Diagnosis Methodism?

When the Archbishop of Canterbury described the Church of England as ‘institutionally racist’, he was praised for his honesty. It was an important moment, to be sure, in the life of Anglicanism and, I hope, leads to real and sustainable cultural change.

To describe an organisation as ‘institutionally prejudiced’ is often misunderstood. For some, it is a way of saying that most, if not all, the members of the organisation hold prejudiced views. In fact, the opposite could be true, and yet the description would still fit. It is not about individuals’ choosing to treat someone badly on account of their perceived ethnicity or gender or sexuality;

it is about the policies, practices and expectations of an organisation that, intentional or not, adversely affect particular individuals or groups. Prejudice and discrimination are so invidious that organisations can end up with racist or sexist policies being implemented by people of colour and feminists.

When the Archbishop spoke to the Synod, he was offering an organisational diagnosis, not a solution. To name the problem is a crucial first step, but if it ends there, it is yet another case of virtue signalling from Church leaders (and we have far too much of that already!) If the Anglicans are to take this problem seriously, there will also have to be statements and programmes about institutional sexism and misogyny, homophobia and transphobia and discriminatory behaviour towards disabled people. There will also have to be work done on issues of socio-economic exclusion.

However, I am not here to solve the problems of the Church of England …! With apologies to Dick van Dyke, the title of this post refers to the internal cultures that currently operate within the British Methodist Connexion. This has become a subject of a good deal of my conversations with friends and colleagues recently. We often find ourselves perplexed with how different parts of the Church operate. In part, this post is an attempt to think aloud in order to be clearer about the challenges we face.

Let me begin by saying how much I owe to Methodism, including the British Connexion. For thirty years, it has offered me a home and refuge when my own Conference would have rejected me. One of the gifts Methodism has given me is individuals and groups, inspired by the message of the Wesleys, who engage in extraordinary acts of justice, reconciliation, courage and kindness in the most difficult of circumstances. I remain Methodist because of other Methodists, who support me in my quest for scriptural holiness.

It is a puzzle, then, that there appears to be a number of attitudes, assumptions and expectations that point to an underlying culture that acts against the best instincts of Methodism. It is not coincidental, for instance, that the people who truly inspire me in my own life and ministry, are often pushed to the margins of their own Methodist communities.

Methodists love prophets … as long as they’re dead!

Here are some of the most significant symptoms:

1. Looking for typos - how often have you sent out papers for discussion and response about local or connexional issues to find that the only responses are a list of typos that you have missed in your proof-reading? It’s almost as if we cannot see the wood for the trees. But perhaps it points to a deeper malaise, one where we have become actively resistant to seeing the bigger picture.

I worked for a number of years with NHS staff, clinicians who were moving into the area of public health. Unlike clinical work, public health relies on the ability to think strategically and decide to deploy very limited resources for the maximum benefit. My job was to get them to think about the ethics of resource management and I found that many were not equipped for such a conversation since their focus up to then had been the patient in front of them. I don’t think that’s terribly different in the Church, where we are more comfortable dealing with individual pastoral needs than looking at issues such as deployment and resources.

The ‘typos’ response also reflects a rather unpleasant aspect of Methodist organisational culture - that of ‘nit-picking’. When we move beyond the realm of personal pastoral care, there is a tendency in some quarters to act as if we were in an awful academic seminar, where ideas (and those who present them) can be attacked and even belittled.

2. Is that allowed? - I don’t know about you, but one of the questions I hear most when suggesting different ways of doing things is: is that allowed? The culture of explicit permission-seeking from members and ministers seems to be on the increase, where there is a fear of getting it wrong or straying over a hidden boundary. It is this fear that stifles initiative and creativity and means that local Methodists self-police to ensure they remain firmly in the ‘safe zone’. When this is coupled with a toxic culture of blame, where those who stick their heads above the parapet are likely to have it taken off, discretion becomes the better part. Mistakes are not seen as opportunities for growth and learning, but as signs of character flaws.

