Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hope Cup Cakes and Candles

Good morning God,

It's always tempting to try to write about something that you are interested in or a part of. The temptation to compare your facts with other people's fiction overcomes the natural (and usually very necessary) fear of looking like an idiot (so what's new!) and when its about hospitables - it seems it's almost irresistible.

It is possible to separate the dross from the gloss when writing about the Royal Marsden without exaggeration or manipulation in any way shape or form, put simply - no dross - just pure gloss. Bright, sun-shining colours are present as pens, watch straps, hair bands - wherever possible and enable people to remember that in spite of the inevitable maintenance works at the front, back, sides and lifts - there is a Monet or Renoir beauty also hiding back there somewhere, well thumbed magazines are left nonchalantly lying around along with a loyalty card for the coffee bar (as just one more hint of the optimism that permeates the whole place)

Yes - I DO know what I am am talking about - this is my fourth week (I think) not counting the two or three days home for good behaviour towards the start of the month - and no - I am in no delusions about my disease or how vile, disfiguring and unpleasant it really can be. But I would want to echo everything good that was said about the Marsden in the guardian this week - and add some!

You see, they mentioned the patients, the brilliant but peculiar form of altruism practised by them, they pointed out how special and unique it is to have this facility on site - but they failed to mention some of the most incredible people I have ever met.

As a Methodist Minister, I get used to meeting saints (no really!!) But the staff of the Royal Marsden just astound me. They see ME - not the disease. They took the trouble to learn how to make me smile, how I like my tea and just how much ice makes a build-up milk shake actually taste like a milk shake.

This last fortnight I celebrated both my birthday and my 25th Wedding anniversary in the Oak Ward at the hospital trying out new treatments - so far no go..

For my birthday -there was cake, a candle and a song - for my Anniversary, one of the staff found a way of obtaining an anniversary card for me to be able to surprise my husband with, a doctor found a way of giving new signs of hope and two nurses were a step ahead of me in figuring out how we could enable me to sleep in spite of all the gadgetry sewn into my back.

I find myself wanting to ask those who put the TV commercial together to ask not just for £2.00 a month but for £2.00 + 2 smiles, or 2 acts of random human kindness as I am convinced beyond measure that the cure for Cancer lies as much in the attitude of the people who work here and the care that they show as it does in the chemicals they research and administer. These chemicals are incredibly expensive and although progress is fairly rapid, it does take time to solve the mutations that warp our cells. We have however known what warps our hearts and lives for a long time already.

Me? I'm going to try and take a leaf out of thier book - from the way I am greeted at the door, to the way I am wished goodnight, I will try and be worth the investment of the staff in me.

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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Strategic Service?

Good afternoon God,
I’ve been trying to reflect theologically on matters of strategy – to be exact, I have been trying to determine the place of strategic thinking and strategic management in the life of the Church. That it has a place, I have no doubt, a chaotic Church makes nonsense out of the relationship between faith and order, it disturbs the balance between law and grace so that accountability before you and the faithful for the bountiful resources you provide for the proclamation of the Gospel becomes impossible.

But when the life of your Church is determined by adherence to strategy as the best or only proper means of achieving priorities, it is evident that there is an even greater disruption of the means of grace.
Faith and Order – both are needed – Law and Grace together enable your kingdom to flourish – but surely, God, in your Church, final authority should lie with the Spiritual leader, not with the strategic manager?

What would be the difference?

Strategy and resources belong together and it is natural for the strategic leader to mete out the resources of your church, both financial and personnel, based on a budgeting strategy which naturally includes balancing the books.
You however, repeatedly create something out of nothing, and encourage us to join with you. You take phenomenal risks for the sake of your people and the Kingdom of justice and peace. In fact – I don’t know you as anything other than the risk-taking God.
So I am concerned about the proposed ‘clarification’ of the role of the SRC (strategy and resources committee). as recommended in the Council's report

I am concerned because, whether intentional or not,  it places, at the head of our Church, a body which is, by its own description un-representative, and unelected. The changes in the standing orders do more than ‘clarify’ they change the POWER and the AUTHORITY of this small unrepresentative group, making them, in effect, the gatekeepers rather than the servants of the work of your Church. 
It gives the SRC the power to act with regard to finances, personnel and the Church's other assets such as buildings, colleges etc without necessarily firstly consulting with the Council or the Conference in each instance. (2b)

According to para (4) It will be the SRC’s interpretation of the mission strategies of the Methodist Church that will form the rationale for the Church’s budget – not Conference’s or the President’s, or the General Secretary’s. (Neither Conference nor Council need necessarily be informed of the projects etc. which have not been allocated resources because they fall outside of the SRC’s interpretation).

