Paradox

by Angie Allport.

We’ve all seen it (maybe even done it ourselves): two or more are gathered together with heads bowed.  Praying?  No, looking at their mobile phones!  We live in an age of paradox:

  • Through electronic means we’re more connected than ever, but we’ve possibly never been less in relationship
  • Couples obviously on first dates or in the early stages of a relationship still have their phones out
  • Young women aren’t having smear tests because they’re too embarrassed, yet post intimate details of their everyday lives online
  • Nearly three quarters of young adults experience FOMO (fear of missing out), leading them to be constantly checking their social media accounts, but often adding to their fear rather than relieving it
  • Many use ‘selfies’ to project a particular image of themselves but end up being frustrated because they cannot be themselves
  • There can be an outpouring of grief on ‘Facebook’ in the face of a national tragedy, but a complete lack of sympathy for the homeless person under our noses

This is the world we inhabit.  We are not called to judge the world but to love it, so how, as Christians, can we speak into these paradoxes?  Jesus came to bring freedom – the freedom to be ourselves and to find ourselves in him.  If we’re not then bringing that freedom for others, we’re not sharing in God’s work of salvation.  We perhaps need to lift up our own heads and notice anew the world around us, the familiar things we pass by each day, and particularly the people we pass, seeing Christ in them and asking ourselves how can we be as Christ to them?  We possibly need to unplug our earphones to catch the snatches of conversations (if there is any audible conversation going on!) which tell us what others are interested in.  As an activist, I could be in London nearly every Saturday marching for something or other.  On the occasions when I do go, I’m always quite fascinated by those who are passionate about things like refugees and the environment but not for reasons of faith.

I’m not saying technology is a bad thing (and there’s certainly no putting the genie back in the bottle), but it touches on that old dilemma of whether Christians should engage with popular culture or stand above it.  For me, it’s about engagement.  Although I’m not convinced that there can be an electronic body of Christ, to be his hands and feet in the world, the church nevertheless needs to engage with the online world, just as Jesus went to the places where the people were.  Like anything in life, however, there’s a need to strike a healthy balance or it will become an idol.  If you are on social media or just play games on your tablet, ask yourself (and I include myself in this) are you prioritising it over the time you spend with God, either in prayer or reading the Bible?  Do you need to redress the balance?

If you are on social media, you might post about that great party you went to, but do you ever say where you are on Sunday morning and what a great talk you heard?  A woman at our church used Facebook to invite her cycling group to a carol service and was surprised by how many accepted the invitation and came along.  Arguably, many are becoming disillusioned with materialism and individualism, and are longing for community and permanent relationships.  This is the itch which the church can scratch!  We need to find a way of tapping in to that sense of FOMO, for many are missing out – missing out on the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ!  It is our Christian calling to be ambassadors for him.  That means making friends (maybe online in the first instance) and, in time, offering our Lord’s gracious invitation.

Hierarchy and Equality

by Roberta Topham.

Christian Aid week (13-19th May) reminds us of our place in the work to alleviate poverty. As an organisation, Christian Aid is rooted in values that have long also been important in the Methodist Church.  On their website they state their belief that “everyone is equal in the sight of God” and that one of their aims is to challenge and change systems that “favour the rich and powerful over the poor and marginalised,” thereby creating a more equal division of power in the world.[1]

These are aims and values that people the world over are claiming for themselves.  Developments in education and social media mean that increasing numbers of people are aware of possibilities and can work together to make their opinions known.  There has also been an increasing awareness of, and suspicion about, traditional structures of power and authority that have kept decision-making in the hands of a few based on their rank – what is often called hierarchy.

The origins of the term hierarchy are in the religious sphere, where a hierarchus was a steward or president at sacred rites.  When I was conducting research as a social anthropologist[2] I became aware that social studies of societies through time and around the world suggest that all groups need structuring principles that are usually expressed through some form of hierarchy, whether religious or not.  Anthropologists have also suggested that most societies generate within themselves opposition to such hierarchical structures.  The ethic of egalitarianism is a principle that has been strong in counteracting hierarchy and which has been taken up by many Christian organisations.

