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.

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