(June, July and August 2021)
As I write this, India is in crisis, having recorded 20 million Covid cases. The healthcare system, which is not robust at the best of times, is overwhelmed, especially in the big cities. The situation requires our prayers, and our support through All We Can and other agencies.
When lockdown came in March 2020, I was in Delhi on sabbatical. When I’d flown there in the February, I hadn’t been completely blind to the growing pandemic, but had decided that there wasn’t at that time sufficient reason not to go. I was slightly concerned that I was moving closer to the epicentre of the problem, which was then in Wohan. During my stay in Delhi, the epicentre shifted to Italy. Numbers were growing in the UK, but only a few cases had been identified in India, and they were almost all in foreign visitors, particularly from Italy. That was, the WHO suspected, at least partly because India was only testing foreign visitors. Then, almost overnight, the world changed. India cancelled visas for visitors yet to arrive, and banned airlines from bringing in visitors. Flights were cancelled, and I had a bit of a scramble to get home.
During my last few days in India, I had a number of conversations with people about what this disease MEANT. Someone told me: “The virus is foretold in the Bible. Jesus said it would happen before the End, so it means the End is coming soon.” Someone else said, “It began in China because the Chinese have not accepted Jesus.” Someone else said, “God sent this during Lent to tell us to repent.” On my last morning, I had a conversation with the Bishop of Delhi in which he said that he believed that the virus is God as a loving parent chastising his children to make them turn to him, and he gave as an example the plagues of Egypt.
I said to the Bishop that I did not like to think of God punishing us. Why would a loving God punish everyone indiscriminately whether they have turned to him or not, and particularly punish the elderly and the sick? I said that if I thought God had done this deliberately, I would get another job.
When I got back, I asked my colleagues what they thought the pandemic meant. I found that overwhelmingly British Methodist ministers do not think that God has deliberately chosen to cause this. Many do think that he is ultimately responsible, having created a world in which there are free processes in nature. Some think that we are to blame in various ways, such as having brought about the conditions in which a virus can jump species, and spread rapidly round the world. More positively, many saw God as present in the suffering and in the efforts of those trying to relieve suffering. One minister wrote to me saying:
“My theology puts God with us in the suffering, but also in the expression of the love shown to our neighbours and strangers. God is bigger than this – and so I look beyond our local situation to the far more extreme suffering elsewhere and see God amongst them too. I do not look to God for intervention, but for the transforming power of Gospel love seen in Jesus, and for the message of resurrection each day.”
So, what do you believe about this virus? As preachers and worship leaders, it is our responsibility to think these things through, and share with our people a well-thought-out theology.
Rev. Jenny Dyer
(March, April and May 2021)
It’s been a miserable year, but I would venture to suggest that we have learnt a few things. One thing I have found during the pandemic is that my understanding of worship has changed and grown. Last March, on the second Sunday of the lockdown, I tried my hand at a zoom service. I rather enjoyed it. Thirteen households attended, in little rectangles on my laptop screen. It felt like leading worship for a cageful of mice. Little children appeared in their pyjamas. Some of our elderly people tuned in on ipads set up by sons and daughters.
After that first service I thought, “It isn’t real worship, but it’s the best we can do in the circumstances.” But a couple of weeks after that I had moved on in my thinking to: “Of course this is real worship, just as much as if we were in church.” The same change of thinking was happening in the Local Preachers’ Office. At first, they reluctantly conceded that preachers in training could submit online services in their portfolios. Later, they started saying that in future leading online worship needs to be part of every new preacher’s training.
As last summer we moved towards churches being allowed to open up again, I read a depressing article in which someone described what such services would be like: people sitting at 2m distance, wearing masks, not singing. It sounded so miserable. The first such service I took was a wedding in August and it was a revelation. People sat in ones and twos, beautifully dressed in a sunlit church, wearing an astonishing array of brightly patterned face-coverings. There was nothing miserable about it, and I discovered that worship under Covid regulations doesn’t have to be depressing.
