  But having recently spent a few days with the RAF chaplains in East Anglia, I am full of respect for this group of people and what they bring to this sphere of life and work.

I commend this book to you.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Rachel Lampard's address to the annual Methodist Parliamentary Covenant Service - 17 January 2017

“Let me be laid aside for you”

If you believe the old adage about not mixing religion and politics, then I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place.  This chapel is at the heart of our Parliament.  And I’m certainly the wrong person to ask to speak today. For nearly 17 years I’ve been helping the Methodist Church to do politics. 

So you’ll have guessed that not only do I think that religion and politics can mix, but rather I believe that taking politics seriously as people of faith is part of our calling. 

For we are a people who worship a God of justice, an incarnate God, whose Spirit offers transformation.  So how can we say religion and politics don’t mix?!

The Methodist Covenant service is a very special time in our Methodist year, an opportunity to affirm the loving relationship in to which God has called us. 

Every year when I say the Covenant prayer, particular words leap out, and they’re often different words each year.  I don’t know if you find the same.  Sometimes a phrase resonates, sometimes one consoles, sometimes another jars.  This year a phrase has pained me.  They are the words “let me be laid aside for you”.

Now let’s be clear.  Being laid aside in this context does not mean being discarded or judged to be useless.  Rather I think it means for whatever reason, the things we have associated with our calling no longer seem to have a clear context or be sustainable. 

At first the resonance of this phrase for me may seem strange.  I’ve never been busier than I have been this year.  I have been so privileged to be in the role as Vice-President of the Church, and to have the opportunity to witness what God is doing in and through God’s people in this country and in other parts of the world. I’ve been able to listen, speak and learn.  The President and I have had the chance to explore our theme of holiness and justice with people from around the Connexion.  I have a suitcase permanently packed, and I need to plant roughly a tree a week to cancel out my carbon footprint over the course of the year.

So why does the phrase “Let me be laid aside for you” feel so painful?  Well this is where it gets personal.  I voted to remain.  I think that President Trump is a terrifying prospect.  And I’m a member of a political party which some may say is in the doldrums. 

For someone who has such a high belief in the worth of political engagement this is a tough place to be. 

I’ve always felt my role within the church, encouraging Christians to make the links between faith and life, to be a vocation.  And I feel passionately that my beliefs – religious and political – are rooted in my response to the love of God.

And now I find myself in a position where I have – politically – been laid aside.  We hear that the British people have spoken.  And I feel outside that definition of “the people”.  Things which I feel are unacceptable are creeping towards the norm.  And political power – the way of bringing about change – feels beyond reach.

Now at this point I should say that I wholly accept that many of you here will be in a different place.   And will hold very different beliefs with passion and integrity. I am very privileged to count as friends and fellow Christians people with whom I profoundly disagree politically, and am honoured that some are here this evening. 

And I suppose my pain could come from a realisation that I am wrong.  Politics is, after all, a human endeavour.  As much as we yearn to understand the mind of God, we are never going to bring about the kingdom of God through a party manifesto.

And yet.  We are political beings, and this is the way in which we choose how we order our world.  The sense of being “laid aside” from this is, for me, painful.

Having wrestled with this in the light of saying the Covenant prayer, I think there are (in a Methodist fashion) three reflections.

Firstly we are here for the Methodist covenant service, not the Methodist contract service.  Ken Howcroft, a former President of Conference, once described his understanding of the difference between the two as being that a contract sets out how the future will work.  Whereas a covenant involves setting off together, into an unknown future, but promising to walk together whatever comes. 

Early versions of the Covenant service included words that were very similar to the marriage service – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. This covenant, this relationship, is for the good and bad times. 

We are promising to abide with God – notice the frequent use of the word in the passage from John.  That is where we remain, abiding in God’s love, through the good times, the bad times, the times of power and the times of pain. 

So firstly God does not abandon us, but abides with us, for, in that very tender phrase, he has written his promise on our hearts.

Secondly the Covenant prayer reminds us of the corporate nature of this covenant relationship.  Although the prayer is in the first person we will be saying it together, as the people of God,
·        people who voted different ways,
·        people who are members of different parties,
·        politicians, and people for whom this is the first time in Parliament,
·        ministers and lay people, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists
·        ...and those who may be searching or wondering.  

In the passage from Deuteronomy we heard that all those assembled were part of the covenantal relationship with God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water”. 

Everyone, even those on the edge, is invited into a covenant relationship with God. 

 And our relationship with God means we are in relationship one with another.  Those who are employed for God are in relationship with those who are laid aside for God.  Party politics are never more important than the relationship that we are offered as part of the body of Christ.

So secondly we are all part of the vine, in relationship with God and with one another.

Finally the Covenant prayer reminds us that there is a time for being laid aside, for suffering or being done to, for being empty, for having nothing. 

But this is not God rejecting us or what we offer. For when we are in these places we can be there for – and with - God. 

Perhaps we sometimes have an expectation of power and influence, just look around at the venue we’re in today.  Perhaps we expect to be listened to and taken seriously.  Perhaps we’re not used – as churches or as individuals – to being on the margins ...of politics, of society, of our church. 

But it’s not always a bad thing to be at the margins.  And who says that change can’t come from there? 

Indeed Methodism started in the margins – small groups, outside the power structures of the church, preaching the love of God to the poorest and most marginalised in society, raising up people as lay preachers, as itinerant ministers to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. 

And when you’re on the margins you can always look around and see whom else God has placed there. 

For the Covenant prayer is not passive.  It’s not about sitting still where we end up.  It is about being offered renewal in Jesus Christ.  It’s about opening ourselves up to the greatest transformation of all, through the love of God.  Because vines bear beautiful fruit. 

So from this sense of being laid aside comes awareness that God does not abandon us but holds us in loving relationship.  We are all part of the vine together, one with another and with God.  And that being at the margins can be fruitful.

Whether this year you feel you are being employed, laid aside, exalted or brought low, I pray that you will experience renewal and growth in Jesus Christ, and be fruitful, be it at the centre, or at the margins. 

For ultimately the most glorious truth is there in the words that we will say together in a few moments.  “He is ours and we are his.  So be it”.