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.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The sins of the Fathers...

Good afternoon God,
I had always puzzled at how a loving God could, as Scripture so often tells us, visit the iniquity of the father onto the Children to the third and fourth generation.. sadly I now understand that what is meant is that the consequences of the initial 'sin' will reverberate and enslave subsequent generations.
It is in that light that I have come to view our current ecumenical situation.

I fully understand the origin of the dreams of ecumenism that once fired the young ministers of the Methodist and Anglican Churches during the 1960's and 70's - especially following the 'death of God debate'. I appreciate all that they managed to achieve with their zeal and enthusiasm.. but I have also come to believe you gave your answer - firmly and emphatically.  You have made it clear that your 'broken body' is not ours to try and lump together again by our petty politics and power games. It is broken - to serve your purposes, not ours.

But the next generation of ministers, and those that have followed have nonetheless had to pay the price of those dreams. The amount of energy and money that has been spent on seeking so called 'Church unity' - ie on Church order, instead of on evangelism, social justice and pastoral care is - quite simply - frightening - and sinful.

And no - I do not understand it.

I am repeatedly told that full organic unity will better serve the mission of your Church - but the fastest growing churches in the world, both historically, and currently are those interested in mission and ministry, not those obsessed with bishops and clerics.  They are those with people and salvation in mind, not Church order and interchangability of ministry. They are focused on worship and discipleship, not with whether a service of the Eucharist is 'proper' or 'authorized'.
The Pentecostal Church today is not interested in whether the world thinks it is 'orthodox' or 'respectable' it IS interested in saving souls. In Asia and Africa the Methodist Church is not concerned with whether it is part of the apostolic succession or not,  it IS concerned with saving souls..

I am tired of being told that the Methodist Church once claimed that it was willing to take the historic episcope into its system - we once claimed a lot of things! Wesley believed in Witches, and thought tea was the devil's brew - we no longer do. British Methodists were once almost all members of the Temperance society - few are today, we once thought Roman Catholics were not even Christian - we no longer think so today - we MAKE MISTAKES in our discernment!
At the start of this century, we made it clear that we were no longer so willing to take the historic episcope into our system when Conference and the Methodist people declared that NONE of the possible options presented (including that of the president of Conference being made a Bishop) was acceptable.

Surprisingly God, you have shared with us some crucial revelations: You have shown us that that there is no difference in your eyes between laity and clergy, and that the Church really does not need bishops to engage in mission and ministry. You have revealed to us that the diaconate is a separate unique and complementary form of ordained ministry; that the laity can baptise and preside over the Lord's table without either acts losing their sacramentality or efficacy before You. That discipline and discipleship belong together. That Christian perfection is the goal you set before us, and most of all - that predestination in any form is not part of your Gospel of love and grace.

The longing of some Methodist men to be Bishops was/is I believe, another sickness and a sin in our church that some in this generation are growing a little tired of paying for.  I believe you have made it clear that churches can work together without denying the gifts of grace that you have given to each. It should be possible for any church seriously committed to your gospel, to work for your glory without being made to adopt Bishops first!

So - yes, I am appalled at the re-writing of Methodist History in the JIC report coming before our Conference - Methodism divided after Wesley's death over church structure - and in particular over the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers - ie over the equality before you, God of the laity and the clergy.  Once again, our history is paraded as something shameful, when the truth is quite the opposite.
Lay and clerical equality is not an event in our past, but in our present. We have only recently finished restructuring our own Conference so that there is parity of representation between clergy and laity.

And where in the report is the recent Anglican history over this same period ? What of the flying bishops from other parts of the Anglican world brought in by London Churches to ordain the homophobic, or the success of the ordinariate and the dissent against women bishops -
The JIC report dares to suggest that the Covenant is a plan for greater Church unity but the Anglican Church has demonstrated a frightening inability to maintain its own internal unity.

A large part of what distresses me is the ignorance that has been perpetrated by our ecumenical work leading to the lie that there is little difference between Methodists and Anglicans. Most Methodists and Anglicans have no idea that the Church of England does not recognise Methodist orders. They have no idea that the Church of England will only allow a Methodist minister to conduct a 'Methodist' service in an Anglican Church - that we are not deemed worthy or 'holy' or 'ordained' enough to lead an Anglican rite - even though we train with Anglicans, share in various mission and social justice programs with Anglicans. And few will know - especially if these new ecumenical areas are implemented - that the difference is based not just on canon law - but on theology and doctrine.

I suspect that the proposed 'ecumenical areas' or 'local covenants' are intended to lead still more people to believe that there is no difference really - even though the actual difference cripples Methodist ministry and mission, further erodes Methodist identity and negates the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and the revelation Methodism has received of the equality of lay and ordained. (To say nothing of gender equality)

I do not want to be a part of a church where so called 'unity' is more important than equality before you God. Please God, is there no way you can persuade the Anglican Church to focus on sorting out its own divisions and schisms and let this be the last generation required to wrestle with the consequences of the 1972 debacle?

Can we not just get on with the task of saving souls?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ministerial Extensions.

Good afternoon God,
It's that time in ministry again when I am trying to discern my calling - where do you want me to minister, what am I called to do next.. what is best for the circuit, what is best for me? (And by best I mean what is right by you!)
It's not easy - and I am grateful that I do not have to do it alone.
I have already met with the District chair and soon I will meet with the circuit stewards and they, in turn will discuss with the people I have been ministering too, all so that together we can discern your will.
It's a good system, at its best  it can be supportive and affirming, albeit challenging and humbling. It's part of what it means to me to be an itinerant Presbyter in your service. The same process is used throughout the Methodist Church, whether the presbyter is a circuit minister, superintendent or district chair. It is a consultative process that provides feedback from which the minister can learn and grow in grace and holiness. The fact that it is a shared process throughout the ministry is important to maintaining trust and confidence in the system.

