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shift is taking place (and I think it to be so) then many of the ways in which the Church presently does mission are no longer valid.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?
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’.
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?