While the ban on singing has certainly been a loss, it has had a positive side to it. The need for recorded music has given us the opportunity to invite into our churches (so to speak) a wide range of musicians and singers. We have heard children’s choirs, cathedral choirs, choirs from all round the world; and generally music more professionally produced than we can muster ourselves. One Methodist from a small congregation confided in me that it was a relief not to have to sing.
One question we will face as we come out of this is how far we want to return to worship as it was, and whether some aspects of Covid worship will be worth keeping. Some large churches may adopt hybrid services that are both in church and live-streamed. Others may continue to run zoom services that can be attended from home. A greater variation in how we do music may stick.
But hopefully we can confine the face masks to history.
Revd Jenny Dyer
(December 2020, January and February 2021)
The first known plan of Methodist preaching appointments was made by Wesley in London in 1754. I suspect that there had (until this year) been an unbroken succession of them ever since. A few years ago, the connexional archivist urged circuits to keep a collection of the plans they issue, and in due course to lodge them in their County Records Office. Long unbroken runs of plans were said to be of particular historical value.
What has not happened before, possibly ever, and certainly not in our lifetimes, is that there has been a break in the continuity of plans, and countrywide at that. March-May plans were drawn up but fell into disuse before the end of March. In most cases April-June plans were not drawn up. In some places Sept-Nov plans were drawn up, but only limped into effect gradually through the autumn. Here is a Dec-Feb plan, and we pray that, for the most part, the services represented on it will happen and the preachers planned will be able to turn out. But we must proceed carefully and do what is safe.
In many circuits, services on YouTube and on Zoom sprang into being when lockdown came. They were usually for a section, or a whole circuit, and done by the presbyters, and it was noted that we had largely lost the services of Local Preachers. For some preachers this was a welcome rest; for others a temporary loss of something significant.
In some circuits the experience has led to conversations about plans themselves. While it is good to go back to something like normal, it is also good to take the opportunity to reassess what best fits ‘the present age’. Are plans a good or bad thing? Is the itinerancy of preachers helpful? Do people like the variety, or find it disorientating? Would it be better if particular preachers stuck with particular churches (rather like has happened in our circuit in October)?
So if you have any thoughts on the value or otherwise of the traditional ‘preaching round the circuit’ plan, do share them with the circuit staff and we can reflect together on what is right for the future. In the meantime, may God bless you as we return to the privilege of hearing God’s word preached in one another’s company.
(March, April and May 2020)
Recently I came across a book written by one of my college teachers but which I had not seen before. Naturally I took it away to read.
In the book the writer makes the comment that, ‘many funerals, including those held in church have no hope of anything beyond the here and now’. That set me thinking, not just about funerals but about hope specifically. Would you agree with that statement?
Funerals it seems to me come in three types, perhaps wherever they are held.
First the ones from which God is excluded, or in which God is ignored. We may use a Christian order of service, and the language and readings of the faith but the atmosphere is empty, cold, silent. It is hard to see any hope in that setting.
Second is the service where there is some openness and people seem able to draw hope from what is done and said even though they may have no formal religious affiliation. The atmosphere may be vague but seems to have some substance.
Third is that funeral for the believer who lived out their faith in a clear, visible way and where we are able to celebrate that faith and so the whole event, even in the midst of sadness is hope filled.
Of course, God is present in all of these. What is different is the degree to which that presence is recognised and acknowledged.
The challenge for us of course is not about the details of our funeral, but how we live the faith now, so come that day the people who gather will know how to celebrate and will be able to do so with integrity. Our hope needs to be clear and it needs to be rooted in the promises of God, and in our experience of Christ, so people see the way those things have shaped our lives.
So, I invite you to share the reflection on where and in whom we have placed our hope, and how we will live in that hope in a clear visible way. In doing that we might play our part in proving my teacher wrong, at least on occasions. And more than that we will make it clear to the people around us that there is a God among us in Jesus in whom we have hope both now and always.