So I am somewhat saddened to learn from our Conference reports that the same process appears to have been  short-circuited in the case of our General Secretary. The most important stage of all - the consultation with those being ministered to, has been compromised. The conversation with the equivalent of the Circuit Stewards has happened, and Conference will play the equivalent role of the Circuit meeting in either accepting or rejecting the recommendation being brought to them - but the recommendation does not appear to come on the basis of feedback from a full representative range of those that the General Secretary is called to minister to. If the report is to be believed, the ordinary members of the Connexion (and by Connexion I mean Connexion not Connexional Team) were not consulted.

The report tells us that

First, soundings were taken from those who work most closely with Martyn
in the Connexional Team and from Chairs of Districts. A process was
then put in place whereby comments could be obtained from other Church
leaders in the United Kingdom, from the leaders of a number of partner
Methodist Churches and from other organisations and individuals with
which the Methodist Church works in close co-operation.

If the General Secretary is to do his job well, shouldn't some of the 'rank and file' of the Methodist Church have also been consulted? The long list of the great and good who were consulted makes me uneasy - is there really now such a division between our 'leadership' and our people?

If the only people to be consulted in the process of stationing a circuit minister were the district chairs and circuit stewards and their ecumenical equivalents - would the Church members be happy?

What a missed opportunity for the General Secretary (and Conference) to receive some feedback about his ministry from the people who will be most affected by the changes he suggests we adopt. I am aware that often members of the Connexional team receive negative emails, hate letters etc - but here was a chance for the Church to offer affirmation, and positive comments.

The General Secretary is much loved in the Connexion - surely he had the right to hear that?
His ministry has been appreciated by many - surely he had the right to learn why and discover what people have valued the most?

I have no doubt that those who were considering how best to do this whole process had the Church's best interests at heart - but on this occasion, I think they got it seriously wrong. It leaves me with the uneasy impression that the opinions of  'ordinary' rank and file Methodists don't count. Something I don't for one second believe to be the case.

I can only hope that it is the report, not the process that was flawed, and that a full range of Methodist members including those without 'rank' or office.. were indeed seriously consulted. It's only the General Secretary's right as a Presbyter in the Methodist Church seeking an extension to his appointment after all.

For what its worth - The General Secretary would have received my vote.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A discpleship movement shaped for mission

Good afternoon God,
I have been reflecting further on the new direction for British Methodism being presented to the Conference this year in the hope of unpacking what it might mean for the ordinary church member.
The report states that 'The big theme of Connexionalism sets the context' in which all the remainder of the report must be read.

The argument is that Connexionalism is 'a Spiritual commitment' before it is a descriptor of Methodist 'structures, processes and systems'.
This understanding allows us to loosen the bonds that hold circuits and local churches together in such a way that

1) We can be more flexible about who is 'in full Connexion' with us - and why!
2) We can be more flexible about what a 'local Church', 'circuit' or even a 'District' is
3) We can redefine how Connexionalism is applied across the connexion.

How might this change things..
A fresh expression of Church might well become a part of the Connexion - but not necessarily a part of a circuit on the circuit plan.

A circuit or district could be created which is not defined according to geography but according to (for example) churchmanship.. so a network of fresh expressions across the country could become the equivalent of a 'District' or 'Circuit'. An ethnic fellowship could become the equivalent of a 'Circuit' etc. This makes it possible for forms of spirituality to flourish regardless of geography. So a youth church in an existing local Methodist Circuit might be part of a much larger national youth circuit and so would not be  dependent on the presbyters and local preachers of their local circuit, but on those already engaged in similar work and worship.

The current principle that all Churches in full connexion are under the same 'discipline' and have access the same resources would no longer necessarily hold, meaning that the Connexion could decide where to focus and allocate resources (such as ministers, deacons, finance etc) according to where and how it is discerned that the Spirit is moving.

Ethnic groups/fellowships/churches can be part of the Connexion, as Districts or Circuits or churches allowing the richness of diversity to  become a real factor in shaping Methodist mission and understanding.

For all this to happen - the Connexion rather than the local church, will need to become the primary body deciding what happens with our buildings and our boundaries.

Yes of course some of this could be seen negatively. It could be argued that introducing such phenomenal diversity  will destroy what little is left of a distinctive Methodist identity, or that such diverse connexionalism will be impossible to 'discipline'. Small rural churches and circuits could well feel threatened or even abandoned. 'Traditional' Methodists who insist that we have always done it this way and so must always do it this way will undoubtedly feel threatened! But truth be told - this vision of Methodism is much much closer to the origins of Methodism than what we currently have.

Perhaps the most difficult change for some will be the loss of 'Church' in favour of 'movement'. This will undoubtedly affect our ecumenical relationships. Some of our existing ecumenical partners might balk at being so closely tied to a body that deliberately chooses to be in full Connexion (and hence - perhaps - full communion) with a Pentecostal 'circuit' or a Fresh expression youth 'District'.
It will be harder to define common ground when we are once again so diverse.

When we look less like Church because we are structured less like parishes and dioceses - we will however become more dependent on our theology and understanding of the movement of the Spirit to hold us together - we will need to draw more on you GOD than on CPD!

The potential - really is - staggering!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Methodism and the Nunc Dimittis

Good morning God,

It's an odd thing to say, but the General Secretary has helped me understand the Nunc Dimittis in a way I could never have believed possible before.. and its bitter-sweet. The same thing that makes me feel I really can die in peace, also energizes me and makes me long to live and see more of what you have granted us just a tiny glimpse of.  I wonder if Simeon felt that strange mix of elation and peace, excitement and anticipation, longing and regret on seeing Jesus?

