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.
This centralised and over-bureaucratised interpretation of Connexionalism has not served the Church well. Too often it has prized the inoffensive and the safe over the bold and the creative. For a denomination that is the union of at least five different Wesleyan traditions, Sunday mornings look all too familiar in too many places. Where this is not the case, the reason often lies in the influence of migration and not a decision to innovate.
The upcoming Marriage and Relationships Report to the Methodist Conference forces us to address the issue of conscience and Connexionalism head on, for we are being asked to consider a radical departure from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ Connexionalism we are used to. Instead, should the proposals of the Task Group be accepted, local Churches and individual ministers and members will be allowed to choose which path is most appropriate for them in their practice of marriage. This will probably mean that Churches within the same Circuit, and certainly within the same District, will differ in their practice, with some registering to perform same-sex marraige and others not. This has caused a great deal of concern about the possible confusion and even potential chaos this might cause, with same-sex couples not knowing which Church will marry them. I agree that the early stages will be a bit messy, but I am extremely hopeful that, if this opportunity is grasped fully, it will not only allow us to move the conversations about relationships on a bit, but also help us re-frame our vision of Connexionalism in quite exciting ways.
When Brian Beck, former President and Secretary of the British Conference reflected on Connexionalism back in the early 90s, he argued that one of its key foundations was subsidiarity, the commitment to take decisions as close to the people they affect as possible. I have tried to argue here that it feels like this principle has been undermined and many Methodists now feel disconnected from the processes of decision-making in our Church. This becomes more worrying in the context of our turbulent political times and the rise in disaffection with long-established principles of representative democracy.
Subsidiarity is based on trust, that people are best placed to make decisions about their own lives and communities. A profound trust that when people are given the freedom to choose, they will not abuse it by opting for the ridiculous, the impossible or the extreme. Some may argue that Brexit proves the opposite, but I don’t agree. Instead of lumping people together, authentic subsidiarity recognises diversity within and between communities and allows for different outcomes. Where national referendums seek binary choices, subsidiarity embraces nuance.
I know John Wesley is often accused of control-freakery, but so much of early Methodism grew from innovative practice that was not officially sanctioned from the centre. Much of American Methodism was the result of immigrant lay preachers from Ireland and Britain who arrived on new shores and began to spread the Gospel. In Europe, Methodism was brought, not by official missionaries, but by Cornish miners, and Norwegian seafarers. Whatever power Wesley exerted, it certainly didn’t seem to quench the enthusiasm or taste for pioneering ministry. Interesting too that Wesley’s vision of Connexional oversight was itinerant, through visitation and engagement at the Circuit and local level.
The vision of Connexionalism I am arguing for is one that actually encourages diversity to flourish. It will allow and enable more local decision-making over large areas of mission and ministry. With a renewed focus on the Circuit as the primary unit of mission and ministry, new forms of mutual accountability will be required between the local and the national, that are underpinned by an ongoing dialogue about Methodist theology and praxis. All based on trust that, whatever our views on marriage or mission, we will respect our fellow Methodists enough not to claim exclusive right to our shared traditions or infallibility to our particular interpretations.
To make this possible, ministry will need to be transformed from the few to the many, from authority to authenticity, from control to collaboration. Diversity will be seen for what it is: a God-given treasury to be embraced and enjoyed. Membership of the World Methodist Council has allowed me to glimpse part of the rich complexity of the global Methodist family and to experience being Methodist in a wide variety of ways. My hope is to see more of that wonderful Wesleyan diversity fully embedded within our own beloved Connexion.