Ruth Gee is about to become the earthly leader of more than 250,000 Methodists across the country. Ahead of her year as President of Conference, the Darlington-based mother-of-two talks to Mark Tallentire

THE Reverend Ruth Gee is just back from Bolivia. She clearly enjoyed the trip – exotic souvenirs dot the walls of her Darlington home. But what did the locals in South America want to talk about?

Apparently, Newbiggin Methodist Chapel, hidden away in remote County Durham.

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Opened in 1760, the upper Teesdale worship house is considered to be the world’s oldest Methodist chapel still in continuous use.

“I said I was preaching there the next week.

They were so excited,” Ruth says.

Next month, Mrs Gee will become President of the Methodist Conference – leader of the Methodist Church in Britain, and a father, or perhaps mother, figure for more than 80 million Methodists across the planet.

Since the death of Methodist founder John Wesley in 1791, presidents have served, sitting in his chair, for one year only.

Ruth’s year will begin when she is inducted on Saturday, July 6.

She said: “There’s a feeling of ‘Is it really me?’”.

“But I’m actually very calm about it. It feels right.

“I’ve had so many texts and emails from people saying they are praying for me.”

The Dorset-born clergywoman has plenty of experience to draw on in her new role.

Brought up in a Christian home in rural Wiltshire, the daughter of Charles, a Methodist local preacher, and Isobel, who still lives in Darlington, she had no single conversion experience, she says, but can pinpoint the moment she believes she was called to ordained ministry.

She was 18 and visiting the monastic Taize community, in France.

“I’d been praying silently in a Roman Catholic church.

“I went outside and was thinking about it and thought: ‘I wonder if I’m supposed to be a Methodist minister’,” she says.

At the time, she was not a Methodist member and was uncertain whether the denomination even had female ministers.

They did, just.

SHE entered ministry aged 40 and served in Bradford and near Halifax, before becoming chairwoman of the Darlington Methodist district, which includes 150 churches with about 6,000 members across Darlington, much of County Durham, Teesside and parts of North Yorkshire, in 2008.

She has been president-designate for a year, having been chosen to succeed the Reverend Dr Mark Wakelin, as per tradition, at last year’s conference.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” she says.

“I had absolutely no intention or expectation of being nominated.

“I was, and still am, very happy where I am.

There’s plenty to do here.”

But her name emerged a few days before the vote and it felt right, she recalls.

The former trainee nurse and secondary schoolteacher takes the helm at a challenging time for Methodism.

Membership is falling, churches are closing and there are key doctrinal issues to be settled.

The conference will feature a debate on samesex marriage.

On that matter, Ruth, who has been married to husband, Robert, who she met at Methodist Society while both were studying at Hull University, since Easter 1977, said she wants to affirm loving relationships.

However, she said that there is also “real growth”, – citing Thornaby Methodist Church’s Noah’s Ark Family Centre project and the increasingly-popular Messy Church children’s initiative as only two exciting examples.

And there is much for Ruth to look forward to personally.

Hosting an ordination service at Westminster Central Hall the day after her induction as president and preaching on Holy Island a week later to celebrate the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North-East, are among the highlights that she picks out from a busy schedule.

Her priorities, she says, will be to help to link people to one another and provide some encouraging and inspirational leadership.

While she is unlikely to be overtly political, she will not shy away from speaking her mind.

On poverty, for example, building on a crosschurch letter sent to the Prime Minister earlier this month asking the Government to apologise for misrepresenting the poor, she said: “We’re about recognising that God is with us wherever we are. God is there and can’t be ignored.”