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Pastoral Letter To The Methodist People

Following the recent controversy over the address by the President and Vice-President of Conference to the Church of England’s General Synod (covered here on this blog and in numerous other places), a pastoral letter has today been issued to the Methodist people by the President, Vice-President and Secretary of Conference to clarify the position. I am pasting it below. It will be in the Methodist Recorder this Thursday, and copies will be read out or given to congregations this Sunday. Comments, as usual, are welcome.

A Pastoral Letter to the Methodist People from the President and Vice-President of the Conference and the General Secretary

(following the address of the President and Vice-President to the General Synod of the Church of England on 11th February 2010)

And are we yet alive? Our answer, despite some recent press speculation to the contrary, is a resounding “Yes!”. We have seen the evidence in various ways through our complementary roles. As President and Vice-President we have represented the care, oversight, authority and support of the Conference as we have visited local churches and situations in different parts of the connexion. We have seen the Methodist people being faithful and the Spirit at work in them and through them. We mentioned some examples in our address to the General Synod.   As General Secretary, Martyn  is responsible for leading the development of the mission of the Methodist Church.  He too has seen evidence of energy being released amongst us.

We are all convinced that God is not finished with the people called Methodist yet. We began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in worship and mission. In Wesley’s time and through succeeding generations we have continually adapted to circumstances to fulfil that calling as effectively as possible. It is still Our Calling today. And mission has never been more needed than it is now. We live in a world ravaged by war and poverty, and torn apart by questions of how we care for the natural environment and the morality of financial systems. We live in a world where people need to hear the word of God in a language they can understand, where they need to see the love of God through people like us and experience it as good news for themselves. We live in a world where not enough people are being attracted and formed into disciples of Jesus Christ, responding to the promptings of the Spirit.

Responding to situations like this, allowing God to transform us so that we can be most effective in doing so, supporting each other in that through our interconnections, is what Methodism has always been about. We best honour those who have gone before us by doing the equivalent in our time and our circumstances of what they did in theirs. It is our DNA as a people to be a group of disciples who are committed to glorifying God in worship, to holiness and to being obedient and active in mission. We are therefore delighted to see an increasing interest in and commitment to discipleship amongst us.

We believe that God has a role for us in this mission, and we are increasingly embracing it. We have about 265,000 ‘card-carrying’ members, and that number has been decreasing because of the age-profile of our members. But more churches are making more members each year; a quarter of our churches are growing; the numbers worshipping with us on Sundays and, increasingly, mid-week is rising; fresh expressions are starting to flourish; we have regular contact with over 800,000 people; and we are part of a growing world-wide Methodist communion of over 70 million. There is a growing self-confidence amongst us accompanied by an appropriate humility about ourselves, and a releasing of energy for mission.

But we are not the whole of the church, and we cannot do it all by ourselves. So we have voted consistently over the years for unity schemes that are designed to increase the whole church’s effectiveness in mission. This is not a death wish, but a desire to be obedient and a willingness to be transformed. We can countenance ceasing to exist as a separate Church because we know that we will still be the Methodist people within a wider Church.

As our major statement on the nature and mission of the Church Called to Love and Praise put it in 1999 “the British Methodist Church may cease to exist as a separate Church entity during the twenty-first century, if continuing progress towards Christian unity is made”. Methodism will still contribute some of the riches of its own distinctive history and mission to any future church. We know from that history that we can be the Methodist people either in our own separate church or in some wider expression of the universal church. Helping to create a wider expression of the universal church and becoming part of it will require not just us but other churches to be prepared to move forward together and to leave some things behind in the process for the sake of the Kingdom. So it is not a question of Methodists being submerged or absorbed in the Church of England or any of our other partners. It is not a matter of Methodists returning to the Anglican fold, but of seeing whether together we are prepared to become a ‘new fold’.

