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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.


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Women With Strong Personalities

Dave Warnock has recently written two storming posts on the problems of ‘complementarianism’, the view that takes the New Testament scriptures about ‘male headship’ in a highly literal (and I would argue, wooden and out-of-context) way. Read ‘The forgotten victims of male headship‘ and ‘My wife …‘. Both these posts talk about the demeaning of people (of wives who are only valued for their beauty, and of all sections of society). His writing made me think about a recent conversation with a friend. I found it quite startling.

“Dave,” said my friend, “thank you for modelling the fact that it’s OK for a Christian man to marry a woman with a strong personality.”

Huh? I mean, I just fell in love with her? And no-one who meets my wife can miss the fact that she calls a spade a shovel.

“I wish  more Christian men would model this,” said my friend. “I wonder if it’s why I’m still single.” For my friend is a gently outspoken single woman.

How much more damage must we let complementarianism do?

Methodists And Social Media: Constructive Ways Forward

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I’m just using this post to draw together different initiatives in the wake of Monday’s Methodist Council decision. There is a discussion happening on my post yesterday about areas where we might draw discussions together. Matt Wardman has suggested the Methodist Recorder’s website, I have suggested using one of the existing Facebook groups for Methodists.

But meanwhile, Dave Warnock has set something up. Hats off and show your receding hairline (if you’re a man) to him! In Opening Consultation: Social Media Guidelines he tells us he has set up a Google document. If you give Dave your email address he will authorise you to edit it. Between us he hopes we can come up with a set of values for social media that authentically reflects Methodist spirituality.

And I also wanted to draw attention to something on David Hallam’s blog. In his brief post yesterday he helpfully draws our attention to an article on the Social Media Examiner about IBM’s attitude to employees’ use of social media. Essentially, it’s one full of permission and blessing, albeit backed up by guidelines. I’ve only had time for a quick skim, but at first glance it looks like a creative approach from an industry that has to understand social media. As indeed must we.

How thankful I am that people are thinking of these initiatives in order to take us beyond debate to action.

Methodists And Social Media: The Methodist Council Decision

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Posts are starting to fly in on yesterday’s Methodist Council decision. Pete Phillips and Dave Warnock (both members of the Council) have blogged the result in some details, and Richard Hall has offered a brief comment with an appeal for grace.

Broadly speaking, the report was accepted, but with two qualifications. Firstly, Council has sensibly removed the words ‘after the meeting’ from the discussion of the Chatham House Rule, for otherwise people would have been prevented from discussing non-confidential matters together before a meeting. That would have been absurd, and conspiracy theorists would have eaten that for breakfast.

Secondly, this resolution was passed:

The Council adopts the guidelines (sc. sections 5 to 10 of the main paper) for use in the bodies and situations over which it has jurisdiction, and recommends them to the Conference for adoption in other parts of the Methodist Church. The Council further invites the Team to keep these guidelines under open review. The Council also directs the Team to produce a summary version of them similar to the Civil Service guidelines.

I find this hopeful, too. We shall see how Conference debates this in the summer. I might have preferred more than an ‘invitation’ to the Connexional Team to keep the guidelines under review, but I trust there will be people in the Team and on the Council who will take sufficient active interest in the matter to ensure this is not forgotten. I also think the summary will be a good move – so long as that concentrates on values, not legislation.

I’d like to echo Richard’s call for gracious participation by bloggers in monitoring and discussing this. There is no reason why that cannot be so. Indeed, it should be so for us as Christians. I know there are times when I’ve flown off the handle about something and clicked ‘publish’ or ‘send’ too quickly, but a Christian approach would involve consideration before publication. That needn’t mean a lack of debate, as I see it. We don’t need to become like the Chinese public looking over their shoulders at the secret police when weighing their words for the western media. Methodism can have authoritarian tendencies at times (and we inherit that from our founder!), but I don’t think we’re that bad.

How might we debate? Here’s how I see it as a minister: every year, I have to attend the Ministerial Synod, where I renew my promises to uphold the doctrines and discipline of our denomination. If I can’t make that affirmation, I have to resign – and rightly. I will be candid and say there are things in our practices I don’t like, and I wish to see changed. I can freely campaign for change, just so long as I continue to believe our doctrines and operate our discipline. I have to ask whether the things I dislike are life-and-death issues. If they did become matters of absolute principle, then resignation would be the only option. Thankfully, it has never come to that. I hope it never will. However, you never know. SoI could start a debate on one of my pet issues without fear, so long as I do not do so in a manner that means I am actively rejecting our beliefs and ways of doing things.

