Alton Webteam: January 2017
Rachel Lampard's address to the annual Methodist Parliamentary Covenant Service -- 17 January 2017
"Let me be laid aside for you"
If you believe the old adage about not mixing religion and politics, then I'm afraid you're in the wrong place. This chapel is at the heart of our Parliament. And I'm certainly the wrong person to ask to speak today. For nearly 17 years I've been helping the Methodist Church to do politics. So you'll have guessed that not only do I think that religion and politics can mix, but rather I believe that taking politics seriously as people of faith is part of our calling.
For we are a people who worship a God of justice, an incarnate God, whose Spirit offers transformation. So how can we say religion and politics don't mix?! The Methodist Covenant service is a very special time in our Methodist year, an opportunity to affirm the loving relationship into which God has called us. Every year when I say the Covenant prayer, particular words leap out, and they're often different words each year. I don't know if you find the same. Sometimes a phrase resonates, sometimes one consoles, sometimes another jars. This year a phrase has pained me. They are the words "let me be laid aside for you".
Now let's be clear. Being laid aside in this context does not mean being discarded or judged to be useless. Rather I think it means, for whatever reason, that the things we have associated with our calling no longer seem to have a clear context or be sustainable.
At first the resonance of this phrase for me may seem strange. I've never been busier than I have been this year. I have been so privileged to be in the role as Vice-President of the Church, and to have the opportunity to witness what God is doing in and through God's people in this country and in other parts of the world. I've been able to listen, speak and learn.
The President and I have had the chance to explore our theme of holiness and justice with people from around the Connexion. I have a suitcase permanently packed, and I need to plant roughly a tree a week to cancel out my carbon footprint over the course of the year.
So why does the phrase "Let me be laid aside for you" feel so painful? Well this is where it gets personal. I voted to remain. I think that President Trump is a terrifying prospect. And I'm a member of a political party which some may say is in the doldrums.
For someone who has such a high belief in the worth of political engagement this is a tough place to be. I've always felt my role within the church, encouraging Christians to make the links between faith and life, to be a vocation. And I feel passionately that my beliefs, religious and political, are rooted in my response to the love of God. And now I find myself in a position where I have, politically, been laid aside. We hear that the British people have spoken. And I feel outside that definition of "the people". Things which I feel are unacceptable are creeping towards the norm. And political power -- the way of bringing about change -- feels beyond reach.
Now at this point I should say that I wholly accept that many of you here will be in a different place. And will hold very different beliefs with passion and integrity. I am very privileged to count as friends and fellow Christians people with whom I profoundly disagree politically, and am honoured that some are here this evening.
And I suppose my pain could come from a realisation that I am wrong. Politics is, after all, a human endeavour. As much as we yearn to understand the mind of God, we are never going to bring about the kingdom of God through a party manifesto. And yet.... We are political beings, and this is the way in which we choose how we order our world. The sense of being "laid aside" from this is, for me, painful.
Having wrestled with this in the light of saying the Covenant prayer, I think there are (in a Methodist fashion) three reflections.
Firstly we are here for the Methodist covenant service, not the Methodist contract service. Ken Howcroft, a former President of Conference, once described his understanding of the difference between the two as being that a contract sets out how the future will work. Whereas a covenant involves setting off together, into an unknown future, but promising to walk together whatever comes. Early versions of the Covenant service included words that were very similar to the marriage service -- for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. This covenant, this relationship, is for the good and bad times. We are promising to abide with God. Notice the frequent use of the word in the passage from John. That is where we remain, abiding in God's love, through the good times, the bad times, the times of power and the times of pain. So firstly, God does not abandon us, but abides with us, for, in that very tender phrase, he has written his promise on our hearts.
Secondly the Covenant prayer reminds us of the corporate nature of this covenant relationship. Although the prayer is in the first person we will be saying it together, as the people of God, people who voted different ways, people who are members of different parties, politicians, and people for whom this is the first time in Parliament, ministers and lay people, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists and those who may be searching or wondering. In the passage from Deuteronomy we heard that all those assembled were part of the covenantal relationship with God; "the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water".
Everyone, even those on the edge, is invited into a covenant relationship with God. And our relationship with God means we are in relationship one with another. Those who are employed for God are in relationship with those who are laid aside for God. Party politics are never more important than the relationship that we are offered as part of the body of Christ. So secondly, we are all part of the vine, in relationship with God and with one another.
Finally the Covenant prayer reminds us that there is a time for being laid aside, for suffering or being done to, for being empty, for having nothing. But this is not God rejecting us or what we offer. For when we are in these places we can be there for, and with, God.
Perhaps we sometimes have an expectation of power and influence; just look around at the venue we're in today. Perhaps we expect to be listened to and taken seriously. Perhaps we're not used, as churches or as individuals, to being on the margins ...of politics, of society, of our church. But it's not always a bad thing to be at the margins. And who says that change can't come from there? Indeed Methodism started in the margins -- small groups, outside the power structures of the church, preaching the love of God to the poorest and most marginalised in society, raising up people as lay preachers, as itinerant ministers to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. And when you're on the margins you can always look around and see whom else God has placed there. For the Covenant prayer is not passive. It's not about sitting still where we end up. It is about being offered renewal in Jesus Christ. It's about opening ourselves up to the greatest transformation of all, through the love of God. Because vines bear beautiful fruit.
So from this sense of being laid aside comes awareness that God does not abandon us but holds us in loving relationship. We are all part of the vine together, one with another and with God. And that being at the margins can be fruitful. Whether this year you feel you are being employed, laid aside, exalted or brought low, I pray that you will experience renewal and growth in Jesus Christ, and be fruitful, be it at the centre, or at the margins. For ultimately the most glorious truth is there in the words that we will say together in a few moments:
"He is ours and we are his. So be it".
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