Ok, Ok the General Secretary's report is not quite in the same league in one sense - but it DID let me see Jesus - it DID open my eyes and offer me a glimpse of your salvation and filled my heart with hope - and dread - for the future.

The report is written in clear and accessible Godly language that draws on the riches of our tradition and the experiences and inspiration of past presidents - yet is still clearly profoundly prophetic. That it is YOUR word I have no doubt. Yes, it shows evidence of careful editing, there is no desire here to upset or offend, but this report also makes no apologies for the fact that should the Connexion be persuaded to follow the vision that you have given to the General Secretary and the Connexional team, it will be radically changed from what it is now.


No minister likes to think that their ministry, their service to you God has been in vain. As with so many I have been more than disillusioned about the 'Church' and its seeming loss of passion for the gospel, commitment to mission, obsession with structure and form rather than Scripture and prayer.
The seemingly slow inexorable slide into Anglicanism, institutionalism, officialdom etc has depressed me beyond belief. The lack of godly language or the use of Scripture in our public communications, the absence of any real sense of direction other than a parroting of 'the priorities' had left me seriously questioning my vocation.

The words of the Easter liturgy spring to mind..
If we have fallen into despair. If we have failed to hope in you, If we have been fearful of death, If we we have forgotten the victory of Christ. Lord, forgive us.' 
But on the eve of Pentecost you have answered my prayer by giving me a glimpse of a possible future..
The General Secretary's report captures what Methodism once did best - move forward into the future, taking the risk of being different, radical, even passionate in a desire to serve You in obedience and truth. It then dares to spell out how that might still possible today before providing just a few small illustrations of what Methodism might look like if it chose to follow that route. And for the first time since the whole 'Team Focus' process started - I feel a part of the team again, as though the Connexion includes me in, rather than writes me off as a circuit minister.


Yes, I know, this will be incredibly risky and painful for many in our Church to accept and adopt.
Yes, this runs the risk of initially at least losing us almost as many members as it potentially creates,
yes this takes us further than ever away from the careful steering towards respectable ecclesiology that has eaten up so much of our energy and vitality over the last 30 years -
by grace, by your wonderful powerful spirit God, we could actually do this - we could actually become a mission minded people once again, more worried about You than about our committees, buildings, titles, and personnel departments!

Provided we don't procrastinate.

I really want to be a part of this Lord.. not just witness the birth of it!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A rational, philosophical faith.

Good morning God,
In honour of this weeks lectionary reading from Acts - I would like to confess my own philosophical leanings.. and my puzzlement at those Christians who seem hell bent on pitting faith against reason, as though there were nothing reasonable or intelligent about either the Gospel or your continuing creative presence. 

You who know how we are made, who gave to us this amazing thing we call curiosity and set in our hearts a hunger for the truth, seem to delight in communicating with us in riddles and parables.  You invite our exploration, tease us with the possibilities that knowledge affords, and then gently persuade us to use the phenomenal intelligence of the whole of humanity to speculate and wonder at the mystery of creation and our place within it.

How sad that religion so often decries the great gift  you give to us of collective intelligence, of the progress of knowledge and the slow but inexorable maturing of the mind of humanity. How pathetic when priests, the appointed guardians of the mysteries, perjure their calling by insisting that they already know what the truth is, that we need look no further, seek no harder. We can stop asking and stop knocking at your door because you have already said all you intend to say. The Bible says it all, and what it says is all that we need to know.

Thank you God - that you taught me better than to believe that!

The Bible is your word - but it is not your final word and you never meant for it to be understood literally. If Paul had realised he was going to be quoted for the rest of time, he would have undoubtedly chosen some of his words with more care! (The same can undoubtedly be said of Ezekiel and one or two other authors) The TRUTH of Scripture is not literal, it is alive: real truth is so much more than plain facts.

So I read with joy the following report in the American New Scientist

Almost 13,000 Christian clergy have done it. Nearly 500 Jewish rabbis have too. Now, Islamic teachers, or imams, have begun signing an open letter declaring that there is no clash between their religious faith and evolution.
The Imam Letter, launched this week in the US, is the latest challenge to fundamentalists of the three Abrahamic religions who reject evolution in favour of creationism. The Clergy Letter was launched in 2006 and now has 12,725 signatures, followed three years ago by the Rabbi Letter, which has 476 signatures.

So at least some leaders of each of the three great faiths of the Book are united in the great battle against idiocy. It's a small start I know but could we dare to dream that in the not too distant future young and old will rise to the challenge set out in Scripture to grow and flourish as you desire us to. Will the world finally be free of the despotic idiotic presentation of you as the God who punishes thought and questions, doubt and insecurities, the God who is determined to keep humanity submissive and simple! (How on earth such people have ever squared this image of you with the fact that you also gave us mathematics and science I have never quite been able to fathom!)

Can we dare to dream of the day when Dawkin's savage ignorant God dies!

YES, YES and again YES!

And the best of all is, when we stop pitting reason against faith, when we stop demanding that people throw away their brains when they enter the Church, when we stop trying to defend you(?!) from the enlightened questions of your created offspring - then, and only then, will we understand what love really is.

Love that is blind is an easy love to hold on to. It is not the love of the cross which saw the pain and shame and yet still chose to love. If Jesus did not know what he died for - he died in vain. If he was not aware of the cost - it cost nothing - if his love was blind, it was no love at all.
Love which is pure faith is not the love of the Spirit which leads us into all truth about ourselves and then still demands us to love ourselves - completely. If all that we needed was the Good News of Christ, then why was the Spirit sent? If all that we needed was the Bible, why bother with the gift of tongues? If all that was said and done was all that you ever intended for us to know - why does the Spirit continue to breathe new life into your people, and impart new gifts of grace for this age?