And in passing, for those of us who are ‘card-carrying evangelicals’. who have sometimes been upset by certain ‘liberal’ decisions in Methodism, let me just quote something I found helpful a few years ago from the evangelical Anglican bishop Pete Broadbent. He said, ‘Look to the title deeds of your church. Have the core doctrines been changed?’

Beyond that, I think we just need to stop and wonder what led us to this (at times) painful debate over the last few days. One major issue is about a breakdown of trust between local Methodists and the Connexion. It is a separate and big question about how we address that. Those who have a more positive relationship with Connexion have approached this and other issues differently.Without coming over all ‘hello trees, hello flowers’, we need to address and heal our relationships.

It is also about how Methodism moves into the new ways of communication. How well do we understand them and work within them? It’s about more than Marshall McLuhan‘s 1960s truism, ‘the medium is the message’, it’s more like Rex Miller‘s aphorism, ‘the medium is the worldview’. Internet values of transparency and openness (not all of which should be adopted uncritically – witness the storm when Facebook changed every user’s privacy settings recently) change the way we debate confidentiality and privacy. The libertarianism in major areas of the Internet (which again shouldn’t be accepted unthinkingly) affects how we handle laws, values, censorship, restrictions and all manner of things.

David Hallam’s angry tirades on this subject and others make both these points (in rather extreme ways, in my opinion). I checked his blog before completing this post. At the time of writing he has not yet written about the Methodist Council decision, but he has posted another item in his ‘Blogger Beware!’ series. I thoroughly dislike his jibes at other Methodist bloggers in that piece and others, and I do not like his immodest conclusion,

On Wednesday 25 April 2007 this blog changed British Methodism forever

but threads in his writing underline my comments. David, perhaps more than any other British Methodist blogger, distrusts the Connexion, and sometimes he has a right to do so. He is also acutely aware that the openness of the Internet democratises debate to a considerable extent, and Methodism must get used to that.I just fear his tone will give ammunition to those who do not understand or who dislike the world of social media and its ramifications.

If we could get on with discussing the values behind David’s writing but without the tone, we could make progress with this debate.

More On Methodists And Social Media

The debate I mentioned on Tuesday continues. To mention some:

Richard Hall interviewed Toby Scott on Wednesday. Fat Prophet sees the document as similar to standard policies issued by ‘secular’ employers. Pete Phillips was consulted (as Secretary of the Faith and Order Committee) but isn’t happy. Like Pete, Matt Wardman contrasts the lengthy Methodist document with the much briefer Civil Service guidelines, which concentrate on principles and permission rather than details. Steve Jones, observing from South Africa, knows that such guidelines are normal in industry but wonders how we distinguish between legitimate debate and bringing the church into disrepute.

Other figures with something to say haven’t done so on their blogs, but in comments on other people’s posts. For example, Dave Warnock and Dave Perry. Both are members of the Methodist Council and may have therefore felt it tactful not to post before the meeting next Monday.

It seems to have escalated today. David Hallam, who got the debate going with a controversial post, has written about it passionately again today. In it, we learn more of why David is so upset:

I know of two cases already where blogging Methodists have face harassment and bullying by certain senior church officials (I stress certain, many senior Connexional officials would be shocked if they knew the full story). In the case that I know best extensive efforts were made to resolve the issue by the blogger concerned but to no avail. The Matthew 18 procedure was exhausted.

If true, this is worrying. I do know of one person who felt they were being implicitly criticised in the paper, but I don’t know anything that would fit the ‘harassment and bullying’ description David talks about. I’m still not sure I like some of David’s language – he compares the Methodist Church to Iran and China towards the end of the post – but if he has come across cases of bullying, it is little surprise he is angry.

So where are we up to, before Methodist Council discusses this issue?

Firstly, there remains disagreement on the transparency issue. Broadly speaking, those who are favourable towards the policy see the naming of the bloggers who were consulted as a red herring, while those who have reservations see it as important. In my limited surfing, I have only seen some Methodist bloggers say they weren’t consulted. I have not yet seen anyone say they were. Please let me know if I am mistaken.