(December 2019, January and February 2020)
…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’
1 Peter 3:15; NIV
As Chris is on Sabbatical, I, as Acting Superintendent in his absence write this letter for the December 2019 to February 2020 plan. As I do so I offer its gist to you for a ‘New Year’s resolution. In short, resolve to learn to tell your story, or say it this way, ‘I resolve to ‘learn to tell my story’. Why? Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.’ It’s the best news ever told, because it’s Gospel, ‘good news.’ To experience the fullness of Salvation folk need to know God loves them unconditionally. Don’t panic. There’s help. Let’s see this in context.
This connexional year is entitled ‘The Year of Testimony’ ‘So What’s the Story’? We’ve heard about it in Connexional promotion materials (mailings, website etc.), and recently at Representative Synod. We are encouraged to learn anew to share our faith journey with others. Part of the reason concerns the staggering decline in statistics of people affiliated with faith in society, and within our Connexion. Yet there is a far bigger reason. It’s part of OUR CALLING to evangelise. This happened naturally a generation or two ago when Methodist people met regularly in small groups, Class Groups, as part of routine discipleship practice. Today, we are being called back to our Biblical roots as people of faith as stated in our constitution: The Methodist Church… ever remembers that in the providence of God Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness through the land by the proclamation of the evangelical faith and declares its unfaltering resolve to be true to its divinely appointed mission; www.methodist.org.uk. The most effective way to share faith is person to person. Tell the Old Old Story, your way, as Your Story. One idea: have a cup of tea with some friend(s).
Yes, take the opportunity to share ‘your story’ with friends, and listen to them share their story with you, and in so doing encourage and equip one another. Practice on one another. When you get comfortable you can more easily share your ‘hope’ with acquaintances and/or strangers. Have a dinner party and talk about Jesus. Look for opportunities. Remember, do so with ‘gentleness and respect’ as in the text above, but do share. If you want help talk to one of your ministers, or a Sunday School teacher. But as in the Nike ad: Just Do It! This Connexional year lets resolve to Tell The Story. May God bless our efforts. Amen.
(September, October, November 2019)
As I write I am coming to the end of an unusual week. I don’t usually spend my time watching things on the internet but I have done some of that this week. That is because it is the beginning of July and so I am watching, no not Wimbledon or the Tour De France, but the Methodist conference. I don’t usually watch that either, I read up on it later.
In the light of the sensitive nature of the discussions about same-sex marriage, I thought it would be good to know the tone of the debate as well as the content. At various points people popped up saying what I would have expected them to say. Then up popped a minister I know from another district who has had a life-long faithful ministry from a traditional conservative theological background and here he is bringing a motion, seconded by a member of the LGBTQ+ community within the church, which seeks to create a ‘mixed economy’ to provide a way in which we can hold together as church even if we have different beliefs about this matter. I was moved by the way he related to an issue on which he has strong views, so that others may find a way forward.
What conference has decided is provisional until a consultation across the church over the next 12 months. As part of this we have arranged a meeting on 10th September at 7.30pm in Werrington to talk about this and how we will engage with it. It will also be on the agendas of church councils. If you have access to a computer you may be able to find the debates on the Methodist Church website, try typing in Methodist Conference 2019 and following the links.
Also during the next few months this plan covers we will be in the stationing system looking for a new superintendent to come in 2020. The shortage of ministers will make this a challenging task.
So there is much to pray about and much to discern for the future. May I invite you once more to pray into these matters as well as our ongoing life as a circuit, as we seek God’s will and blessing upon us all.
(June, July & August 2019)
As I write this just after Easter, I am wondering in what ways life should be different as a result of the resurrection of Jesus. In the ultimate sense that is about eternal life in the presence of God and following the events in Sri Lanka for some people that ultimate hope will be the thing they take hold of.
