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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.