For details of the Conference go to Methodist Conference
Roger Walton President 2016/7
Rachel Lampard Vice President 2016/7
New Methodist President Calls for Holiness
02 July 2016
Video of Roger's address is available here
Like others who have stood in this place before me, I am not quite sure why I am here or that I am adequate to the role. I feel that someone somewhere has made a mistake. Any minute I will receive a note to say, 'Don't worry, the proper President will be along shortly'.
I am not alone in this. Last September I saw the then new Secretary of the Conference and I asked him how he was settling into the new appointment. He told me that ever since the Conference, he had been expecting a responsible adult to come along but so far it hadn't happened.
Now I know this might not sound very reassuring - that the President and the Secretary of Conference are not too confident in their positions, but in many ways that has been the story of ministry for me from the beginning. Being pulled out of college in my last year to go to fill a hole in the stations for a year seemed like an excellent learning opportunity. On my first day, I was asked to visit Mr and Mrs Beckley, a couple who were about to celebrate their 50th Wedding anniversary. The church had planned a party the next weekend and everyone was looking forward it. Before I left the house I got a phone call to say that Mr Beckley had taken ill on his morning walk and had died. Would I go and speak with Mrs Beckley? The sense of being unprepared was palpable? The feeling of not knowing what I would say or do was frightening. And if I am honest that sentiment has accompanied every move I have made. Arriving in Liverpool as a probationer minister on a challenging estate, taking up a post with the Division of Ministries under the aspirational title of 'Theology for All'; my first day teaching in a theological college; starting as a Chair of District - all felt the same. What do you say and how do you do this - surely there is someone else who could do it better?
I wonder if you have seen the film 'Suffragette'? The basic plot is about Maud Watts, a 24-year-old laundress who finds herself caught up in the movement almost by accident. Her friend Violet is due to give testimony to members of Parliament but she is so badly beaten by her abusive husband that she cannot and Maud, who was going simply to support her friend, finds herself standing in front of these MPs asked to tell of her experience in the laundry. She is in the wrong place at the wrong time or, as it turns out, in the right place at the right time. She stands for a few moments frozen in the face of these powerful men and then shares her story.
Like Maud and Isaiah, finding myself here, I need to speak what is on my mind and in my heart.
But on my heart is the need to re-discover the centrality of holiness in our life as a church and the need to spread the notion of holiness for others to consider and embrace.
Tomlin suggests that what the church has to offer is spiritual health and fitness. 'If churches became known as places where you could learn how to love, to trust, to hope, to forgive, to gain wisdom for life, then they might be attractive, perhaps even necessary places to belong to.'
Another way to speak of holiness is as Wholeness. Ever since Josef Goldbrunner's 1954 book Holiness as Wholeness, the notion has been around and for many people it conveys better what Christians mean by holiness in the 21st century. Wholeness, here, is defined as 'being the best person that you can be, being free of all that inhibits your growth as a human being, being healed and complete not in the sense of never facing suffering or loss or disability but fully human, fully alive, fully open to God and the world'.
Resilience, spiritual fitness and wholeness are ways of speaking of holiness. If these images help you, hang on to them. I will stay with the word holiness.
John Wesley's picture image of religion was a house. Imagine, he said, that the porch of the house is repentance. You cannot get into the house without going on to the porch. The door of the house is justification by faith (pardon, forgiveness, reconciliation with God). You cannot get into the house without going through the door. But the house itself, for which the porch and door are means of access, is holiness of heart and life.
There can be little doubt that the hymns of his brother are overwhelmingly about the desire for holiness.
O for a heart to praise my God,
Methodism was a holiness movement.
Yes, early Methodism was a missionary movement - taking every opportunity to preach the faith. In churches and market places, in pulpits and standing on gravestones, they told the good news to everyone who would listen.
So what is holiness and how can we speak about it in the twenty-first century?
Holiness is not blind zeal … it doesn't call us to narrowness of perception and living. It doesn't desire the harming of others. Rather it widens our view and makes us more aware, sensitive and compassionate.
