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Methodist-Catholic Relations

Richard Hall nails it: in a week when the Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool’s hospitality to hold Methodist ordinations has been spiked by a word from the Vatican, Richard writes:

My experience for a long time has been that the Methodist and Catholic communities get along very well together ‘on the ground’. We’ve come a long way from the “catholics are the anti-Christ” attitude that was very present during my upbringing …

Sadly, the powers that be in the Catholic Church just don’t seem to get it. They seem content to turn a blind eye to local co-operation as long as no one makes too much fuss about it, but they remain committed to a worldview which sees their church as the repository of truth with the rest of us being second class Christians at best.

His summary chimes with my experience. My best man (and best friend since the age of seven) is a Catholic. In my ministry, I have almost always got on well with the Catholic priests in the localities. But at ‘top’ level, we’re still in the Dark Ages. In fact, you get the impression they wish the Second Vatican Council had never happened.

Some of it does filter down to ordinary Catholics, sadly. Go to the Catholic Herald report on this story and you will find some utterly spiteful remarks from lay Catholics in the ‘comments’ section. Go to one of the Catholic blogs that first protested the original invitation and you will see commenters saying things like this:

It reminds me of the Imam preaching in Westminster Cathedral, or ++Vincent Nichols laying flowers on a heather altar in Willesden, or the idol on the Catholic altar at Asissi.

And that from a man who describes himself as a ‘Former teacher, banker, teacher, investment consultant, project worker in London homelessness charity’. The clear implication is that this educated man still thinks that all non-Catholics are non-Christians.

I am glad I shared a Good Friday walk of witness this year with very different Catholics. But the bad old days are clearly still alive and kicking like a mule in other places. No wonder Richard says he thinks ‘that the ecumenical movement is well and truly stuck’. I guess we’ll just have to remain subversive at the grass-roots level, and support those of our Catholic sisters and brothers who quietly have to ignore or defy these oppressive policies.

How I contrast this with the meeting I had in Addlestone this last week, where representatives of our small and largely elderly Methodist congregation considered overtures from our local New Frontiers church to use our hall for reaching out to people in debt and for running a post-Alpha Course Bible study. We don’t agree on all matters, but the spirit of the meeting was about co-operation in the Gospel. And the more of that there is, the better.

I’m sorry if some of this sounds angry, but the arch-traditionalist Catholics need to understand what their attitudes are doing to other people who also follow Jesus Christ. And that’s a serious matter.

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?

Methodists And The Use Of Social Media

Richard Hall and David Hallam take differing views on a proposal coming to the Methodist Council laying down policies for how Methodist ministers and officials use social media – blogging, Twitter, Facebook and so on.

My own opinion of the document is somewhere in between Richard and David’s. Basically, it’s a paper that reads as if it is worried about protecting the church’s reputation.  Of course, in today’s online world anyone can gain an online presence and express their opinions. Naturally, there could be dangers in that. The paper is right to remind people that principles of confidentiality and so on should still be observed. With that I am with Richard – it doesn’t much change the existing situation, it simply applies it to a new situation.

Yet with David I have some reservations. I wish he wouldn’t use inflammatory language such as ‘fatwa’, but in a document that expects those who use social media to be transparent about their identity there are issues of transparency to raise about it. Not about the author – that is clear. It is Toby Scott, our Director of Communications and Campaigns. But there are two areas that seem vague to me. Firstly, the identity of the ‘selection of existing Methodist bloggers’ who were consulted (page 1). Who were they, who selected them and what selection criteria were used? The answers to these questions may be entirely honest, but without further explanation the online community is bound to start wondering.

Secondly, we know that the report ‘comes at the request of the Strategic Leaders and the Connexional Leaders Forum’ (page 2). However, it would be good to know the reasons why these informal private bodies requested a report. Without knowing the terms of reference, we cannot entirely evaluate the appropriateness of the document.