Above all this - Love that does not dare to question is not the love of Christ who demands to know - 'why have you forsaken me?' Your love does not, nor has it ever, belittled the pain and suffering of your people. We hear from your own lips the question so many need the answer to. And in response we learn to listen as you plead in your love for us 'How long will you forget me?'

Reasonable rational knowing love, love which is not afraid of the questions as well as the dreams and aspirations of the other is the love that you ask of us. Not the love of a supplicant, fearful and afraid to do anything else, nor the love of the mindless adherent, empty and ignorant of why they do what they do. But the love of a child, trusting yet inquisitive, determined to grow and become all that they can be. Delighting in discovery, enjoying being teased by the puzzles and riddles you set them, and spellbound by the parables and the stories you tell.
This is the love that flourishes and lasts forever - for there is an eternity of mystery to explore and you seem to delight in the processes of revelation.

You are not unknown to me God- and I too struggle with the concept of resurrection, but nonetheless. you hold me enthralled by the very opportunity to discover more! I do not yet know what knowledge is, or understand how I know what I claim to know- epistemology is as much of a riddle to me as resurrection - but I am keen to try and make the leap from reason to faith and back again as required in order to gain the greater prize of a love that I can comprehend.
So thank you God for the way in which you continue to open my mind to the potential for greater understanding - for insisting that growth in grace and holiness includes growth in knowledge and understanding.
I look forward to learning more.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

World Methodist Council seeks Youth and Young Adult Coordinator

The position of Youth and Young Adult Coordinator for the World Methodist Council involves the following priorities:
1. To provide continuity and sustenance of World Methodist Council youth and young adult programs.
2. To provide pro-active communication among World Methodist Council member church youth & young adult ministries as well as area youth & young adult networks.
4. To assist in the building of leadership among youth and young adults.
5. To facilitate and coordinate interaction among youth and young adult leaders around the world, enabling them to interact with each other.
1. To serve as the channel of coordination and communication among national and regional youth and young adult organizations belonging to the Methodist and Wesleyan tradition.
2. To act as the representative of the World Methodist Council youth and young adults in appropriate programs and activities related to the World Methodist Council in general.
3. To lead the implementation of youth and young adult programs as planned by the Council’s Youth and Young Adult Committee.
4. To initiate programmatic thrusts for youth and young adults in relation to the vision and goals of the World Methodist Council.
5. To promote and advocate World Methodist Council youth and young adult programs for purposes of financial support from various possible sources available.
6. To liaise with ecumenical and other relevant youth and young adult organizations.
7. The Youth and Young Adult Coordinator must report to the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council.
8. To serve as an ex-officio member of the World Methodist Council Youth and Young Adult Committee.
9. To perform such other functions as necessary in the attainment of the goals of the World Methodist Council and the Youth and Young Adult Committee.
May be up to 35 years of age at beginning of the five-year term. Active membership in a member church of the World Methodist Council for at least 5 years. Leadership experience with young people within the church on regional or national levels. Education, skills and talents appropriate for the successful performance of duties and responsibilities of the job. Preferably with the ability to communicate effectively in written and spoken English, and ability to communicate in at least one other language. Ability to travel internationally.
The position may be based in the country where the Coordinator chooses to live or at the World Methodist Council Headquarters in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, assuming the following conditions are met:
o Easy access to an international airport.
o Strong communication infrastructure (reliable telephone, internet, postal service, etc.).
o Office (administrative) support from a World Methodist Council member church or regional network.
This is a part-time position for the five years of the quinquennium beginning in 2016.
The World Methodist Council will widely publicize the position opening to all member churches and youth and young adult networks. Applications will be sent to Dr. George H. Freeman, General Secretary, World Methodist Council, P. O. Box 518, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745 USA, by June 15th, 2011, and presented to the Selection Committee. The Committee will review the applications and recommend the candidate to the Council for election.
Applications should include: resume or curriculum vitae, supporting letters from an active Bishop/Church President, the candidate’s pastor/minister, and youth or young adult organization (national, regional, conference).

British Candidates - you might want to talk to the Chair or Secretary of the British World Methodist Committee (Luke Curran or Anne Vautrey) or to Chris Elliott (Connexional Secretary) at Methodist Church House. Any difficulties - let me know.

This really is a GREAT opportunity to play in important role for the whole Methodist family.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ground Zero and the meaning of death.

Good morning God,

When president Obama visits Ground Zero today, he will meet with representatives of the families of the victims of the September 11th terrorist attack. In so doing, he will underline the importance of the deaths which occurred on that day to every American. Although they did not choose to die, and I doubt had any desire to become martyrs to the American way of life, nonetheless their deaths forever changed the history of world.

But what is it that makes some deaths more meaningful than others? Why, for example, are the deaths of the victims of 9/11 any more 'life-bearing', any more worthy of national and international respect and consideration, than the countless thousands who die before their time every year in America and throughout the world through want of proper health care, or through gun crime?

The names of those who die from curable diseases, from famine, flood or tornado, who also did not choose to die, are not carved in stone. They often have no memorial, no 'Ground Zero' to draw people's attention to their loss, but surely they are as much victims of providence as those who died on 9/11? Their lives were just as important to you God, and to them as those of the victims of 9/11 - but apparently they are not as important to us. Why not?

Is it simply that all the deaths from 9/11 all occurred at the same time, at the same place?
Is collective death more important than individual death?
Or is it just that it is more visible?