Holiness is not moral superiority … it doesn't look down on others. Indeed, it is marked by humility and love. Holiness puts others' needs first and delights in the image of God in every person.
Holiness is not isolated existence away from the tarnishing of the world. It is a social holiness that grows in contact, conversation and commitment to others.
Holiness, as Morna Hooker tells us, begins in the revealed character of God. For holiness is primarily the nature of God; the core character of God - God's purity, and love and beauty. God's Otherness. Our experience of holiness begins in encounter with God.
In the face of God's utter holiness, Isaiah recognises his own sinfulness, the brokenness of his society and his helplessness to redeem himself. But God gives His Holiness to cleanse Isaiah and calls him to share God's Holy endeavour to produce a Holy nation.
This was my experience as a 16-year-old. God's love - a love above and beyond anything I had known - broke into my life, accepting me as I was, and calling me to become what God wanted me to be.
This experience of God breaking in is more commonly felt than we realise. David Hay and Rebecca Nye have spent many years researching and collecting accounts of people's experiences of the transcendent: moments where something beyond them broke into their lives - many of these people not connected to church or religion. Here is one example:
Hay and Nye argue that people are often afraid to share these experiences either because they do not have the language to make sense of them; or because they think that folk will consider them odd.
Living according to the revealed character of God begins, therefore, in encountering God's otherness and when we feel it, it always contains a call, a call to discover more of this amazing God. As Gerard Hughes put it:
'The call to holiness is the echo of God's longing for each of us'
1.Holiness is nurtured by living in the story of God
When I worked at the Open Learning Centre, I received a letter one day. It said that a couple were clearing out their uncle's house after his death and had found a Greek Bible. They asked whether we could use it. I wrote back saying that we would be delighted to receive it. We ran a small 'Learn New Testament Greek' course and we could pass it on to one of our students. When it arrived, however, I released that we could not give it to anyone, for there were scribbled notes on every margin of every page. The letter that accompanied the Bible was, however, even more stunning. It said that their uncle had left school after elementary education - around 11 or 12 - and gone to work on the railways. He became a signalman and worked on the railways all his life. He also became a Christian and a Local Preacher and, in order to be the best preacher he could be, he taught himself New Testament Greek. Clearly, he had worked his way through his Greek New Testament time after time after time, in order that his life might be shaped by its content.
Now this is a metaphor for our discipleship. We are not to learn the facts of the scripture to be good at general knowledge or to be able to quote texts to support this view or that. Something much more is called for. We are to enter into, and live in, and see the world from the story of God. The call of holiness is the call to live inside the story of God.
What this means is learning to live differently. For their experience up to this point is one of oppression, relentless work and brutal punishments. But now in the wilderness they are called to be holy. And they are given the Ten Commandments. Now I was taught in school and Sunday school these ten basic rules that God had given had a timeless character. We learnt them by heart and were quizzed on them. They were not tied to their context or history but a set of rules for living that could be applied everywhere and at all times. But they mean much more, if you read them as spoken to a people who have been slaves and known no other models about how to live than in the regime they had just escaped.
They did not learn the Commandments off by heart as a I did in Sunday school to be able to answer questions, but they had to start to live them, to live in them and through them, to take on a different kind of lifestyle and make a different kind of community. That is what it meant to be holy.
In the New Testament the revealed character of God is seen in the life and person of Jesus: his teaching, his ministry, his death and his resurrection and here we have a new insight into the character of God.
Much of the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus is precisely about holiness. For the Pharisees, the key to holiness was separation from anything that was unclean and contaminating. For Jesus, holiness was something else. Jesus fell out with the Pharisees because he did unclean stuff - he touched lepers, he laid his hand on corpses, he allowed unclean people to come close and touch him, he associated with tax collectors and sinners. He did all the things that the Pharisees thought were forbidden and would make you lose your holiness. But as Jimmy Dunn points out, Jesus reversed the equation. Instead of Jesus becoming unclean, the leper is made well, the dead are raised to life, the tax collectors and sinners are brought back into the kingdom. He gives his holiness to others and they are made holy. In this he does what God does in the temple with Isaiah. He imparts holiness and enables all to come to God. He gives us another model of holiness as the outpouring of love. He provides a new story to live within.
