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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.


Sermon: Missional God

Matthew 20:1-16

Introduction
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us. 

Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)

No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.

So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.

1. Sovereign
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).

What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.

The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.

What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.

Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’

I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church. 

Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.

2. Generous
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b). 

What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.

On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.

No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.

God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.

However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.

Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.

There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.

3. Merciful
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)

Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all. 

I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:

‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’

No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.

The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.

What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.

Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.

Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.

One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.

Conclusion
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.

I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.