Interview: Barbara Glasson, President-elect of the Methodist Conference

30 November 2018

‘I profoundly believe that mission is about listening well’

I grew up in Kent, and the church was my extended family. It was loving and safe, but they also challenged me to ask some big questions. I’ll always be grateful to them for giving me a sense of being valued. That generosity and kindness showed me that a good church is an open-minded church.
 

I felt called to leadership in the Church when I was 16, but women couldn’t be ordained at that time; so I read Agricultural Sciences with a view to working for the Church overseas. That taught me to value an organic rather than a structural way of viewing the world — really important when I was working at the Bread Church, in Liverpool, and my current interfaith work at Touchstone, in Bradford.
 

After my three children went to school, I completed my Local Preacher’s training, though it was hard with three youngsters, and I did an MA in Theology before starting on a non-residential ecumenical training course, and was ordained in Tewkesbury Abbey in 1995.
 

“Bastards and Nonconformists” was the title of my Ph.D., exploring Methodism’s changing attitudes to lone parenting. I listened to stories from different lone parents, and looked at historical accounts. The practice of separating mother and child until the child was adult, and sending both to separate workhouses, was heartbreaking. I also heard stories from women who had separated from unhealthy relationships where the church was praying for them to go back to their husbands. I concluded that we should celebrate the faithful relationship between parent and child rather than bemoan a broken marriage. This faithfulness is at the heart of my understanding of God in Jesus.
 

After five years, I was sent to be the minister in Liverpool city centre, an appointment without church building or congregation. I took a year walking the streets and listening to people I encountered. I am Somewhere Else tells the story. A community came together to make bread and to give it away; so, if you came, you’d make a couple of loaves and give them to whoever you wanted to. We called the project “Somewhere Else”, but soon people began to call it the “Bread Church”. It’s still there in Liverpool — never the same group of people twice. 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.
 

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Touchstone, which I went to lead ten years later, is another Methodist city-centre project. It’s been going for 40 years, from a terraced house in a Muslim-Pakistani-heritage area, and has now just moved into a refurbished pub. I learned a lot about interfaith relations, and visited Pakistan several times. We recently took our exhibition “Weaving Women’s Wisdom” to the Houses of Parliament. This week, my colleagues Jenny and Shamim are teaching Asian-heritage women to ride bikes.
 

When I was in Liverpool, I heard a lot of stories of childhood abuse; so I got involved with the Face to Face project at Holyrood House, in Thirsk, and began to lead some survivor retreats. I’ve continued this in Bradford with a small counselling service and creative-writing days. During the past decade, the Methodist Church has conducted a past-cases review. Although we’ve made a public apology, and improved our safeguarding practice, we’ve not always been mindful of the stories of those who have been abused. I’m privileged to be part of the Methodist Church Survivors’ Reference Group, and I’m learning a great deal about the trauma, pain, and resilience of these amazing people.
 

The Church thinks that if we can say the right things, people will flock back to church. I profoundly believe that mission is much more about listening well. The story of Pentecost is really important: everyone heard each other speaking in their own language. When we really listen, we move beyond stereotypes and perceive complexity, richness, and nuance, contradictions and struggles.
 

The Church doesn’t do something for women — it is women. Women change politics, the environment, and are peace-builders; but usually in non-structural, relational ways. The most effective change comes from the bottom up; yet this is often demeaned as simply social or domestic activity.
 

Interfaith dialogue is often regarded as bearded chaps sitting on a platform, or civic events with curry and quiche, whereas Touchstone works politically on a daily basis to bring about grass-roots change, not simply for one neighbourhood. Methodist Women in Britain have recently done some spectacular work around human trafficking and domestic violence. None of this hits the headlines.
 

I’d abolish “they” from the English language. It’s “othering” people, and that’s the beginning of dehumanising them. We’re called to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us; so we need to acknowledge our enemies and then acknowledge our shared humanity. It’s costly, but it’s the only way to change the world.
 

The Methodist Church represents a global membership of eight million people. We’re a network: we belong to each other and are responsible to each other.
 

Methodism arose from the desire to empower ordinary people to understand the gospel and to change society. The grace of God is for all people; so we have an open table for communion, and believe in infant baptism and roll-your-sleeves-up social action. We’ve influenced the Co-operative and trade-union movements, got involved in education, and we’re a key player in the Joint Public Issues Team.
 

The Methodist Conference is our governing body, with a new President every year. Professor Clive Marsh, the Vice-President, and I have chosen a question as the theme for our year: “So, what’s the story?” I’ll be inviting people to tell me stories that are important to them. Clive’s speciality is theology and the media; so he’ll be working with people around story and truth-telling.
 

My husband, David, and I have a two-year-old Border Collie, Seth. He walks us regularly and rounds us up. I’m also learning to weave: David spins local wool, and I have a loom in a little workshop in the garden. When I’m being creative, I feel nearest to the Creator. I’m having a go at oil painting, and love being really absorbed in a creative process and totally losing track of time.
 

My favourite sound is the sea being sucked through shingle on a beach. It reminds me so much of being a child in Kent, and also that God is much bigger than all the stresses and struggles of the day.
 

People walking into a room and seeing who’s worth talking to makes me furious, especially if they start looking over my shoulder to see if there’s anyone more interesting.
 

The bravest thing I’ve done, which I wrote about in Spirituality of Survival, was taking a group of people from Liverpool to South America. We travelled with the question “What does it mean to survive?” and went right up to the Atacama Desert. It was a phenomenal experience, but also took a lot of holding together. Everyone in the group was a survivor of some kind of life trauma.
 

I recently went to Alice Springs, and began to think again about our connection with the earth — it’s such an amazing, ancient landscape. I’d like to reflect on the creative parts of my life and ministry, and make big paintings that depict some of this. Maybe also write some prayers and reflections.
 

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I have hope for the future, although we’re going to live through some hugely troubling times. 3Gen is a Methodist gathering for more than 1000 youngsters each year who are realising that they could be politically active and change things. We must all challenge the extreme racism and hatred emerging from certain parts of society, and I hope that the Methodist Church will be bold, too.
 

My prayer isn’t about asking for things, but, rather, returning to things that matter. God calls us back to a simple and centred way of life. I pray for wisdom, and the answer to this is taking a lifetime.
 

As a woman and writer myself, I’d like to be locked in a church with George Eliot — to talk about the characters in Adam Bede, which is one of my favourite books, and ask for a signed copy of Middlemarch. Her writing is deep, complex, and intense, and she knows a lot about Methodists.

 

The Revd Dr Barbara Glasson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

I Am Somewhere Else is published by Darton Longman and Todd; and Spirituality of Survival is published by Continuum.

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