Secondly, the debate so far illustrates the problems we have with confidentiality, privacy and Internet openness. In today’s piece, David Hallam fears that Dave Warnock is alluding to a potential retreat from publishing papers online as a result. I hadn’t read Dave that way, and I don’t see him as ‘authoritarian’ as David describes him – that’s not the Dave I know at all. But perhaps we need to distinguish between confidentiality and privacy, if that doesn’t sound too strange. What I mean is this: as a minister, I am committed to confidentiality apart from in exceptional circumstances (for example, if someone made an allegation about child abuse). However, even if the discussion papers for Methodist Council were once private, it must have been the Council that agreed to them being publicly available ahead of time on the web. Once you’ve done that on the Internet, the genie is out of the bottle, and any retreat – if that is indeed contemplated – will look very bad indeed.

Thirdly, we have an issue about acceptable behaviour in meetings. Can you text, tweet or surf during a council, committee or conference? I am no multi-tasker and I would find that difficult. However, I have to accept that others can – unlike me – multi-task. Everyone will agree it is important to give attention to the business being discussed, but we have to face up to personality differences – and to the fact that not everyone can find every minute of every business meeting riveting. And yes, as a young minister I’m afraid it was my practice to take a good book to District Synod!

Finally, in the long run, this may prove to be a storm in a green Methodist tea cup, or it may involve serious issues of principle and practice. My prayer is that we can all ‘speak the truth in love’ as we work through it. One commenter on Richard’s original post is worried about the tone he has seen on Methodist blogs, so it’s incumbent upon us to consider carefully how we conduct ourselves. If we turn this debate into a flame war, there could be every reason or occasion for the church authorities to consider strong guidelines. We need an authentic Christian witness in blogging that carries passion without flaming and love without wimping out. Surely we can do that?

Christian Resources Exhibition

As trailled yesterday, I drove to the Christian Resources Exhibition today. Why do a round trip of around 150 miles once a year? Isn’t it just today’s equivalent to the moneychangers in the Temple?

It could be, but I don’t use it like that. I asked a treasurer at one church and stewards at another what they might like me to look out for, so I took a list. That helped me focus on where to spend my time and where just to smile and walk on quickly. I did end up talking to other people, not least some companies I hadn’t previously seen on the church website scene, but I could largely concentrate and easily not lose time on some stalls.

What was I seeking? Two of my churches face problems now in having a musician available for every service. I obtained some details about electronic reproduction of hymns and worship songs. Hymn Technology were plugging their HT-300 Hymnal Plus, and that might well be a good solution for one of the churches. DM Music (whom I’ve used for various things in both previous circuits) are still selling affordable MIDI file players from Roland. We bought one for a church in my last circuit. They have become more sophisticated now and will also handle MP3s, but are good for churches on a tight budget. The guy was also honest, in that once I said we owned a Yamaha Clavinova keyboard, he said we didn’t need the MIDI player if it were a modern Clav; we just needed to buy the MIDI files of the particular hymns and put them on a USB memory stick, because today’s Clavs have USB ports and we could play the files that way.

My other search target was unsuccessful, though: one church wanted information about communion kneelers and pulpit falls. I could have obtained all sorts of information about vestments and the like, but not about these. I’m sure we’ll track down what we want through other means, though.

There were a few personal interests I wanted to look up. I always like the bookstalls, but resisted this year. Partly that was because I have several books piled up from the sabbatical, partly it was because brutally in an Internet age the deals weren’t that good. I know that will sound awful to some Christian booksellers who will rightly point out that Amazon is not a ministry, but a minister whose wife is not in paid employment only has so many pennies and cost becomes a real factor for us. (And I do support the local Christian bookshops whenever possible: the Diocesan Resources Centre is a mine of information; the other bookshop is the local agent for IVP’s Leadership Book Club, so they get some orders from me, too, when the good books aren’t too Calvinist!)

I also wanted to see the stall for the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on whose committee I serve. They were at the show for the first time, and getting encouraging responses. It was also pleasing to see them in a section with other healing ministries, with whom there was an evident good rapport rather than competition. 

I took my rucksack as a disincentive to those exhibitors who want to thrust large plastic bags into your hand. There is a certain environmental unfriendliness to the exhibition in that respect.