All the branches of the Church have had to resolve the tension between hierarchy and egalitarianism.   The Methodist Church, like several in the Reformed tradition, ended up with a balance that aimed to be as egalitarian as possible while recognising that the need for order meant the setting aside in ordination of some dedicated ministers (now deacons and presbyters). The historian Élie Halévy commented of this, “In Wesleyan organization, the hierarchical and the egalitarian principles were combined in equal proportions”.[3]

Within today’s British Methodist Church, while ordination is held as a significant spiritual event, it is clear from our doctrinal statement in the Deed of Union that we do not believe it creates a spiritual hierarchy.  The Deed of Union in Part 1, Section 2 (4), walks a tightrope to express this, stating that ministers have “a principal and directing part” in the great duties of stewarding and shepherding the Church but “hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to all the Lord’s people”.   The Methodist Church’s current structure and government functions to allow and encourage the contributions of a broad range of members in its decision-making.  It keeps enough order for us to hold together and have meaningful presence in a swiftly changing world, while making sure that that order does not privilege only a few or give to some a dominating position.  Instead we stress the equality of all before God and we seek not to give undue privilege to the voices of the ordained in our decision making, while receiving with gratitude (sometimes) the insights and leadership of those set apart.

As a Church we work hard to maintain our balance of hierarchy and equality through practices which keep it in check. Our decision-making bodies are integrated bodies of lay and ordained people at all levels. The President of the Conference for example is always an ordained person, but only holds that office for one year. The limitations this annual election presents have been questioned several times in recent years.   Each time it is reviewed, the same conclusion is reached. Holding this post for one year only is what has best expressed our Methodist polity, ensuring that the influence of individuals is limited and there is little development of an elite as the group of Presidents and (lay) Vice-Presidents is constantly being added to.

Currently, the Methodist Church is being asked to consider changing its practice by accepting the ordination of future Presidents of Conference as bishops in the historic or apostolic succession.  This is one of the proposals which is coming out of the current Anglican-Methodist conversations.[4]  Should the Conference decide to accept the ordination of some presbyters for a second time into a new order of bishops, this will significantly change the balance of hierarchy and egalitarianism in our Church and, I would suggest, radically alter the nature of British Methodism.

I find it hard to see how taking on board a symbol system that has represented a less egalitarian sharing of power will help those who have long been excluded. It is also difficult to see how such a step will be understood positively by people outside of the Church who are less and less enamoured of traditional power-structures based on rank. Perhaps as a Church we may deem that the good to be achieved by taking “the historic episcopacy into our system,” in terms of witnessing to our unity and the subsequent interchangeability of our ordained ministers, will merit the change.  If so, we will need to think carefully about how this move will affect our particular balance of hierarchy and egalitarianism, how it will change our theology of ministry, and how it will affect our commitment to increase the value that we put on the voices of those who have long been marginalised.  While recognising that our structures have not always brought dignity and equality to all as quickly as we would wish, and that there is more to learn, our experiences still provide us with insights to offer to others who are as concerned as we are to follow the way of Jesus in “bringing good news to the poor” and “setting the oppressed free.” As we join this week to support Christian Aid in this work, we might also want to be thinking long and hard about how our structures can continue to symbolise and increasingly incorporate these principles.

 

 

[1] Christian Aid Website https://www.christianaid.org.uk/about-us/our-aims

[2] Roberta R. Topham, Making Ministers, Making Methodism: An Anthropological Study of an English Religious Denomination (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, 2000) <https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.16270>

[3] Élie Halévy [1906] 1971/ The birth of Methodism in England. Trans. and ed. Bernard Semmel. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. [Originally appeared as two articles in Revue de Paris, 1 and 14 1906]

[4] Mission and Ministry in Covenant (Report from The Faith and Order bodies of the Church of England and the Methodist Church, 2017) <https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-10/mission-and-ministry-in-covenant.pdf>

Methodism in a Strange Land

by Tom Stuckey.

