Wednesday 6 July 2011

This bread

We make this bread in brokenness

and tentatively mould its form.

But life within creates, unseen,

a greater whole.

We bake this bread in hopefulness,

and wonder at the mystery

as fusing seed and rising yeast

commune as one.

We break this bread in faithfulness:

then eat and find ourselves renewed.

Bread for the world, work of our hands,

and blessed by God.

We ache for bread enough to share

with all whose hearts and hope are cold;

but ‘til that day when love flies free

God must send us.

Copyright © 2011 Gareth Hill Publishing/Song Solutions CopyCare, 14 Horsted Square, Uckfield, TN22 1QG

Tune: 337 H&P Almsgiving

Today was a day where we began with bread as we shared a stunning communion service. The quality of worship this week has been as high as I can recall with a quite outstanding band and gorgeous liturgies put together by Micky Youngson.

This morning's focus was on some words of Jesus, recorded in Luke 13:20-21

And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Vice-President Ruth Pickles wanted us to consider how the idea of baking was a good image for considering the Kingdom of God and our part in its work.

Baking was "satisfyingly messy" but totally dependent on collaboration, she said. Involved were the woman, flour, yeast, salt, honey, sugar, water, temperature and the oven but also it was essential to use the right proportions and the right temperature to avoid the end product being inedible.

What a good parable for the Kingdom of God, said Ruth, recalling the work of places like Somewhere Else in central Liverpool as a new way of being church. There friendship is enabled through yeast, flour and the process of making bread by hand.

But, said Ruth, huge change - like the action of yeast - begins small and we needed to recognise what we could and should do.

Enabling change across churches, circuits and districts as well as affecting denominations and cultures was risky, demanding and costly, said Ruth, but the Gospel called on us to act like yeast.

"We have become a people who identify themselves as not belonging to Christ but as members of High Street, Old Street or Bethesda or wherever ... dwindling in numbers or not we determine our building is the only place we can worship God week by week," she said.

"Sometimes our defence is that we are honouring our forebears; our history, but we ignore the message of our Gospel at our peril - we need to get messy, get collaborative. We need to sacrifice it in the process of leavening our society."

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Lights for the world

Part of the experience of being at Conference is a search for illumination.

That may be trying to work out what the agenda means, dealing with when the lights go out because of a power surge like yesterday ... or the far more profound daily challenge of seeking the will of God.

There's something humbling about being in the company of people who can move seamlessly from high humour to deep reflection and theological seriousness within a heartbeat.

One illustration was seen in a Conference event which probably had more impact on those who were not attending than those of us who were.

Hundreds of people found themselves discovering illumination on the beach at Southport by walking a sand labyrinth created by volunteers. The team, led by Cornwall's Youth Enabler Andrew Nicholson, offered people the chance to follow one of the most ancient methods of reflection.

They took a piece of rubbish and walked through the labyrinth - almost a quarter of a mile all told - left the rubbish at the centre on a sand mound topped by a cross and then walked back with a pebble that they could keep.

It's such a simple idea and yet the conversations were so profound: with people who had no faith; with Sikhs; Moslems; with whole families; with children who jumped over the sand humps and with people who asked if they were allowed to walk the labyrinth.

On one day alone, 276 people left the 'rubbish' of their lives at the centre of the labyrinth and walked out ...

The theme in our worship this morning was of light dispelling darkness and we were reminded of Jesus' words in Matthew's Gospel: 'let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.' Matthew 5: 16

Later, Helen Cameron continued our deeper look at Colossians 1: 15-20 under the theme of Living out the Gospel within the culture, not apart from it.

The passage was an invitation to re-imagine the world as very different from the one we see, touch and feel, she said, but Paul invited us to realise we are not sealed off from the world - we breathe same air as everyone. Our calling is to be faithful in this time.

"We are created in Christ and for Christ: the cosmic Christ - Christ for all time and the whole universe," said Helen. "By the power of the Cross none can rule over Christ nor ultimately anyone joined to Christ."

