The pandemic has affected all Presidential visits this year, but it was particularly poignant that in 'returning' to the District of which he had been the Chair for 11 years, the Revd Richard Teal could not greet and catch up with old friends in person. More significantly, of course, we were conscious of those who had been lost, to Covid 19 or in other ways, since Richard was last in the District.
Nonetheless, Cumbria welcomed the President of the Methodist Conference 'virtually' via Zoom with enthusiasm and gladness through a series of conversations and services over the weekend of February 26th-28th.
On the Friday evening, the President greeted old friends and colleagues amongst the senior leaders of this (the first) Ecumenical County, the vision for which Richard had himself been instrumental in developing through relationships and prayer. Richard guided a conversation with Anglican, Baptist, Church of Scotland, Methodist, Salvation Army, Society of Friends, Roman Catholic and United Reformed colleagues as we reflected upon the impact of the pandemic. Richard heard about developments with the Ecumenical County's 'God for All' initiative (this preceded the Connexion's!), and its 'Vision Refresh' commitment to follow daily, care deeply, speak boldly and tread gently, in our devotional life, listening to and social care for communities, evangelism, and concern for the environment and climate change.
As a county, Cumbria has many industrial and post-industrial areas, plus significant tourism given its beautiful countryside, but much of the county is rural, and this was the theme for Saturday's Zoom conversations, reflecting some of the President's particular interests and concerns.
On Saturday morning Richard met with representatives of the Agricultural Community, including established or young farmers, the Managing Director of Cumbria Farming Network, an Agricultural Supplies manager, a Vet, and various Agricultural chaplains or others. Richard enquired about joys, concerns and mental wellbeing: some 50% of young farmers are experiencing mental ill health, and the theme 'Its ok not to be ok' and of talking and sharing about this was commonly endorsed. The pandemic's impact on local 'farm to fork' was recognised, as were the economic and new regulatory effects of Brexit and of the Agricultural Transition Plan. The long-term impact of climate change on countryside and farming practice was especially noted, with its potential effect on our taken-for-granted/underappreciated vital farming contribution to the population's food supply.
On Saturday afternoon the focus was on Rural Mission, as lay and ordained representatives from circuits gathered by Zoom to consider the mission of what are 64.5% of Methodist churches, namely small churches in often rural and semi-rural contexts. Using an Emmaus Road bible study, breakout rooms and video, the President encouraged us to attend to 'the small' in ways that are often underused or may go unnoticed, and to share the experience of faith with one another, even when involving new habits or overcoming present cultural taboos (36% come to faith through a conversation).
On the Sunday morning, the President was extensively interviewed on BBC Radio Cumbria, when the presenter spontaneously acclaimed Richard's extensive knowledge of agricultural matters and how impressive that made him as an ambassador for the Church (which must in turn encourage us all to be understanding and articulating of a breadth of social concern if we are to be relevant to society, including through the window of the Media!).
Richard then joined the Solway Circuit on the North West Cumbrian coast to lead their Sunday morning Circuit service, in advance of the Solway Circuit this summer joining with the Western Fells Circuit.
Finally, on the Sunday afternoon Richard preached at a Kendal Circuit service that was also streamed more widely for the District. Richard pointed to the God who best of all is with us in the world, personally, and in the Church; the God who entrusts himself to us through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, transforming us through Resurrection faith, and who is with us now and in eternity. Afterwards, many had opportunity through breakout rooms for a brief hello and catch up with Richard and Sue Teal, being thus reunited with their former Chair, their present President, and their continuing friend.
We were enriched by the President's visit amongst us, and will continue to pray for him and the Vice-President, and for the Methodist and all people of good will, that collectively we may be relevant for society and our communities as ambassadors of God's love and care, in the changing context in which we are called.