We have come to believe that death should be a private family affair, something that occurs at the end of a long and fruitful life. We should die surrounded by our loved ones, in no pain or distress, with a priest or a minister to hand to assist us as we transition to the life after death promised to us in the Scriptures.

Public deaths are abhorrent, terrifying and offensive to us, they force us to see our own mortality, our vulnerability. They don't allow us to excuse ourselves and look away.  They teach us the truth of the saying 'there but for the grace of God go I' and how little control we actually have over whether we live, or die.

Ground Zero has become a public monument to the mortality and vulnerability of every human being. Including Osama Bin Laden! It is a reminder that no matter how charismatic, powerful or wealthy a person or a nation becomes, death can still come suddenly - like a thief in the night - and steal away the future  hopes and dreams.
Through the death of Osama Bin Laden, it may be possible eventually to prevent more terrorist attacks, more public, collective deaths. The Western  'way of life' may be a little more secure. Unless of course, the real threat to it lies, as it always has, in our refusal to see, and be changed by, the thousands of silent. hidden, passed-over deaths of the poor and the hungry in our midst.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The execution of justice

Good morning God,
I woke to scenes of ghastly jubilation on the TV,  people singing and dancing in the street, shouting and cheering in joy at the death of one man Osama Bin Laden. He, his son and one other were killed in their home in Pakistan last night, by American special forces.  In the words of Barak Obama - Justice has been done.
 I can understand the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a raid gone wrong - I can even understand the immature 'wanted dead or alive' mentality.
What disturbs me, no - terrifies me, - is the jubilation over this death.

I believe the scenes we are witnessing in America this day are more of a tangible threat to the survival of our way of life than Bin Laden's threats ever were. What we are seeing in Obama's smile and in the crowd's spontaneous celebration is more dangerous to the rest of humanity than the pseudo religiosity of Al-Qaeda ever was for it exposes the death of international justice and liberty on the altar of offended American nationality. As Obama stated - 'We can do these things not because of wealth or power but because of who we are'.  Or put more succinctly 'Might is right' and 'If you hit me  no matter how long it takes, or wherever you try to hide - I will find you and hit you back, so hard you will never dare to hit me again, and no, I couldn't care less why you did it.

Obama ended his gloat with the words 'God bless America' and I found myself praying God, that you would find some way of helping him and the American people see how sickening this obvious delight in the death of a man is: Bin Laden is dead, justice has been denied the families of the victims of 9/11, of 7/7  and of all the other atrocities around the world, attributed to this man. Bin Laden was wanted by MANY countries, not just by America. The whole of the Western world has been robbed of the chance to hear an unedited account of why this man felt justified in waging his war on its way of life. The proponents of liberty and international justice are forever denied the opportunity of bringing this man to trial - of judging him according to the legal moral and ethical codes that they insist underpin western societies.

As hard as it is to accept, regardless of what the man did, regardless of how many he killed, maimed or destroyed, justice demands a proper account and judgement of those crimes, not a government sponsored lynching.

killing is not justice - it is the denial of justice.

The celebration of Bin Laden's killing merely exposes the lie that justice was ever intended.

The perverse delight at Bin Laden's execution sits alongside people's acceptance of the illegal concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay and the disgusting use of waterboarding and other forms of torture, as proof positive that Al-Qaeda has won the war.

Justice and liberty are dead.
They were destroyed in 9/11

And I am afraid God, that all that remains is a sort of perverse despotic democracy which lives a lie of liberty and which is slowly but surely spreading across the globe like a cancer.

God help us.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

Good evening God,
I just wanted to say thank you for today - for the inspiration and the courage to challenge the congregation as to whether or not they are a Palm Sunday people - all in favour of the big parade, but unlikely to follow through with any real commitment. The Church will die unless a new generation of officers and class leaders come forward and learn how to tell our stories and share the good news.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Panic, Perfection and the Word of God.

Good afternoon God,
Did you ever wonder if you would survive long enough to die?
I ask, because it's about this time in the run up to the festival of Easter that I often think I'm not going to make it - so many home communions to do, so many services to write, so many people to visit, so many things to buy/organize/make/plan in order to make sure that THE day (actually - let's be honest here - the hour) manages somehow to communicate something of the wonder, mystery, joy and power of what you did 2000 years ago.

At this moment in time, I could take heart from the idea that you might have gotten a little 'fretful', that you might have worried (even if only for a moment) about missing something. It would help me to feel that there were split seconds when you had small doubts, were you sure you had said all you wanted to say - all that was necessary to enable us to piece it all together again later?
Were you confident that you were 'ready'?

Were you human enough to want everything to be perfect - and human enough to panic that it might not be?

Planning great moments which celebrate both life and death demands breathtaking courage and audacity doesn't it. The celebration of Holy Week and Easter has to be genuinely emotive enough to liberate tears and smiles, yet rational enough to sustain more than just the heart in the days and weeks that follow. It has to be simple enough to understand, yet complex enough to carry truth, mystery and awe.. and all this without artifice!

It's at times like this that I really understand, value and appreciate Scripture.

When I don't have the words, I find you do - when I've run out of contemporary stories and illustrations, you supply me with your Word and ask me just to let it be read -
You teach me, year on year, to trust that it has your power to move, liberate and mystify.
It is, after all, by your grace, not by my exposition that people will be saved.

So.. before the real panic begins, before the stewards and the organists, the readers and the flower arrangers all start.. before the ink is dry on the orders of service for Maundy Thursday with its 7 different readings, and for Good Friday with its complete reading of the passion story - let me say thank you for your Word.