2.Holiness is nurtured by visiting holy spaces
Methodists are known for promoting what we call 'social holiness'. It is one of the lines from John Wesley that has become widely quoted. The original is as follows:
Like so many of Mr Wesley's thoughts, it has often come to be used to describe other ideas different from his original intention - anything from an afternoon tea party to Christian Socialism, but as Andrew Thompson has argued, for Wesley social holiness meant something different. To understand this, we need to pay attention to the original context. For the original and only use of this term occurs in the Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739. Wesley here is making the case for congregational hymn singing - a new thing in the 18th century - and he is attacking the idea that holiness can be found by going off on one's own and living as a solitary. It is a sideswipe at individualistic retreating to the desert. In fact, the longer quote says:
' 'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.'
I wonder where you go to find God? Where are the holy spaces? Are they in in our churches, our worship, our home meetings?
We are to visit holy spaces and help make holy places. I am convinced that were Wesley following the agendas of Conference for the last few years he would recognise that safeguarding is an important part of creating a holy space - for where people are safe they are more likely to grow - and that supervision of pastoral practice, done well, will help create more accountable and holy ministers that makes for ministry which allows holiness to grow.
But there is another word to say on holy spaces.
Charles Elliot, in his book Praying the Kingdom, suggested the translation of the first word of the Beatitudes, which we normally translate as 'blessed', might be better translated,
'You are in the right place.'
You are in the right place because, surprising as it seems, this is where God's blessing is to be found.
In preparation for this year, I went with All We Can to Jordan and met many refugee families from Syria. On each visit, as we were welcomed into a family's home - often as basic as can be - it felt like we were treading on holy ground. For we were privileged to receive their hospitality and listen to their often tragic and terrifying stories. I thought of Charles Elliot's translation - 'You are in the right place'.
We grow in holiness as we seek to embody in our actions the deep convictions that flow from our faith and our relationship with God. We need to translate these convictions into commitments that express the life we have discovered in Christ.
I know how my children's spirituality and faith was shaped by the MAYC campaign of the 1990s. Sleeping out to draw attention to homelessness; writing to local supermarkets about fair trade goods; they learned that it was not only what you said with your words but what you said with your lives that counted.
We need to learn from new monasticism that to tell the story of Jesus we need ourselves to have lives patterned by a rhythm of life rooted in Christ. For in a world where a multitude of truths and an infinite choice of lifestyles seem possible, Christians need to shape their lives by the pattern of Jesus. We have to be Jesus-shaped people.
I believe that is still our calling.
Stop trying to fix the poor says Methodist Vice-President
02 July 2016
- Photos of Rachel Lampard MBE at the Conference here
- Video of Rachel's address is available here
- Audio of Rachel's address is available here
The full text of the address follows:
Mr President, members of the Conference, I rang my husband Steve last year from Southport to tell him that I had been designated as Vice President. After the initial congratulations and shared excitement, there was a pause. And he said "you know it feels a bit like it did when you told me you were pregnant. I'm very excited, and a bit scared. I know we've got about 9 months to get used to the idea. And, although it's going to turn my life upside down, I'm conscious that you're the one who's going to go through most of the pain."
And just like pregnancy and bringing up children, I feel the vice presidency is going to be a family affair (though hopefully with fewer nappies). My children will be at home skyping me or hopefully occasionally travelling with me to see bits of Methodism beyond their home church; my husband, friends, parents and parents-in-law will be offering invaluable help with the childcare and school runs to let me travel; and then there is the wider family of Methodists and Christian sisters and brothers who I know will be praying for Roger and for me as we embark on these new roles which have been entrusted to us. Thank you.