That new community in Christ was one of restored relationships where compassion, generosity and grace were the hallmarks of the light the church shed on the world.

One of the most public opportunities we will have to take the Gospel onto the streets will be the Olympic Games next year and there was overwhelming support for a plea from Lord Mawhinney to get behind More than Gold which will facilitate the Christian response.

Around 6,000 - 10,000 Christians are expected to arrive from overseas to help share the Gospel during the Olympics and Lord Mawhinney also told those who are not inclined to sport 'Get over it!' because we will be flooded by it!

His dream was that, all over the country, local churches would erect big screens in their areas and welcome people to share events based on the Games - to plug in and light up their communities.

It's not a new song any more, but one that keeps rolling round my head is Run by Snow Patrol. You can't stretch the metaphor too far but I always hear God singing part of the song:

Light up, light up
As if you have a choice
Even if you cannot hear my voice
I'll be right beside you dear

We don't have a choice. We shine in our communities. The issue is whether we choose to hide our lights or let it out.

Monday 4 July 2011

Lord, graciously hear us ... pardon?

What does it mean to listen to the voice of God? How does the Word get through to us? This question formed the foundation of the first day of business for the Representative Session here at Southport.

As we began conferring, we heard about the Word:

  • How the Word came to Elijah as he hid in his cave. I've always been struck by God's question, asked twice, "What are you doing here, Elijah?". I've long wondered on which word God put the stress in the question and whether it was different each time: what, are, you, doing, here, Elijah. Was the inquiry followed by a pause, a question mark, a grunt or an exclamation mark? Eventually, of course - after wind, earthquake and fire - it was, as Ken Jackson reminded us, "the sound of sheer silence". [For a different take on that image, see here.]

  • Also, through the prologue to John's Gospel, how the Word came as a human being, made flesh for us in Jesus.

Ken referred to Lucy Winkett's book Our Sound is Our Wound: Contemplative Listening to a Noisy World and said that our conferring would invoke many things among us: it would inspire, irritate, anger, rejoice our hearts.
It would make us laugh and weep as people spoke with authority, tentatively, with passion or nervously.
But listening was as important as our speaking; active listening was urgent if we were to hear God's Word for today, to know what God, the Church and the world were saying to us.
The crucial thing, of course, is that w
e needed to make sure we were not just listening to one another and - as Ken's grand-daughter had said to him - 'You need to listen properly, with your eyes open.'

We then prayed - interestingly - a prayer that included the response Lord hear us, Lord graciously hear us! Perhaps we should have prayed May we graciously hear you, Lord.

So began a day of listening - moving into the General Secretary's Report, with the Rev Dr Martyn Atkins offering a bold vision which has come out of multiple conversations with people around the Connexion. There should be no illusions, he said. The journey towards becoming a "discipleship movement shaped for mission" would not be easy and has costs. It would involve choosing to do things and to stop doing others - it could not be business as usual but Martyn asked us to gather up our courage and our faith and vote for change.

Speaker after speaker affirmed what the report called "the direction of travel", variously referring to it as dynamite and urging that its energy and potential shouldn't be lost in its necessary passing on into the church's committees and working groups.

There was a real sense of 'moment' in the room as we enthusiastically supported Martyn's report. Decisions being reached here mattered for the sake of the people called Methodist and the Kingdom of God. We can make a difference.

In a link to the opening devotions, Fidelio Patron took the metaphor of Elijah's cave. Some caves, he said, were natural, some man-made but very few have windows and you rarely see a way out. This report allows us to see a way out, he said.

Caves very rarely have water, food or light and there would be an urgency to get out or die, said Fidelio. For the people called Methodist there was now a sense of urgency. "We’re very good at prolonging things," he said. "We are still pointing the way forward but we need to do something. How do we overcome our procedures and do something now."