It tells YOUR story better than I ever could.. and spares me the embarrassment of trying to improve on perfection.

Bless you God

Monday, April 11, 2011

Healthy Circuits?

Good morning God,
at Synod on Saturday we were treated to a discussion starter document entitled 'Marks of a Healthy Circuit'. It is based on the premise that 'In London we know that our members' diversity of experience in different denominations and Connexions means that what a Circuit is and how it works is not always fully understood'. In order to help us understand the nature of a Circuit better therefore, this document outlines seven marks of a healthy circuit 'as a basis for thought and discusssion and to help understanding as circuits face urgent questions about their future'.

It certainly does provoke discussion.
If Saturday's conversations can be used as a judge there are a variety of different ways of understanding what does, and does not constitute a 'healthy' circuit. The District really is to be congratulated on having produced such a provocative document.

As an example - mark number 1

A Healthy Circuit has:
An effective Staff Team of between 5 and 8 ministers or full time staff.
 'it is clear that one of the big gains in Circuit mergers has been the increased quality of staff fellowship, support and teamwork'.

Apparently - fewer than 5 can lead to 'major difficulties' in the case of ill health,sabbaticals and 'relationship issues'.

I agree it is certainly easier to keep relationships light, non-confrontational, non-informative and polite when there are enough people in the room to divert attention away from key issues. It's a lot easier for example, for a person in a group of 8 to stay silent and unnoticed for an hour than it is for a person in a group of three or four.  I am also inclined to agree that many of the problems in circuits stem from conflicts amongst the circuit staff, but I'm not sure the answer is to create a situation where they can be ignored hidden, minimized or disguised.   And what about the role of the laity, of Supernumerary and sector ministers - are they not part of the 'team' with a role to play in resolving any such issues? What would St Paul say about such issues,what is our calling in such circumstances?

Similarly - it is suggested that more than 8 staff can create a loss of team focus and accountability - so how on earth does a circuit meeting which is larger and more diverse, hold focus and accountability?
  Last - but by no means least - a staff team of between 5 and 8 creates better training opportunities and the possibility for diversity in gifts and graces.

And of course - there is the problem that none of this applies particularly well to fresh ways of being circuit (see Conference report in 2008)

Thinking about all this theologically - I guess the first thing I would want to say is that Mark 1 of a healthy circuit could do with being about YOU God, not about ministers!
Something about a willingness and a commitment to work together to serve God and engage in the mission of God to this circuit.

In general, I think we need to take the focus off the HOW and onto the WHY.. if we really want to inspire people to create healthy(?) - missional circuits which are able to help the District fulfill the mission statement we adopted on Saturday.

I think it is a brilliant idea to produce such a document - we DO need to look carefully at circuits (which is why the Connexion produced a report about the missional nature of the circuit)

I would just want to make a plea for it to be a CHURCH document - ie a theological document, focused on  YOUR work God, not ours, and so something that takes into account important considerations such as the quality of Worship, the provision of the means of grace, the equality of ministry, the commitment to social justice and growth in grace and holiness for all your people - the obligations of membership and the responsibilities of good stewardship, the MISSION of the circuit as part of the District.

I think I would want it to spell out how it relates to the discipline and doctrine of the Connexion - and how adopting it can help us to become a more missional, inspirational people and a more effective witness to your gospel. (That might even help people to understand what CPD is all about!)

All of which is just a case of making explicit what is largely implicit in what we have been given. So, I really do want to thank you God, for giving us people who care enough about your Church to want to wrestle with it and engage with it, and persuade us to do the same - in order that YOUR will be done.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The death of an idealist and the birth of an unhappy pragmatist.

Good morning God,
It's depressing to contemplate how much of my life has been lived as a lie. Unintentionally I grant, but a lie nonetheless. I actually believed in the work I have been doing, in the theology behind it, in the doctrines that motivated it and the passion for you which was supposed to have inspired it. Worse than this - I taught it to others; shared the lie, encouraged them to believe and want to live the ideal of Connexionalism; to take up the challenge of serving you as a minister in the Methodist Church.
There is no finer calling, I told them, than to serve you by loving your people.

God - do I feel a fool!

It's taken a while, but I finally understand Don Cupitt and his insistence that it is perfectly possible to have a vacant faith - to practice religion as a social rite rather than an expression of faith, to 'do the job' rather than live the life of a servant of Christ. To be an almost Christian as Wesley would say - and to be perfectly happy in it - indeed to argue for it as being the most sensible, practical way of surviving in ministry today. It certainly has the potential to reduce the heartache and preserve some integrity when ministry is more like a job than a calling and vocation.

I only have myself to blame. I allowed myself to be seduced by the theology of the priesthood of all believers, to be intoxicated by the idea of truly representative ministry, where lay and ordained sought to model the coming kingdom by their work together in the circuits and local churches. Circuit ministry was different from Parish ministry I believed: diakonia, collegiality and collaborative leadership - lay and ordained - was written into our structures. Connexionalism bound us together in an outlandish equality before you God. Small rural churches were deemed as important to the body of Christ as large suburban churches were: a probationer minister was paid the same basic stipend as the President of Conference.  Yes there was a hierarchy of sorts, but it tended to be based on respect and seniority, earned through fidelity to the Gospel and the service of your people rather than granted by job title. We were all under the same discipline of the Church which called us to a life of scriptural holiness and social justice.

Of course this was all an ideal - and yes - Of course I knew this - I'm not THAT much of an idiot: but it did seem to me at one time that it was an ideal, a model, that the Church was still holding up and striving for: The reconfiguration of the representative session of Conference as a means of ensuring parity between laity and clergy being but one recent example.

But I think I was mistaken. The dream was mine.