Before I start let me tell you about what my children call "my shakies". I have a condition called an essential tremor, which means that my hands shake, often quite a lot. You'll find this week and this year that I'm not good at holding papers without a lectern, I can't distribute the elements for communion, my colleagues will tell you I'm lethal if you give me a cup of tea and a saucer. And you really don't want me offering to do brain surgery on you. Give me a lectern and a mug, and don't worry about me - I'm fine.
At the beginning of this year's Methodist Conference, I'm mindful of the words of the prophet Amos who offers a serious reflection for the faithful on how we should use the gift of our time together (and here I'm using words from The Message)
"I can't stand your religious meetings.
I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religious projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I'm sick of your fundraising schemes,
your public relations and your image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice - oceans of it
I want fairness - rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want."
And we live in a world where we need "oceans of justice".
- In the UK more than 1 in 4 children live in poverty, and 300,000 of them faced destitution, the severest form of poverty we thought had been banished
- 1 in every 122 people in the world is a refugee or is internally displaced and more than 3,700 refugees are thought to have died crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 alone
- Water scarcity affects 4 in 10 people, and climate change is making rainfall more variable
- Every 90 seconds a child dies because of a water-related disease , and 2 million people die each year because of a lack of safe water, sanitation or hygiene
- and we know that there are places around the world where people of all faiths face persecution, torture and death because of their beliefs
- and today, just outside where we are meeting, thousands of people are protesting about the referendum. However you voted we live in a society that appears divided, ill at ease with itself and uncertain of the future. And where people who look or sound different from the majority population are reporting that levels of abuse are rising.
So what should we as Christians, and what should the Methodist Church, be doing about the injustices in our world? And why is it important to hold together holiness and justice, the theme which Roger Walton and I have chosen for the year?
If one understanding of holiness is those times, places or people where we recognise God breaking through, then I had a profoundly holy moment walking down Oxford Street as a teenager. It was the late 1980s, at a time when the numbers of people who were homeless was visibly growing. Walking past all the glitzy consumerism, I was following a man. He was a rough sleeper, carrying two large bags, a shabby coat tied with string, shuffling along the street, oblivious to the bustle around him. He stopped by a bin, and started fishing inside it. He pulled out the packaging from a fast food restaurant, and opened up the carton. Inside were the remains of some chicken bones. He put a bone in his mouth and started to gnaw at it.
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I felt the roar of the prophets - this is not right! This is not how God wants it! This person is created in God's image - and God wants justice, oceans of it. At the time I was worshipping at the Hinde St, the West London Mission, and later spent time during my year out before university volunteering at its Lambeth Walk In day centre, where I met and drank hundreds of cups of tea with many more people like the man on Oxford St. Each one of them infinitely precious and created in God's image.
We sometimes worry about what makes up the Methodist DNA. We joke about our love of committees. But a large part of our DNA is just getting stuck in. We respond to the need we see around us. According to our statistics for mission, there are over 7,000 examples of Methodist churches around Britain involved in community projects, many of them supporting people who experience poverty or are marginalised, such as running foodbanks, nightshelters, and drop-ins for people in need. We support charities with Methodist roots, such as Action for Children and All We Can. And of course we don't just do things with a Methodist label - each of us responds to the need we see around us with and through people and organisations of all faiths and none. But Methodists do things, we get stuck in. We see things are not right, and we act because we are responding to people who are created in God's image.
This is why for me "holiness and justice" is such an exciting one to be able to explore. These things are not polar opposites - the holy huddle versus the activist justice-seeker - but they are inescapably intertwined. We are delighted to have worked with the artist Ric Stott on the booklet, Holiness and Justice, which explores the intertwining and challenge of our presidential theme.
It's not a matter of loving God first and then as an outcome loving our neighbour: it's less linear and more circular. Responding to God's love for us, seeing the sacredness of creation because God loves it, we love God and love our neighbour. In loving our neighbour, and seeking justice for them, our love for God finds concrete expression, is enriched, and we find a closeness with God. Because God has commanded us to walk with God "in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice". And it is that closeness, that drawing nearer to the being of God that is holiness. The inner and the outer manifestations of God's love cannot be separated or take place sequentially.