We live in a culture of suspicion that sometimes goes over the top, but without further explication of what has been posted as a public online source, it is little surprise that David Hallam (and others?) become suspicious. After all, there is much in the report that seeks to prevent church officers from tweeting during meetings. I can instantly think of one church officer who does this. Was this person a target for some of the report? Hopefully not.

It is certainly a paper that has a benign understanding of ‘old media’ in contrast to ‘new media’ – see the references to the Methodist Recorder moderating its letters page. Times have changed. The last time I read the Recorder (about two years ago, admittedly) it couldn’t get newsworthy press releases into its pages until three to four weeks after their publication. I know, I compared the date one appeared in the newspaper with when it had been reported in a blog.

This issue brings to mind something that happened while I was training for the ministry at theological college. Older Methodists may know there was an old tradition that the moment you began training for the ministry you were entitled to wear a clerical collar and be addressed as ‘Reverend’, in contrast to other denominations. During my training, that policy changed. There was an incident, we were told, where a ministerial student at another college had abused this. One friend of mine asked, ‘Is this the reason or the occasion for the change of policy?’ Given the questions Tony Buglass has raised in comments on both Richard and David’s posts about the negative publicity afforded to our denomination through the TV show ‘An Island Parish‘, I do at least think this question needs asking, even if it turns out this document has arisen for entirely good reasons. Once again, it’s the question of transparency.

UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 27TH JANUARY, 9:00 PM: Please also read Pete Phillips’ trenchant critique of the paper.

Sabbatical, Day 80: Rebuilding Trust; Todd Bentley’s Second Coming

A Christian businessman friend of mine, Dan Collins (his company is Fresh Tracks), twittered an article this morning that he had written for the website Financial World. Basically, he argues that if companies want to do well today, they should build a culture of trust, especially with their customers. He contrasts this to the woeful track record of banks, who have introduced cost-cutting policies at the expense of customer contact. Here is one striking story from the article. It appeals to me, because it refers to my native North London!

The example that first triggered this thought in my mind was a little restaurant in North London that was always full, predominantly with repeat customers.  Despite being quite a trek from the centre of town it was renowned around the world.  The reason being, there were no prices on the menu because there was never a bill at the end of the evening.  Vasos Michael the 4’10” diminutive proprietor didn’t ever give his customers bills for their meal, he simply presented a list of what had been served, including drinks and asked that the customers paid what they felt the meal was worth.  On the whole people rewarded his trusting nature by paying more than a comparable meal would have cost elsewhere and if someone abused the relationship by paying too little, Vasos wouldn’t hesitate to ask why, gaining either valuable feedback or the satisfaction of publicly embarrassing a miser.

I found it refreshing to read Dan’s piece today, not only because it was great to see a Christian friend writing something in the commercial world that is based on implicit Christian values, but because it made me connect with other thoughts.

For one thing, I’d put the breakdown in business trust earlier than Dan does. My father worked in the City for NatWest at the time of the financial ‘Big Bang’ of 1987, when regulatory practices were ‘reformed’. (Deformed, more like.) He always said that was the time when the old City ethic that a man’s (and it was generally a man, in the past) word was his bond. He saw time-honoured practices discarded recklessly by young bucks. That predates Dan – he’s too young to have been in the business world then, I think. But I’m glad to see him voicing these convictions, especially at a difficult time when businesses might be tempted to cut even more ethical corners to survive and prosper. Great stuff, Dan. 

But it connects with church issues, too. Only last night I was reading that Todd Bentley may be back in public ministry sooner than expected. There is a large piece in the Canadian Western Standard, which I found via Bene Diction and Richard Hall. Now while there is a certain cynical tone to the Western Standard article that I might find uncomfortable, it isn’t surprising when you consider what it has turned up. Two points in particular stood out for me:

Firstly, Rick Joyner, who is supposed to be overseeing Bentley’s restoration process, now claims that God is overriding that process in order to bring Bentley back into ministry sooner. Secondly, the Standard provides evidence that in its opinion shows Bentley denying the formal relationship they believe was undoubtedly established between him and the Revival Alliance. 