Closer to home I am looking at the climate change protesters and wondering how we engage with that. At a time of near paralysis among our political leaders I am struck by the clarity with which Greta Thunberg the 16-year-old Swedish activist speaks in presenting dealing with the climate change crisis as simply a matter of fact to be addressed and addressed urgently.
The question for the church is how do we respond to this? Some people will argue that if God will remake everything at some point in the future it doesn’t matter for God will take care of it later. That is not a view I can subscribe to. For three reasons.
First, if we take scripture seriously, we are given responsibility for creation, not domination over it. So, our discipleship includes nurturing creation not exploiting or destroying it. We would not commit murder on the basis that God could sort it out later. Ecological damage should be seen in the same light.
Secondly if we are dismissive of the care for creation what kind of God are we presenting to the world around us. If I tell you God loves you but is going to destroy your home you may find the message of love hard to hear. There are people within the climate change movement who will attribute blame for our problems now directly to protestant Christianity’s support for industrial development and the growth of capitalism. We may disagree but the view still needs to be addressed.
My third reason is much more selfish. As young people engage with real political issues such as climate change and disengage from the church it seems there might be things for us to learn as and steps that we should take. Missional thinking within the church always has to respond to the setting in which it finds itself and address the issues before the whole community.
What practical steps should we take as individuals and congregations and what should we be contributing to the wider discussion about these issues.
(March, April & May 2019)
When I was a teenager someone bought me an Airfix kit of Triumph TR4 sportscar. I set about its construction with gusto. Too much gusto as it happened. Something I realised when I found it would have been easier to put the seats in before I glued the roof on. The resulting vehicle bore little resemblance to the picture on the box or the reality.
I learned two things from this. First, always read the instructions. I leave you to work out the application of that to Christian discipleship. The second was a sense of timing, or of the proper sequence by which things would progress. Only this proper sequence would produce the desired end result.
One of the things I have learned as a disciple is that God keeps leading that process of growth and will not let us push the pace or the material. I have long thought I should read the books of Thomas Merton as everyone says how good he is, but until now have never been able to follow his thinking or way of writing. Finally having read various other people along the way I have arrived at Merton and find myself able to understand.
I suggest that is not simply true of reading books, but of all our learning of discipleship. Who has taught you about being a disciple? It may be someone you know, someone who was part of your congregation as you grew up. And who is teaching you now? They may have no idea they are teaching you, they may just be getting on quietly with living the life they believe Christ has called them to live. Of course the other side of that question is who are you teaching? You may not know you are teaching anyone, and may be horrified at the thought, but just as we learn by seeing others, others learn by seeing us.
The best way to respond to that is not to become stressed and self-conscious, but to be clear that we are following the lead Jesus gives us. I remember many things that have helped me as a disciple which were done or said by other people as ordinary things without any sense that they were teaching anything.
We are all unique disciples, following the lead Christ gives us and learning as we go, but we can only work out our discipleship together within the church. So I wish you every blessing as you continue to grow in Jesus and all wisdom as you share (however unconsciously) in the growth of others.
(December 2018, January and February 2019)
You may be familiar with the gospel story where a teacher of the law asks Jesus which is the most important commandment. Jesus replies that it is about loving God and our neighbours as ourselves. The teacher then asks who is my neighbour? Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
I have recently been reading a book entitled ‘who is my neighbour’ edited by Richard Carter and Sam Wells from St Martin in the Fields church in London. If you know anything about the work of St Martin’s it will probably be that for decades it has had a ministry to all kinds of people in need and has found ‘neighbours’ in unusual places.
One chapter in the book addresses the ecological crisis, more commonly called climate change. At first sight that may seem a long way from being an issue about neighbours but maybe that is because we have tended to hear the Good Samaritan story as about our dealing with the person right in front of us. There is however, a need for us to understand that in a globalized world people on the other side of the world are now neighbours in a way unimaginable in previous generations. So people who live on pacific islands that are slowly becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea level are our neighbours and so are the people of places like Bangladesh where seawater slowly destroys land. If that seems too far away to demand our attention how about our neighbours in the East Anglia district of our church here who will be the first people in the UK to lose land to rising water. It may well seem a long way in the future but the changes to address that need to be made now.