I have attended a Methodist church all my life, been a member for nearly 30 years, and have been privileged to worked for the Methodist Church for over 15 years. In my work I've been challenged to focus on what it means for God's people, gathered together in the Methodist Church, to do justice, specifically in the context of politics. I know the Church is committed to justice. But today I'd like to offer a challenge: how we embody God's command to do justice?
When we look at the poor and those in need of justice, do we see a problem - or do we recognise the face of Jesus Christ?
Let me take the risk of starting with a bit of politics and talk about poverty. I think our society, our government and our media have increasingly problematised people living in poverty. It has become common to talk about the "pathways to poverty", of family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness and dependency, addiction and serious personal debt.
It's true that you will often find these problems amongst families who experience poverty. But you will also find the same problems amongst families who are wealthy. There are undoubtedly problems in our society. Problems that can have drastic consequences - especially for poorer families. But these are not causesof or pathways to poverty; in reality they are a mixture of causes, effects and the messiness of life that rich and poor alike must face.
And have you noticed that they are all presented as the fault of the individuals? Your relationship broke down; you failed your exams; you don't work; you are addicted; you are in debt. Being in poverty is no longer about being poor. It's about being at fault.
Listen instead to someone in poverty describe what poverty means to them: "Poverty is not being able to do things that are necessities. Things that are important like gas and electric, showers, bus fares, and having to worry that your daughter has a hole in her shoes. She needs new shoes and I don't have the money. What do I do? Do I get the gas or do I get shoes?"
We have problematised the poor so much that we choose to look for the mother's faults rather than address the problems and pain that not having enough money brings to her.
And surely this is at the heart of our challenge in responding as Christians to God's passionate call for justice. In the Bible we read that we would encounter Jesus in three ways: through the Holy Spirit, through bread and wine, and through the poor - "Truly, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
We tend to be quite good at the first two of these. But when we see people in poverty do we see the face of Jesus Christ, and want to listen and learn - or do we see "them" as a problem, do we want to fix "them" and sort "them" out? Fixes that cost "them" and not "us"; that change "them", but fail to transform "us"?
Around the country we are seeing the emergence of Poverty Truth Commissions. The first one was in Glasgow, and took its motto from post-apartheid South Africa - 'nothing about us, without us, is for us'. In Poverty Truth Commissions, two groups of people are brought together as commissioners: some of an area's most influential citizens, and people who experience the daily grind of poverty. Titles are left at the door, everyone's experience is welcome. The Commissions work on the basis that unless the people who experience poverty are able to shape the solutions, and not just be the recipients of the uninformed ideas of others, then nothing will really alter. So they have looked at the reality of the poverty gap - why things actually cost more when you're poor, they've looked at welfare reform, and why so many people who are in work are nevertheless still in poverty. Everyone gets a space in the room and everyone is able to contribute to solutions.
And the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland has been helping to change the way that nation approaches poverty. The Scottish Parliament published a report on poverty in Scotland, for example, in conjunction with the Truth Commission - can you imagine a government co-publishing a report with people who were poor?! The report put the stories of people living in poverty stories alongside the data about poverty. And senior officials in the Scottish Government's Social Justice Team each have a mentor who has direct experience of poverty - which perhaps helps them to have a clearer understanding of the realities of lives lived juggling sparse financial resources.
Martin Johnstone, one of my colleagues at the Church of Scotland, says we often talk about people and communities which we think need sorting out as "fragile". And he tells the story of his great grandmother's wedding tea set, always kept safely in the cabinet at home. One day his mother was dusting and she handed young Martin a china cup to hold. "Take care with that. It's fragile," she said. Something being fragile didn't mean that it was worthless, or needed fixing, or turning into something else. Being fragile meant that it was wonderfully precious in and of itself, to be treasured and held with wonder.
