Shalome McNeill-Cooper was officially welcomed into the Methodist Connexion on Sunday (June 30th). The Ordination Service for seven ordinands was particularly celebratory being the last to take place at the present Darlington Street Methodist Church, which will close later this year after 118 years serving the community.
Delivering the Sermon Preacher Mrs. Stella Bristow advised the ordinands not to worry if they forget her utterances but to rejoice as befitted the occasion and take with them words of encouragement as they continue in ministry. She encouraged them to ask questions, to be something like the disciple Thomas, who though often disparaged, is commendable as one of the most thoughtful, reflective and courageous of the disciples. Thomas asked questions where the other disciples who perhaps did not have his imagination, took the moral high ground. Nevertheless, his enquiring mind had him forever branded the negative label "doubter". Thomas was simply unwilling to accept what he was told without question. Mrs. Bristow told the ordinands that as Methodism provides the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to guide theological reflection, they can apply Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience to today's issues and reflect on what Methodists are doing both together as a church and individually.
Mrs. Bristow recalled an incident when she had "messed up" a sermon. The advice of a colleague which she has since referred to many times, had been, "Sometimes we just have to accept when we make a mess of things. Learn from it, clear up the mess, let it go and move on". She hoped that as presbyters, having been supervised and supported during probation they would journey forward with people alongside them, helping them to ask the questions, clean up the messes and cope with the reality of ministry.
Following the service Revd. MacNeill-Cooper said that the ordination had felt surreal. "I cannot believe that it's actually happened after twelve years of journeying through two countries and two denominations that it's actually here, but this is what happens when you wait on God. It culminates in this moment and there's so many people here who I'm just blessed to have in my life. It's going to be such a privilege to serve them as presbyter not just probationer anymore and I'm excited. I have not felt this kind of joy in my soul in a very long time."
At her Testimony Service at Belle Vue Methodist Church in mid-June Revd. MacNeill-Cooper had shared aspects of her childhood and teenage that wavered between the harrowing and the heart-breaking. As a child (growing up with an unusual name; her father's side had a penchant for unusual names), her education was impaired by dyslexia, her health jeopardised by life-threatening illness. She had hated Sunday School but attending the Salvation Army taught her about "faith in action" and giving to the poor, "giving of our last even though we were poor ourselves." From her Methodist grandmother she learnt strict sabbath practices that rendered rocking on the rocking chair or playing of any sort, forbidden on Sunday. She noticed that for her grandmother prayer was everything. She had a curious mind and wanted answers to questions like, "Who is God?"
At 17 her boyfriend was hit by a car driven by a drunk, off duty police officer. One Sunday she didn't want to go to church but her mother was persuasive. During Holy Communion she had looked up at the minister as he said, "This is my body broken for you." It felt as though her whole world had been opened up. She recalled, "Suddenly Jesus was alive. Suddenly, that story of Christ's dominion was so very real, not like the stories from around the kitchen table."
That revelation changed her life. Despite her pain and heartache, she was able to forgive the police officer who had killed her boyfriend. This and other equally magnanimous acts of forgiveness pepper the long road of Revd. MacNeill-Cooper's journey to ministry. "I Haven't remained faithful to God all my life, but he has remained faithful to me," she said and so she is taking her call seriously "although not as immediately as James and John", but the knowledge that Jesus saved her from herself fuels her urgency in wanting others to know God's love for themselves too.
Revd. MacNeill-Cooper had ended her testimony with the story of her quilt. A quilt which contains material from the T-shirt she was wearing when her boyfriend died and materials from various life trials and events. The "fabric" she said, represents those people who are in the fabric of her life, the comedy and the tragedy of it, the friends and strangers, the laughter and the tears. It's a quilt of which Revd. MacNeill-Cooper says, "When I wrap myself in it, it is like being wrapped in the arms of God himself".