It is tempting to set those things aside and trust that God will sort it out, but readers of the bible will know that we were given responsibility for the care of creation (Read Genesis 1 and 2) and while God may sort it out that will not remove the responsibility from us. If we are tempted to argue it is nothing to do with me then a reading of the Hebrew prophets will remind us that God holds to account those who try to argue they do not need to act. The parable Jesus tells clearly shows the failure of religious people to act where action was needed. Perhaps we should be careful to ensure that we do not repeat that mistake and do reach out to help our neighbours in need wherever they may be. That will mean personal action and political responsibility for those are the ways in which the world is changed and Jesus came to change the world.
(September, October, November 2018)
I am not much of a football fan but one of the pieces of football trivia I do know is that Gareth Southgate the England manager once missed a penalty in a penalty shoot-out that took England out of that competition. So I share with a lot of other people a sense of achievement that in winning the match against Colombia the ghosts of missed penalties and failure to win knock-out matches have been overcome.
Looking back on the commentators and pundits who were presenting the game on TV I am struck by the amount of negative statistics they were quoting. Never won a knockout game in so many years, never won a penalty shoot- out since whenever. While the statistics perhaps heighten the drama of the achievement they also create this negative disempowering atmosphere. My wife said as the shoot-out was about to start ‘Shall we watch it? Clearly she thought it was a foregone conclusion.
However, as the man who struggled to teach me history once said ‘Nothing is inevitable’. A point clearly illustrated by the England team. And yet we are all too ready to believe things are inevitable, that the future is totally dictated by the past that there is nothing new under the sun.
The coming of Jesus into the world is one of those totally new things, where the way it has always been done is set aside and where the assumptions of the past are replaced by hope for the future.
By the time you read this the World Cup will have been won by someone, so no need for predictions about that. But whoever has won the cup the living God who meets us in Jesus will still be doing new things, changing what we think unchangeable. Someone said if anyone deserved ‘penalty redemption’ it was Gareth Southgate. Well he has that and God is in the business of redemption and new beginning all the time wherever we need it. Hope for all not just followers of football.
(June, July, August 2018)
I am writing this a few days after the air strikes in Syria. On Tuesday of this week I took someone to hospital for an early morning appointment. My friend got in the car and said ‘Have you seen the news about Latvia?’. ‘No’ I replied, so he switched his phone onto the BBC news channel which said three things. Russian and British forces were firing on each other off the coast of Latvia and Finland. Russian thermonuclear bombs had been dropped on Brussels and Wiesbaden in Germany. And the royal family had been moved to a secure location away from central London.
None of this had been on the news on television before I left home so we came to the conclusion it was ‘fake’ news being broadcast over the internet. What would we have done if the only source of news we had been able to access was the internet? In the heightened tensions around Syria it would have been easy to accept this was Russian retaliation for the air strikes.
I leave it to your imagination to work out what might have happened if people had responded to this ‘fake’ news without checking things. This is a dramatic example but the risks of careless, ill-chosen words are the same in any situation. The speed with which words are broadcast or repeated just increases the risk and potentially the damage caused. On the same day J D Wetherspoon’s announced they were quitting social media and Sir Cliff was in court suing the BBC for broadcasting a raid on his home following allegations that were never pursued.
Where does all this take us? Perhaps it should remind us to speak carefully, to be sure of the truth of what we say and to never repeat things that we cannot be sure of. In a culture which has become careless with words and the broadcasting of them, perhaps our role as followers of Jesus ‘the word made flesh’ is to provide a more careful and nuanced way of speaking. A careful reading of the gospels will show us that Jesus knew the value of every word he spoke and used them either for positive purpose or to avoid misunderstanding.