This time last year ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land’ was published. I wrote the book because, as President of the Conference in 2005, I had stated that Methodism had possibly only five years to turn the church around. Twelve years have gone by and our membership has decreased by a third.

The book has had a knock-on effect. I have addressed several synods; been invited to speak in the New Room Bristol, Sarum College, Salisbury and Queen’s College, Birmingham. It was introduced to the Nottingham and Derby synod, I have explored it in Oxford with personnel from the Northampton District and with the superintendents of the London District. In addition I have led church, circuit and district study days. There has also been further interaction through my web site. On almost every occasion the book along with my presentation has triggered interesting reactions – some explosive. Certainly the ‘flaws’ in my message are now all too obvious. This essay is a reflection on some of the conversations which have surfaced on my travels. A fuller version of what I have written here is available on my web site (www.tomstuckey.me.uk)

The Changed Context.

The world situation has changed dramatically over the past twelve years. Professor Martin Conway of Oxford has spoken of a huge paradigm shift taking place. ‘2016’, he said, ‘was a liminal year of equal significance to 1914 and 1945 when familiar ways of doing things came to an end’. In my travels I kept asking ‘Are we in the midst of a global paradigm shift?’  In the Oxford gathering this question was addressed but without reaching a conclusion. This question is key to everything that follows, since if such a paradigm shift is taking place (and I think it to be so) then many of the ways in which the Church presently does mission are no longer valid.

The Babylon metaphor, used to describe our present context, was severely mauled on nearly every occasion. ‘We in the traditional inherited church are the people singing the strange songs . We should be exploring and singing the songs of Babylon because God is not absent’, was a powerful comment.

At Queen’s College a former Secretary of Conference declared ‘I thank God for Babylon’. He explained that Babylon’s  requirement of transparency and accountability have forced the Church to face the disturbing realities of its own hidden life.

At Wesley’s Chapel, City Road, an Old Testament scholar explained  that Babylon was an incredibly creative place for the Jews.

I now see that my interpretation is too negative. A re-writing of chapters is required but will it change my conclusions?

Methodism Now

My mention of Methodism’s need to repent triggered lively discussions in a couple of places. I argue that Methodism has secularized ‘repentance’ and responds to this gospel imperative with mechanical activities, e.g. chairs instead of pews, altering structures in circuits and districts. This is not what I understand repentance to be.  Metanoia  is primarily about our relationship with God. It demands a total physical, mental and spiritual shift of heart and mind.

‘To tell the Methodist people that they must repent demoralizes them’, was a comment in one of the synods. Another was ‘what have we to repent of?’  My response was ‘we have reduced God, lost the mystery and exchanged deep theology for superficial sound bytes.

It was suggested in Bristol and again in Oxford that to understand ‘repentance’ we should explore the Old Testament idea of ‘lament’.

Future Focus

I have gone back on my Conference message that the Methodist Church is ‘on the Edge of Pentecost’. In our changed situation I believe God is calling us to live in the liminality  of ‘Holy Saturday’. I mention this in the book but do not explain. Some people quite properly wanted to hear more.

The question of language was raised in the South-East synod, in Oxford and finally in London. The irony is that my book’s title poses a question about language which I then fail to address.

In spite of its shortcomings, the book has proved not only to be a theological ‘wake up’ call for a lot of people in Methodism but it has stirred up further questions for me.   I am not sure how to proceed but proceed I must. Any suggestions?

A Royal Presence

by Ruth Gee.

It was in February that the royal visit took place. When the first invitation arrived, I knew only that there was to be a special event, no details were given. Much nearer the time, the official invitation arrived; the Prince of Wales was to attend a concert in Durham Cathedral. With the invitation came instructions: the time to arrive, the dress code and the prohibition on taking bags into the Cathedral. Colour coded invitations ensured that we would all be in our proper place and I turned up correctly dressed, without handbag, in good time. We were warmly welcomed into the cathedral and I took my seat and waited expectantly.

