Tuesday, 29 June 2010

What would you lay down? Archbishop's challenge

Knowing what we were prepared to lay down for the sake of the Gospel was the challenge to Conference today from Archbishop Rowan Williams.

He explored issues of compromise and confrontation in the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul at the end of an afternoon where a number of potential tensions in our church life had been explored.

His bedrock question was not about what issue we would go to the stake for but “what’s the life that you’re prepared to lay down?”

In talking about the Church’s way of being, working and mission - specifically Fresh Expressions and ecumenism - Archbishop Rowan made it clear he was offering no solutions. “And anyway, you wouldn’t listen any more than my church does,” he joked.

He described the difference between Peter and Paul succinctly: “Peter knows who Jesus is and Paul knows what Jesus means”.

It was a mistake simply to talk about the ministry of Peter as being about order while Paul is about creative newness, he said. “Peter has the ability to create embarrassing situations, he’s not simply the apostle of good order. At times it leads him into astonishingly creative moments of innovation - and sometimes simply into mess.”

Paul, said the Archbishop, knows what Jesus means ... grace upon grace, a kingdom without boundaries; reconciliation, transformation for every human being.

The sense of urgency of who Jesus is was ultimately at the heart of the Covenant between our two churches, he said.

In ecumenical conversations we began with a Petrine approach, saying “‘for heaven’s sake this is ridiculous we’ve got to do something. We can’t leave it to the experts to sort this out because we know who Jesus is’.” The ecumenical movement started with people prepared to move out and live with unfinished business.

“We may find a few years on that nothing very much is happening and the spectre of Paul rises up to say ‘I did warn you’ and you can’t just sit there in this glorious mess because it then becomes unsatisfying.”

Neither confrontation or compromise would work unless you had a vision of the communion you longed for, said the archbishop.

“It means going back again and again and again to where it all started and thinking Jesus: who he is and what it means. Only that gets us to something of a church life that’s not a whole series of posture strikings or desperate personnel management.”

When it came to mission, and particularly Fresh Expressions, Archbishop Rowan said the tension in mission history was similar to that which Peter and Paul recognised.

“The history of the church’s mission is a history of many effort to reach to and speak with those who won’t instinctively understand the language you’re speaking,” he said.

“Some have been right and some corrupting and wrong and for some it’s too soon to say. There’s no alternative but to keep going back together to the Gospel.”

But he warned us: “It’s most unlikely we won’t find a policy for which we won’t have to repent at some point. Get used to it - it’s Christian!”

And he added: "However hard we try to persuade ourselves there’s a solution without cost we need to learn, as a great moral theologian said, that the great moral question is ‘who’s going to get hurt?’.

“The true apostolic quest is how do I share the cost? How do I put myself at risk alongside those I want to speak for or pray for?” he said.

“What united Peter and Paul - other than salvation in Christ - was martyrdom. Not Peter as the source of authority but giving his life for the Gospel.

“Whether our lives have a Peter or Paul flavour should lead us back to the cross. Where and how do we share the risk. How do we avoid words without price; gestures without suffering at every level? What’s the life that I’m prepared to lay down?”

And so, in the spirit of a day when we’ve looked at working with the church overseas and our ecumenical partners, here’s a hymn:

There is a world beyond our world
a dream beyond our sight:
a common call to unity
in service of the light.
Engaging faith - God’s living church.
Transforming love - God’s true delight.

Our mission in the Way of Christ
cannot be done alone.
A partnership of active prayer
brings heaven’s blessings down.
Engaging faith - God’s living church.
Transforming love - God’s shining crown.

In Jesus we are called to go
and in his cause expire:
to be a Gospel family
who set this world on fire.
Engaging faith - God’s living church.
Transforming love - God’s great desire.

Gareth Hill Copyright © 2010 GraceNotes Music

Monday, 28 June 2010

Struggling in the tension?

The image of a river flowing through the stage design provided the appropriate backdrop to today’s business as the Representative Session of Conference turned from worship to business.

We were encouraged, by General Secretary Martyn Atkins, to recognise that “we sense we are a movement whose purposes under God are not yet over” - a church where holy risk-taking was definitely on the agenda.

So we turned to the plethora of issues that have to be dealt with.

Our six-year journey towards a new music resource for the church made a faltering step with the hope of those involved that we would all be singing from the same sheet by Thursday when more will have been done with it.

