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shift is taking place (and I think it to be so) then many of the ways in which the Church presently does mission are no longer valid.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

3 thoughts on “Methodism in a Strange Land”

  1. An initial and very quick response whilst drinking tea in Pret is that I am intrigued by the suggestion that we are called to live in the liminality of Holy Saturday. I suspect this will be very fruitful to explore further.
    Thank you Tom.

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  2. I’m interested in this on many levels, and like Ruth’s comment above i am reading this while i eat my lunch! I have also just read the letter to Friends world-wide from the Annual Yearly Meeting of the Quakers and in there is a quote from the lecture given by Chris Alton which says
    ‘We must imagine this future, for if we cannot imagine it, we cannot speak it into existence’
    keep imagining Tom

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  3. I have only very recently come to this Tom, having been abroad for a while and putting a very low priority on social media. I have these reactions which are intended as an encouragement to continue thinking outside the box.

    The first relates to this notion of exile and Babylon. This is at the heart of my long-lasting concern about the health of our denomination. Clearly there are many aspects of the world in which we live which are not constructive, and some which are destructive. But to regard ourselves as being apart from the living God unless we are in either personal communion with that God or in communion with each other in a denominational sense is to me also blinkered. We need to learn again how to rejoice in the created world and to discern God in the ongoing creation and to regard what may be beyond that as permanently a challenging mystery rather than a static test of our righteousness.

    Then, as our horizons broaden I would encourage us to allow the generosity which flows from our understanding that God is still at work to move towards interfaith dialogue. And indeed into dialogue with others more generally. I am convinced that the exclusivity of much of our demeanour in this world is a hindrance to the coming of the Kingdom of God – an exclusivity which is still rampant within our denomination itself.

    Third, as well as attitude, we need to develop new language. Language which resonates with our past (and that of others) of course but which assists us in our journey to new places. Which even propels us in our journey to new places. The ‘songs’ we sing, the language we use, cannot be in the form of lament, but of confidence and rejoicing.

    But ‘confidence’ in what? That is the real challenge to our theologians and to our prophets. It is a confidence that God truly holds the world in the palm of his/her hand and that in our journey through this ever-changing universe we are intended to be his/her partner. The atoms of which I am composed were present in this universe billions of years ago and will still be present long after I no longer experience the universe as I presently do. Theological language has yet to adapt to new cosmological models- but it will. Whether that will be in the lifetime of our own denomination is another matter.

    Thank you Tom for making me think, again.

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