This is not just true of our relationship with the Church of England. We have also signed a Covenant with other churches in Wales, and recently a partnership with other churches in Scotland. We have many local partnerships with other churches, the United Reformed Church in particular. And we are all part of wider denominational groupings. For example, the world-wide Methodist communion is over 70 million strong and the world wide Anglican communion about 78 million. Both are faced with questions of how they cohere in the 21st century, and how they deal with situations where there are competing and even contradictory convictions within them. In addressing these we have a lot to share with each other.

When we addressed the General Synod it was only the second time that the President of the Conference had done so; the first since the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England was signed in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen in 2003; and, importantly, the first time the Vice-President and the president had been invited to address the Synod together. What we were saying to the General Synod was that Methodists have always been committed to unity in order to create greater effectiveness in worship and mission. We said that thinking like this comes naturally from our spirituality. We approach our Covenant with the Church of England in the light of the Covenant Service in our Worship Book which we pray each year. We were gently but urgently asking the General Synod whether the Church of England was prepared to make the same commitment and allow itself to be transformed for the sake of the gospel. And what we say to the Church of England we say to our other partners.

So what happens if other churches are not prepared to be changed in order to become more effective in mission with us? Rather than being groups of Methodist people in a new and wider church, we shall continue as a Methodist people in a separate Methodist Church faithfully trusting in God’s continuing leading of us. We could do that, and we currently do. But even as a separate church we shall have to continue with our commitment to co-operate with others in mission wherever possible and to whatever extent it is possible.

Whether co-operating with others or allowing a wider expression of the universal church to come into existence will require a lot of working together in mission locally. Doing that will throw up some obstacles that will have to be removed and some issues that will have to be resolved if mission is not to be hampered. Some of those include matters of interchangeability of ministries, common decision-making structures, the role of women in the church, and how oversight is embodied. Much work has been done on these and some people will have to be asked to keep working at them on our behalf. When we signed the Covenant we committed ourselves to working to remove any obstacles to visible communion so far as our relationship with the Church of England is concerned. Any solutions will have to be agreed by all of us in due course and by due procedure. But in the interim we must all keep striving to engage as effectively as possible in worship and mission.

We have found the Methodist people in good heart, and an increasing sense of the energy of God’s love being released amongst us. We are a people of one book, the Bible. We allow the gospel to both comfort and challenge us. We let the love of God both confirm and transform us in the body of Christ through the Spirit.

We are yet alive. We shall be alive in the future in whatever form God wills. God has not finished with us yet!

The Revd David Gamble

President of the Conference

Dr Richard M Vautrey

Vice-President of the Conference

The Revd Dr Martyn D Atkins

General Secretary

[End of letter]

UPDATE,  Wednesday 24th February, 11:45 am: Pete Phillips has just blogged on the letter and vibes he’s picked up from the C of E that they’re not even minded to respond. Does that once again leave the Methodist Church as the bride jilted at the altar? Are we – as I suspect – the party making all the running in the Covenant? Why? Is it an issue of power, as I suggested in my orginal blog? Where does that leave one of my churches which on Palm Sunday will be renewing its covenant with the local parish church for another five years – something both parties enthusiastically embrace?

Comments, debate this way please!

UPDATE 2, Thursday 25th February, 1:00 pm: The Church Mouse has weighed in with an impassioned plea from an Anglican perspective.

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Is The Methodist Church About To Die?

The Methoblogosphere (at least here in the UK) is buzzing after David Gamble and Richard Vautrey, the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, addressed the Church of England General Synod yesterday and declared that Methodism was ready to die if it furthered the mission of God. They challenged the C of E to consider whether they would say the same. Good sources on this story come from Ekklesia, the President and Vice-President’s blog, Dave Warnock and various posts by Pete Phillips. Less kudos for Ruth Gledhill’s blogs in the Times, I’m afraid.

Here are a few thoughts that have been going through my mind.

