For the last few months, I have been talking my way around the Connexion, often in the company of my dear friend, Paul Smith. By this time next month, we will have worked our way from the tip of Cornwall to the Scottish border, with more invitation in the diary. It has been heartening to see so many Methodists eager to engage with a range of issues in a sensitive and generous way. Of course, there have been bumps in the road and, whilst it’s never easy to hear you’re going to hell or filled with demons, by and large we have been heard with courtesy and respect.
As well as helping local ministers and members to overcome their fears and discuss the proposals on marriage and relationships, we are also trying to take the temperature in each place and discern what the Spirit is trying to say to the Church through this process. For me, this has always been about much more than whether we embrace equal marriage or not. Whilst there is still much to learn, here are my inklings so far:
ETHICS – for many of the people we have been in conversation with, the question of what is right and wrong is at the heart of it all. Often, we have heard the Church must always be clear and consistent in its teaching on matters of relationships (and especially of sex). This has led me to ponder whether it is the job of the Church to tell people, including those who are not its members, what to do in their bedrooms. The experience of other Churches in Europe, including the Catholics, would seem to suggest that most people take such pronouncements with a pinch of salt. This approach, where a panel of church experts (invariably privileged white men) determine what is permissible, is a valid way to do ethics, but is it the most successful?
The alternative is to begin, not with ideals, but with where people are. Making the starting point Romans 3:23, that all of us are sinners, seems to be both more Biblical and utterly realistic. For St Paul, this is supposed to the antidote to judgmentalism because we all start in the same place. Our ethics then must be relational, supporting one another on the road to virtue. The choice of perfection or failure is replaced with a more nuanced option of doing less harm.
CONNEXION – I have to admit to a touch of scepticism when I hear people talk about the proposals for a ‘mixed economy’ as a threat to Connexionalism. Perhaps if it were not coming from folk who previously have sat quite lightly to what the Conference decides and have felt free to diverge from Connexional policies, then I would take it more seriously. However, it is right that what is being proposed is going to shape the Church in new ways. This is why the United Methodist Church is currently contemplating various ecclesiological models in an attempt to deal with the deadlock they are currently experiencing. In simple terms, the choice seems to be between models of decision-making that allow for diversity and local adaptation, or schism into two or more ‘purer’ churches.
In the British Church, there seems to have been a drift to more centralised forms of decision-making where local members and ministers feel the need to get permission for absolutely everything. The current consultation process has revealed that most members (and a fair few ministers) have little idea about how they are represented in the courts of the Church. I hope that we are able to grasp this kairos moment as an opportunity to reconnect members with the decisions that affect them, and to create a common life that is less risk-averse and much more participative.
LEADERSHIP – it has been very troubling to see how this issue has revealed the lack of leadership in various parts of the Church. Many who are technically in positions of leadership are either ‘opting out’, keen to maintain a ‘neutral’ position, or so afraid of disagreement that they are opting for avoidance. The last ten years of my life has been committed to helping Christians in various parts of the world acquire tools and skills to better handle conflict. But this is about much more than a skills shortage. Too many have come to believe that leadership is about popularity and that their main role is to be and remain liked. For that reason, when they think that their beliefs will conflict with a minority in their care, they pretend to be neutral.
It is little wonder the Church is facing such an existential crisis. Instead of congregations, Circuits and Districts being led to make decisions at the appropriate time, things are left to drift until circumstances force us to confront reality. By then, it is usually too late, but at least no-one is responsible.
BIBLE – When I came to faith in my late teens, I remember how keen I was to search the Scriptures and understand them. So, when preachers and teachers said things about Scripture or theology that didn’t seem to ring true, my first response was to go to the Bible to check things out. That sense of curiosity with the faith has never diminished and now the internet and my smartphone make it so much easier.
It has been a disappointment to both Paul and myself to see the relationship most Methodists seem to have with the Bible. It feels like too many are content to go with what others say the Bible says, and never engage with Scripture beyond Sunday worship. Even those who claim to be the Bible’s biggest fans seem content to work with the Scriptures only in translation and are not prepared to struggle with the original languages.
If this process renewed more Methodists’ theological curiosity, it will have done our Church a great service.
HOMOPHOBIA – I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that many self-described ‘liberals’ think that a vote in favour of the current proposals about marriage and relationships will somehow make homophobia go away. If nothing else, surely the experience of Brexit shows how decisions can create more division and hatred rather than less. A vote in the Methodist Conference, whilst welcome and important, will do little to tackle the homophobia, prejudice and hatred that is present in our Connexion. Unless our leaders are prepared to risk opening all of our processes and policies to proper scrutiny and accountability, discrimination in all its forms will find a place to hide and thrive. Hatred isn’t ended by votes; decisions place a responsibility on each and all of us to confront hate-filled behaviours and beliefs with the truth and love of the Gospel.
This is quite a list already and will only get longer. But I remain utterly hopeful that we are at the beginning of major shifts in our Connexion and, with the right support and leadership, Methodism can become much more the radical gospel community it is called to be.