Ultimately, we voted to continue travelling in the direction that Martyn told us the church had asked us to take. We heard him when he said: "I am convinced that God desires a healthy, more vibrant Methodism, offered anew to God as its proper ‘owner’ and as a fruitful and willing part of the One Church of Christ, for the sake of the world God loves and in Christ redeemed."

Sunday 3 July 2011

Powerful, poignant and potent

There is no day in the life of the Methodist Church like Conference Sunday, when people travel from all corners of the Connexion to worship together and then disperse for services of ordination.

It is a powerful, poignant and potent day for the church, when we see embodied in those about to be ordained a whole range of emotions.

  • for those who have come to support their family member and friend it is a celebration and a major milestone on a long, long road.

  • for those who have been ordained at a previous Conference it is a moment rich with emotion and memory.

  • for those who are seeing, possibly for the first time, the presbyter or deacon who will join their circuit team, it is a glimpse into the future God will build for and with them.

It is a solemn moment in the proper use of that word - but done with joy and passion and plenty of smiles.

The Methodist people are very good at mixing business and worship and formal motions accompanied by standing votes go with raised hands and clapping.

President Leo Osborn challenged us to keep our eyes on Jesus as the image of the invisible God, the one who holds all things together.

It reminded me of a Martyn Joseph song, paradoxically called Everything in Heaven Comes Apart, but which lists a whole host of things that we won't need beyond this world:

The bottle brush the swing top bin

The lumps that grown beneath our skin

The roulette wheel conspiring talk

The rhythm of the penguins walk

The years of grief the libelous hint

The plasma of the innocent

The untraced lie the verbal dart

Everything in heaven comes apart

Leo asked whether falling apart or holding together described our world but reminded us that the clue to it all was Christ. He called us to place Christ at centre of all things.

If He held all things together it affected:

- our search for God.

- our view of the world.

- our task as a church.

After powerful sung intercessions, using by far the most imaginative use of images at Conference so far, we agreed by standing votes to admit into Full Connexion Presbyters and Deacons. It's the same every year but it is never any less powerful to hear women and men promise to serve the Church of God and commit their lives to the Methodist congregations and their wider communities.

Vice President Ruth Pickles welcomed the ordinands as "a lay person who has received richly" from presbyters and deacons and Leo reminded them they were called to be a human being who enjoyed life as well as being a minister and he assured them, 'The words "through Jesus Christ our Lord" is not just a convenient way to end a prayer but both an aspiration and a promise - his promise to hold onto you for ever.'

Saturday 2 July 2011

Mind your language!

Mind your language if you intend to offer proper pastoral care - that was the message from incoming President Leo Osborn this afternoon.He challenged us to think again about how we speak and the assumptions we make when we talk within church.

He asked: 'Am I the only person who cringes when I hear the word “visitors” used when folk are welcomed at the beginning of worship?' It was an improvement on “strangers” but still assumed we wouldn't see them again, said Leo, who added: 'Well as Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are those who expect nothing. They shall never be disappointed!'

His challenge to Conference - and the wider church - was to get a balance. He acknowledged his background as an evangelical, as someone for whom the sacraments have become more important and who longed for to encourage every initiative to bring nearer the unity of the church in visible form.

He said: 'I believe in the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection and in the overriding authority of Scripture but I don’t find that that provides me with answers to every question or that despite living in Newcastle every moral or ethical decision is black and white. Indeed I have some sympathy with John Robinson of Honest to God fame who towards the end of his life said that he believed more and more about less and less!'

While talking about us being theological, pragmatic and connexional ... his focus was on pastoral care.

'For at the very heart of the Gospel is the pastoral image of Jesus the Good Shepherd,' said Leo. It wasn't just an image: Jesus demonstrated in words and actions what knowing his sheep, calling his sheep, listening to his sheep, loving his sheep, laying down his life for the sheep reaching out to the lost sheep looks like as an indication of what God is like.