The choirs and orchestra were composed of young people and they were rehearsing for the big event. I enjoyed listening to them and looking out for people I recognised while chatting to the new acquaintance sitting next to me.

After a time the special guests arrived and were directed to the front. Expectation grew and at the appointed signal we all stood. Words of welcome were spoken and the concert began.

I assumed the prince of Wales had joined us, though I had not seen him and still could not do so. If he had arrived he had come in at the front and there were a lot of people between him and me, but he had been welcomed and there was some evidence of the royal presence.

The concert was in process, it was beautiful and this time there were no pauses or repeats of particular sections of the music, it was obviously the real performance for the prince.

On my left, I saw two men with radios, they were not looking at, or listening to the performers but they looked at the rest of us and walked up and down the side aisles. One of the men had a camel coloured coat over his arm: I had seen the prince wear one like that.

The concert ended and still there was no sight of the prince but some-one was talking to the young performers and they were responding, there was much laughter, clearly they were enjoying this encounter. They felt valued and affirmed.

Then we stood again and some people walked quickly past me down the central aisle and towards the exit – I thought I glimpsed Prince Charles.

Hints and glimpses, the promise of a royal presence and other people’s reactions, this was my experience that day.

I have since thought that this has also been my experience of the presence of God. There are places and times when I expect to be in the presence of God, but I don’t always see God clearly. I pick up hints that God is among us because of the words and actions of others. The more often I put myself in those places where I can focus on God, the more easily I pick up the signs of divine presence.

I meet God in some of the most unexpected places as others are touched by the warmth of God’s love or encouraged because they have been noticed, appreciated and valued. I am reminded of God’s love and justice by the actions and words of others or by their inaction and omissions.

Just occasionally I glimpse the glory of God more clearly as God passes by, just as Jesus passed by the boat on the Sea of Galilee and as the glory of God passed by Moses on Mount Sinai.

The first time I ever saw Prince Charles many years ago, he was walking with friends in a wood in Wiltshire. We met on a wide path and he disappeared to one side very quickly and his hosts, who knew my parents, spoke with us for a few minutes (it was their wood). I only knew the prince had been there because my parents told me. I was reminded of that glimpse when I was in Durham. I was also reminded that people often only come to recognise the presence of God with them if we first draw their attention to it and we can only do that if we become so familiar with God that we recognise God’s presence even in the most surprising places.

Mary recognised the risen Christ when she heard a familiar voice speak her name, the two disciples recognised him in the breaking of the bread and Thomas was convinced by the sight and feel of his wounds. God is with us and we have seen his glory.

Listening to the Silence

by David Bidnell.

It’s Eastertide and time once again to make space for reflecting on stories depicting Jesus’ encounters with his disciples following his crucifixion, found mostly in chapters 20 and 21 of John’s Gospel. Among the intriguing features of these narratives are the images of silence which precede the significant conversations. The first is the silence of the empty tomb and empty linen wrappings; the second is the silence of the locked doors of the house where the disciples are gathered; the third is the silence of the empty fishing nets on Lake Tiberius. If we look more carefully, however, we begin to notice that there is a journey going on in each of these instances, a journey from “being silenced” to “silence” to the “interruption of the silence”.

The placing of the crucified Jesus in a sealed tomb is the ultimate act of silencing by the authorities. The intention is that Jesus’ voice should no longer be heard, that his attempts to change the lives of those around him for the better should be annihilated, reduced to nothing.

The doors of the house where the disciples are meeting are locked because they are frightened that the authorities might come for them too. With Jesus gone, they are now the ones being silenced.

The empty nets demonstrate the dearth of fish in the renamed Lake Tiberius, the result of overfishing by the Romans and its dire consequences for the local economy. Fish, the livelihood of local Galilean fisherfolk, find themselves silenced by scarcity.

