I've been wondering as I read through this month's council papers what difference will a change of title make to the work of the Church.
On it's own - probably very little, but joining up some dots provides a very interesting picture.
The structure of the British Methodist Church is four-fold. We have Local Churches, Circuits, Districts and the Connexion or Conference depending on how you want to think about it.
This provides us with Ministers, Superintendents, District Chairs and the Conference/Connexional Team presided over by the President and Vice president of Conference and the General Secretary and Connexional team secretaries.
Contrast this with the largest Methodist denomination - the United Methodist Church who have a different sort of four-fold structure of local Churches, Districts, Conferences and General Conference.
This is served by Elders, District Superintendents, Bishops and their General Secretaries - one for each Global Board.
Now add into this mix the 'Regrouping for mission' or 'Mapping a way forward' programe of British Methodism which is an encouragement to create circuits as large (if not larger) than many Districts were. Add the call to change the names of our District Chairs and Connexional Team secretaries.. and what do you get?
Could it be a gentle but inevitable and predictable mapping of the UK Methodist structure to the UMC structure..?
Circuits are slowly disappearing, being replaced by smaller Districts overseen by District Superintendents. (the name change suggested for chairs) Our Connexional Team being headed by Connexional Secretaries with particular areas of responsibility.
Which leaves only one more office/name change - and we have already been warned that we will have to make some bold and difficult decisions about the episcopate - Bishops.
Only, in our case, the current thinking seems to be that the preferred choice (of those who want bishops!) would be the President of Conference: a presiding Bishop (just like in the UMC)
This is not 'conspiracy theory' this is just joining dots and seeing what pictures emerge. A linking together the consequences of our reports and actions to see where they might possibly take us. I may well be wrong - but its fun to do and an exciting prospect nonetheless.
Of course the dots could also be seen as preparation for fulfilling the current Anglican/Methodist covenant. The loss of circuits and a mapping of smaller 'Districts' to Deaneries where District Superintendents become area Deans and the president of Conference becomes the Bishop. (But this picture is much less 'artistic' and 'fun' to draw - in my opinion.)
The name changes and the push for the removal of circuits by the 'regrouping for mission' program do seem to suggest that strategically thinking, the UMC is the most likely candidate for future belonging and collaborative work.
Personally, as I have stated before I would rather see British Methodism relate more closely to the UMC. If we are going to enter into covenants or consider greater collaboration then why don't we look to other Methodist denominations first? The UMC approach to ministry, their unashamed ownership of Wesleyan theology, their evangelistic zeal and commitment to world wide mission have much to offer us: And we have much to offer the UMC - not least our greater inclusivity in ministry and membership and our commitment to combined social justice and political activism.
So it would seem there might be three options on the table:
- Fulfill the Covenant with the Anglican Church and become a Methodist Concordat within the Church of England
- Gently merge with the URC
- Become the British Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Add to this the ecumenical programs of both the British Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church and the picture becomes even more interesting. It could well be possible to fulfill the basic requirements of the Covenant AND our current relationships with the URC - by being part of the international dialogue between the Methodists and these denominations.
So what's in a name God?
Well, in my opinion these changes might open up the future and enable British Methodists to recognize that they are part of a massive world-wide movement based on the theology of grace given to us by Wesley.
They suggest a common structure throughout world-wide Methodism and so may provide access to the ecumenical relationships that exist between global rather than local denominations. This might be a faster route to the interchangeability of ministry than the Covenant.
And they make great fun for people like me, who like to guess where we might be going in the future - and how we might be getting there.
Not that there is any real evidence of any deliberate action being taken for any of this to happen of course.
Just a bit of fun - but the change of name gets my vote as a step in the right direction.