TODAY is the day that the person who inspired me to begin sharing my story steps down as the President of the Methodist Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church of Great Britain.
Barbara Glasson was the Methodist Minister for Liverpool City Centre from 1999-2009. During this time I encountered the community she led, called Somewhere Else (aka the Bread Church) where diverse people came together (and still come) to make bread and give it away, so you’d make a couple of loaves and give them to whoever you wanted to. She tells the story of this community in her books, Mixed Up Blessing and I Am Somewhere Else.
In an interview with the Church Times following her election as President of the Methodist Conference, she wrote:
It’s particularly popular with kids, people with learning disabilities, and people exploring their faith outside conventional church structures. LGBTQ people are important at Somewhere Else. They taught me so much about what it means to be a prophetic community.Church Times 30/11/2018
As she was preparing to leave Somewhere Else, Barbara began a series of conversations with members of that community about their own times of transition, in particular with the LGBTQ Christian groups that met there, who helped her to understand what we mean by ‘coming out’. What emerged was a book called The Exuberant Church: Listening to the prophetic people of God, to which I contributed. It explores this extraordinary process of claiming a new identity, to see what it might reveal to those people of faith who struggle to accept diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. It shows how LGBTQ Christians, and other people marginalised by mainstream faith groups, are ‘coming-out people’, prophetic examples of the potential for new life and growth in the faith communities from which they spring. I began this blog as a result of Barbara asking me my story – here, here and here.
So it was a particular delight when my husband Warren and I, and the Open Table Network we help to host, got a mention in Barbara’s Presidential address to the Methodist Conference as she took up the one-year post in June 2019.
‘the holy belly-laugh of liberation’
She began by asking ‘So what’s the story?‘ and invited individuals and churches to reflect on the story of their faith and community:
Behind our question are a lot more questions: who is in the story, who have we left out, where is God in the story, what does the Bible have to say…? These questions are of course the bread and butter of what it means to be Christian, how the story of God and the stories about God, the stories of life and the stories about life, make sense of who we are as humans, created and loved in a world full of perplexity and delight. It is also profoundly our calling as the Church to give account of what we perceive God is doing with us, around us and sometimes despite us. We are called to tell stories, to listen to stories and to wrestle with stories, to search for truth not fake news, to challenge the malicious stories we tell about each other and to go on believing that as people of creation, exodus, crucifixion, wilderness wandering and even in exile we can still claim the hope of resurrection and the gracious promise of life in all its fullness.Barbara Glasson, Presidential address 29/06/2019
She shared the impact of hearing the stories of the Somewhere Else community:
‘that did not yet have a polished narrative or a triumphant conclusion… there we sifted through the spoil heaps of bewildering pain….
I heard survivor voices, vulnerable stories, coming out narratives, from people who had never been listened to by anyone much, least of all the church. As we kneaded and shaped and baked and ate bread, the stories cracked open on the flour-covered communion table of our community, messy, incomplete and fragmented, from the silent, the silenced and the unheard. In the untold, untellable truth of our inhumanity and our carelessness with each other, and in all this confusion and mess, we uncovered small surprising things, some essential, precious, lovely pearls that bore our true name, our glorious fragile strength…
These people are gifted with a deeper knowledge; their bodies, their unhealed wounds, their multiplicity of grief, are the calligraphy of a counter-narrative, the discourse of vulnerability. They live litanies of disappointment and embody unsettling stories of brokenness. Yet, mysteriously from this contradictory space also emerges the holy belly-laugh of liberation.
Then she set out her challenge to the Church she was elected to lead for the year:
We will need to commit ourselves to not only making the church inclusive, but allowing those who we might think ‘on the edge’ to challenge and transform us. We need to listen in three dimensions to what is told and what lies in the dark spaces between the words.
In the media release announcing her appointment Barbara said:
God is transforming the old and calling us into new things that are a joyful outcome of our Methodist inheritance. I believe that if the Church is authentic and inclusive it will also grow numerically and spiritually.Methodist Church media release 04/07/2019
This began a year in which Methodists churches were invited to reflect on a report from the ‘Marriage and Relationships Task Group’ called God In Love Unites Us. The group Dignity & Worth, which works in the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Ireland and worldwide, for full and active participation of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, including same-sex marriage, describes this report as:
a careful consideration of the nature of human relationships in the light of our covenant with God. It takes seriously both Scripture and the current realities with which most people in Britain – inside and outside the Church – live.Dignity & Worth Statement on Methodist Marriage Report May 2019
The report also outlines the process by British Methodists were invited to decide whether or not to allow ministers and local churches to register to conduct same-sex marriages.
Resource materials were produced to assist local conversations, and to ensure that no-one feels coerced to act against their will, as this was a common argument expressed during the Government consultation on same-sex marriage in 2012.
In an articles for The Times, Barbara wrote:
To say that something is complicated — not binary, but multifaceted — is to rejoice in a wonderful strength. We are strong when we seek truth rather than certainty, love instead of judgment, relationship and community over dogmatic isolation. This truth applies to all aspects of life and relationships — not least those that are political, social, ethical or religious.
At the moment the Methodist Church is exploring this truth in its conversations around human identity, relationships and sexuality. A 30-year journey has brought us to a Methodist conference report titled God in love unites us. It talks about all sorts of human relationships, co-habitation, divorce and remarriage, as well as the possibility of conducting same-sex marriages in church.‘The Methodist Church is rethinking its position on identity and sexuality’, The Times 05/10/2019
The original plan was that, after 12 months of prayer and discernment about the report, the Methodist Conference this month would vote on whether to allow those churches that wish to adopt a more inclusive position to do so.
Then in April, following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Methodist Church announced that the Conference would meet online, and that the debate and voting on God in Love Unites Us will be deferred until the 2021 Conference. Dignity & Worth issued a statement about the delay, calling for creative ways to be found to avoid waiting another year for a resolution.
This means that Barbara’s desire to preside over this historic period of transition for the British Methodist Church could not be fully realised. For those who experience the frustration of this further delay, Barbara’s article in The Times may provide some words of comfort:
We need to go on believing that we can think differently, yet stay together and grow. It’s a challenge, but if we can achieve it, it’s also a transferable skill.
I must give account of my faith with love, confidence and humility, and listen and learn at the same time. And I need to acknowledge that there are many different Christian ways of interpreting the world…
We must learn to disagree well, and let love unite us. That doesn’t mean to sell our firmly held beliefs, but to bring open-hearted grace to complex conversations.
And while we as a nation work out how to be together in challenging communities and with complex issues, let’s hope that we can all say, despite it all: “God in love unites us.”The Times 05/10/2019
So thank you Barbara, for having the courage to ask the question, ‘So what’s the story?’
Thank you for sharing our
coming out stories of transformation, where the ‘conversation on marriage and relationships’ turned into people with faces, and ‘issues’ were enfleshed.Barbara Glasson, Presidential address 29/06/2019