My year of Wesley pilgrimage


Origins of the journey

It began on New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of 2017.  We sang a hymn which the Gaither Vocal Band had popularised in the USA, but which had never really caught on in the UK.  You can hear the song here:

Our pastor read the words, and at one point, as he explained what they meant he became quite overcome with emotion. We were invited to take the microphone and say what in this song had particularly spoken to us.  As I looked at the words, the line that leapt out at me was “I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges”.  I couldn’t help but think of the very scared little man who is about to assume leadership of the biggest western nation, and his threats to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, as well as his intention to expel all illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country.

I stood up and tried to explain this to the congregation – how one of Trump’s advisors, Monica Crowley, had tweeted a photograph of herself beside the Berlin Wall with the words, “At the Berlin Wall last week.  Walls work.”  That the trauma of separation caused by the wall, not to mention the oppression that took place behind it and the deaths of those who tried to escape its tyranny, should be seen as evidence that “walls work” should sound a note of the greatest alarm.

And this reminded me of the situation in France during the 18th century, when the increasing wealth and complacence of the rich while callously grinding the faces of the starving poor had spilled over, in 1789, into the French revolution, which not only overturned the establishment and the stranglehold on power of the monarchy and nobility, epitomised in the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, but often at times descended into a chaotic bloodbath, with the introduction of the guillotine.

I noted that social conditions in Britain, especially England, at the time were almost exactly parallel to those in France, and that it has often been said that what saved England from a bloody French-style revolution was the spiritual revival that took place under the Wesleys, George Whitefield and Charles Finney. And it struck me, pondering on the words of this hymn, that a few hundred sermons, preached here and there all over the country as John Wesley rode the length and breadth of the land, could not of themselves have been the bulwark that held back the tide of revolution and averted disaster. (Note: that is what I said in church; I have since learned that John Wesley delivered some 45,000 sermons during his ministry.)  Rather, it must have been the many individual lives, transformed by the power of God, who returned to their communities and lived out the kingdom of God in their small, daily circle, that changed the history of the nation and brought about a peaceable change that, in the coming generations, could give rise to men like William Wilberforce and the eighth Earl of Shaftesbury, and women like Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler.

This reminded me of Jesus’ saying that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”.  All it needed, in the Wesleys’ day, for revival to spread and transform the life of the nation, was for individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to bring the kingdom of God into the homes and streets where they lived.  And the same is true now. We might look at some worrying trends on the political stage here and abroad, and feel helpless to do anything about it.  But that is not the truth.  We are the leaven, scattered throughout the dough of society, which can leaven the whole lump, if we determine to bring the light and love of God’s kingdom to the places where we live and work.

After church, our pastor spoke to me.  He agreed with my analysis of the situation, and said that the parallels were even greater than I realised – that if I read the history of the South Sea Bubble I would see similarities both with quantitative easing and the bank bailouts which had been done at the expense of the poorest in society, and with the recent exposure of tax avoidance in offshore funds by some of the nation’s wealthiest people.  And he told me that it was estimated that twenty-eight thousand people came to faith in Jesus through John Wesley’s preaching – not a great proportion, considering that the population of Great Britain in Wesley’s time was around twelve million.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump.  If 2.3% of the population in Wesley’s time could change the course of the nation, what might we do today?  We have the power in our hands to change the world, if we only realised it and prayed and acted accordingly.

I continued to ponder all this after I got home from church.  I had, like John Wesley, known my heart “strangely warmed” on more than one occasion.  I could recall times when my experience of Jesus echoed Charles Wesley’s lyrics “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee”.  But I knew that in recent years my heart had begun to grow colder, and currently I could identify more with the words of William Cowper,

“Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.”

And somehow, as I sat contemplating all this, I felt God calling me to make a journey, both spiritual and physical, this year, in the footsteps of John Wesley.  I spent some time researching places he had been.  Some I already knew quite well – I had long been familiar with some of the sites in Cornwall where Wesley had stayed and preached, and I had often worshipped at Truro Methodist Church.  My own grandfather on my mother’s side had been a Methodist minister, for a long time active in the circuit in East Hull, and pastoring at one of its churches.  But I felt compelled to learn more about the Wesley brothers and their ministry, and in particular the secret of how they kept alive the flame of their relationship with Christ through a lifetime that was certainly not without its privations but which never wavered from devotion to the cause of Christ, the spread of His kingdom, and seeing lives transformed by His love and grace.  Over the course of the year, I hope to chart my progress here.


Public Service Announcement: Your Freedom is Terminated

Suppose the next government passed a law which stated that citizens are not permitted to go to work to earn their living, that they must only bath or shower at times when they are told they may, that they must not visit friends, go shopping or have trips to the cinema, and that they are no longer allowed to choose the times of day at which they eat their meals. How popular do you think that policy would be? How would you feel and react if such a law were imposed on you?

You may not know it, but this administration has passed just such a law. Oh, don’t worry, it doesn’t affect you, so that’s all right then. It actually affects around 19,000 of the most severely disabled people in this country. When this government came to power in 2010, a pot of around £330,000,000, the Independent Living Fund, was being shared between these people – that’s a little over £17,000 each – to enable them to employ carers whose role would be to support them in getting to work, managing daily living tasks and having a normal social life.

And our wonderful coalition government has decided that from June 2015 this fund will be abolished. There will be no requirement on local authorities to ring-fence any money to compensate these people for the loss of support from the Independent Living Fund. In fact, this is the government’s own assessment of the effects of the measure: “a large number of users will experience some reductions to the current funding they receive.” The truth is that most will be left without the means to go on employing the assistants they need.

Against that sum of £330,000,000 we can set all the money paid in tax by these 19,000 employees, all the money paid in tax by disabled people who were being enabled to work, and all the tax raised in VAT by people being able to go out and spend money in shops, cinemas, etc. – meaning that the saving to the country from this measure will be paltry, while the effect on the lives of severely disabled people will be devastating.

Nice one, Dave. I’m not a party political animal at all, even though I care passionately about justice. But this measure alone is enough to ensure that I don’t vote Conservative in the forthcoming election. The problem is, the Labour Party has now finally admitted that it will not reverse this decision if it comes to power. So I won’t be voting for Ed either.

This government has happily talked up the idea of “work-shy scroungers” as opposed to “hard-working people”. As a result of the media coverage of this ideology, hate-crimes against disabled people have escalated in the past 4 years. You are 3 times as likely to experience violence in the work place if you are a disabled person. The ATOS assessments intended to judge which disabled people are capable of work have been characterised by ignorance and prejudice on the part of the people carrying out the tests. And yet the richest people in this country have been cushioned against austerity.

God is a God of justice, and I believe that if we don’t rectify this ourselves, and start protecting and caring for the most vulnerable in our society, He will do something about it: “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” Amos 5. 11-15