Ian's sabbatical blog
1 February 2016
Making a start
Making a start on a Sabbatical for the fourth time, I am struck by how different each of my Sabbaticals have been, and I wonder what sort of flavour this one will have. This has in no small part been as a result of different family circumstances. My first Sabbatical in 1993 was when we had three young children. Indeed our youngest, Mark, was still a babe in arms. The routines of family life dominated, and any study and reflection, and times away were fitted in around the demands of family. My study topic, was ‘Is there a future for Liberal Evangelical Protestantism?’ a question that I think still has relevance for the Methodist church, and which twenty years later, I am still not sure we know how to answer.
By my second sabbatical in 2001 things had changed. Mark was now nine, and had been diagnosed as severely autistic. His diagnosis had turned our lives upside down, and dominated our family life. However, he was at school during the day, and Barbara was now out at work, and so as long as I was there to meet him off the bus, I had space to reflect and to study during the day. I remember it as a time when I felt I had something of a split personality, doing some very creative thinking around Music and Theology during the day, while coming to realise what Barbara had to face during the evenings and weekends, which I had been able to ignore too much while in work.
Things were different again in 2008. I was coming out of a very difficult time of conflict in the circuit where I was superintendent, and desperately needed the time. I also needed the space to reflect on what being the parent of an autistic child had done to my spirituality, and to try and find some creative response to it. At this time Mark was being extremely difficult, and we were coming to our wits end about some of his behaviour. By now we has boarding two nights at week at his school, so we did have real respite, but his behaviour was such that some weeks the school, which was Surrey’s flagship autism specialist school, refused to have him board, and seemed to imply that we needed to do something about his behaviour or else we would have to find somewhere else for him.
Into this mix, a friend of my mother’s who lived near us, for whom I had power of attorney as she had dementia, became significantly worse, and her carer was taken ill, and we couldn’t find a replacement. This entailed nearly daily visits, as I worked with her cousin to find appropriate residential care for her. It was a good job I was on sabbatical at that time as it would have been impossible to do what I did if I had been working, and it produced a good outcome for the last four years of her life.
The Sabbatical finished with me looking after Mark over Christmas while Barbara and our daughter Rosie went to visit our other son David in Canada, where he was spending six months as part of his degree course. Managing Mark on my own over Christmas, when we stayed with my mother was not a happy experience. I remember Christmas morning service in Evesham Methodist Church having to leave during the first hymn as he attacked me, punching and biting, and having to calm him down by walking along the banks of the Avon. It was perhaps the low point in my experience as Mark’s father, and perhaps made it difficult for me to answer honestly when people asked if I had had a good Sabbatical. But again, looking back it was good that I was able to give Barbara and Rosie the space to have a good Christmas with David in Canada, and for us to reflect together on how we went forward.
Eight years later, the scene is very different. Out of that experience with Mark, our paediatrician prescribed a medication that made a significant difference to his behaviour, reducing, but by no means eliminating, the worst of the tantrums, but making life much more manageable. Now, all the children have left home, Mark to an excellent supported living provision in Surrey, and three months open out before me. This will inevitably be a different experience again, and for all the plans, I hope I can be open to what God has in store for me over this period.
I begin the Sabbatical feeling, on the whole, energised by my experience of two and half years as Chair of the Birmingham District. For all the real challenges the church faces today, and which it has faced for as long as I have been in the ministry, of secularisation, ageing congregations, and a sense of tiredness, one of the great privileges of being chair is to meet people who still have a real energy and commitment for the life of God’s kingdom, both within the Methodist church and beyond, and it is that privilege of meeting great people of faith, that sustains and energises me on a daily basis.
One of the concerns of a sabbatical for someone like me, who gets their energy from being with other people, is that too much time alone can actually be spiritually draining. However, I know in my heart that I also need to make space, to perhaps face the solitude and risk discovering God in new ways, to rediscover a spirituality that is not driven by the needs of the district, so that my ministry becomes less reactive, and more reflective, (at least while I have the opportunity.)
