This week has seen the beginning of Methodist Conference. Like General Conference for the United Methodist Church, this Conference is the top policy-making body for The Methodist Church of Great Britain. This year’s conference takes place in Scarborough on the Yorkshire Coast. Among the events, the Conference will invest a new president – my own chair of district, the Rev. Stephen Poxon. My friend and colleague from the Under 5s (a group in our district for those in the first 5 years of ministry) Beverly will be ordained, as will my blogging friend Pam.
With the opening of Conference, I have been thinking about the future of the Methodist Church in Great Britain. Of course, with declining numbers around the country and in my own three churches, this is probably on the minds of many. With the worry that causes, it seems many church leaders want to say that God isn’t finished with the Methodist Church yet. Most recently, I read the outgoing President of Conference (Martyn Atkins) say this in an article in the Methodist Recorder (Issue 7853 – 26 June 2008). Some in our churches have a ‘dis-ease’ (his phrasing) that is a dissatisfaction with church life as it is, and this signals to Atkyns that God is not finished with us. Also, at our district’s recent ordinands’ testimony service, Stephen said that God isn’t finished with us yet, but I can’t remember hearing his reasons for hope (Savannah got a little cranky after being wonderful for well over an hour of the service, and I could not hear).
Why is it so important that it is the Methodist Church in particular God isn’t finished with? On one hand, the answer is obvious – one doesn’t expect our presidents of conference to admit that God is finished with the Methodist Church. The position, with little to no actual power, makes the president the church’s ‘cheerleader-in-chief’. Who would want a president that spent her or his year running around the country saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll close in a few years’?
Part of what worries me is what some people hear. I encounter many who speak like their church is a safe haven whilst the world changes around them. News reports give images of roving gangs of teenagers ready to jump out at anyone. Technology increases beyond the understanding of many in my ageing congregations (though this is hardly across the board – I am still amazed as a few more ‘older people’ tell me they have email – and, of course, look at Olive!). Many in the churches I have encountered are looking primarily to maintain their way of church life and cannot seem to make those paradigm shifts that truly understand the culture is changing. They (and I would include many life-long, younger families in this) still believe that if we can just show how lovely we are, they will come on Sunday mornings as full members (discipleship, I have found, has not been an issue – the goal has been the ‘bum on the seat’, to use the phrase I have heard). I wonder if statements like, ‘God isn’t finished with us yet’ feeds on that fear of change and hope that the way of church they have led for 30-50 years will continue as it is (and this against what Stephen or Martyn Atkins believe – neither would say church can continue as is).
A second worry with this particularity of Methodism comes as all churches in Great Britain are declining. Why are we still so determined to stay in our denomination enclave? I am very proud of my Methodist heritage, and I understand the difficulties of ecumenical work (believe me, I know). Is either of these worth making a goal of Methodism as a going concern into perpetuity? If we assume that Methodism has to continue, how will that make ecumenical work better? A few weeks ago, my circuit colleague preached a sermon in which he said despite his commitment to the Methodist tradition and it being the tradition that reared him, he was ultimately unconcerned with the future of Methodism. He based this on the Lectionary text of Romans 5.1, which proclaims our justification by the faith of Jesus – that is where our hope lies, not in the hope of an ongoing Methodist Church. Shouldn’t this be our true hope rather hoping that ‘God isn’t finished with the Methodist Church yet?’
My final concern lies with this equation of ‘closing’ with ‘failure’. I would be surprised if John Wesley ever expected Methodism to continue into perpetuity. Churches, like people, have life-cycles. Since I have been reading Acts since Advent, one of the verses that captured my imagination comes after Peter’s release from prison. Peter as a major character in Acts (and in the Bible really) ends with, ‘Then he left and went to another place’ (Acts 12.17). Peter’s part in the story of salvation history, at least of what we know of it, is over and done. Peter leaves the stage gracefully and quietly – and without concern for what is his future. For Peter (and Luke who wrote Acts) the primary movement was the Spirit in the people rather than any particular person. A person’s time on stage came and went (some, like Peter and Paul were longer; others were shorter). We could say the same of churches.
Am I predicting Methodism’s end is near? No. I am just questioning why I need to be worried about it. I would like to stop asking the question, ‘Is God done with us?’ as a ‘question expecting a positive’. Actually, I would like to stop asking it about the Methodist Church all together and look for ways we can bring the gospel to people rather than fix it within a particular denomination. I think this stifles true conversation about what is the mission. As long as I am committed to making Methodism work, then issues of buildings and all that goes with it will continue before we truly begin talking about mission. [In this, I will admit that it is me that needs to change. I need to find ways of making these conversations take precedent over the agenda items that deal almost exclusively with maintenance issues. And I need to do this without complaining! Sometimes, I can have a very bad attitude.]
Despite this difference with Stephen and Martyn Atkins, I am excited about their leadership. My difference with them may boil down more to semantics. They have a passion for Jesus that I know is before Methodism. Their messages have actually in some paradoxical way in part formed the basis of my concerns with what they have said! At Conference, Atkins takes over as General Secretary, where I am told the real power in the Methodist Church is held. He is in a position to bring his understanding of the mission-shaped church into practical ways. Whether or not God is finished with Methodists doesn’t need to be questioned because God is not finished with the Church as a whole! Methodists need to find out how we fit in with that plan, rather than how God fits in with ours.