It’s almost that time of year again, only without the packing and the hole-punches! Tomorrow sees the start of the Presbyteral Session of the Methodist Conference which should have been in Telford and is now brought to us courtesy of Zoom. As it happens, it’s also the 20th anniversary of my ordination at the Huddersfield Conference in 2000.
It’s been a real roller coaster emotionally for me over the last few weeks and so I’ve not had a proper chance before now to get to grips with the agenda. I was really pleased to see a report dealing the whole idea of better conferring, as well as the thorny issue of trusteeship. It feels like these issues have been raised in Conference on numerous occasions only to receive the response: ‘We really ought to deal with that.’
The report, Reaffirming Our Calling - Oversight and Trusteeship, sets out its purpose as twofold: to fulfil the demands of the Charity Commission for good governance and
‘to ensure appropriate representation and a better model of conferring that enables the Church to fulfil its calling.’
Sadly, whilst I see a lot of attention given to fulfilling our duties as a charity, I am left disappointed at the lack of any sense of how the changes proposed will improve our conferring as a church. Too often we forget that John Wesley and the early Methodists saw Christian Conference as a means of grace, every bit as important as prayer, preaching and Holy Communion. To consider the way that decisions are made, a means of grace, is more than ensuring that we begin each business meeting with a prayer and end with the Grace. It asks of us much more searching questions, not least whose presence is required in the room in order to ensure that true discernment is possible?
I wrote about Christian conferring over two years ago, when I discovered that the origins of the word are about, literally, 'carrying or bearing together'. That idea of sharing a common burden or experiencing common pain is one we know well, but the etymology is much more profound. In carrying or bearing together, there is the notion of pregnancy and bringing to birth. That all of us come pregnant with ideas, gifts, experiences and wisdom that are unique to us, but for the benefit of all. We also come as midwives, there to offer help and support to other to ensure the safe birth of others’ ideas, to see new wisdom (in theory and practice) come to fruition and be shared.
What if this report had acknowledged that the members of the Methodist Conference were carrying the future within us, a future placed there by the Spirit of God? What if, alongside effectiveness and transparency, the authors had placed the priority of discernment, searching with, and within, each other for the mind of Christ?
We have become adept at the handling of agendas and the rules of procedure, but is the Methodist Conference, now or as proposed, a place where God’s future can be brought to birth?
For those Christian communities who practice communal discernment, two of the key elements for a ‘successful’ outcome are:
defining what ‘success’ looks like for the community;
ensuring that the voices of the whole community are heard.
In this report, I’m not entirely sure whether the first has been fulfilled, and am pretty sure the second won’t be. Whilst the report talks about representation, no explicit mention has been made of the urgent need for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) concerns to be taken seriously. There is universal acknowledgement that the leadership and councils of our Church are incredibly unrepresentative, to an embarrassing degree. Appointments to significant positions in the Connexional Team remain overwhelmingly white, despite a Church that is increasingly multicultural.
If anything has been learnt from the past fifty years of anti-discrimination and human rights work in Britain, it is that institutions find it difficult to change on their own, and that significant transformation is only possible through transparent reporting and monitoring, multi-level and consistent interventions, building trust with those who have previously been excluded and significant resources available to correct previous inequalities. To talk the language of equality or representation without these things is little more than virtue-signalling. In terms of the specifics of this report, this means a more radical examination of why certain groups of people are absent from our leadership and decision-making processes and a prior commitment to providing resources to put things right. That includes assumptions about education and social class as well as other protected characteristics.
The report also talks about trusteeship and local churches. Interestingly, it only recommends minor changes to two standing orders. Virtually everything it suggests or recommends is currently possible under existing rules and is already happening in Circuits in various parts of the Connexion. One of the real issues is about local Church Councils who are resistant to change and, from what I’ve read, nothing more than describing the problem is included. What I fear will happen is what has been happening already - namely that local Churches with sufficient numbers of middle-class people willing and able to fulfil the tasks required by CPD or Charity law will survive and the rest will wither. The effect will be a faster retreat to the suburbs and any notion of being or ‘going where you’re needed most’ will be a pipe-dream.
Let me finish with five ideas that would not only potentially save money, but might actually help towards better Christian conferring:
Move quickly to the ‘regional district group’ structure and abolish the position of District Chair. Return those presbyters currently serving in those positions to the Circuits to help with the crisis in stationing. Create ‘coordinator’ role to deal with stationing and employment issues. Other District responsibilities be moved to Circuits.
Move the election of representatives to Conference to Circuit Meetings with smaller Circuits grouped to elect one representative. This immediately improves communications with Circuits and local Churches and draws from a wider pool of potential reps.
Retain residential element of Conference, but make it shorter with greater use of weekend and additional online session(s) scheduled during Connexional year. The Presbyteral Session could be held in a separate venue, probably a Church, over the course of one day, without accommodation requirements. The Representative Session could begin earlier on Saturday morning and include most of the usual elements and, in addition, the Reception into Connexion and Ordinations. This would free up Sunday for business and could shorten Conference by at least one full day. The aim would be to complete necessary business by Tuesday at the latest (with other business dealt with at online sessions) and would mean accommodation requirements cut to three nights’ stay.
Introduce Conference Reference Groups, akin to Select Committees, where reps are assigned to scrutinise reports before and during the Conference in order to bring proper scrutiny and detailed amendments to the floor.
Rather than begin with a discernment process for Connexional/District posts, the recommendations in the report substantially enhance the role of Superintendent. The way that Supers are recruited, trained, resources and deployed needs serious examination to ensure proper diversity and incumbents with the right skills and gifts.