The largest percentage of the committee will be chosen, not for their spiritual insight or their ability to discern your vision for our Church, but for their skills and experience in the specific items of governance. That’s fine, the committee has a particular task to do. It does mean however that there is even less surety that the committee will be able to hold before it, the risky nature of the body of Christ, and the necessity of being willing, if called upon, to ‘give all that we have to the poor’ in order to follow Christ, rather than just balancing the books.

Even more distressing is the idea in (4B) that this committee will be responsible for implementing the Church’s duty of care to some ministers and deacons. The Church has a duty of ‘Pastoral Care’ not  ‘Strategic care’, and Ministers and Deacons, are in a COVENANT relationship with the Church – even if they do work for the Council or are a part of the Connexional Team. As is hinted at in the preamble to the recommendations, this is an area of some controversy – not least the perverse reluctance to allow ministers to be known by the title Rev when they work for the Connexional Team.

All of which leads me to say, I want strategy in SERVICE to the Church, not GOVERNING or LEADING the Church. Jesus did not call us to preach, baptize and make disciples of all nations according to how much money the SRC is prepared to allocate to that particular task according to its interpretation of our priorities and when balanced against the other priorities such as teaching them all that Jesus has said, or enabling them to love you God, and their neighbours as themselves.

It is worth reminding ourselves sometimes that Methodism began with nothing. That the greatest gift to Methodism’s early growth, the class system, came about because we had nothing and needed to work together to make something out of nothing!  That Methodism’s decline, like that of so many other Churches and Denominations may have more to do with the emphasis we place on balancing the books, compared to proclaiming the Word.

The SRC may be frustrated by the fact that it cannot do as much as it would like to in holding the Church to the priorities it has set itself, but the existing standing orders do necessitate the SRC serving the Church as the Church decides – not as the SRC interprets past decisions.

The existing standing orders serve us well. I agree with the need for an SRC. The proposed standing orders changes however, could make the Church a servant of the Connexional Team – rather than the other way around. In so doing it makes us all slaves to limited human strategy instead of obedient to your vision for us all.  Worse, it is unwittingly predicated on the belief that we must act, because you will not. We have to have a strategy for dealing with your absence God.  Only then can we be confident that we will continue to exist to fulfill OUR priorities. I think it’s time we remembered that we exist to serve YOUR priorities and that strategies might need to change according to YOUR will, not the budget.

After reflection therefore God, I really do think that Conference should resist the changes to these particular standing orders on the basis that they redefine rather than clarify the role of the SRC so that it lies outside of our faith and order.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Christian Conferring and misplaced loyalty.

Good morning God,
There are times when I really wish you hadn't made me a Methodist - usually just before Conference. It's not about whether I agree or disagree with the contents of the reports that are being brought, or the recommendations that are being made; some are outstanding and a real credit to the revelation of faith that you have shared with us. Some however are so contrary to the Methodism you called me to serve, that I wonder if there hasn't already been a serious breach of the 'Covenant relationship' we are supposed to share as Church and minister.
The problem is that few people realize that the theology and doctrines of the Church are not just carried by the 'God bits' or 'Scriptural content' of what we write, debate and agree upon. There is as much, if not more theology in our so called governance, our structures and budgets, 'strategies' and management.
Yet all too often, since the team focus process started, this side of Conference's business is seen as just that -  'business' and the complaint is made - and often agreed upon - that Conference is no way to run a business - sorry - church.

But it is this area of our Church's life that has led and is continuing to lead to the loss of what were once considered core doctrines and principles of the people called Methodist.

Our Church structures, our governance, our polity - are part of the visible proclamation of the Gospel as you have revealed it to us, and that you call us to preach. In much the same way that many Anglicans think of their Church as the via-media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism,  you seem to have placed the Methodist Church as a bridge between the established and the non-conformist churches, allowing the best of both to flow in either direction. So Methodists have been willing to act 'pragmatically' if it has been deemed right to do so,  whilst at the same time maintaining sufficient 'orthodoxy' to be able to speak to the 'un-reformed' traditions with an authentic voice.

Theologically, our calling was once defined as being to spread Scriptural holiness and to  reform the Church - the reform was as important as Spreading Scriptural holiness, for the lack of reform hindered growth in grace and holiness. It is therefore decidedly worrying when what Conference is presented with are recommendations and resolutions that seem to offer only the possibility of aping, rather than reforming the Church. It is even more worrying when those recommendations and resolutions that will change our theology the most - or those that highlight the shift in our theology that has already taken place - are effectively buried in the more 'business-like' sections of the Conference Agenda.

I know, I know, you have to be 'touched' in a very odd way to be the sort of sad soul who avidly reads the report of the law and polity committee with as much enthusiasm as the brilliantly written Big Society report, or who does more than skim through the Methodist Council report and the standing order changes proposed in it.  But that seems to be how you have made me. Which is why around this time of the year, I have a very Jeremiah style love hate relationship with my Church.