Into these arenas of “silencing” comes the powerful force of silent protest. Mary stands outside the tomb in solidarity with her crucified rabbi. The disciples meet together as an act of courageous defiance in the face of those who would like to see them scattered, isolated and disillusioned. The empty nets of the disciples reveal a determination to get on with the tasks of fishing and living, however hard they may be.

Into these arenas of “silence”, of course, comes Jesus, ready to make his interruption. Yet the encounters are only possible because the disciples have been prepared to counter the act of “silencing” in the first place. What is it that they are saying? “You may try to separate us from our companion and teacher, but we will stand with him at his tomb.” “You may try to separate us from one another, but we will stand tall in mutual commitment and solidarity.” “You may try to separate us from our means of living, but we will do all we can to overcome.”

Perhaps the seeds of resurrection, of irrepressible life in the face of the denial of life, are sometimes to be found in listening to and engaging with the silences of life – the silences of those who do not see the point of speaking because nobody ever listens; of those who deliberately keep silent in order to give others a voice; of those whose images and stories, for one reason or another, stun us into silence and awaken our imagination.

Vocation: An Easter Challenge for the Church

by Catrin Harland Davies.

It’s the beginning of the summer term. As a university chaplain, I can sense the rising stress levels, as students sit their final exams, and prepare for the rest of their lives. Some have their careers all planned out, but many – perhaps most – are still working it out. They may take time out, earn some cash, travel, or frantically apply for any graduate job they can find. They’re looking for some certainty, not about the next 40+ years, but about the immediate future and the next steps.

At this point in the lectionary cycle, we find the early church doing something similar. The disciples are asking themselves, “What next?” Should they return to their previous trades, wait for the next exciting adventure, or just lie low and keep out of trouble? Over the coming weeks, and following Pentecost, they gain understanding and confidence to step out in faith into the unknown.

Perhaps the church is once again – or always – at this stage? Perhaps, once again, we face questions about our vocation as a church, and our individual callings within that, which combine uncertainty with exciting possibilities for the future? I would like to suggest that we need to follow a similar process to the early disciples and almost every new graduate!

Firstly, we need to rediscover our fundamental vocation to be the laos or laity – the people of God. One of the immediate instincts of the disciples, post-resurrection, was to go back to what they knew: specifically, fishing.[1] They decided to get on with their lives, while they worked out what this new reality meant for them. Like them, we live out our faith within our day-to-day lives of work, school, university, local community. We need to ask anew how to be faithful and faith-filled in that setting.

Of course, this process of rediscovery itself is not new. It has been the task of every generation of Christians since the resurrection. Each new context raises new questions, needing new answers. Even within the New Testament, see the different issues encountered in late first century Asia Minor[2] or mid-first century Thessalonica or Corinth, or the diverse challenges facing the various church communities in Revelation 2-3.

The conversation needs to happen individually, locally and nationally. It needs to happen ecumenically, but alert to possibility of a distinctive Methodist vocation. How is God calling us to be godly? How are we to be Easter people in our bit of today’s world?

Secondly, we need to ask what kind of leadership today’s church needs. Maybe we still need presbyters, deacons, missioners, stewards, treasurers, chairs of district, chaplains, evangelists… But perhaps there are also new forms of leadership that we need to create (or recreate), as we have done with the pioneer pathway. Reimagining leadership is not the task of an appointed few – it is our shared responsibility. If I sense God calling my local church in a particular direction, what use is it if I sit in my pew, tutting to myself that those in leadership have not discerned it? We all see only in part – if we pool our insights, our collective vision grows.

Similarly, we all need to take responsibility for recognising the leadership potential in one another. When was the last time you asked someone if they have considered offering as a preacher, a steward, or an ordained minister? And when did you last suggest that a person’s gift for oil painting, poetry or break dancing might be a blessing for the church? Often, it takes someone else to identify gifts in us, or to give us the courage to hear God’s call.