I can find little evidence in what I read of our new structures, disciplines, and forms of ministerial oversight of a theology that can be reconciled with a search for truly representative ministry or with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. To take but one example - gender equality : we have to concede that the number of women superintendents is declining, not increasing. Team focus has apparently led to a significant reduction of women in positions of leadership at Connexional level, and we are a long, long way from parity at District level. Have we unwittingly been walking backwards, by forging on with the management of our priorities without thinking through how this might impact on the practical outworking of our core doctrines?

In our determination to be 'better' more coherent, more financially responsible and personally accountable are we unknowingly developing a blindness to our theology, to our calling, to our purpose and identity?

I'm not sure what the dream of this once great movement is now, the priorities tell us what we have agreed we will spend our time, money and resources on - but they say very little about why. We are committed to making new disciples of Christ - but to do what?  What is the ultimate goal of all our restructuring, management and mission? What is the PURPOSE of our priorities and how does that UNITE us in one common calling or identity?

There are some great things happening at every level of the Connexion. Fresh ways of being Church are springing up at local level, new and alternative ways of being circuit are being discussed and implemented, Districts are finding creative and innovative ways of encouraging lay leadership, and at Connexional level we are seeing some real fruit - the youth participation scheme, the new free resource Talking of God the Venture FX project, and not least, the wonderful wonderful way in which the media and joint public issues teams are working to try and give the work of Christ a voice that will be heard, must be heard.. 

And for as long as I live, I too will continue to try and play my part in making the priorities a reality - albeit differently.  No longer the idealist, more the unhappy pragmatist. (Wesley would be proud)
For where can I go Lord - you have the Words of eternal life. 

So I will celebrate and rejoice in the good that I see, and pray earnestly that you will find some way to speak to us and get us to speak more of YOU. That you will inspire us and fill us with confidence once again in simple words like love, trust, respect, faith and hope and point out to us why it is these things that abide - long after models of leadership, management and governance have been changed once again. That you will remind us that you called us to be a movement - not a monument, to work with you for the building of your kingdom, not our structures, and that in Christ, there is neither chair, nor synod secretary, superintendent nor circuit steward, neither lay nor ordained... just your people.

And maybe, just maybe God, the prayer will challenge me to believe in Connexionalism again.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Supervising - or Pastoring - the difference matters

Good morning God,
Can you please explain to me why the Church feels the need to Supervise its ministers rather than provide them with Pastoral Care?
When I worked in industry, when I employed people with job descriptions and measurable outcomes and provided a foot in the door for young people on YTS or BTEC or similar programmes, supervision meant comparing expected measurable outcomes against achieved outcomes.
If the company expected 20 units a day to be tested or put through quality control and the person being supervised only managed 15, then we could have a conversation about whatever it was that was causing the difference.  Supervision allowed the person being supervised to compare how they thought they were doing  to how the company thought they were doing. It allowed us to identify future training needs and to give praise where praise was due.
Supervision was always a two way process - but I was never under any illusions about which way power was slanted: as the employer, it was the supervisors assessment of the area under supervision that mattered - not the employee's. We could talk all we liked, and I was always open to hearing constructive criticism about the working of the company - but in the end - it was not the company that was being supervised. This is what made it perfectly possible and acceptable for employees to be supervised by  line-managers and a member of the Human Resources team - both of whom could be (and often were)  less experienced and less knowledgeable about the actual work being done by the employee than the employee was.  They had taken a course in supervision - and it really didn't matter what the employee thought. Supervision was never about a relationship of equals, or even first among equals. Super-vision implies that the person conducting the interview has greater ability to 'see' what has been and needs to be done than the person being supervised.(i.e. seen by this superior vision)

My first Superintendent was a senior minister, someone who had spent their entire life in the service of the Church. He knew the joys and the sorrows of circuit ministry. He knew what it was like to be loved into the work, and what it was like to love the work in spite of those you are called to serve. He didn't 'supervise' my probation - he provided genuine pastoral care: Honesty where it was needed, advice where it was asked for, and support and encouragement to develop and grow further. He walked with me, not once a year at a staged supervision - but weekly as we met in staff meetings. I learned and grew as a minister by listening to my colleagues discussing ministry, by sharing in prayer and learning how to be open and not possessive or defensive about my own calling, We shared the contents of our diaries and watched over one another in love. He inspired me, by his pastoral care of me,  to become all that I could be in your service God - even though my own particular gifts and graces were very different from his. The only power at work in all this that I was ever conscious of, was your power God.

The Church's most recent vote of no confidence in its circuit ministers means that we are set to turn Superintendents into line-managers and supervisors. At a stroke we deny the theology of pastoral care which once meant so much to us and create a sub-structure of the Church in direct contradiction with one of the most fundamental aspects of circuit ministry - collegiality. As a line manager and the person designated to conduct the annual supervision, the Superintendent ceases to be a colleague, a fellow minister, the 'first among equals' described in the 'What is a superintendent' report. Instead the Superintendent becomes the boss, the record keeper of a minister's attempts to measure up to some unwritten 'measurable outcomes' of ministry - and the (potentially unqualified) judge of their performance. So who will pastor to the pastors - because supervision is NOT pastoral care. There is nothing 'pastoral' in supervision, nothing 'gracious' or deliberately of you God - supervision is a performance indicator - nothing more and nothing less. And I doubt that it will be too long before annual supervision reports are held in the new personnel files for ministers.

I hate to think that I will end my ministry outside of the discipline of my Church - but I object to the very idea of being 'supervised' in the manner currently being proposed. I am opposed to it on both theological and practical grounds.  Will I reflect on my ministry - of course, I have been and always will be a reflective practitioner: will I do so with my Superintendent as part of a formal, recorded annual supervision of my 'performance' in the Church - I very much doubt it. Why not - because it may be good management - but its just not good pastoral ministry. 