I am all too aware that some of the things that I feel called to say about the proposed changes to our structures will not be welcomed by those who wrote the reports - or whose interests they serve. I am aware that much of what I expect to write over the next two weeks will be seen as being 'personal' (a phenomenal shift from how Conference and Christian conferring used to be recognized and actively encouraged in our Church) I know that the things I intend to write will leave me open to accusations of disloyalty and 'team bashing'. So let me say just this - I consider myself part of the people called Methodist, and I recognize NO distinction between the 'team' and any other Methodist. The fact that there is such a high proportion of non-Methodists in the 'team' is irrelevant as all are required to sign up to the Priorities of the Methodist Church.
Fear of disloyalty and of creating/maintaining a 'Them and Us' mentality can no longer be allowed to silence the debates we need to be having as a whole Church.  The agenda before Conference is NOT the 'precious work 'of members of the Connexional Team - it is the offering of the people called Methodists to you God as together we seek to discern a way forward for the future.
It is not 'disloyal' to disagree - it is not disloyal to critique what is set before us, it is not disloyal to say thank you. but no thank you, that recommendation is denied. It is not disloyal or 'team bashing' to not be willing as a Church to be led in certain areas particularly when the body of the Church feels it is not the will of the Spirit for us to go there.

Conference is the only opportunity the Church has to express an honest, prayerful opinion of the direction the Church is moving in and the theology it is proclaiming by its actions: Now more than ever, Conference cannot afford to be silenced or subdued out of misplaced 'loyalty' or 'respect' or 'courtesy' to our 'strategic leaders'. Conference is presided over by those we have elected to that post - but let us not forget as we explore, examine and debate its agenda that the aim of Conference is to give you glory God, to fulfill our calling before you and to serve your interests, which may not necessarily be the same as those envisaged by the report writers.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Consulting on Worship

Good afternoon God,
I well remember the first time that I tried to persuade members of a congregation to assist in the planning and preparation of worship 'Does that mean you've run out of ideas' someone asked! No, I explained, but worship shouldn't be something that just happens to you, or is 'done to you'. Worship at its best is a corporate act, from start to finish.
Hence the worship consultation meeting; once a quarter, those who are interested in the worship of the Church gather to plan our worship for that 'Season' in accordance with the mission of the Church.

We have been using 'Season's of the Spirit' to help us plan and prepare worship that enables the whole Church to grow in grace. It follows the revised common lectionary and provides a staggering range of resources for different age groups, including prayers, liturgy, modern art, modern music from around the world, home Bible reading notes, poetry, articles, web-based games, resource sheets, etc.. It's not the cheapest resource available, but the language is inclusive and contemporary and the ideas always fresh and pertinent. It actually makes me believe that Worship is a part of modern life and that it isn't necessary  to step back in time to fuzzy felt and children's addresses, or throw away your brain in order to worship and pray effectively!

But resources can only take you so far - they have to be used to be effective, and sometimes, the more people that are involved in the planning, preparation, and even the delivery of an act of worship, the better it can be as a means of grace. This is not always easy in Methodism where we seem (peculiarly) to have adopted the bizarre notion that the right to determine how a Church will worship belongs to the local preacher - not the congregation. Over time this has led to a terrifying congregational passivity;  all that is required of a those who attend worship is to sit and listen, sing a few hymns and say whatever is printed in bold. It's no wonder fewer and fewer young people feel called to ministry or preaching - what experience do we give them of leading or participating in worship? Putting the occasional 'LA' on the plan is not enough!

Last night the consultation agreed to explore different ways of using  evening worship so that the Church might serve the needs of the whole congregation and perhaps even attract others! Currently evening services tend to be 'traditional' Methodist hymn prayer sandwich services. Depending on the preacher however, the congregation can fall to as few as 8 people (including organist and stewards!)

The consultation therefore decided to try replacing those services by a combination of:-
  • 'Church lite' - a half an hour service consisting mainly of praise and prayer with space for a short reflection. 
  • 'Opening the Word'  an hour of interactive Bible Study on the set Lectionary for the week (similar in style to the sort of studies that were part of the Lent BigRead.) 
  • Cafe Church - a meal of Scripture, politics, social justice and contemporary affairs which currently provides our largest evening congregation in spite of the fact that it has no hymns or sermons or even 'talks'. 
  • Holy Communion - a reflective quiet service using (for example) Iona or Celtic liturgies as well as those 'in the book'.
The joy for me as the minister is that Church lite - aimed at teenagers and young adults will primarily be planned and delivered by people of that age group. Who knows God, maybe one or more of them will enjoy it so much that they might hear a call to minister or preach. It's certainly a step in the right direction.