The critical point is we should be willing to die for the sake of mission. Amen to that. Would that every Methodist signed up to that. ‘Unless a grain of wheat …’ etc. David Gamble said:

We are prepared to go out of existence not because we  are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission.

Indeed. However, the problem is we might cease to exist without making the choice freely because in many places we are failing in mission. The ‘mission first’ theme (as Dave Warnock calls it) has to be top priority. And not so we can save our chapels so they continue to exist; rather, because people need the love of God in Christ.

On the mission theme I found one of the most telling quotes to come from Ken Howcroft, the Assistant Secretary of Conference and Ecumenical Officer (in one of Pete’s blogs linked above):

Methodism began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in mission. It’s calling was expressed as “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land”. The modern expression of that is the programme Our Calling. We have over time gradually become a church.  We cherish our traditions and history as a church. We cherish our institutions and structures. But we still have the DNA of a  movement.

Exactly. It is my understanding as one whose postgrad research was in ecclesiology that so much of Methodism is still structured like a para-church movement rather than a church. The circuit system is the most obvious example. It was created by Wesley as a way of getting preachers to go round servicing the midweek renewal groups that he established during the eighteenth century revival, but those groups were meant to worship at the parish church on Sundays. We translated that structure into a denomination, where preachers still move – but from congregation to congregation – and not midweek but on Sundays. (For anyone who wants to explore more of this academically, the late missiologist Ralph Winter wrote about it using the terms ‘modalities’ and ‘sodalities‘.)

I don’t accept the way in which the Anglo-Catholics argue we aren’t truly a church (bishops, the ‘historic succession’ and all that nonsense), but there is a real argument that we never stopped being structured as a renewal movement. The problem is, that isn’t how we’re viewed on the ground. Our members see us as a church; the world sees us as a church. And of course the church should be about mission. However, we have imported into our renewal structures other aspects that come direct from the Christendom centuries of the church (notably ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care) that bias us in a direction of being concerned for internal matters first. I applaud what David Gamble has said enthusiastically, for all my reservations about union with the Church of England (I don’t believe in a threefold order of ministry, I think what is claimed for the historic succession is bunk and is also pastorally damaging, I don’t believe in an established church). However, we have a lot to do to convince our people that he is working from the correct premises (which I think he is).

And then there is his challenge to the Church of England. Well said! I hope it will be heard and taken seriously. The difficulty comes in the fact that they are the majority party and this could be taken as Methodism going into submissive mode – ‘OK, we’ll accept your terms’. (Not that the President meant that for a moment!) Like it or not, power comes into these discussions. It was there from 1946, when Archbishop Fisher invited the Free Churches to ‘take episcopacy into their system‘. In other words, unity is on our terms, folks. It’s been explicit in Anglican unity thinking since the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 to 1888. There was provision for episcopacy to be ‘locally adapted’, but episcopacy was still a non-negotiable.

Furthermore, we should never lose sight of the dangers of organic union. If we delude ourselves that a formal union is a great witness, we should think again. Did Jesus have merely institutional unity in mind when he prayed for the unity of his disciples, as recorded in John 17? Of course not! As the current debate underlines, it was about mission. But it isn’t simply that an institutional union provides credibility to the world: rather, mission is a spiritual activity, and must be empowered spiritually. There are too many examples littering our globe of organic unions and plummeting membership. Therefore this welcome debate has to be fuelled by a powerful renewal in the Holy Spirit or the fruits will not match the fine aspirations.

Come, Holy Spirit.


Removing The Cross In Coronation Street

Last week we discussed the church that removed a graphic crucifix in Horsham. This week, a similar issue has hit British television. The Daily Mail, Times and Daily Telegraph all report the case of a wedding scene in soapland, where the television crew wanted to remove a cross from a church where they were filming said wedding. On learning that the cross was fixed, they obscured it with candles and flowers.

Why did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for realism. Dry ice wafted through the scene – so just like any church service, then. According to church sources, they said they didn’t want to cause offence.

