A Methodist who keeps order in parliament

By Kathleen LaCamera
1 Mar 2008

Leading British Methodist Ruby Beech's "day job" is a position that dates back to at least the 15th century. As an assistant sergeant at arms in the UK Parliament, she helps look after the security and administration of the House of Commons. When Beech is not making sure lawmakers can do their jobs in a safe and efficient environment, she can be found doing her other job: serving as vice president of the Methodist Church in Great Britain.

Appointed in 2005, Beech is only the second woman to hold a sergeant at arms job in the Commons' 700-year history. Her workdays can stretch from morning to past midnight and encompass responsibilities as diverse as corralling rowdy elected MPs (Members of Parliament) to issuing photography permits.

Last July, she was elected to a one-year term of office by the national church's annual conference. British Methodist vice presidents (always a lay person) and presidents (always a clergy person) represent the church at a range of events and undertake many leadership responsibilities within the denomination.

As Beech moves with ease through the ancient halls of Westminster Palace (home to Parliament), nodding to MPs and Commons staff, and then attends a reception celebrating 60 years of the Methodist Ministers' Housing Society, it's clear she thrives on her dual life.

"Politics is a way of helping people work in communities. It's a way of looking after the least well-off and protecting those who can't protect themselves," Beech told me in the Commons tearoom while on break during a legislative session. She is wearing her sergeant at arms attire, which includes a ruffle collar and black suit.

An unapologetic idealist, Beech, aged 51, says that even though both church communities and politicians make mistakes, at their best they work toward many of the same worthwhile goals.

Centuries of tradition

The word "serjeant" is derived from the Latin "serivens," which means "servant." While in medieval times, the sergeant at arms undertook administrative tasks such as "collecting loans and impressing men and ships," Beech explains that the administrative side of her role today includes elements of "facilities management" work.

"I do general management things like overseeing special stationery, issuing permits for car parking and bike racks - what someone once called 'high level trivia.' I also do big contract negotiations as well," she says.

"It's that Bible thing about if your neighbor is cold, give him a coat. My job is about trying to help people with their basic needs, making sure there are the clean toilets and hot food and car parks space. You hope that your presence means that those basic needs are being met and that you're someone to talk to if not. It frees (MPs) up to do the things they need to do."

The other component of her job has both a ceremonial and a security dimension. Many of her predecessors have been members of the armed forces. Beech and her four sergeant at arms colleagues are responsible for safety and order inside the legislative chamber.

When the House is in session, the sergeant at arms sits near the Speaker of the House and monitors the security inside the chamber. Should any unauthorized person get into the chamber (as a protester did in 2004 when he threw flour over then-Prime Minister Tony Blair) or should MPs get out of hand during a particularly lively debate, it's up to the sergeant at arms to sort things out.

"I always go in with a smile," Beech says. She describes situations in which she has to "encourage" MPs to stop delaying a vote by congregating in the lobby outside the chamber or engaging in other disruptive behavior.

This historic security role means that the five sergeants at arms are the only people in Parliament authorized to carry a sword, even though pegs for the swords of MPs still exist in the Commons cloak room. Beech says she wears her sword primarily on big state occasions, such as the State Opening of Parliament, though she notes that her male colleagues tend to wear theirs most of the time.

In the future, this dual role of the sergeant at arms is likely to change, and she will be moved either towards a role involving more security or more facilities management, according to Beech.

Carrying the Mace

Beech also has been trained to carry the Mace, which symbolizes the authority of the Speaker of the House. "The Mace," a ceremonial staff, is carried into the chamber when the daily session begins and out at the close.

As an assistant sergeant at arms, Beech only has carried the Mace out at the end of the day. Her colleague, Jill Pay - the first ever female sergeant at arms appointed in 2004 and now the most senior sergeant at arms - is the person who brings the Mace in at the start of the day.

Beech says a key element in all aspects of her Commons job is dealing fairly with everyone regardless of her own particular views or allegiances.