However, I do not want to close my mind and spirit to what is going on around, and part of the joy of a sabbatical is that opportunity to reflect on them. The last weeks of January have offered two areas that I think are going to be important for the future of the Methodist church in Birmingham, and will challenge not just me, but the Methodist people in how we respond.
Firstly, on Saturday 6th February, PEGIDA the anti-Islam group that originated in Germany are having their first march in Britain and it is to be in Birmingham. It has not been allowed to take place in the city itself, where I am sure it would have led to confrontation and conflict, but rather it will happen in the carparks of Birmingham International Station, near the NEC.
I have been privileged to be at a meeting of the Hope not Hate group, a national grouping that seeks to bring communities together across the boundaries of race and religion. The meeting I was at had representatives of the main churches, from Muslim community organisations and Trade Unions, and response was that it would be wrong to mount a counter demonstration that would almost certainly attract people who would relish conflict, but rather that there would be an event at the Central Mosque, the day before, (Friday 5th at 1.30) where it is hoped that people from different communities would come together to share a cup of tea, and that the ongoing response would be for a growing sharing of cups of tea to build relationships and friendships across communities. Both PEGIDA and ISIS from different standpoints do not want people to come together across communities and highlight the problems of difference in a way that intentionally or not breeds hate and violence. As a Christian I want to stand against that, while still being true to the Christian gospel and the centrality of Jesus. As Andrew Smith, the Bishop of Birmingham’s advisor on Inter-Faith matters says, we need to be confident and articulate about our own faith, while respecting the humanity of the people we are talking to. My experience in inter-faith meetings recently is that approach leads to a healthy constructive relationship that deepens friendships across cultures, and is the best response to the division that some seem to want on both sides, and which is so damaging to the city where I live and the wider world. I wonder how the Methodist churches in the Midlands can best respond to this?
The second area that opened up to me on the last day before I went on Sabbatical was a meeting which some Methodists from the London District who are part of the Ghanaian fellowship, had with five of us from the District. The Ghanaians all worship in different Methodist churches in London where they are fully involved as stewards, local preachers etc, but once a month they gather at Westminster Central Hall for a major celebration in the Ghanaian style. London Methodism is being revived by the presence of African Methodists within their churches. It is challenging in some ways. The style is different, the singing is enthusiastic and dancing is de rigeur. The work of the Holy Spirit is emphasised, and worship lasts a good few hours. ‘Sunday is God’s day’ as one of them put it to me.
The question is ‘Where are the African Methodists in the Birmingham District?’ there are some pockets. There are Methodist Zimbabwean fellowships in Selly Oak and Coventry, and a Cameroonian fellowship based at Ladywood is beginning to grow. But many African Methodists go to Pentecostal churches because that is where they fee more at home. The Ghanaian chaplain, William Davis, believes they belong in Methodism, which is where their roots are, and will be visiting the West Midlands to bring together Methodists from West Africa, (initially at Coventry).
Our forbears took the Christian faith, and the Methodist understanding of it to Africa, where it bore fruit, (there are now four times as many Methodist members in Ghana than in the UK.) How do we welcome our sisters and brothers as part of the Methodist Connexion today? This presents great opportunities, but is not without its challenge, and is something I look forward to exploring and working with when I return.
Of the five new ministers for September in the Birmingham circuit three are originally from Zimbabwe, one is from Rwanda and the other is Chinese. It seems that God may be telling us something, and that as we look at the future we need to keep a our vision wide, remembering we are part of a Methodist movement founded by one who talked about the world as his parish.
I take all these thoughts with me, as I welcome the opportunity to partake in the District Ministers Retreat as a participant and not a leader, and look forward to the time together with colleagues as we reflect on ‘The Art of Holiness in Icon, Image and Hymn’ with Julie Lunn.