I didn’t see the show. Not only do I see very little TV, I’m allergic to soaps. I’ve been catching up on the issue after two church members told me about it.

In fairness, the television company has since apologised for the error and conducted an investigation. They believe there has been a misunderstanding over their intentions and motives. I wonder how the story would have been reported if the church had protested directly to Granada first and not gone public until after this investigation.

However, my main interest here is this: it’s curious to see the language used by the church leaders in protesting, and what it might imply. I’m particularly interested in the language of ‘offence’. In the Daily Mail report linked above, Stephen Regan of the Diocese of Chester is reported as saying,

The cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity, and should offend no one.

Er, hold on? The first part of his sentence is correct, but from the beginning of faith in Jesus the cross has been an offence. If the cross has been reduced to symbol in the sense of a corporate logo, then I suppose it wouldn’t offend, but that isn’t what we’re about.

Similarly, James Milnes, the rector of the parish, quoted in the Telegraph story linked above, rightly says that Granada Television had 

emptied the church of the very thing that makes it a church

in that the Cross is what makes us the community of God. Absolutely. I once wanted to design a church letterhead as not showing a line drawing of the building, but people around the Cross.

However, what is strange is the extended quotation from his church magazine:

How can people think it offensive to see a cross in a church, in the same way as you would normally see the Koran in a mosque or the Torah in a synagogue? That is the emblem of this faith.

This has a resonance around the country. It plays into who we are as a nation because I do not think we have a clear idea as English people. We do not really know where we are going.

There is constant attrition to our way of life. You can’t say this or you can’t say that for fear of offending. Who can we possibly be offending?

If ’emblem’ has become ‘logo’, then again one can understand the shock at the sense of offence. But the Cross itself is offensive to many who do not know the power of the Gospel. Muslims would see the death of a ‘prophet’ such as Jesus as being demeaning to the dignity of God. To traditional Jews, one thinks of Paul quoting Deuteronomy in Galatians, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ To the Greeks of Paul’s day, it was foolishness, and it remains that to many people today.

To Christians, it is the glory of God’s love and grace. And that is what I understand the Revd Milnes and Mr Regan defending. However, they cannot expect it to lack offence. Here’s just a thought: do they take things this way because they have an ‘Established Church’ mentality? I’m just guessing, and may be doing them a disservice. If I am, I will apologise. However, Milnes clearly links the issue to the confused current destiny of being English, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark, even if I am wrong.

Yet as the Christian Church in the UK seeks a mission rôle as a minority group in society, I can’t help thinking that more helpful models of church are needed. I’ve spoken and written before, as others of a missional theological mindset have, of ‘exile’ as a helpful biblical model. From the perspective of church history, I find myself heading more in Anabaptist directions all the time. I don’t pretend that’s easy, in fact it risks being painful, but I do think the changed and changing society in which we live means we need to look for some different paradigms on which to model our witness.

In typing this, I am mindful of an interview in the February 2009 issue of Christianity Magazine, with Ann Widdecombe MP (the interview will probably not be online for another month). For anyone reading this who doesn’t know British politics, Miss Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in opposition to women’s ordination. In the interview, she is asked about the current vexed issue of the establishment of the Church of England. She replies:

I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.

But there’s the problem. Claiming the UK is a Christian nation is a fig leaf. Widdecombe would doubtless wish to protect establishment (even though she went over to Rome) for political reasons of constitution, and certainly some of the reasons advocated by politicians for disestablishment are weak and unChristian. But right now establishment is not protecting the rights of Christians in the courts when religious freedoms are trumped by other freedoms, so that some Christians cannot exercise their consciences and keep certain jobs. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic to expect that people won’t find the Cross offensive.