But one aspect of the CRE always makes it a pleasure. I always bump into old friends, I just don’t know who it’s going to be from year to year. Today, I saw three old friend, all of whom had connections with my last appointment. Adam used to be the curate at one of my ecumenical churches; he’s been an incumbent for several years now. Bernard was my technical whizz at another church, always able to come up with some amazing Heath Robinson contraption to solve an electrical problem. And Peter, a pastor, missionary and international evangelist. He travels to Uganda, India and other places, eschewing the big conurbations to take the Gospel to obscure rural areas.

Yet this year, there was one other meeting with a friend. Someone I’ve known through blogging for a few years, but never met before. Dave Warnock. It’s funny how you have an image of a person before you meet them, and find you’re wrong. In Dave’s case, I did have an image: there’s a photo of him on his blog. Somehow, though, I’d wrongly projected that into an idea of him as taller and thinner than he is. (No, Dave, I’m not saying you’re fat, just that I was wrong.) And somehow from his writing, I didn’t expect such an extravert!

It reminded me there are all sorts of ways in which we wrongly extrapolate in church life and outside. How tempting to fill in the missing details, only to be hopelessly wrong!

Sabbatical, Day 40: Ministry And Personality Type Survey Explosion, Child Worries

The response to my surveys into ministry and personality type that I announced yesterday has staggered me. At time of writing, I had 42 members of the Facebook group. 60 people had completed the congregational members’ survey. 29 had completed the ministers’ survey.

At the recommendation of David Burton, I have joined Twitter and am using that to publicise the surveys, too. Please ‘follow’ me if you are on Twitter. My username is davefaulkner.

Other news today mainly concerns the children, and especially Rebekah. Today, she had a ‘number bonds‘ test at school. Testing seems to have started quite early, in my opinion. She is still ten days shy of her sixth birthday. For a few weeks now they have also been having spelling tests, and Becky is getting quite agitated about it. Last night she was late getting to sleep, worrying about whether she would pass. She kept getting stuck on the numbers four and six. What number do you put with four to make ten? What number goes with six to make ten?

There have been two saving graces about this. One is that we have been concerned about her concentration when learning. This certainly made her concentrate – but I felt like we had a GCSE student in the house! The other is that … she passed. Now she’s worried about going up the front at assembly next week and being applauded when the Head Teacher gives her the certificate!

What worries we load onto children at a young age. I have been concerned for a long time about the pressure induced on children by the SATS tests required by the Government. I know these are going to be rationalised, but making children take official tests from the age of seven means they have been turned into nothing less than political footballs by cynical, morally evacuated Governments. Worse, parents who have seen the strain on their children have effectively connived with this by looking for the results in evaluating schools. 

And there are other worries, too. A little while ago, my friend Dave Warnock sent me an invitation on Facebook to join the Pink Stinks campaign.Last night, I finally looked at the campaign and joined up. It’s taking the colour pink as symbolic of the sexualisation of young girls, and that’s something I feel very strongly about as the father of a five-year-old. I’ve joked before about her love of Claire’s Accessories, but it must have been around the time she started school that she began to change from tomboy to girly girl. I have no problem with her having a nice appearance, and frankly for all my life she will always be the most beautiful girl in the world. But I don’t want her value to be based on how physically attractive boys think she is in later years, or how attractive or not she perceives herself to be. 

While Pink Stinks seems to come from a secular feminist origin, having the militant atheist Polly Toynbee as a major cheerleader, there is much in the campaign I am pleased to support. One excellent feature of the website is the naming and shaming of sexist products aimed at children. Another is the section of the site that seeks to promote positive female role models. I’d far rather Rebekah had Sally Ride as an aspirational figure than Amy Winehouse or Paris Hilton. I believe my daughter is made in the image of God, and that gives her a dignity like nothing else on earth. I want her to know she is loved unconditionally, and that she has unique gifts which she can use in the service of God’s kingdom. 

I hadn’t thought too much up to now about the propensity of infants’ school girls to love High School Musical or Hannah Montana. Although I recognised them as telling the stories of teenagers, there hadn’t been anything I’d noticed that seemed  overtly immoral. What had bothered me was that they told stories that were not age-appropriate and that that might be emotionally difficult. I could see that might be tricky to handle. Now I think I see them as rather worse than that, because they are promoting a certain image of what is acceptable young womanhood, and much of it is just based on looking good for the boys. 

I have to say Debbie isn’t as worried by this as I am. She thinks the trend towards little girls prettifying themselves is a fad that will disappear and be replaced by another trend. Me, I see sinister commercial forces behind it. What do you think?