July 8th 2020
Last week saw the annual Methodist Conference taking place – for the first time on Zoom and broadcast via YouTube. The Conference dealt with a briefer agenda than usual but I hope that the normal summary of key discussions will be published soon so that I can share them with you. Especially during times like these it is good to be reminded that we are part of something bigger – that our local church is part of a Circuit, and the Circuit part of a District, and our District part of the Connexion (which is the word used to describe the national church). An important part of every Methodist Conference is the inauguration of the new President and Vice-President of Conference, and they both offer an important inaugural address which is intended to set the tone and the agenda for their Presidential year. The Presidential address offers an insight into some of the important matters which we can expect the church to be thinking about in the coming year. To that end, I thought I would share a few snippets of this year's Presidential address with you. This year, the President of the Methodist Conference is Revd Richard Teal. Richard has been Chair of the Cumbria District returning last September to circuit ministry in East Yorkshire. Referencing the Psalms in particular, Richard based his address around three points in the human life cycle: points of orientation, points of disorientation, and points of reorientation. Here are some highlights from his sermon:
"Orientation: The Psalms which fall into this category are those where life is good. Take a perfect example: Psalm 104 v 24-28. In this Psalm life is good. There is a contentment about it and a feeling of thankfulness. This is a comfortable time in life, there is an inner peace, calm and purpose to life.
I shall never forget the feeling both at seeing and then holding my grandchild just a few hours after he was born. Words could not begin to explain the feeling. Emotion welled up inside me and I found it hard to hold back tears of absolute joy, thanksgiving and love. It was a moment of personal orientation.
And what about Methodism? Listen to a passage from John Wesley's Journal when he visited Cornwall: 'Both this morning and evening the congregation was as large as the house of God could well contain. In the society God did indeed sit upon his people as a refiner's fire. He darted into all the melting flame of love; so that their heads were as water and their eyes as fountains of tears'. What a wonderful depiction of a time of orientation for Methodism – when we were so clear who we were and what we were about.
Disorientation: The Psalms also take us to a very different place, a place of disorientation. There are times when you can see the human landscape change before your eyes. The pandemic known as COVID 19 has changed our lives and communities of the world for ever.
Psalm 88 is a perfect description of disorientation. Listen to its opening verses and hear them on the lips of a patient on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit of one of our hospitals:
O Lord, the God who saves me,
Day and night, I cry out before you;
Turn your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of trouble
And my life draws near the grave
I am counted among those who go to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Who you remember no more,
Who are cut off from your care. (v 1-5)
In this Psalm the writer is speaking out of intense personal suffering. There seems to be little hope and he is totally disorientated. It is at moments or times like these that we may feel that God is distant or absent. The relevance of the Psalms is that they understand this and offer us a way forward.
On a personal basis I have spent much of this past year preparing for my role as President of the Conference. My diary had become packed with anticipated visits .....in partnership with Global Relationships my first overseas trip at the beginning of March was by the invitation of the Methodist Church in Kenya and I came home inspired by the growth of that Church and the joyous faith of the Kenyan Methodist Community, which I was hoping to share on my travels. Within a few days after returning home we were in lockdown, and as far as the Presidency is concerned, the diary has had a lot of special visits cancelled and Conference, with all its joy and brightness of worship and fellowship has changed from its normal format to what we are doing on line today. For a period of time I have found myself feeling insecure and totally disorientated.
What about disorientation more widely in the Methodist Church? Who would ever have thought a few months ago we would have had to close our doors and lock them, even at Easter! Many of our congregations are feeling totally disorientated, fearful and cut off from the fellowship we enjoy with each other. We have been unable even to go out and visit our most vulnerable members. This has left us asking how we can keep faith and hope during this strange experience? How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
Re-orientation: Thankfully the Psalms go beyond the fog we are in right now and are full of verses of Thanksgiving and Praise. These Psalms speak of surprise and wonder, miracle and amazement when a breakthrough is found, a path emerges out of the woods, a friend gets better and we move from disorientation to re-orientation. Listen to the opening words of Psalm 40:
'I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord' (40 v 1-3)
There is huge realism within these words. God acts but, in this Psalm, action requires waiting and patience. The Psalmist does not expect Gods action in a crisis situation to happen instantly, but there are lessons to learn and if we learn from them, the Kingdom of God will move closer to us. The values of the Kingdom so often turn our human values upside down. What are, those upside-down Kingdom values in our present situation which enable us to move from disorientation to reorientation? May I suggest three:
1: Seeing people through a different Lens:
The Incarnation is about God in Christ becoming one of us. God doesn't practice social distancing but becomes close and personal, close enough to infect us with grace and love.
I have a poster on my office window which greets people when they come to the Manse. In the middle of it are the words of St Paul, 'we always thank God for all of you'. Around those words are symbols which represent shops and supermarket workers, lorry drivers, Post Office staff, NHS, Pharmacies, Police, Farmers, Foodbank, local businesses, a rainbow and so on. People who have been risking their lives to serve the community.
