My world was a little consumed last Thursday and Friday by the clashing of symbols reverberating from General Synod and the Presidential Address. Of course, life goes on and I had other meetings to attend on Friday and then a weekend up in the North West with good friends at Thornton Methodist Church and then dropping off our son back in Derbyshire and then heading back to Durham.
But it all gave me some time to reflect on the end of last week and the adrenalin rush of a mini-media frenzy. It was quite good fun to be in the Methodist Communications Office with the phones buzzing and tweets twitting and senior Methodists looking excited and confident.
Some of the press frenzy continued over the weekend and into today (see David Hallam's post this morning) with David Gamble and Bishop Tim Stevens on Saturday's Today Programme (available here) and Leslie Griffiths (Superintendent Methodist Minister, Wesley's Chapel, London) and Peter Pillinger (Chair of the Plymouth and Exeter District) headlining on Radio 4's Sunday Programme (available here [from about 37 mins in]- alongside review of some religious apps for iPhones - the Apps of the Apostles with Steve Goddard! - see my previous posts).
On the Today Programme, David Gamble re-iterated the possibility of a merger of the two churches and Tim Stevens highlighted the longer term process which we are currently involved in - including the assertion of both churches coming together in a new form and expanding the agenda into Archbishop Rowan's address and leaving the Methodists somewhere in the background! David came back at the end to refute the dominant partner image and made use of Ken's marriage analogy (see former post) - The Church in England - but how would that cope with the Methodist Church which covers three nations not one! There should be one church - everyone agreed on that!
In the Sunday Programme, Peter Pillinger raised the 'if' at the beginning of David's statement - "if this enhances movement" - with a pretty robust challenge to the Anglican Church's own continued existence. Leslie Griffiths really wants some movement now and suggests that the structures really have to change whether they are Methodist or Church of England! Leslie talked of the ordination into the Church of England offered to him by the Bishop of London which, in Leslie's words, was forbidden by the Conference of the Methodist Church. The talk then focussed on bishops - with a clarification of the suggestion that Methodist superintendents are really what Anglicans call bishops! Lots to argue there. Leslie was passionate about moving the discussion on and talked of how the idea of Methodism ceasing to exist was no new thing! Of course, any readers of this blog know that too. But I don't think that the way that Leslie and the Bishop of London were proposing would really have helped us move forward.
A few of us in the British Methodist world have been blogging - with comments from Richard Hall, Dave Faulkner, Dave Warnock, Sally Coleman and David Hallam (as usual not for the faint-hearted - although with a really good run down of the media coverage of the story today as linked above!!!) to name a few. I also note that the Methoblog (who break the new Social Media guidelines by being anonymous but they are UMC and not Brit Methodists (I think)!) are a bit bemused by the whole thing, and there's the President and Vice Presidents own blog referring to the issues.
But I just want to raise an issue which came up over the weekend up on the North West Coast. I turned up at our friends on Saturday a little tired and crashed on the sofa needing a cup of coffee and some sane conversation. When asked what I'd been up to, I asked if they had heard of the story doing the rounds. Nothing. Not a sausage. When I told them, the usual reaction - amazement followed by 'well, yes, I can see his point'. But that reaction became more pronounced as the news percolated around the Connexion, as I read other people's reactions and as I wandered around the north of the country. What was crystalizing was a view put much too strongly on a newspaper website by a fellow Methodist - that this was a piece of metropolitan ecumenism which had nothing to do with grassroots mission and, as such, it would amount to nothing.
So what is meant by metropolitan ecumenism? Basically, to me it means ecumenism that is handled in London and by central office - hierarchical ecumenism - top down ecumenism. My own first reaction to the speech was a good example - I went back to statements which had been issued by high-ranking meetings and agencies. I went to the central tenets of Methodism and agreed wholeheartedly with what David Gamble said. I argued it was fully in accord with what Methodists say about the Covenant and fits in well with that Covenant (and see the others who say the same within the same metropolitan media-style ecumenical perspective above). I'd stick with that and I don't think there is anything wrong with such a viewpoint. But the very danger is that we do stick there. Sometimes we get set into a kind of networked mindset - where academics involved in a network end up in an ivory tower which is really helpful for their own research but misses the point of what is actually happening on the ground. Metropolitan ecumenism is only as good as ecumenism on the ground. We cannot and will not see unity within the Church through the dictat of any Synod or Committee. Unity comes from the grassroots but can be enabled and empowered by metropolitan enthusiasm.
Very very very few people would deny David Gamble was right. But they would argue that what is far more important is the practical outworking of that ecumenism. In other words, the comments from grassroots Methodists (see the blogs above or read the twitter streams) have focussed on the need to forget easy words and focus on real actions. What happens is not organic or visible unity in Westminster but whether Christians can work on the ground in Rhondda, Truro, Stirling, Thornton. The blogs point out the huge question which Peter Pillinger raised on the radio - what would be the actual benefits of ceasing to exist. We need to know what the missiological imperative is before we simple die!
In the end, I doubt that the President's great speech is going to raise the ecumenical temperature too much. To do that it needed an immediate response from Lambeth and Bishopthorpe Palace. Perhaps we have to wait for that to come when Archbishop Rowan addresses the Methodist Conference in Portsmouth. Metropolitan encouragement will no doubt continue into the future. But Methodism has faced its own demise once again. The word from the circuits seems to be set against denominational assisted suicide. The word from the circuits is that mission is what it is all about and what we need to do is stop the talking and get on with sharing the gospel regardless of the denomination in which we find ourselves. In the end, what matters is not that Thornton Methodist Church is Methodist but that it is reaching into its community. That the church I was at a couple of weeks ago Harrowby Lane in Grantham is running its outreach for the homeless and its internet cafe and has a lay pastor and its youth work; that the church I attend has its June Project and its interns working in schools and playschemes across the city and that the church everywhere is getting on with the important business of sharing the love of God - and using words only when necessary.
The priority of mission is absolutely and crucially central to what Methodism is all about: metropolitan ecumenism has once again endorsed that centrality and needs applauding for its support of it. But it is that centrality of mission that needs to be remembered here and not the premature demise of Methodism.