With regard to the second, I don’t doubt what the Standard are saying, but I think there was also an issue about what Peter Wagner and the others claimed was happening at Lakeland. It was a matter of considerable debate last summer whether Wagner said he knew Bentley well or not. (Here is what I wrote at the time.) 

But the first point raises big issues of trust for me, not dissimilar from what Dan Collins was writing about in terms of business practice. Sin, repentance and restoration to ministry are serious matters. When people have suffered brokenness for a long time (and it seems to be that Bentley has honestly admitted that), then my experience suggests that the quick fix is rarely right or healthy. There is good reason for the process to take a long time. Some will be cynical about the motives behind any attempts to rush Bentley back into the spotlight. I can understand that. We like the crash-bang-wallop approach to spirituality in charismatic circles (or should I say, ‘Bam’?), because we have been seduced by an instant can’t-wait culture.

I can’t help thinking it would be much more merciful to keep Bentley out of the public eye. No videos, no nothing. It would be kinder to him. Remember how Jimmy Swaggart tried to wriggle out of the discipline imposed by the Assemblies of God when he fell? It didn’t look good, did it? Neither does this. I am so not convinced that it is God who is accelerating Todd Bentley’s return, unless others can provide some strong evidence to make me rethink.

In fact, to me there seem to be particular reasons in Bentley’s case why the restoration process needs to be long and slow. (And, I should add, ‘restoration’ is not primarily about a return to public ministry. It is first and foremost about a return to good fellowship in the Body of Christ. Public ministry may or may not follow, but it cannot be a priority.)

The particular reasons revolve around the nature of what brought an end to his ministry at Lakeland, and his personal history. The issue appears to be one of deceit, and that suggests a lot of learned habits to cover things up over a long period of time. There was deceit over the relationship with the woman who is now his second wife, even if there was nothing physically inappropriate. That deceit must have been towards Shonnah, his first wife, towards the now-renamed Fresh Fire ministry, towards the local leadership at Lakeland, and potentially others.

Furthermore, Bentley had a conviction aged fifteen for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy, along with other crimes based on his membership of a sexual assault gang. I don’t want to use the facts of those convictions in the way some of his opponents in blog posts have, to smear him, as if there were no such thing as forgiveness. I believe there is forgiveness for the worst of sins through the Cross of Christ. However, I would draw attention to the widespread experience of those who counsel sex crime offenders, especially those whose crimes are against children. Their regular testimony is that these people are astonishingly practiced in the art of deceit. Granted, Bentley clearly hasn’t reached the depths of many such people who so deceive themselves that they justify their behaviour, but they have to engage in serious deceit in order to cover up their deeds. It becomes ingrained.

That is why my own denomination will not anyone hold office who has been convicted of sexual offences against minors. Were Bentley to have been a British Methodist and not an independent, he would not have been allowed to minister in the first place.

Given, then, the likely history of deceit, it’s little surprise it came into play at Lakeland with the inappropriate relationship. This constitutes on the personal level the major breach of trust which Dan Collins laments in much of the business world.

There has to be a long journey back from such places. Real apologies. Deep repentance. New patterns of behaviour, tried and tested over a period of time. Attempts to make amends or restitution, if appropriate. And so on. Pastoral care is not a TV show. It is quiet and long term. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.

Perhaps, if I pursue this theme of trust, Rick Joyner and his colleagues would ask me to trust them. But I would struggle on this evidence. At best, I am concerned about the wisdom being shown in the ‘restoration process’. At worst, others will doubtless make more serious allegations about potential motives. I do not believe that what is being shown publicly presents the Body of Christ in a good light.

As on other occasions, I truly hope I am wrong. But to my mind so far, the evidence is pointing in a worrying direction.