Isn't this marvellously incarnational? We are all fragile. Deep down, or perhaps not so very deep, we have flaws, fears, hurts, struggles. God doesn't come along and say "Right, I'll sort you out and make you into a line of perfect Christians." Rather God chooses vulnerability, precariousness, fragility. He cradles us, like a precious, treasured piece of china. And sent his son, both divine and fully, fragilely, human, to show us how to treasure and love one another. In the amazing poetry of Charles Wesley, "Our God, contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made Man".
John Wesley had a fierce heart for people in poverty and said some things which are deeply challenging to us, to our politics and our Church today. He said that "one great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them." And by the way, a person was "rich" by Wesley's standards if they had "food and raiment sufficient for himself and his family, and something over". God's love was for absolutely everyone, and early Methodism appealed strongly to those who were poorer. Pope Francis has issued a challenge to today's church, not just to be a church for the poor, but a church of the poor.
I wonder if we as Church sometimes struggle with the urge to fix people, to sort them out, rather than be a church of the poor? And how much does this relate to our desire to be the host of every party? Hospitality is a good thing. We can give freely, we can share what God has given to us, often sacrificially, to others who have need of it. But being the host also puts us in a place of control. Our house, our rules. My bat, my ball. Do we really know and understand what it costs sometimes for people to step over the threshold, accept our hospitality, our agenda? What would it mean for us to become guests instead? To receive rather than to be in a position of power, where we assume we only need to give? What does doing justice look like when we put ourselves into the hands of others?
Well perhaps it means that we can have a deeper understanding of what people really want and need. We've got better at doing this in our justice work in countries other than our own. Christian Aid, for example, are good at making sure that we hear more clearly the voices of people from the southern hemisphere, and brought people from countries directly affected by climate change to the recent climate conference in Paris. The Methodist charity All We Can identifies partners with whom it wants to work, and then instead of telling them its own priorities, asks them "What do you need to do?" Then it works alongside them to help them achieve their own goals.
Earlier this year I was privileged to visit the Church of Pakistan. I arrived knowing the stories from the western media about the country, but left with a profound awareness of bigger story, a truer story. The story of a Christian people who are often poor, misused and facing the threat of violence - indeed the appalling Lahore park bombings took place only a fortnight after my visit. Yet it's also the story of a people who have a life or death commitment to building peace between faiths. We met senior Muslim and Christian leaders who are committed to faith, friendship and honest inter-faith dialogue in a country where this can bring the threat of death. One young man said that without inter-faith relations, his country simply has no hope.
How did that encounter challenge me? In many ways. I am still wrestling with two challenges I received during my visit. We heard that Muslims were welcomed to say their prayers in one of the Cathedrals during an interfaith meeting because that was thought to be a sign of absolute hospitality, even though Christians are a vulnerable minority. We still struggle with that as a Church which is part of the majority faith in our country. And secondly I was challenged about whether we fail to speak up for Christians in Pakistan because we are worried about fragile inter faith relations at home. How do we hold those two together? The stereotypes I had previously held were challenged by meeting Christians and Muslims in Pakistan. I became more aware of our interconnectedness. I became more aware of the injustices that people are facing. And I realised that I needed to be challenged by the very people that previously I might have dared to speak about.
It is through getting to know people, listening to them, offering practical help and support, that the justice questions can most helpfully emerge. When we move past the "what fault can I fix in you" question to the deeper "why" questions:
Why are people sleeping on our church steps homeless?
Why are people attending our lunch club so deeply in debt?
Why can't mums afford to buy school uniform for children, even though they are working?
Why are so many people lonely?
Why don't young people have anywhere to go of an evening?
Why do some people feel they have no stake in the economy or political system?
And these are just questions prompted in this country.
We are helped to find answers to these questions over a thousand cups of tea, through knowing people well enough so that we can ask and they can answer with the knowledge that they will be heard, by holding each others' fragility and vulnerability as we tread into very precious, holy spaces. It is then that we see the thousand hidden injustices. Injustices which are deeply rooted in the way we organise our society and our world, from the way we talk about people without material resources, to the desperate future faced by the world's poorest crushed by the impact of climate change.
