by Tom Stuckey.
When Covid-19 is over will Methodism revert to business as usual? Over the past ten years I have been arguing that if Methodism in Britain is to thrive, a complete sea change is required. I have used the word ‘repentance’ to describe the radical nature of this shift. I mentioned it first in my Presidential Address of 2005, repeated it in 2006, spoke of it in study days across the connexion, alluded to it in Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (2017), addressed it directly in Methodism Unfinished (2019) and reflected on it in a series of short articles in the Methodist Recorder throughout the months of March, April and May 2020.
One of the motivations for this decade of repetition has been my growing awareness of a ‘paradigm shift’ taking place. Back in 1962 the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn first propounded this concept. It describes how a dominant framework under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena. This necessitates the adoption of a new interpretive framework to make understanding possible. My former theological teacher, Prof. Thomas Torrance, introduced me to this idea in a theological way by using the word metanoia – ‘repentance’. Since then I have come to believe that a universal kairos event would occur making it clear that our usual ways of thinking and doing have come to an end. Only repentance will enable us to cross over from the old to the new. I suggest that Covid-19 is that liminal event.
I have been taken to task, sometimes quite severely, for saying that Methodism must repent. My suggestion of a paradigm shift has similarly been dismissed. These negative reactions have puzzled me. I now see that Methodists interpret the word ‘repentance’ in a personal way. As followers of Wesley we readily appreciate his words ‘he has saved my from my sins, even mine’. Is this preventing us from thinking about what repentance might mean for an institution? Ecclesiastical institutions obviously sin. We have examples of this in the recent revelations of clergy abuse, the Church’s anti-Semitism and its discrimination against sections of society: women, black people or those with different sexual orientations. In such cases these ethical sins can be named and addressed but what of the more subtle spiritual and theological sins?
The author of the book of Revelation diagnoses the failure of six of the seven churches. Each must repent of their particular spiritual/theological sin. Paul in Colossians, writing to the churches of the Lycus Valley, does not hesitate in naming their corporate theological sin. These Churches have absorbed into their life features of the prevailing culture which are having a toxic effect upon their witness. Sin in these cases is corporate and institutional. When Churches become national establishments or are linked in some way through an Episcopal or Connexional system does not sin, whether ethical, spiritual or theological, affect the ecclesiastical culture and distort their structural processes?
While governments in a ‘post-truth’ culture often resort to denial or self-justification, the Church does attempt, sometimes reluctantly, to address the sin within. One solution is to list the ‘sins’ (failures?) on the agenda to be dealt with through the usual channels. ‘Lament’, which is a fundamental feature of repentance, is largely avoided. Another approach is to initiate a review, identify mistakes and learn from them. ‘Lament’ may figure in this but still lacks the radical renewing power which Walter Brueggemann alludes to in his expositions of the Psalms. ‘Lament’ as he describes it, drives us to our knees in desperate petitionary prayers which seek to motivate God into action!
Why do institutions find it so hard to repent? According to Michael Polanyi the interpretive framework or paradigm which enables us to hear and understand is buried deep within our minds and subject to our passions. Institutions are reluctant to admit that they may be getting things wrong because this raises questions about trust, integrity and power. In order to comprehend ‘the new’ the current way of thinking and doing may have to be abandoned. Polanyi describes this move into a new understanding as a ‘heuristic’ act of non-rational discovery. In Christian terms he is describing renunciation and faith which takes us back to the Gospel imperative ‘repent and believe’. If we are indeed where I think we are in the history of the Church, we cannot revert to business as usual. The old is passing away and the new is coming.
The full script plus references can be found on www.tomstuckey.me.uk