We get mixed messages from senior leadership too. I was at a gathering a while ago being addressed by one of our senior Connexional leaders. After extolling the virtues of risk-taking, the rest of the discourse involved warnings about heading into the unknown without clear ideas of expected outcomes.

How did we end up in a place where sticking with the known is the safest strategy?

3. Training panaceas - for every problem, there is a training programme! Over the last twenty years and more, where we discover a problem in the church, invariably the answer is more training. Whatever the issue, the diagnosis is a lack of the necessary skills. But that assumes that, at a deeper level, we are all singing from the same hymn-sheet.

Increasingly, I see that more training is a response offered by ‘fixers’. There is a real danger that we only see problems that we can offer solutions to. So deep-seated attitudes of racism, sexism or homophobia are left undisturbed or treated as ‘theological diversity’. For those of us who face acts of hate from fellow Methodists, we know it exists and is very real. Training alone will not ‘fix’ it.

4. Work is being done - I once heard the story of a friend who candidates for Methodist ministry. He had already got a first class degree from a prestigious university and had been offered a full scholarship for a PhD programme in a theological subject at another, one which had a Methodist theological attached. The Candidates Committee, in their wisdom, decided to send him back to his old university where he would undertake another undergraduate degree as part of his training. He appealed the decision and was forced, sitting on the steps of place where the Methodist Conference was meeting, to write a letter of resignation to the President. He is now an ordained into another church.

When initiatives are suggested, the easiest way to shut them down is to say that ‘work is already being done’. Mind you, that is all that will be said, because we have adopted a culture of secrecy that masquerades as confidentiality. Unlike other corporate bodies who have learnt their lessons and sought to create cultures of transparency, we privilege all information, leading to decisions being taken which are not open to scrutiny. In many of our decisions, those most affected have no way of knowing what information was disclosed about them or how decisions were arrived at. Most of our Connexional working parties and committees do not invite open applications for membership. And even when we do advertise, those who claim to represent the Church through its committees, senior Leaders and Connexional Team look remarkably white and male.

Does any of this resonate with your experience? Again, like any organisational culture, it is not one person’s fault, nor can one person, however senior, put it right. It becomes incumbent on all of us to take responsibility for it, to interrogate our own attitudes and practices, to open ourselves to the scrutiny and accountability of others.

I try to resist my inner ‘fixer’, so I cannot offer a silver bullet. But I wonder whether deliberately paying attention to four things might help us to, at least, begin to see the scope of the problem that faces us. Those four things are:

Honesty - how much do we monitor our speech so that the honesty of what we say is limited? Who benefits from that non-disclosure, the powerful or powerless? The New Testament word for ‘truth’ means ‘ that which is not hidden’. If we hide information, can we be living the truth? Are we sure that we have not confused confidentiality with secrecy?

Questions - do we have a culture that permits questions to be asked? And if asked, answered honestly? What prevents questioning?

Evidence - so much of our policy-making still relies too much on assumptions and anecdotes rather than good evidence. How do we make sure that we base our decision-making on solid understandings?

Limitations - Frances Young, reflecting on life with her son, Arthur, speaks of the power of being limited. We are all limited, but those of us who are not disabled rarely acknowledge it. Just because we cannot swoop in as hero to fix it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge it.

These four things form, for me, the foundation of the pastoral care of the bereaved. In offering care, we know that euphemisms do not work and so try to speak plainly and honestly. We try not to fear the inevitable questions raised by loss, even though we do not have any answers. We work with models of bereavement that are grounded in evidence and we acknowledge the limitations of our own experience and understanding. What we certainly do not do is rush to ‘fix’ it, because loss cannot be fixed, but must be lived into. So many in our Connexion are also encountering grief and loss - remembering that ‘we were something, once’ - but have their denial colluded with. Our future will not come from denial and resistance to reality, but from sitting with the pain of loss (for as long as it takes) and acknowledging our own helplessness and anger and fear. For our faith and hope begins at the foot of the cross.

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