Pre-Covid, we knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, now with COVID 19 this is being reversed and the upside-down kingdom comes to the fore. Different people all of a sudden become very important in society. We see through a different lens about who is of value, and see the gospel – God's dynamic energy unleashed in our world and causing us to tell and hear different stories of good news to that we have been used to.
2: Seeing the Environment through a different Lens:
There was a growing recognition of the challenges to the environment before COVID 19; the way we were living as a world-wide community was bringing devastation. Because of COVID 19 we have not only talked but been forced to live differently and that difference in our living has begun to change our environment.
New data suggests that global CO2 emissions are set to fall by nearly 8% this year which will be to their lowest level since 2010. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on the way the global economy can be redesigned to accentuate our role as stewards of God's creation and make sure that we love our neighbours by emphasising sustainable development and social equity.
Recovery from Covid-19 offers a huge amount of choice and opportunity. We can, if we wish, choose to invest in new jobs, cleaner air and improved wellbeing. As we rebuild our economy, we can do so alongside rebuilding the wellbeing of the environment, the two are not mutually exclusive. The biggest mistake would be to go back to the version of normal that we had been used to and lock in high emissions, social deprivation, a stressed environment and a lack of well-being.
It is true to say that Jesus did not preach in his ministry about climate change, global warming, travel emissions or other environmental issues, but he did preach about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God means the reign of God over the whole earth, which he created as good.
Creation is a gift; therefore, it is imperative that humankind renews and strengthens it. In the words of Pope Benedict XV1 'that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying'.
3: Seeing the Church through a different Lens:
What are we going to do when we lift our heads up from our many Zoom meetings and online worship and reopen our church buildings? What will be the new normal for the Methodist Church, indeed what will be the new normal for the Christian church? Personally, I really hope it will mean two things:
-a renewed emphasis on the Faithfulness of God:
One of the great truths which the Old Testament has given to us is of the faithfulness of God, come what may. The Psalmists knew this in the depth of their being. The Psalms express through all the difficulties and trauma of Gods people in their history, that God was faithful come what may. The Covenant relationship never wavered on God's side, even though his people broke it many times. He was Faithful! Throughout their history right through to today that faithfulness has been part of God's nature.
Dr Colin Morris in one of his writings illustrates this truth with the true story of the American preacher and novelist, Lloyd C. Douglas. When he was a university student, he rented a room in a big house, on the ground floor of which lived an old music teacher, housebound through infirmity. Douglas would visit him every day, popping his head round the door and asking the same ritual question, 'Well, what's the good news today?' And he would get the same ritual answer. The old man would pick up a tuning fork and strike it on the table. 'Hear that? It's middle C. It is Middle C today. It was Middle C yesterday and the day before. It will be Middle C tomorrow and the day after and for a thousand years to come. The tenor across the hall sings flat and the piano upstairs is out of tune. Noise! Noise all around me, but that my friend is Middle C.'
We do not know at this stage what the middle C, the new normal for the people called Methodist or indeed for the church of Jesus Christ will be. For some people this is exciting, for others it is frightening and concerning, but there is one certainty, God will be faithful to his people as he has been in the past, as he is in the present and as he leads us into the future.
-a greater reliance on the Cross, Resurrection and power of the Holy Spirit:
John Wesley said, 'I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist, but I am afraid lest they should exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.'
A church which loses its memory about its basic foundation has no future. Yet we are a resurrection community empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without this message of faith, and the life which Easter gives us we are helpless.
The church of Christ has been hit hard in the last few months by COVID 19 but we live by the much older and enduring story of Jesus, who's cross and resurrection declares that his life is not over. For the community of faith to believe in the resurrection is to trust that we live by the generative power of God who brings, in the words of Rowan Williams, 'transformation, recreation and empowerment in the present'. Now that's the sort of new normal I want to see. Not a return to the same old same old but a church which has the reputation for transformation, for recreation and for empowerment of what we are living through in the present in response to a faithful God who redeems history and promises the brightest of futures.
We do not know what the new normal will be for the life of the Church of Christ, but one thing we do know is that it will be transformed, recreated and empowered by the heart of its faith, the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The Vice President and I have chosen the final words of John Wesley as our theme for this year, 'The best of all is, God is with us'. What better words could there be for a time such as this. Amen"
Richard J Teal May 2020
Thanks to our President for this message. Do pray for him and the Vice-President Carolyn Lawrence. Dear friends I will be taking some leave at the end of July and beginning of August, but these fortnightly letters will continue, written by my colleagues Raj and Lindsay. It is also possible that in the coming weeks some of our churches will be re-opening, either for silent prayer or for small and simple acts of worship. This is something to celebrate, but we are not rushing and each church has to complete all the necessary legal checks; already some churches have agreed they will not be opening until September. And what with the restrictions around social distancing and no singing etc, worship will be a strange experience for some time to come. Yet we remain as Church – within or without our buildings. We continue to care for and love one another and seek ways to serve God in the communities in which God has placed us. As we re-orientate ourselves in the United Stockport Circuit we give thanks that indeed, God is with us!
And please remember as always:
In this time of isolation and separation may we feel the unity of God's spirit in the bonds of peace and love which connect us to one another.