"I have to remain impartial," she explains. "Being here, I've had my prejudices challenged. I grew up thinking one party was all right and others all wrong. I've discovered that people from all parties have shared values and aims. They are not all in little boxes, not clones of each other. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect."

That conviction also has informed her role as vice president of the British Methodist Church and her previous professional life as a human resources specialist working with the YM & YWCA, businesses, local government, a college and the national church. From 1998 to 2005, she held the post of connexional secretary for the denomination, looking after its human and financial resources. During that period, she saw the job listing for the sergeant at arms position in the newspaper and applied.

Lay preacher aged 17

Ruby Beech grew up in a small village near Nottingham, where her father worked in the local mines and her seamstress mother taught her that there was "nothing a woman couldn't do that a man could that was worth doing."

While attending a Methodist summer youth event at age 15, Beech says she "recognized God in Jesus for the first time." By the time she was 17, she was a local preacher in training, though she admits being grateful that she kept no sermon notes from those early days. The congregations where she preached were "very gracious," she adds with a laugh.

"I grew up with a confidence to go out (into the world) that was nurtured by the church and at home," she remarks. "While other people feel the church is all about what you can't do, for me it was all about what you could do."

Wanting to encourage that sense of possibility and confidence in succeeding generations, she and her husband, Pete, became volunteer church youth workers. When, at 36, Pete died from a brain tumor, it was the young people with whom the couple had worked who reached out to Beech.

"It was a reversal of roles," she remembers. "They took on the pastoral role. When a lot of people didn't know what to say or how to deal with you, they were more accepting. They'd come round to the house and invite me to the cinema. They were fantastic."

Evangelical faith

While some people asked Beech if her husband's death had destroyed her faith, she replies that it is difficult for her to imagine how to get through such a loss without faith. She calls herself an evangelical, which she likens to "one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread."

"It means sharing the faith - feeling this is something wonderful and transforming in my life, a framework to live by, the belief that I am loved and cared for, that there is something more going on than just the niggles of everyday life," she explains. "I want to share that with other people."

That is exactly what she has been doing as she has traveled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and beyond as the denomination's vice president.

Current Methodist President Martyn Atkins - who shares a "presidential team" blog with Beech - calls her "one special woman" whose liberal theology genuinely and skillfully combines "a deep love of Jesus, historic evangelical experiences of Christ and a desire to be a better disciple."

"She speaks her mind, but never in such a forceful way that it prevents dialogue," Atkins says.

Desire for an inclusive church

That openness has been important as she has frankly and publicly discussed human sexuality and her hope for a more inclusive church. Beech recounts how people have come up to her during her travels to talk about homosexuality in their families. She says they tell her this is the first time they have been able to tell anyone in the church about it. However, Beech also realizes that some people find her position "challenging," and she works hard to make room for all points of view to be heard.

Rachel Lampard, the Methodist Church's secretary for parliamentary affairs, calls Beech a "groundbreaker" and reports that "the House" is "chuffed" (pleased) to have such a high-level Methodist representative working in the Commons.

She explains that most Methodist vice presidents are retired from full-time work, so Beech is an exception to the rule.

"It's good for people in the church to see her linking life with faith, holding together her job and her commitment to the church," Lampard says. "It's really impressive."

Beech is quick to credit her husband Garry, whom she married in 1994, with great patience and understanding in the face of her demanding service to both church and country.

Having used most of her leisure and vacation times with vice-presidential duties (including trips to India, Australia, Eastern Europe and Africa), the couple is planning a proper vacation in France with friends after her term is up, where she says she plans to do "very little."

To log on to Ruby Beech and Martyn Atkins' Presidential Blog, go to: http://www.methodist-presandvp.blogspot.com/.

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(c) Kathleen LaCamera is a United Methodist Church (USA) News Service correspondent based in England. Her website is: http://www.kathleenlacamera.com/ With thanks to UMNS.

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