We live in anxious times. The nerve gas attack in Salisbury is but a symptom of a fractious and potentially confrontational relationship with Russia. The world is, once again, lining up for a fight, or so we fear. Whilst Brexit is itself a cause of anxiety, it is also a result of a once-powerful nation unsure of its place in the new world order and fearful of its own internal cohesion.
And whilst too many in the Churches believe we are made of different stuff and so are immune from anything affecting the world around us, we are also increasingly consumed with anxiety. In the last decade, the Methodist Church has lost one third of its members, mainly through death, and demographics predict an ongoing loss for the foreseeable future. Since 2000, the number of people in Britain describing themselves as Anglican has halved. The real fear that the Methodist Church might cease to exist within the lifetime of the current leadership is therefore omnipresent if not always acknowledged. In an anxious and fearful world, it is hard to resist the zeitgeist and react in a counter-cultural manner.
So, our policy-making has an air of desperation about it. The flurry of activity and initiatives has been described as the ‘missiology of a headless chicken’ and it is fair to say that, in many places, activity has replaced strategy. Michael Hammer, writing in 1996, seems to be describing Methodism in 2017:
It just won’t do for each person to be concerned exclusively with his or her own limited responsibility, no matter how well these responsibilities are met. When that occurs, the inevitable result is working at cross-purposes, misunderstandings, and the optimization of the part at the expense of the whole. (Beyond Reengineering, 1996, p11)
We need forms of leadership that, in every circumstance, prioritise people and see people as the greatest resource in our organisation. When faced with institutional failure, this is too easily replaced with a survival mentality that seeks to prioritise structures over people. Openness is replaced with control and vision becomes rescue, and the result is more rapid decline. Those caught in the middle – ordained and lay leaders – will become increasingly worn down and worn out.
Anxiety is not new to the Christian faith. ‘Do not fear’ occurs over eighty times in the Bible, and even a cursory glance at early Church history reveals a community with a lot to be anxious about! In anxious times, self-awareness becomes both critical and more difficult, for individual and institution alike. Acknowledging that our responses are driven by fear is the beginning of a wiser response to the crises we face. Naming the elephant in every room – that we could indeed be the last generation of Methodists in Great Britain – allows us to move beyond a rear-guard action that will only serve to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is a time for creativity and not control. Our energy needs to be released, not conserved. This is the time to renew trust – in each other, and in the God who continues to call us beyond fear into the future.