Note to self: don't start a blog-series unless you've got at least two of them written already!
I wrote the first of these 'Changing Methodism' blogs two years ago and am only now getting round to penning this second offering. Apologies to non-Methodist readers, but I want to talk about the peculiar Wesleyan notion of itinerancy.
I have recently finished the excellent biography of Bishop Francis Asbury by John Wigger who describes the often punishing travelling schedule Asbury demanded of himself and his preachers. The image of the Circuit Rider has become mythologised in the American Methodist tradition but W also points out how many of the early preachers 'located', i.e. left the travelling ministry, because of family commitment or hardship. It was an incredibly arduous existence and may have, in part, accounted for Asbury remaining unwed. It is telling that the itinerant element of ordained ministry in the form of the Circuit Rider did not last long after Asbury.
In Britain and Ireland, the itinerant element has evolved since Wesley's insistence (like Asbury) of an annual move. No longer do presbyters turn up to the Methodist Conference with bags in hand, ready to hear where we will be working come September. The period of residence has moved from one to three to five to anything up to twenty years. Any conversation with a District Chair will highlight the increasing difficulty of stationing ministers and the change of attitudes to itinerancy.
What is the point of itineracy in the 21st century? Isn't there a greater need for incarnational ministry in deeply fragmented communities, a person to hold the centre? But how does that aid our connexional identity?A 'located' ministry, to use the American term, means that locations do not have the same access to connexion ally aware and experiences ministers. Part of the itinerant's gift to the locality was a sense and knowledge of the wider Church, having served in different places. A ministry that is less itinerant inevitably carries less of that connexional sense.
I think there is a conversation to be had about itinerancy in theory and practice in the modern Church. As part of that conversation let me offer three ideas:
1. Itinerancy as a mode of ministry – part of Wesley's idea was to ensure that local Methodists did not come to rely on the Travelling Preacher as a parish priest. Presbyters, as we became, were to be leaders in mission rather than the locus of ministry. The ministry of the local church was to be carried out by local people - preachers, class leaders, stewards, members.
2. Itinerancy as particular vocation – perhaps we have to recognise that placing oneself at the disposal of the Connexion is not for everyone. Is it time to acknowledge more realistically that it comes at a cost to individuals and families, literal and emotional? For that reason, as with the allowance we give to people who serve on the Islands Districts, is it time to recognize this in our allowances scheme and give an additional itinierancy allowance to those prepared to be stationed in unlikely places at the Conference's behest?
3.Itinerancy as a vision for mission - in writing about the Celtic Church in its early mission in these islands, scholars have pointed to the 'minster' model of ministry that early monastic settlements operated. The idea was not a closed order, praying for the world whilst keeping it out, but an open community where monks and laity mixed in worship and life. It strikes me that itinerancy is also vision for mission in the same model, driving us from the centre to the margins, going to where we are needed most. Itinerancy demands an accessibility to the world that too many modern churches (and Christians) lack because it creates the necessary vulnerability without which mission is inauthentic. It means a flexibility in how we are to be Church for others, with a connectedness to our sisters and brothers across the Connexion and in our Traditions.