In one lovely moment one of the wider Church’s top hits - In Christ Alone - was described as “the hokey cokey hymn of the moment - it’s been in and out and in so often” because of the issues around one phrase where God’s wrath “is satisfied”. At the moment it’s in!

There was an illustration of how painful Conference decisions are as a discussion of the overall budget included the proposal that the Youth Participation Strategy would receive significantly less money and therefore would employ fewer people.

Perhaps tension was one of the watchwords today. What to do with ministers’ pensions had been a hot topic leading up to this week and a number of people had tuned in online to see what happened. After some jiggling with notices of motion and memorials it was agreed to tie the normal pension date to government legislation.

During the afternoon, we switched to a new way of working for Conference and moved into small groups to discuss issues around a research project into what’s being called “the missing generation”.

The groups gave everyone the chance to contribute in conversations and bring insight from their experience. Some people skived off - and even tweeted that they had - but it’s a method of conferring that works well and the group I was in felt affirmed and energised by the chance to contribute in ways that would be impossible if the issue was debated on the floor of Conference.

So, as a reflection on today, here is something:

We struggle in the tension
of a call to walk in faith;
this challenge to be servants,
built on God’s astounding grace.
We place our hopes and terrors
in the wounded hands of Christ
and set out on a journey
which demands we pay a price.

We know we cannot settle
when the call of Christ has come:
in desert and oasis
or when faith and joy are numb.
Our life as holy pilgrims
is patterned on the Son:
his bruised and staggered footsteps
mark the journey we must run.

Gareth Hill Copyright © GraceNotes Music 2010

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Whoops, whistles and God's invitation

Cheers, whoops and whistles greeted the ordinands as they were presented to Conference this morning in one of the clearest signs of how willingly we have loosened our stays in recent years.

President Alison Tomlin urged them to wave at their families and supporters as the worshipful mix of celebration and solemnity dovetailed perfectly.

In the service we received presbyters and deacons “into full connexion” - as our gloriously-obscure jargon puts it - and lovingly sent most of them on to ordination services in the area for later in the day.

There was not a mention of the football - not one - even though almost every ordination service would clash with it. Today it just didn’t matter.

I was asked if the tables and chairs being set up outside the Guildhall were anything to do with us but they were for the Sunday afternoon tea dance taking place directly underneath the giant screen which would not show the England-Germany game. Too rowdy as a companion for such a gentile pursuit as a tea dance.

The Methodist celebrations began outside long before the service as delegates, ordinands, friends and families gathered in the sunshine. In a remarkable demonstration of servant ministry one of Conference’s respected ministers was even seen cleaning the shoes of another ... from one Central Hall to another!

This day is, like no other in the Methodist Church, a day of journeys as people come from all parts of the Connexion to support those being ordained. As we were reminded at the start of the service, some would have absolutely no idea what was going on but wanted to be there for their loved ones.

President Alison Tomlin, in her sermon, picked up on an Old Testament challenge from Isaiah where God confronts the people with a list of all they have done wrong, trying to live in fantasy world, as she put it.

At the end, instead of punishment there’s an invitation to come back but the people reject it. “The Scriptures are full of people running away whenever God says anything. I understand that,” said Alison, as the ordinands and the rest of us listened.

She asked us: “Do you believe in a God who created all things; holds all creation in the palm of a hand? That God will wait for you.

“That God loves you so much. That God will wait to be gracious to you; standing alongside you in whatever your life currently contains until you feel able to say your next ‘yes’. That is such a gift and such a promise and so amazing.”

As the ordinands began to anticipate their service - the moment when a congregation would shout out the words “they are worthy” and propel them to a new phase of ministry - Alison had a word of realism for them.

“You’d think God’s gracious words would always be a joy and a delight but sometimes they are so hard to bear,” she said. “They are a challenge and a demand and an opportunity that we don’t feel ready for.

“We know God is saying ‘you do it’. They may even be words asking us to do something that is so hard for us that we say ‘please not yet, can I take a little longer to say yes’. God will say ‘yes’.”

Sometimes as Church it feels that we need to learn those lessons. What are God’s gracious words to us? What are we able to say ‘yes’ to today and what is it all right to ask for a bit of time about?

