Monday, July 4, 2011

Christian conferring via twitter

Good morning God,

Today begins the main business work of the British Methodist Conference. It is a heavy agenda, both literally and metaphorically, so there will be the usual need to ensure that the business is 'done'. It's a fine line that the business committee has to draw, determining how much time to allocate to each particular topic without inadvertently stifling debate. The problem is exacerbated however by the fact that reports, even highly significant reports, are seldom debated, nor are they really discussed unless they are highly controversial. Many reports, particularly those dealing with governance and finance are increasingly complex and written in 'technical' rather than theological or scriptural language with the result that few feel qualified to unpack them for general consumption.

But some reports can and do attract comment, and I have no doubt that we will hear much praise and comment about the reports being presented today. But are such 'comments' all that remains of Christian Conferring?
What of the challenge and choice that forms a part of every good conversation, the opportunity to be led to think differently as a result of deeper engagement with the issue at hand? Comments are hardly the same as a well reasoned argument for or against a particular recommendation.

Of course it is possible for someone to speak to the recommendation rather than the content of a report. But this seldom happens in practice.

For years, the surest means of provoking Conference to confer about the consequences of a particular recommendation, rather than simply accept it at face value was to bring a notice of motion. Often it was only through the speeches of the proposer and seconder that Conference was alerted to the fact that there might be a strong argument against what was being recommended. Moreover, whether it was won or lost, a notice of motion still served to remind Conference that its task was not to 'rubber stamp' the work of whoever has written the report, but to CHOOSE whether or not the recommendations arising from it should form the basis of the Church's future polity, practice or doctrine.

There is an alternative means now however of achieving the same effect. Parallel conversations, using the best of modern multimedia and social networking can also provoke some members of Conference to confer. The twitter stream #methconf for example, carries not just a summary report of conversations, but often critiques and contributes to what is being said. In 140 characters it focuses attention on a possible reply to a conversation, and can serve to alert people to an alternative perspective.

Social networking also makes Conference much more inclusive. It is possible for Methodists who are not members of Conference to both follow and contribute to the wider debate for example, through listening to the live stream and making their own comments via twitter or facebook.

I know some are sceptical, but for my part God, I have no doubt that if used wisely and graciously, social media can and does have a real part to play in enabling Christian conferring to take place at Conference.

As @revdrange, I look forward to following the tweets.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Methodist Apostolic Succession

Good morning God,
The point was made yesterday that the handing on of Mr Wesley's Field Bible was in effect a form of Methodist Apostolic Succession. In bygone days there is no doubt that the power of the President was such that they could and did represent and embody the Conference in a highly symbolic and practical way - particularly the ministerial session of Conference. The changes in both Conference and the role of the President over the last decade mean that this may no longer be the case. The President retains the power to persuade, to preach and to visit, but the leadership, discipline and decision making of the Church is now far more diffuse. The power of President is no longer a reflection of the power of the Conference.

There is nonetheless, in my opinion, a more historical, lasting significant and powerful sign of our apostolic succession, and it is embedded in the order of business for the second day of the ministerial session.

The day begins with consideration of those candidates for ministerial training, and reviews the stage of each of our 'preachers' in their journey with our Church. This is no rubber stamping job, Conference can and has in the past, overturned some decisions regarding particular preachers. It is however a moment of joy as the Church acknowledges the renewing of the call, and the graciousness of God's Spirit in equipping people for ministry.
Later that day, a very moving service of remembrance is held. The families of those ministers who have travelled to higher service, are invited to join with the ministerial session to share in the worship and hear proclaimed again, our conviction of the truth of the Good News, Death is not the end. As the roll is called each person is recognised and honoured. It is almost a 'sacramental' moment, for their lives are the outward and visible sign of the inward invisible grace that countless thousands have received through their ministry.
It may seem too small a sign of our thanks and deep appreciation for the personal sacrifices that we know each family will have made in order to enable their loved one to serve, but when the entire body stands in respectful silence, not for their grief, but in thanks and appreciation of THEIR ministry, it is impossible not to be moved.
Following the afternoon's business, a buzz begins, quietly at first, as in ones and two's the ordinands arrive straight from the ordinand's retreat. Their joyous anticipation mingled with nervous trepidation is a powerful reminder to the gathered presbyters of their own ordination and the days leading up to it.
For me, the cycle of the whole day embodies a model of apostolic succession that is far more powerful than the handing on of Wesley's Bible.Especially as the day culminates with a celebration of Holy Communion. We gather, from every stage of the Journey, to hear and respond to the call, to worship God and be bound together as the Body of Christ. We receive what has been handed down to us, that on night on which he died, our Lord Jesus Christ, took bread...
Like many, I miss the arrival of the Deacons who used to share in the same service, but the powerful symbolism of the Vice President as preacher reminds us all of our calling to be a part of the Whole people of God, not separate from them, but raised up by them.