And Leo took us to the Presbyteral Ordination Services where the call to Peter to “tend my sheep and feed my lambs” is echoed over and over again, especially when The President says to the newly ordained: "Be shepherds to the flock of Christ. As you exercise mercy, do not forget justice, as you minister discipline do not forget mercy; that when Christ the Chief Shepherd comes in glory he may count you among his faithful servants".

He reminded us that ultimately people come to faith through people and that we become unbalanced if we think worship and mission don't need pastoral care.

After a tea break, we heard from new Vice President Ruth Pickles whose theme for the year is Learning as disciples of Jesus. She drew us to George Herbert's poem The Elixir, which we had sung as a hymn, including:
A man who looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth through it pass,
And then the heavens espy.

Ruth will be using four images: window, door, path, and a child on the edge of the sea and she took us on a journey through her faith experiences using these images.

The risks and opportunities of Christian discipleship involved risk - looking through windows, going through doors, along paths and standing on the shoreline as new opportunities open up.

Saturday Morning

Knowing you Jesus, there is no greater thing were the words that greeted hundreds of Conference reps as they made their way into the Southport Convention Centre theatre on Saturday morning.

The Conference band were welcoming us in for the opening act of worship as Fridays Ministerial Session gave way to the Representative Session - the full Conference mingling for the first time.

As ever, Conference is a glorious mix of worship and work, and for 2011 we are mining the resources of Singing the Faith, the new hymn resource for the Methodist Church. Publication of the book and electronic resource will now be in September.

So we sang Andrew Pratt's words:

Best of all is God is with us

hearts are challenged, strangely warmed,

faith is deepened, courage strengthened,

grace received and hope reformed.

And God was with us, both in the worship and the seamless way we switched into business, with points of order and proposals as the agenda took over before we split into five hearings and workshops on:

  • Resourcing Mission Report

  • Fruitful Field (development of the Church's existing Connexional activities in the field of learning, formation, training, theological education, scholarship, research and development)

  • The General Secretary's Report

  • MHS/ Action for Children

  • MRDF

I sat in on the General Secretary's Report and Revd Dr Martyn Atkins developed his theme of Contemporary Methodism as a discipleship movement shaped for mission.

Martyn was, he said, mirroring back multiple conversations with people and the report was not initiative number 432 from Connexional Team but a recognition that we need to turn a willingness to change into strategy for action.

The language of holy risk was written large in the report and applauded more than once by the responses of those who spoke after the introduction. Its been a frequent phrase throughout the year as Ive sat in meetings of various groups at local and Connexional level.

Martyn was very clear. This is not the Connexional Team ploughing ahead, whether anyone else want to make the journey or not. God seems to be giving us the encouragement, he said. But we don't want to assume anything. We believe we are hearing the Holy Spirit say that this seems to be the way, keep walking in it.

And, as the report and later speakers affirmed, being a discipleship movement shaped for mission can only work if we consciously hold on to the truth of being a Connexional Church that affirms lay leadership.

Issues of patterns of ministry, Gods worthship and our worship, evangelism and making more disciples, partnerships with Christians locally and the worldwide family of Methodism are all part of the opportunities for us as a discipleship movement shaped for mission.

A stream of speakers affirmed the report as exciting, thrilling, demanding much of us but the right report for this time in our history. In the words of the report: the direction of travel we need to take.

(Uploaded by Anna on Gareth's behalf, due to technical issues).

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Methodist Conference 2011 is nearly here!

This year's Methodist Conference takes place 30 June - 7 July at the Southport Theatre and Convention Centre.

Watch this space for updates from our regular Methodist Conference blogger, Revd Gareth Hill. Gareth will be blogging throughout the representative session, which starts on Saturday 2 July.

All the reports on the agenda are available online here.

Real Conference junkies will be able to follow the action via the @MethodistMedia Twitter stream (for tweeters the official Conference hashtag is #methconf) or our Facebook page and you can even watch the debates live online via the Methodist Conference website. The latest news from the Conference will appear here.

We hope you can feel a part of it, wherever you may be!

Anna Drew
Lead Media Officer, Methodist Conference