The local synagogue in Southport pulled out all the stops and made us feel very welcome. I was, incidentally, very touched by the personal invitation from members of the Jewish community despite not being a conference delegate.
There were about 120 delegates present making it one of the biggest fringe events ever held at a Methodist Conference in living memory. Rabbi Saunders - please G-d let us have Ministers like him - introduced us to the fabric and layout of the synagogue. Much of what he said resonated with members of a denomination which started worshiping in fields and barns.
The Rabbi then led us into the community hall where there was an exhibition on the Jewish Way of Life (by the way this will be open again this evening for delegates who didn't make it last night). We then sat down for a splendid meal as the Rabbi explained each element of the meal, and described how they mixed worship and education with food, much like a good Alpha course!
We then had short speeches from the local chair of district, the vice president of the BOD and the head of our external affairs department. They described the painful journey from last year's awful conference (my word, not theirs) when relations between the two communities had broken down following the disgraceful (again my word not theirs) acceptance by conference of the "report" on Palestine and Israel.
Since then there has been a series of meetings which have now enabled a dialogue to get underway. Last night's meal would have been impossible during last year's conference and we must hope and pray for better understanding between the tow communities.
I would like to add a number of observations. Last year's conference brought me close to resignation as a Methodist local preacher, and possibly close to leaving Methodism. I believe that we soiled ourselves with what happened at Portsmouth. I know that many other Methodists felt the same. I do not want to be associated with a church which acts in a way that makes me ashamed.
Later this week we will hopefully be adopting the EUMC definition of anti-Semitism as a "resource". Had we done that previously, it would have been impossible for conference to commission a report compiled by a tiny unrepresentative clique of people known for their antipathy to Judaism and their dependence on avowedly anti-Semitic sources. Naim Ateek would have been unacceptable as a guest speaker. It would not be appropriate for delegations of presidents and vice presidents to go to the Holy Land and repeat anti-Israeli defamation.
Hopefully conference has learned that when dealing with sensitive issues we need to make an approach with humility, maturity and an understanding that we should be transparent and balanced. This was absent last year. We simply outsourced our views and reputation to a self appointed clique that were not representative of Methodism. I know that one or two voices against this were raised, but they were ignored. This must not happen again.
However there are still outstanding issues. The "report" still stands as official Methodist policy. I have yet to hear any suggestion that this is reviewed. The danger of interfaith dialogue is that it enables some people to express their anti-Jewish views whilst prefixing their remarks with the mantra "some of my best friends are Jewish". This was very much on display during the debate at last year's conference. One or two speakers seem to forget that some of us have a long memory and know them of old. We still have some skeletons in our own cupboard which needs airing.
Then we still have the elephant in our own room of the proposed cull of Methodists sympathetic to Israel. This point alone demonstrates the arrogance with which the working party drawing up the "report" thought they had carte blanche to do what they wanted. It may actually mark the high tide of the influence of anti-Semitism within the denomination.
Yesterday I drew attention to the work of the Faith and Order Committee on Christian Zionism. Unlike the "report" this has the potential to impact directly on the standing and membership of individual Methodists within the Connexion. I will place on the record now that the advice I have received is that unless this work is patently transparent and open for full consultation those individuals effected would be able to seek a judicial review.
My strong advice to the Faith and Order Committee is that it urgently reviews just how it is going about this task. Arrogance and secrecy is no way to approach an issue that may involve some of us having our membership withdrawn.
Later this afternoon our official conference website tells us of a fringe meeting with the sentimental title "Messages from a Broken Land - Kairos Palestine: A Mother's Voice". This is a meeting chaired by the President of Methodist Women. The speaker is a woman who regards suicide bombers as "martyrs". No doubt she will be very charming and there will be plenty of tears. However let us understand what she is endorsing.
A typical Palestinian suicide bomber is a young teenager who has been brainwashed to infiltrate a Jewish school bus and blow-up themselves and several other teenage children. Many are killed and others maimed which is exactly what the adult instigators intend. This tactic is used both against the children of Israel and against Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Older "martyrs" have been used in London, New York, Barcelona and Indonesia. I put a formal complaint through to Methodist Women and Church House. Church House have acknowledged but ignored the complaint. Methodist Women outsourced my complaint to Warren Bardsley who responded with great unpleasantness.
We can't tell Jews on a Monday that we want to be their friends and then publicise and welcome on the Tuesday those who praise the killers of Jewish children.
However I get a sense that this evening's meeting with Mrs Hind Khoury is an unpleasant throw back to the disgraceful outcome of last year's conference.
Earlier this morning I wrote of the spiritual warfare now underway in the Connexion and this is just another manifestation. Next year I hope that we may be joined by some of the Arab Israeli citizens, many of them Christians, who enjoy full civil and economic rights in the State of Israel. Meanwhile as I pray for the Peace of Jerusalem I give thanks that the security wall has seriously reduced the number of Jewish children murdered by suicide bombers.
Finally, over recent weeks I have seen some very positive moves within the connexion to put behind us last year's disgraceful "report" and subsequent resolution. There is still much to be done. There has been much positive feedback from the Jewish community. The anti-Semitic clique which instigated and be-witched last year's conference now seemed marginalised and out of step with the emerging thinking and attitudes of British Methodism. The acceptance of the EUMC definition of anti-Semitism will be an important step forward. More transparency is needed in the work of the Faith and Order Committee on Christian Zionism.
However, for the time being I will pause the preparation of the legal challenge that I instigated in the aftermath of last year's conference.
Our priority must be to proclaim the Good News. It is time for Methodism to focus on the things we can do and do well. John Wesley didn't go where he was needed, he went where he was needed most. It is time to re-order our priorities and listen carefully to God.