I am happy to reflect on my ministry with an experienced practitioner and spiritual director and to then share those reflections with colleagues in staff meetings as part of our pastoral care of one another. I am happy to be held accountable to my colleagues and to the Circuit meeting for the conduct of my ministry - isn't that what circuit ministry is?

I do understand why the Church feels that it needs to introduce supervision - its a neat, tried and tested way to bring employees to heel and maintain discipline amongst the work force. It allows the managers to set standards and outcomes and task the workforce to ensure that those outcomes are achieved to the desired standard.

And it's so tempting to think that that will solve our problems out in circuit. There can be no denying that we do have a problem, the increase year upon year in discipline cases tells its own sorry story - as do the terrifying tales of abuse of care in circuits. But am I alone in wanting to challenge the very idea that something that so completely undermines the theology and value of circuit ministry and the collegiality of ministry is the best answer we can come up with? Make no mistake, I believe it is important that ministers do reflect and are held accountable for their ministry: But is 'Supervision' by the superintendent really the best way to achieve this?

If, as a Church we have problems with discipline - then why not deal with the root cause of it.
Might our problems be caused by the practice of sectional instead of circuit ministry? We now actively encourage the idea that the minister is assigned to a Church or Churches rather than to a circuit as part of a circuit team.  Is this because we are too 'busy' or unwilling to practice 'circuit ministry - to meet regularly - to spend time in prayer and conversation with one another - to watch over one another in love - and yes, that does mean censure one another where appropriate?
On second thoughts God - perhaps the Church is right - it's just so much easier and neater to supervise staff once a year..
after all - who needs pastoral care?

Friday, April 1, 2011

District Superintendents - What's in a name?

Good morning God,
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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Thinking theologically about British Methodism Ltd.

Good morning God,
Yes.. I've simmered down a little - enough at least to begin to think this through theologically rather than just emotionally. I want to get at the root of what really disturbs me in the way in which our Church is now being managed: I have, after all, been a great advocate of British Methodism, our theology and polity alike... So what is it that distresses me so much?

It's your seeming absence God.
Its the way in which all the things that bind us together as Church rather than institution, are so often missing from our communications, the Scripture, the theology, the faith hope and love.
Instead we have summaries of impact including risk assessments of what we propose to do...
It's the way in which we seem to have so little confidence in your ability to lead us that we are determined to do it all ourselves.

We have decided our priorities
We have fixed the buget
We have created our governance structures
We have rewritten our language and modus operandi 
All of which now allows us to determine how best to 'manage' the work of your Church - and decide what work we will do - and how to communicate it - based on OUR priorities of course, and the money available.

It can appear God, from our Conference and Council papers, that we have decided we can do quite well at being the British Methodist Church, without you.

I know that there are good, well meaning and capable people working within Methodism at every level - circuit through to Connexional team. People who are committed to serving you God to the best of their ability. Even those within the Connexional Team who have no faith or are of a different denomination, are required to uphold the stated priorities of the Methodist Church. The things that distress me are not their fault! They work hard at their jobs/ministry.

I cannot blame one individual or group of individuals or governance level for what distresses me now - I can only blame the apathy of the Methodist people themselves.

We have allowed this seemingly inexorable slide into secular religion by taking no real notice of what is being done in our name. It's perfectly possible in British Methodism for members and ministers alike to pay no heed to what the Connexion is doing. But by ministers and members taking no interest in, and not challenging the reports presented to Conference we have allowed you, our faith, language and theology - our very identity - to be replaced by what can often appear to be a godless secular business, complete with tiered management structures, officers, secretaries, senior managers etc, professional business and financial correspondence and a grim determination to complete a merger with some other 'company' before we go bankrupt.

As a former managing director of three IT companies, I am all too aware of the necessity of good management in business. I approve of good employment policies, sound accounting and risk assessments.

But I don't believe your Church was meant to be a pseudo business. I find nothing in Scripture to support that idea, no model of Church or community that can be used to justify or uphold this current seeming obsession with fiscal management, risk aversion and irreligious language.

Scripture seems to say that Your Church is not a business - it is a body: a disabled body, I grant - but a body nonetheless. It is, you tell us, the body of Christ on earth. I recognise that because of who we are, it is still significantly limited in its abilities and restricted in its movement, especially when it is not properly formed, missing its feminine qualities, or when it is dis-eased and suffering. But it is YOUR body, not ours. You shape and form us according to your will.
The life-blood of this body should be your Spirit, God - not money.
The body needs to be fed with your Word, not with our jargon.
This body needs to be held together by YOUR priorities - not ours!

But what does this mean in practice?
It doesn't mean that we throw away good practice in terms of oversight - but it does mean that we understand oversight less in terms of human resources, line management and power, and more in terms of pastoral care of the body of Christ.

It undoubtedly does mean we learn once again to 'manage' a little less and be prepared to take more risks - as you call us.. (regardless of the budget implications!)

It means being prepared to put YOUR priorities first - not ours, and learning once again how to speak the language of faith. How to communicate to one another in ways that also communicates your grace and your purpose rather than just our standing orders or budget implications.

It means being confident enough in your leadership of us to not need 'independent consultants' to tell us how well we are fulfilling our calling.

So yes - It means taking the focus off us,  and onto your creation, your people.
And I guess that means not being ashamed of the name that you gave us, the Word that inspires us and the task to which you have called us.

We have nothing to do but save souls...

Do we really need independent consultants to tell us how to do that?