A decade and more working, worshipping and praying with Methodists and Wesleyans from all over the world has taught me many things. One of the most important lessons is that the Methodist world is incredibly diverse, embracing most of the nations and cultures of the world. We don’t mandate one form of church government or set a universal set of rules. Instead our connections with one another are based on a common desire to continue the work of the Wesleys and spread Scriptural holiness throughout every land. Heart speaks to heart.
We also share some core values in our church-life and discipleship, and these include mutuality, accountability and honesty. But we don’t always practice what we preach. In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think Methodism needs to embrace a new Spirit of Openness, where we acknowledge our past injustices and do not try to hide them. It is only through an honest account of the past can the wrongs of the present be addressed. We need to listen to those who feel silenced or ignored by church processes, to allow their experiences to transform our structures and priorities. We need prophetic witnesses who challenge the church as much as wider society and hold us to our own high standards of equality and justice.
I am excited that the Methodist Way of Life that has been developed by Revd Dr Roger Walton and others, because it offers all of us the opportunity to re-engage with a part of our Methodist heritage long since lost - namely practical accountable discipleship. The history of the Class Meeting and Band Meeting is well-rehearsed and I am not interested in an exercise in spiritual nostalgia. Rather it is a serious attempt to reconnect with the Scriptural call to ‘watch over one another in love’ and to embody it in new ways. Pastoral Supervision is one way the Connexion has already chosen to engage with this call. But Methodism is not a church that sets different standards for clergy and laity. I hope the MWOL encourages members in all parts of the Connexion to discern how a Spirit of Openness might lead to shared accountable discipleship for their contexts.
Being open is not just about the present or the future - it is also about being honest about our past. Whilst we are very good to celebrate past achievements - and rightly so - there is a great need too to acknowledge our mistakes and chosen wrongdoing. In the light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, it is time for us as Methodists to relook at our complicity in slavery, colonialism and active discrimination and denigration of others. I would want to encourage those who look after our heritage to help us hear the whole story of our history and to make use of our past to better understand the present. And I wonder whether we need to relearn the practice of LAMENT to seek knowledge, forgiveness and transformation. I am so grateful to the EDI Officer and those with him to bring real change in our policies, practices and culture.
One of my spiritual heroes, Donald Soper, had a vision of the church as a ‘fellowship of controversy’. I wonder what the Methodist Church would look like if we encouraged honest and open conversation in every place. What if the Church was the place where we were prepared to hear difficult things, people’s experiences of hurt and exclusion as well as joy and celebration? The promise of being heard is surely an expression of the gospel of love.
It was once said: ‘Perhaps Methodism is being called to be small, to be dangerously close to the people.’ Still it would seem too many are interested in more empire-building in British Methodism, getting more powerful as a way to be more effective. There are still many prophets in our ranks - especially among our younger members - and the Church’s job is to encourage and support them in their ministries and discipleship and challenge others to join them.
I think we need to start a conversation, too, in the light of this Conference and the conversations around EDI, about the way our leaders are chosen. Our Connexional Team and the Chairs’ Meeting look incredibly white and male, as do many of our Connexional Committees. There is the perception of a lack of transparency in the way that vacancies are filled. At a time when we still have major issues about proper representation in our leadership roles, we need a conversation about appointments and openness.
I do still believe that the Methodist Church can play its part in God’s mission. And we begin by living out our own values and offering a foretaste of the Kingdom to the wider world.