-When we feel lonely let us know that in Christ we are never alone.
-When we feel isolated may we be reminded that within the worldwide Body of Christ we are always connected.
-When we need a hug help us to feel the warmth of God's embrace
-When we are compelled to keep our distance, may we be drawn close to each other within the Spirit of Companionship that flows from God and which moves through and between each one of us.
With love and blessings,
Forthcoming weekly circuit services on Zoom are:
Sunday 12th July and 19th July 3pm
You can join all the above services via Zoom with a video link and see and hear everything and everyone else who is participating, or you can join just with audio, or you can telephone in.
Login details for all forthcoming services are as follows:
Meeting ID: 872 1224 6881 Password: 974333
In addition, every Sunday morning at 11am – when we would all normally be in worship in church – we are encouraged to pray the following prayer. This way we stay connected in a very really and tangible way. This week I have added some specific information and prayer points for each of the churches. You can also read more about each church on the Circuit Website www.stockportcircuit.org.uk
God of Love and Life,
We pray to you this morning for the life the United Stockport Methodist Circuit, for our sisters and brothers who belong to:
(pausing briefly to reflect after each name)
Christ Church Methodist /URC A URC/Methodist LEP in a URC building. Please pray for the small congregation who are divided into a mature congregation who have worshipped and supported the church very faithfully for many years and younger folk and children who form Sunday Fun and meet downstairs. Many members of the church belong to the Green Group, a drama group whose performances go a long way to support the church
Dialstone Lane Methodist Church Please pray for the church's ongoing commitment to promoting a Good Society through its connections with local politicians. Also pray for the church coming out of lockdown, having lost several long-standing members and friends over the last few months, and for the church's pastoral worker Gill who has been so busy keeping everyone in touch with each other.
Davenport Methodist Church A smaller church with a medium congregation including 1 family. Please pray for them as they have a lot of ideas to reach out into the community, including local schools and as they seek to embrace different styles of worship. This congregation also has strong links with the Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rainbows.
Edgeley Community Church A URC/Methodist LEP in a Methodist building. Please pray for their Church Development Worker who co-ordinates many activities including Messy Church, Baby and Toddler Group and Make it, Bake it, and goes out into Care Homes and Schools. The congregation is of mixed age, including 1 family with small children. This congregation has links with the Brownies.
Hazel Grove Methodist Church please pray for the uniformed organisations closely associated with the church, for their leaders who are trying to keep things going with the young people online during lockdown. Give thanks for a committed team of people who have worked hard to keep in touch with people during lockdown.
Heaton Mersey Methodist Church please pray for the family church at ten, for Sunday club, for Who let the Dad's out group, for the schools work, for their commitments to cafe worship n different styles of worship, for Lite church, for the mission engagements of the church.
Heaton Moor United Church please pray for the Dementia drop in, for the Super Sunday and cafe worships, for messy church group, for the community outreach, their engagements for social justice, for women's fellowship and men's fellowship .
St. Johns Methodist Church, Cheadle Heath please pray for the future of the church and for the directions we'll take as there are issues with the building here. For all the members of the congregation and for their ongoing fellowship.
Tiviot Dale Methodist Church, centre of Stockport Please pray for the newly formed Tiviot Dale management group who are helping the circuit to think through how we might develop new mission and ministry in the centre of Stockport, and for Revd Caroline Ryder who has been working with the church over the last few months and is now moving on to a new appointment in Bradford.
Trinity Methodist Church, Bramhall Lane This is a large church building with a large car park and gardens, a Guide building in the grounds and a successful cricket club, the grounds of which are owned by the church. Please pray for the Sunday Club, even though very few children come now. The congregation is generally quite traditional in its worship style but does have links with the Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers and they have different styles of worship on Parade Sundays.
Windlehurst Methodist Church, High Lane Please pray for all the members of Active, the church's flagship project working to promote health and well-being and friendship, who are longing to return to their weekly meeting
In this time of isolation and separation may we feel the unity of your spirit in the bonds of peace and love which connect us to one another. We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. We ask that this time of crisis might pass and that those who suffer might find comfort and strength within the knowledge of your grace, revealed through the kindness and compassion of the people of God. Eternal God, though the self-offering of your Son you have filled our lives with your presence. Help us in our sufferings and trials. Fill us with hope and strengthen us in our weakness. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Moving into the Future
-A Monthly Circuit Service
Before Covid-19 and the lock down hit, the Circuit Leadership Team had begun to talk about the possibility of starting a monthly Circuit Service at Tiviot Dale. Over the last few weeks, this idea has gained strength as we have enjoyed worshipping together as a Circuit on Zoom. Obviously, we cannot yet plan to hold this service, and it may be some time before we can. No decision has been taken about when the service will be – it could be a Sunday evening or a weekday evening for example – or about what sort of service it will be, but we hope it will be something a bit different and we to want to be prepared. If you would be interested in being part of a group to help organise a monthly circuit service, and/or if you have musical ability and would like to be part of a circuit worship band, then please let Revd Cathy Bird know so that as soon as we can gather again, we have something in place!