The post-Conference ennui has descended on our household. Normally it’s a result of a week sleeping in a strange bed and too many late nights. In Covid-times, it’s the newly diagnosed Post-Zoom Fatigue Syndrome. The next few days offer a chance to reflect on the discussions and decisions, elections and appointments we made.
If there’s a word to sum up this Conference for me, it is INVESTMENT. We were confronted with the reality of Covid19’s effects on the economy, including our own income and budgets. Like most organizations, the Methodist Church is having to re-write budgets based on much smaller figures. How long the downturn lasts is anyone’s guess, …
Investment is always on the Conference agenda, focussed through the work of the Joint Advisory Committee on Ethical Investment, JACEI for short. This group of experts advises the Methodist Central Finance Board on ethical issues related to portfolios of investment on the world’s stock markets. For the last few years, one of their chief concerns has been climate change and investments in fossil fuels companies. The amount of work done to date is impressive and shows how difficult it is to swim against the tide of global capitalism.
3gen youth reps have been holding Conference’s feet to the fire on this constantly and once again pressed for disinvestment to be speeded up. It revealed that struggle we face between our values and value. Like all major organizations, we have bought into the idea that the markets will look after our pensioners with year-on-year growth delivering the kind of returns needed to pay a decent pension. We have also believed that capitalism can be exploited ethically in order to do that.
I wonder whether the crises of the last fifteen years have taught us anything about the shortcomings of the economic system we now face. In 2013 the British Methodist Church, as a member of the WCC, agreed this statement in relation to the global capitalism:
Jesus has told us “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24, KJV). The policy of unlimited growth through the domination of the global free market is an ideology that claims to be without alternative, demanding an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and from nature. “It makes the false promise that it can save the world through creation of wealth and prosperity, claiming sovereignty over life and demanding total allegiance, which amounts to idolatry.” This is a global system of mammon that protects the unlimited growth of wealth of only the rich and powerful through endless exploitation. This tower of greed is threatening the whole household of God. The reign of God is in direct opposition to the empire of mammon.
Together Towards Life, 2013
I get a sense, both in Conference and the Church more generally that Climate Justice is not yet the emergency the world’s scientists claim it is, and that many still believe that action to alleviate the worst scenarios must come with minimal costs to us. The inconvenient truth is that the West has had it too good for far too long and any viable future for the planet must involve the richest part of the world taking less. That, I suspect, will include pension funds like the one I am a member of, being prepared to take the hit to prevent even more of the world’s poor dying or becoming dispossessed. Yet, despite all the noble words of our Climate Statement, Hope in God’s future, our actions speak much louder: no line in the Connexional Budget to invest in carbon reduction, so strategy to get us to carbon neutrality by the recommended 2030 deadline, little concern that the average carbon footprint of the individual Methodist has increased in the last ten years.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matt 6:21)
The Conference did endorse the new Evangelism and Growth Connexional strategy, God for All - including a huge redirection of funds away from previous priorities and towards the making of new Christians and creation of new church communities. For some, the adoption of any strategy for evangelism is hugely symbolic of our reorientation as an institution. It has given them fresh hope that they will receive the support they feel they need to speak of their faith in public. The result that many, many Methodists are hoping for is the numerical growth of their local congregations. Finally Methodism is placing its treasure (and soon its heart) in the right place.
My initial response is threefold:
It doesn’t really tell us why we are in the state we find ourselves before offering solutions to get us somewhere else. This emphasis on action over analysis is deeply appealing the churches who are afraid to ask difficult questions of themselves and their past.
It seems to want to equate mission with evangelism and evangelism with church growth. This despite statements like Together Towards Life and new understanding of the mission of God in a multifaith, post-colonial and threatened world. The absence of interfaith dialogue, TTL’s ‘mission from the margins’, and climate action from the substance of the strategy are more than oversights if we hold them to be key aspects of mission.
It offers a vision of the church - growing, evangelistic, justice-seeking, inclusive- but without any real definition of what those things mean. We know, for instance, that the definition of ‘inclusive’ is deeply contested, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ people in relationships. I am left wondering how important a shared understanding of the vision is for the success of any strategy.
My own growing sense is that there are two sets of responses to institutional decline. Using the metaphor of a sinking ship, broadly the first set of responses are best described as a ‘bail-out’ strategy. The assumption must be that the structure of the ship is not fatally compromised and so getting rid of the matter and plugging the holes will restore buoyancy.
The second set of responses is evacuation to the lifeboats, built on a realisation that the ship is not rescuable and so the focus must be on deciding what to save and getting into the life rafts as soon as possible.
Both responses require such a huge investment of energy and money that investing in both is not possible. One strategy comes at the expense of the other. I am yet to see a serious analysis of the state of ‘sea-worthiness’ of the British Methodist Connexion such that we can decide properly which strategy is called for.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
This brings me to my own ‘portfolio of investment’, as it were. Lockdown over the last few months has been a weird experience in many ways, but has afforded some space to reflect on responsibilities, goals and vocation. I celebrated twenty years of ordained ministry last week and it made me take seriously the next twenty. Looking back, I’ve had a pretty good ride, finding myself doing all kinds of things and enjoying most of them. I’ve been given some incredible opportunities and gained experiences I never thought I would. But I’ve also been knocked off course and put energy into too many things all at once, for fear of missing out. That has depleted my reserves too much too often.
Looking forward, I have no idea what’s in store for me and for us as a couple. But I’ve been challenged in my reflections to invest my energies (slightly depleted from 20 years ago!) more wisely. That will mean stepping back from some commitments to give more time and focus to others. It will mean spending a little longer assessing cost and benefit before embarking on new things. As someone who lives with depression and anxiety it will also involve asking for more help and listening to my own needs a bit more, in order to be more effective for others. I suspect that Methodist Conference will be one of the things to go for me. I can’t say the last twenty or so years of involvement have been enjoyable, but I feel proud of what some of us have been able to achieve, especially in the area of EDI and LGBTQ+ justice. I am hoping to get elected to the Conference of 2021 in order to see equal marriage through, and then take a very long sabbatical from Connexional politics!
I hope to spend more time thinking and researching and writing and speaking about the things that set my heart ablaze - social transformation, LGBTQ+ rights, the mission of God in the world, education, social justice, politics and democracy, reconciliation and peacebuilding, discernment and vocation, building community to name a few! I have been deeply touched by those people who have been in touch with me after the recent voting for President of the Conference. Whilst I am grateful for those who have called on me to stand again, I really believe that my calling is to the edge rather than the centre, to carve out a relatively safe place from which to reflect and minister. I suspect making a difference within the evolving structures will become harder for individuals, and I wish those who are called to do so every success.
My heart burns within me for the gospel of transformative love that first breathed life into Wesleyanism. I pray for the strength to guard that holy fire and stir up those gifts within me to make a real difference. Where I want my heart to be, there I am putting my treasure.