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.


  1. We wait with bated breath!

  2. This is the first time I've had the opportunity to attend conference and I'm looking forward to seeing how it operates. Having read the Agenda reports I'm looking forward to observing lively debates upon some of them. I'm hoping it will not be, as seems to be in some areas of church life these days, a case of watching a presentation, with the decisions appearing to have been taken elsewhere.

    A church steward said to me the other day that they wonder why we go to all the expense of having a conference. What does it do? How does anything that happens there affect us? The answer should be obvious but if it isn't to those leading local churches - is there a growing disconnection between what goes on at conference and what happens in the local churches? How do the decisions and deliberations of conference get disseminated to those in the pews and how can they feel more involved? The person in question was a former catholic - used to hearing pronouncements from on high read from the pulpit - that's not the way to go - we need more engagement not less.

  3. I haven't been to Conference since the year after my ordination. But I have noticed in those intervening years a steady decline in the level of debate at synod. We are requested to "nod through" items which conference 'needs' synod approval on in order to rush onto the 'real business' of a speaker, teaching sessions - anything except actually debating where the Methodist Church is going.

    It's no accident that I work outside the church: I no longer feel a part of whatever it is becoming. And I no longer feel it wants to be broad enough to allow for us folk who're out on a limb.

    Good luck for your week. I hope it goes well, and your voice is heard. We need debate, which means we need to be able to hear dissent and listen to it creatively, not grumble about "naysayers". I will pray for you.

  4. Problem is, Conference never votes against the platform. So they can sneak anything they like through, without any serious debate at all.

    The same thing tends to happen at every level; so many churches, circuits, no doubt synods, are controlled by little in-groups which do what they like. So many meetings are about 'them' doing all the talking, while everyone else just sits and agrees with whatever they want.

    A large part of the problem is the way appointments are made, by 'nominating' people to office in what amounts to a single-candidate election. Whoever's in control gets to appoint their friends and yes-people, who are often not the best people to get the job done. More able people may well be left on the sidelines.

    You're right about the theology of our structures; it's no use talking about being inclusive when the structure is exclusive; no use saying 'all are welcome' if we don't want them to do any more than set their bums on our pews, put their money in our collection, and agree with everything we say!

  5. I'm with revdkathy on this - as a fellow labourer in a part of the vineyard largely outside of our church structures, I've more or less given up on going to synod as there seems to be no point in attending.

    There is a bit of a cleft stick here. Martyn Alkins report correctly identifies that there are bits of Methodism locally which have turned their faces to the wall in a determined attempt to die rather than change. Martyn says this in a very pastoral way, but it is true however it is said. A wholly democratised structure is likely to struggle in meeting new challenges, because it gives equal voice to the morribund and the vitalised. A wholly team led structure rapidly falls into managerialism and a divisive "us and them" mentality.

    I agree with Angie that conferencing is vital - conferencing in the way we have received it is very different from secular democracy. Our structures enable us to use democracy (Conference, Synod)alongside charismatic voices (individuals) and authorised forms of leadership (Connexional Team) to determine what God is saying to Methodism. The whole point is that the democratic, charismatic and authorised ministries of leadership should interact with each other. This requires conferencing and it necessitates discussion, debate and disagreement. How else are we going to triangulate these three forms of leadership with the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience? (Sorry for the numerically mixed metaphor!)