In saying all this, I may of course be putting too much weight on the use of the words ‘offend’ and ‘offending’ as used by Stephen Regan and James Milnes. Perhaps what Mr Regan really means is ‘surprised’. However, Revd Milnes uses his language in a context of objecting to ‘political correctness’, and so I am a little more sure that he really does mean to be concerned about the problem of offence. Certainly, the risk of offending people provided it is with the substance of the Gospel rather than just by being aggressive Christians (step forward Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who inevitably responded to requests for a quote) is a risk we must take today. If we do not, we shall not be faithful to the Gospel.

Interestingly, the Telegraph has this week carried the story of an Asian Christian minister in Scotland who claims he was sacked from an Asian community radio station for supporting Christianity and criticising a Muslim’s understanding of the Christian faith. The station disputes his account, and asked for questions to be put in writing. However, the Telegraph received no response to its fourteen points. If the case has been accurately portrayed in the newspaper (and I don’t think the station’s failure to respond looks good), then sadly this is the climate in which more and more British Christians live. Mr Milnes and his parishioners may have had a rude awakening into it, even if it was a misunderstanding and Granada Television meant no offence. This is not to seek persecution or develop some unhelpful persecution complex, which some Christians play on, but it is, I think, to be more realistic.

Over to you.

Fresh Expressions: Emerging Church And The Historic Denominations

Going off at a tangent from a post by Pete Phillips, Fresh Expressions is a joint initiative of the Church of England and the Methodist Church to support ‘new ways of being church’. In a strangely modernist way they have identified twelve categories of new expressions of church!

But the thing is this: the historic denominations are increasingly interested in new forms of church. Is it for creative reasons? Is it desperate? Is it the Holy Spirit? What seems to be being swept under the carpet is the huge potential for clashes of values.

For example, won’t we have to start facing some sacred cows such as entrenched doctrines of ordination? Don’t existing ones play the power card in a way that postmoderns and Jesus-followers should be highly suspicious of? You don’t need to go the whole ontological way that the Anglicans do, just take the Methodist view that although ordination confers no separate priesthood, nevertheless it is ‘representative’ (which is pretty close to specialised priesthood) and it confers presidency at the sacraments on the grounds of ‘good order’. That may have been a pragmatic way of restricting presidency to the presbyters in years gone by without officially conceding a sacerdotal approach, but how does it read now? Let’s play reader-response in the 21st century with it. Who can keep good order? Normally only presbyters? What does that say about everybody else?

(Of course Methodism now allows ‘extended communion’ where authorised people can take communion into homes. It started out as something for the sick, but the Big Bad Rule Book can be interpreted to allow this for home groups. Nevertheless it’s only seen as delegated from the presiding minister at a Sunday service, and the people still need to be authorised.)

How far we have come from a Last Supper modelled on the Jewish Passover that was celebrated in the family. And how far we have come from a Saviour who took a towel and a bowl of water.

Although you can’t say the emerging church is all of one mind on every issue (it’s a ‘conversation’, it likes to think) nevertheless it’s pretty clear that it embraces an understandable postmodern suspicion of the link between truth and power, and it is deeply attracted to the radical picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

So this post is really to ask whether the emerging churches and the historic denominations can fully embrace each other. Either there will be compromise of principles on one side or the other (you can bet that those who still perceive themselves as powerful will expect the others to conform to them). Or there will be persistent conflict: the romance will break up. Or the new wine will break the old wineskins.

Someone please tell me I’ve got it wrong, and why. But my spiritual gift of pessimism comes into play on this issue.

Radical Change For The Church Of England

Doing away with professional clergy; meeting in homes rather than Grade 1 listed buildings; redistributing money from the rich to the poor. All sounds very Gospel, doesn’t it? It certainly sounds very ’emerging church’. Not quite what you’d expect from a report to the General Synod of the dear old C of E. And it’s on the front page of today’s Times.

What a shame that a financial crisis has prompted this report, rather than creative missional thinking and prayer. Still, God uses all things for good for those who love him. Let’s pray this is a providential moment, and not only for the Church of England but for the wider Church.