Joy Dine’s great hymn God who sets us on a journey has become very much part of this ordination weekend for Methodism and, as we have always said that we learn our theology through singing, then Conference is getting into the habit of stating that we need to ask God consistently to:

End our longing for the old days
grant the vision that we lack -
once we’ve started on this journey
there can be no turning back

And so to today’s vuvuzela moments:

  • ordinands coming in to Come on and celebrate, some dancing down the aisle.
  • Guide me O thou Great Jehovah - not quite up to Millennium Park standards but the harmonies sounded good up in the gallery
Sadly the World Cup, though full of the noise of the vuvuzela, didn’t quite live up to expectations for England fans. But, even for defeated and probably overpaid soccer stars, the invitation to come and rest in God is still made.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

God on Twitter ... and getting out of the box

This could have been a difficult day for Methodist Conference to get into top gear, depending on your allegiance.

After all, Wales had lost to the All Blacks at rugby for the second week running; tensions were high at the World Cup with less than 24 hours before England faced Germany once more in a knockout match ... and Daleks, Cybermen and every evil in the cosmos had conspired to seal Dr Who inside the Pandorica..........

Meanwhile, as the sun blazed down outside, we put on our finery and headed inside.

Is that an act of pure madness or something about the conviction that what we have to do together is part of becoming life-long world-changing disciples?

Certainly, as we sat inside Portsmouth’s Guildhall, there was no getting away from challenges to be somewhere else. Neither Alison Tomlin or Eunice Attwood, this year’s President and Vice-President, would let us get away with being obsessed with navel-gazing ... or even naval-gazing as we're in this seafaring city.

We did what we always do: combining our business with worship - and by the way we have learned to do our worship so much better over recent Conferences - but we were challenged by both Alison and Eunice to be part of a Church that "throws parties for prostitutes” and listens to those no one else wants to listen to.

While Alison wanted us to pay attention Eunice urged us to open our eyes to God’s transforming love.

To pay attention, said Alison, was not just understanding about God at the centre but recognising that “God is usually at the edge, on the periphery - out there with those who have been discarded and neglected, who are distressed and distraught”.

It’s about “paying attention to those with whom we profoundly disagree - even our enemy” she said.

Alison, who spoke without notes, reminded us how easy it is to be so busy in the Church doing good things for God.

“But it’s more than inside the Church,” she said. “If we pay attention to God we won’t stay inside the church. If we pay attention to God we will have to do the things God challenges us to do: to go out among the people that need to hear the message that God loves them; who have no voice; who have had doors shut in their faces; that others reject and despise. Isn’t that an echo of what they did to Jesus?”

The transforming love of God was the recurring theme for Eunice, who told us about working with Street Pastors, being with healing teams on the streets, sitting with sex workers and of her own journey from a childhood in Sepnnymoor, County Durham.

It was all shaped by her conviction that the transforming love of Christ was what made God’s people a transforming presence in the world.

She said: “God thinks you are amazing ... we should be jumping up and down at that but we often find it so difficult, we’re not always so convinced about it.

“I believe we need to hear these words afresh ... those amazing words. God’s love is not caused by anything we can do or say: God’s character and nature is love.”

And, in a word for those who were tweeting from the Conference hall, and listening online, she added: “I believe if God had a Facebook page his status would permanently say ‘I love you’. If God was on Twitter his tweet would say ‘I love You’ and he would say it until we believed it.”
After a day like today we clearly have to get out of our box - mind you, what happened with the Pandorica?
So what were today vuvuzela moments - the bits that shouted loudest and would not be ignored?

Two I think.
  • Stella Bristow’s astonishing design for the Conference stage:

  • hearing Snow Patrol’s Open Your Eyes played at Conference and watching from the gallery as various former Presidents, Vice-Presidents and other long-standing Conference members decided what to make of it!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Watch this space!

The representative session of the Conference doesn't start until Saturday 26 June, so blog posts from Gareth Hill (a Methodist minister from Cornwall) will start to appear then.

In the meantime, you can check out the official Methodist Conference website, for all the info you could possibly want about the event.

When the Conference starts, you can follow the action in a number of different ways:
* On Twitter, you can follow the official Conference twitterstream via @MethodistMedia, or contribute to the wider discussion, by using the Conference hashtag - #methconf.
* On Facebook, all news and info from the Conference will be available and regularly updated on the Methodist Media Facebook page, by myself and Karen Burke from the media team.
* You can check out photos from the Conference on the official Flickr photostream.
* You can listen live to the debates (in partnership with Premier Christian Radio), or watch the debates live on the Conference website. Audio and video from the debates will also be available after the business sessions on the Methodist web radio page.

(just a few links to be getting on with there)

Any questions? Get in touch with the media team via mediaservice@methodistchurch.org.uk.


Anna Drew
Lead Media Officer