I’ve spent the summer in very good company. From the World Methodist Council to MTSE and IAMSCU, the United Methodist Church, the Oxford Institute and the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka, I have been surrounded by fellow-Methodists and Wesleyans from across the world. It is a complete joy to be part of such a diverse and beautiful family!
I love being a Methodist. I wasn’t born one and I would have to admit that I only became a ‘real’ one at theological college. I vividly remember reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics (not for pleasure, I hasten to add!) and a section on the unconditional love of God, and finding tears running down my cheeks. It had suddenly struck me that I hadn’t, ‘til that point, fully understood or embraced the universal love of God that was at the heart of the preaching of John Wesley. Like my Biblical namesake, I went to discuss what had happened with my Senior Tutor, who simply remarked: ‘You’ve just become a Methodist!’
Experiencing other Methodist Churches reveals a global church movement that is shaped more by mission and context than anything else. Whilst the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka began its autonomous life with a structure mirroring the British Conference, now it has diverged in many significant ways, and will continue to evolve structures and methods that work in the local context. However, like the British Conference, the Sri Lankans are contemplating ecumenical conversations with the Anglicans, expressly around the mutual recognition and interchangeability of ministries.
As I sat listening to the presentations and rationale in Colombo, I was struck again by the mismatch in expectations that accompany Methodist-Anglican dialogue. The talk of ‘mutual’ recognition, for example, is entirely misleading, for it implies that both Churches equally need to address their canon law to make this happen. Yet what we know is that Anglican priests can already to authorized to serve as presbyters within the British Connexion and, should they wish to transfer into Full Connexion, they can do so without further ordination. For Methodists going the other way, not only would they currently have to be ordained, but also probably episcopally re-confirmed. It feels like a misuse of the term ‘mutual’ when the sticking points seem to lie with one party rather than both. If there is to be confidence in the process, transparency and honesty is essential.
The focus of such conversations is said to be mission, the release of energy and resources to work together for God’s kingdom. Why does it feel like the congregation about to embark on a major building project ‘in order to do mission’? To build new premises before you have decided what to do with them is cart-before-horse thinking. The proposals under discussion in Mission and Ministry in Covenant (MMiC) seek to solve a problem that has not yet arisen, as no bishop seems to have faced the dilemma of wanting to appoint a Methodist presbyter as a vicar but being prevented by Anglican canon. The Covenant signed fifteen years ago involved not one change in Anglican rules, meaning that what was possible under the Covenant has also been possible before. I may be wrong, but I hear no grassroots cry to sort out the paperwork so that more effective cooperation can happen.
All of this highlights the very different needs of the two Churches. The Anglicans are committed to a particular form of church government as essential, ie, bishops, presbyters and deacons. They also believe apostolicity (basically what makes a church authentic) to be communicated through a tactile succession of bishops. Put simply, the Anglican believe that they have something to offer us Methodists that we do not currently possess. Whether it is expressed as a ‘top up’, a lifeboat, a gift, or a homecoming, it reinforces the notion of a deficiency in Methodism that Anglicans can remedy. The trouble is, it comes at a significant cost.
More than once, I have been offered a ‘fast track’ into the Church of England. In an attempt to be kind, Anglican friends and colleagues have suggested I would be much better off with them. When I have suggested that such an offer is, at best, patronising, they are usually the ones to take offence. They fail to see that I am not simply a Methodist because I’m trapped, or can’t think of somewhere better to be.
I am Methodist because I want to be part of a Church that is connexional, embodying a way of discipleship as much as ecclesiology. I want to be in a Church where mission shapes structures, where decisions are taken by all, where the rules that apply to ministers, equally apply to members, where we remain suspicious of hierarchy and are able to challenge authority. I want to be in a church that values lay leadership at all levels and empowers lay people to be representatives of the Christ and his Church. And I do not want to be in a Church that is so bound up with the elites and privilege that its prophetic voice is compromised. Rather I want to be part of a Church that understands what it is to be powerless. I am not naive about the huge flaws in the current Methodist Church in Britain, but it is my home, nevertheless.
I love my Anglican friends and respect how much they value their identity. But please don’t ask me to give up the joy of being Methodist.