For forty years, the British Methodist Conference has been discussing sex and relationships and one thing is clear: we don’t all agree. More than that, many of us hold contradictory convictions by which we mean, having studied the Bible and the tradition, listened to the Spirit speaking through science, society and the lives of others, as well as our own, we have come to mutually exclusive conclusions.
What is also clear, at least since the publication of the Pilgrimage of Faith report in 2005, is that this reality is one yet to be grasped fully across the Connexion with the result that issues of relationships and sexuality often go unspoken. In this situation we acknowledge that mutual respect and understanding is still not present in large enough doses to counter the perception of a strong threat of disagreement and even division.
This is not a situation unique to Methodism, but for Methodists in particular, two persistent issues arise – the conscience of individuals and groups and the manner by which connexionalism operates. In general, the question of conscience has been focussed around the right to refuse to engage in certain practices. In order to protect conscience, certain practices have been prevented and we have lived with a culture of proscription rather than permission. This has meant that those whose conscience demands action have been prevented from the full expression of what they understand to be a Gospel imperative.
Given this reality among our membership , and the presumption that neither has priority over the other, the Church is confronted with a conundrum: what is the relationship between conscience and Connexion in the context of contradictory convictions?
I want to suggest that our definitions both of conscience and Connexionalism have become too narrow and need to be rethought if we are to find a way forward. Let me begin by asserting what I think they are not:
Conscience is not a personal, individual veto over anything I don’t like. There are severe limits to the exercise of personal conscience within the Methodist Church and rightly so. If a person does not wish to treat people of other ethnicities, or genders or sexualities, as equal human beings, that is a case for discipline not respect. If a minister does not wish to baptise infants, they should probably seek to transfer to a Church that does. And, up to now, if a person authorised to conduct marriages does not wish to re-marry divorcees, they can refuse on the understanding that they find a suitable replacement. So Christian conscience is one that is tested by the wider Church community for its basis in Scripture and tradition to ensure that it is not simply the expression of personal prejudice.
Connexion has become a distinctly Methodist word to describe, not only the way we do Church, but the basis of the Christian faith. It is not, in my view, intended to be a form of top-down control to impose a rigorous uniformity across the land, though it seems to have taken on that quality in recent years. It is supposed to provide principles that are shared, not processes that are slavishly followed. The result has been a greater unwillingness among local Methodists to risk innovation without first being given the imprimatur of ‘powers that be’. Whoever the arbiter of what constitutes authentic Methodism is, I reckon most Methodists believe it’s above their pay grade. Hence, ‘Is this allowed?’ is never far from the lips of local people when a change to practice in the local Church is suggested.