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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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Sabbatical, Day 66: Jesus Discusses The End Times, Flash Mob Worship, And Egg Ministry

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Third Damaris Trust video for Holy Week above. Anna Robbins explores some of the issues raised by Jesus’ teaching about the future, which he gave in the temple courts soon before his death. What does it mean that Jesus will return, and how should we live in the meantime?

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Found this today, thanks to following Ruth Gledhill on Twitter: guerrilla flash-mob worship in Liverpool last Sunday. (Ruth Gledhill’s blog post on the subject is here.) Here are Christians putting into practice the principles in Clay Shirky‘s ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ to create a public prophetic action. Do watch the video. It’s fascinating.

So is this the way to go? Three years ago Theo Hobson wrote a piece in the Guardian in which he said that Christianity could never avoid a ritual element, but it could avoid the ritual being controlled by authoritarian hierarchies. (HT to Third Way re the Hobson article.) This will be problematic for some in my Methodist tradition, because we appoint ministers (and, occasionally, laypeople) to preside at sacraments to ensure ‘good order’. The New Testament is concerned with good order at the sacraments, as we find when Paul addresses the chaos and injustice at the Lord’s Supper in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). However, Paul addresses the problem via teaching rather than the instatement of authorised leaders.

Thoughts, anyone?

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And finally for something completely different. Today, I have mostly been … boiling eggs. Debbie began something in our first Spring here three years ago that has become a little tradition. An Easter party for the children. She started it in order to help our two make friends, and now Easter is not complete without it. Egg rolling competitions, egg and spoon races (including one race for mums), an egg hunt in the garden, Easter bonnet decorating – all are essential parts of a ritual which those arch-traditionalists, our children, demand.

Normally I’m out and about whenever Debbie schedules it, but this year, with the sabbatical, I was around. I had been deputed to be ready to capture the action with my camera. Although I managed some of that near the end, you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties,

and today was no exception. Debbie dropped Mark’s egg for the egg rolling competition just before our guests arrived. Others arrived, having forgotten to bring eggs, and one little girl only told Mummy half an hour before coming out that she needed an egg. I can safely say that, whatever my failings in other areas, I am a master at hard-boiling eggs. Just as well for someone whose introduction to cookery when he went away to college was a book entitled ‘How To Boil An Egg‘.

So does the church want a hard-boiled minister? Here I am. Send for me.