All of which leads me to conclude that Methodist apostolic succession is not (and perhaps never has been) ensured by the laying on of hands nor is it embodied by the President of Conference; rather, it is ensured by our faithfulness to our doctrines as they have been handed on from generation to generation and embodied in the real presence of Christ and the means of grace.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Connexional Ministers and Christian Conferring

Good morning God,

The Ministerial session of Conference has always been an important part of my life, since I first I arrived with all the other ordinands of that year to the welcome of the Conference. Here was the collegiality that they had spoken of at the ordinands retreat, here was the example of belonging which bore witness to the claim that being received into full Connexion was as important as ordination.

This was a gathering of  ministers whose knowledge and insight of the way in which our Church worked often inspired me – many spoke Biblically, if not theologically. They made their contributions to debates convinced that the Church wanted to hear, and to benefit from the collective experience of their ministers.

I recall hearing from men  (and yes, they were usually men!) such as Rupert Davies and Brian Beck, pastorally sensitive about the issues being debated yet equally convinced of their role as Presbyters and the need thereby to say what they felt needed to be said, because of the trust placed in them their by the Church. Over the years I heard passionate speeches about social justice, politics, apartheid, ecumenism, Scripture, training… the list is almost endless. Yes there were a few that simply liked the sound of their own voice – but these were few and far between and did little to alter the flow or quality of some of the debates.And there really were debates at times, not just points of view expressed, people listened hard, and responded, with the whole discussion chaired by the President.

It made me believe in Methodism as something that really was worthy, was somehow ‘bigger’ than a few disciplines and doctrines and it made the representative session make more sense to me as a minister, I learned how ‘ministerial experience’ could throw a different light on what might otherwise seem a quite straightforward issue. It served as a reminder that a part of my job was to learn how to do the same.

Of course it didn’t take long to lose the sense of reverence and awe of that first Conference, after all, we were actively encouraged, if not to scorn what we were seeing, then at least to ‘see through it’ as a relic of a bygone age. Yes, we saw the ‘politics’ the posturing and the positioning – but I really believe we also saw something else that those of us who were new to the ministry could learn from. we saw what it meant to be in full connexion'.

Over the last ten years, the question has repeatedly been asked – why do we need a ministerial session of Conference? Each time in reply, the ministerial session has made it clear that there are many reasons – not least Connexionality, it has voted to retain the session, and has asked the business committee to consider how best the time might be utilised to harness the collective insight and experience of the gathered Presbyters in the service of the Church.

After yesterday I found myself asking the same question. For me the most important speech of the day was by the minister who began by saying that they had attended Conference at their own expense because they felt cut off from the Connexion.. I would echo that. But I am no longer na├»ve enough to believe that the order of Mr Wesley’s preachers believes in Connexionality in the same way. If yesterday's session is any guide, the ministerial session of Conference no longer sees itself as a body worth listening to, it seems to have nothing it wants to say to the wider Church.

It's little wonder that so few ministers now want to attend. But what then will persuade the new ordinands that they are called to be 'Connexional Ministers'? Where will they learn to listen to the wider wisdom of the gathered Church? Where indeed will they learn what it is to belong to an order of ministry?

I suspect that we in real danger of turning Christian conferring into nothing more than introspective table-talk, and in so doing, losing the means of growth in grace and holiness it once provided.