I often use this blog to reflect in public on an experience I’ve had or when I’ve heard or read a particular challenging or inspirational book or talk. I am an extrovert and a verbal processor, both of which mean I don’t really know what I think until I’ve heard what I’ve got to say. All this is to say I don’t do this in order to avoid direct engagement with the writer/speaker/group, but to allow their words or encounter to be properly digested.
I have recently returned from my first experience of the ‘Navigating Change’ conference, begun in 2015 under the leadership of Ashley Cooper and Geoff Bond. I went as a representative of both the Southlands Methodist Trust and of Dignity and Worth and was given the opportunity to speak about both to the folk who turned up. It will take me a while longer to reflect properly on the whole experience and what it taught me about the evolving nature of Methodist leadership and evangelicalism in particular - watch this space!
When I heard who the keynote speakers were going to be - Jen Smith, Anthony Reddie and Martyn Atkins - I was especially grateful for Geoff Bond’s kind invitation to attend. In particular, I was looking forward to what Martyn Atkins was going to share. What really inspires me about Martyn is his unwavering commitment to engagement with how things really are. It may be his Yorkshireness, but he never resorts to playing the optimism game, telling his audience that it’s not as bad as they think or that renewal is just around the corner. That refusal to tell people what they want to hear has often landed him in hot water, but I thank God that he has never even tasted the Kool-Aid. He only seeks to offer possibilities for the future when, first, he has helped us to understand how we got to where we are. I am so looking forward to his retirement and what that will produce in terms of thoughtful, insightful and radically realistic reflections.
Enough encomium! The theme of the gathering was ‘Identity’ and Martyn shared some insights into the current scene in British Methodism before outlining three key charisms of the Wesleyan movement. I was intrigued by his reference to Bp John AT Robinson’s insistence on ‘being in Christ’ as the key the gospel, something taken up by the great Methodist leader, Dr Donald English. But his main point was about the place of fresh expressions of Church and how the ecology of Church was developing. Rather than dismiss ‘niche’ churches, he advocated for more to evolve, including those of particular worship-languages and ethnicities, in order to challenge the ‘tired homogeneity’ of much of the Connexion. He encouraged us to recognize that Church history has never seen a single universal model of church or discipleship and therefore we should reject initiatives that assume or insist on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to mission or evangelism.
These insights prompted me to think about how this all fits together and how the Methodist Church holds and nurtures this ecological ecclesiology. One of the particular charisms of Wesleyanism, according to Martyn, was a missional ecclesiology, an in-built commitment to flexible patterns of ministry and gathering that was utterly attentive to the needs of the local context.
Too often the question is asked of fresh expressions, ‘But are they church?’ In a Wesleyan ecclesiology, the answer must be a resounding ‘no’, because no single expression of church can be fully church. A thoroughly ‘connexional’ ecclesiology, to my mind, says:
none are church because all are church together.
The Circuit is the place, according to Standing Orders, where we experience ‘interconnexion’, or what I would term our ecclesiology of imperfection. In combining two of Wesley’s central theological emphases - communitarian discipleship and Christian perfection - an ecclesiology of imperfection acknowledges its own incompleteness and ensures its continual openness to renewal and reform through mission. A Church that truly understands itself as not yet perfect is one that is open to the Spirit’s promptings. The Doctrine of Christian Perfection, as outlined by John Wesley, has, too often, only been seen in terms of the individual believer. I want to suggest it must also be applied to the Church as a body and institution, where the current realities are only transitory and, by definition, are in need of reform.
An ecclesiology of imperfection offers the opportunity to renegotiate the relationship between the Circuit and any local expression of Methodism in order to embrace the diversity that seems to be emerging. It may be the case that, in redesignating Societies as The Local Church in 1976, the Connexion unintentionally shifted our ecclesiology in a congregational direction. We now find ourselves in the dilemma of local considerations trumping any strategic need, and the Circuit being relatively powerless compared with the Managing Trustees. Nor has sufficient thinking gone on in terms of the optimal size of a Circuit to allow it to function at its best.
In an ecclesiology of imperfection, the Circuit becomes the locus of Church for its members, big enough to be strategic, small enough to be ‘owned’. Rather than draw distinctions between so-called inherited congregations, chaplaincies, projects and fresh expressions, why not name all expressions as ‘Methodist Communities’, each committed to the health of the whole through interdependence and mutual support. The setting up of new Methodist Communities need not involve the same laborious rigmarole as the establishment of a new Local Church, and, ideally, Managing Trusteeship would move from the Local to the Circuit.
An ecclesiology of imperfection embraces failure as the best way to learn. It has no agenda to establish empires or patterns that will last forever. It understands the temporary nature of its own life and the call of a God who is on the move. An ecclesiology of imperfection rejects the notion of self-sufficiency or independence as profoundly un-Wesleyan at best and the setting up of an idol at worst. But most important of all, an ecclesiology of imperfection calls us into relationship with people who are profoundly different from ourselves, because in them, we find our fullness in Christ.