Taking such care may be hard work, but it will be a blessing for us and for people around us and model a different use of words than our wider culture.
(March, April, May 2018)
If I use the word ‘oversight’ what do you think of? Something overlooked or forgotten? That would certainly be the common usage in our generation. Methodism has a history of taking words and giving them a very specific ‘Methodist’ mean and oversight is one of those words. It is often allied in Methodist speak with the phrase ‘watching over one another in love’.
At different times in our history it has had varied applications, and it is acquiring a particular application in our day as the church develops its safeguarding procedures and policies, and as it develops an associated set of procedures and policies for the supervision of ministers and Lay staff.
It is easy and tempting to see this as a lot of bureaucratic nonsense, but a brief look at almost any news bulletin will show an example of one sort or another of abuse or harassment. Such news items confirm the wisdom of the church having clear policies and procedures to protect everyone involved in our work.
In practice this means that people in leadership and working directly with children or vulnerable people will have been checked to ensure they have no convictions that prevent them working for us, will have been trained in how to work safely, and will know what to do should someone tell them about an incident. No system is perfect but the hope is that this creates the best protection for everyone that we can.
As a circuit we have trained all but a handful of the people we need to, and we will be looking to include them in the next round of training. We will also include people who are new to office and need to be trained as they begin.
As ministers a new system of six weekly supervision is being rolled out with the intention of deepening this protection and strengthening accountability.
In all these systems there will be a rolling programme of updates and refreshers. The ministerial system will shape itself and for lay office holders training will be updated every four years. The intention behind all this is to create a culture where safeguarding becomes second nature to all of us. Of course we are all part of this even if we do not hold some specific office that requires training.
As we begin the season of Lent we enter a time of reflection which usually focussed on shaping our discipleship. Discipleship includes bearing the burdens of others and ensuring their welfare so safeguarding finds its place within that.
Thank you for all you do in the Circuit and for working with us to create this safe space for people.
(Dec. 2017, Jan. & Feb. 2018)
In the middle of the 1980s Anglican priest James Woodward wrote a book. It was published at the height of the AIDS crisis when no-one knew what the future held and how that situation would work out. His book was a call for a serious and compassionate response to the crisis by the church. The book was called ‘Embracing the Chaos’.
Things have moved on. I no longer have a copy of the book and can’t quote it. The title however has stayed with me. As we approach Christmas and the season of celebrating Gods coming among us in Jesus and taking flesh I find the title a great summary of what Jesus is doing. Jesus comes into the midst of the chaos of human existence and embraces it. To embrace something means we willingly receive it, we go looking for it. It is not forced upon us. Jesus accepts the call of His father and is found at work in all the struggles and painful places. That sense of God in the midst of the struggle is one of the reasons I remain a follower of Jesus.
As followers of Jesus we are called to do the same things Jesus does. So, embracing the chaos will be part of our discipleship too. It will take many forms. The support we offer as individual believers to other individual people in need. The support we offer as church to all kinds of people in all kinds of need. You will see that support in many ways. Our support for Foodbank both as collection points and as distribution centres and our support for Nightshelter. You may have seen in the Sentinel the article and photo of James Adams. On the 11th December 2017 the builders will move into that building and the upper floor (where James was pictured) will become nightshelter’s new base and the ground floor will become a drop-in centre run by James and his team catering for people with all kinds of difficulties. The circuit is also looking at being part of a coalition of churches that runs a Christians Against Poverty debt centre in the city helping people manage their way out of serious debt. All of the people who need these pieces of help might be seen as living in chaos and as we help we are doing what Jesus did and embracing the chaos in order to bring hope and change.
Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement wrote that the coming of Jesus demolished the illusion of the deserving and undeserving poor by treating us all as equals. As Christmas comes and we give thanks that God in Jesus has embraced us in our chaos then part of our thanks will be to offer that embrace to others that they and we together, may find and live the life of the kingdom of God.