Perhaps we can be cautious of interpreting too literally the proverb "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves." Should we be speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves - or ratherenabling those who, for whatever reason, cannot speak, to find their voices, to speak for themselves? I hope we can then have the audacity to speak out together for justice in our shared world.
Because the Church absolutely does have a role in speaking out. I have been very honoured to work within the Joint Public Issues Team which this year will mark its tenth birthday. Baptists, Methodists, the United Reformed Church and now the Church of Scotland working together on issues of justice and peace - a really effective example of how we can make a difference together ecumenically.
Last year our Churches worked together on the "Rethink Benefit Sanctions" campaign. Why did our denominations start talking about an obscure bit of welfare policy? It was precisely because we heard from local churches running foodbanks about the massive increase in the number of people who were hungry because their benefits were being stopped. Conversations with foodbanks, and most powerfully with people who affected, led to new research and policy work. The foreword to the report was written by people who had themselves been sanctioned. And as the Churches publicly aligned themselves with those who had been sanctioned, with those who were being blamed for their own poverty, more people spoke out. Friends and colleagues had the courage to say that they too had been sanctioned. We obviously wanted to talk as well with the people who could change the system, with MPs, but at first we couldn't get a look in. That was until people from local churches started to write to their MPs as part of the campaign. Then we started to be invited into meetings, we began to get a seat at the table. Over the last year there have been marginal improvements to the sanctions regime, but this is a long game and we're keeping up the pressure. But it's the encounters with people who were the most affected by this situation that gave rise to the justice work of our Church.
This is just one example from my own experience. You will have others. Those times when your encounters, your deep conversations have caused you to ask the question "why?". Where the justice questions break in, through - and because of - the practical actions of our churches.
Because this isn't some optional extra. This is part of the mission of the church, the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. The mission of the church, God's mission, is to be involved not only in the alleviation of human suffering but also in the eradication of the roots of that suffering. Pity and compassion are vital responses, Christian responses, but this experience should also provoke within us the justice response, the why question.
But isn't this just one more thing for our churches to do when we're already struggling to hold it together? Many churches are already involved in this "justice" mission in a variety of ways, perhaps unconsciously so. From the full scale foodbank to the drop in coffee morning which has turned into a haven for exhausted mums or people seeking asylum. To the church members who have a chat with the young people who hang around on the church wall instead of seeing them as a threat or nuisance. To the prayer group which holds different people in the community before God in prayer in week.
And then perhaps, like the mustard seed, someone in the congregation asks that why question about someone they meet - why are they hungry, or homeless or lonely? - and it becomes like a grit in the oyster, something that can't be ignored, and which can be transformative.
As Dr Helen Cameron of the Salvation Army describes in her book, Just Mission, four ways in which we encounter justice through our church life:
- in worship we meet a God whose nature is just; in our scripture and discipleship we encounter God's anger at injustice and the response God requires;
- in our hospitality we build deeper relationships and in our pastoral care we sit alongside those who have been wounded by life, and perhaps start to ask why;
- in our acts of compassion we reflect upon the needs we see around us and the injustices that underlie those needs;
- and through our life as God's people in the Church we testify that grace and hope fly in the face of the anger, denial and despair that injustice can generate.
And if we are a Church where justice flows, we will be a place where more people will want to be, where more people will be able to respond to God's call in their lives.
As we seek to draw nearer to God, to see God in the faces of those around us, and particularly in the faces of those who are the poorest and most in need of justice, then our longings for holiness and for justice will go hand in hand.
A commitment to justice and holiness changes us and will change the Church, if we have the courage. The courage to be a guest at the party, instead of the host. The courage first to listen instead of speak, to first ask why instead of rushing to offer solutions. But then together to speak and act boldly. The courage together to join in the mission of God that he invites us to share. And we do it all in the knowledge that, by God's grace, anything can be possible.
Do you know what I want?
I want justice - oceans of it
I want fairness - rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want.