Employers invest a lot of time and money in careers fairs and recruitment events – for young adults, considering how best to apply their education, or older applicants, considering a career change. Do we, as a church, ask our members how God is calling them to live out their Christian vocation right now? Do we invest time and energy – money, even – in helping everyone to use their gifts for God’s mission?

Thirdly, we need to remember always that it’s neither our church, nor our mission. They’re God’s. Our task is no more and no less than to be open to being drawn into God’s mission. That’s not a get-out from all the above, but it is to say that God is bigger than the church, and God may be doing a new thing. Like the companions on the way to Emmaus, our task is to ask what is going on, to listen to Christ, to make use of the means of grace, and to allow our eyes to be opened.

 

[1] John 21:3

[2] As seen, for example, in 1 Peter

We need to talk about blood

by Frances Young.

A few weeks ago I’d been asked to do a Lent address in the context of Evensong on the subject of sacrifice. In the discussion afterwards it was blood that people focussed on, finding it a particuarly difficult thing to get their heads around.

So we need to talk about blood.

When I was a student there was a great debate going on about the meaning of blood in the Bible. Some argued that it meant violent death – witness that cry in the Gospel passion-story, “His blood be upon our heads!” Others pointed to Leviticus 17.11: “ For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But surely that debate reflected a false dichotomy. The shedding of blood meant death because the blood was the mysterious substance of life, and life was sacred. So blood was a kind of taboo substance with extraordinary powers. Thus it was that God said, “ I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar.” (Lev. 17.11), and Hebrews 9.22 picked that up: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Blood was used to decontaminate the altar, the Holy of Holies, everything needed to worship God, the Holy One, because it was the sacred stuff of life. And it was released for that purpose by sacrificing an animal. The release of the life-blood meant death – through death comes life.

Now this was the fundamental principle of sacrificial practice. When Deuteronomy insisted that sacrifice could only take place in the Jerusalem Temple, it had to make special provision for secular slaughter – before that every time a herdsman killed a fatted calf it was a sacrifice. Kosher and Halal rules are survivals of that. No animal could be slaughtered for meat without religious acknowledgement of the seriousness of taking life – any life. Sacrifice was fundamentally about food – it was recognition that every time we eat, something dies that we might live.  It was not just about meat, but bread and cakes, oil and wine – offerings to the God who supplied the necessities of life, recognition of dependence on God for life, acknowledgement that life was a gift, and something has to die that we may live, even if we’re vegetarian – for only living, organic matter sustains life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn. 12.24)

The problem for us is that we don’t any longer experience the realities of food production – it’s all hidden away in mills and abattoirs. So we get hung up about things which once were everyday – yet  never taken for granted. Blood has become yucky where once it was taboo and sacred. And most of us have even given up on saying grace … Visiting a synagogue once I noted in their handout something like this: to pray asking God for bread is to hallow God’s name – for it acknowledges utter dependence on the Creator for our very existence and life. That is the main thing that sacrifice was once all about.

So how on earth did the crucifixion of Jesus come to be seen as a sacrifice? There was no altar, no fire, no priest, no meat to share, etc. etc. Well, clearly, sacrifices came to express everything to do with the relationship between God and the people: in everyday life, gifts and feasts are key to celebrating occasions, saying ‘thankyou’ or ‘sorry’, and in a parallel way, sacrifices reinforced prayer and were freighted with all kinds of meanings. In particular, the powerful substance, sacrificial blood, not only dealt with sin, but had protected the people from the angel of death in Egypt, and had sealed the covenant between God and the people, the Passover being a commemoration of the founding story of the Exodus. The Last Supper narratives, and much else in the New Testament and early Christianity, points to the notion that Jesus re-enacted the Passover and initiated the new covenant through his death, and through ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood’ believers could receive both forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, through death comes life, both literally and spiritually.

Maybe we need to talk about blood to get it!