Tuesday, 2 November 2010

I haven't posted for a while, as I've been quite unwell, and it makes it hard to sit down and write anything. The only news is that I've been elected a Circuit Steward, much to the disgust of a few people at the meeting. That gets me involved with running a group of fifteen Methodist churches, none of which, apart from mine, is in anything like a healthy state. Two of them are on the point of collapse, due at least in part to insecure, domineering leadership which refuses to accept new members. What on earth are we doing, tolerating situations where churches wilfully abandon their mission and commit suicide, purely because someone's afraid that new people might upset their little empire? It's horribly common; a couple of churches went that way in my last circuit in Cornwall.

I've got involved in a debate with someone on Facebook who thinks we shouldn't be arguing about religion publicly in front of atheists. My view on this is that any debate is worthwhile; we've always got something we can learn from someone else's point of view. I've no time for the way fundamentalists use the Bible, but I wish liberals would develop the same ability to put their ideas across!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Why do people expect churches to be run to suit themselves?

We had Church Council the other night. One very persistent member, yet again, came up with her bright idea of having an earlier service; she'd like it to be at ten rather than eleven. She likes getting up in the morning. The only person supporting it is her friend; two elderly white ladies in a mostly black church, with a long record of deafness towards everyone but themselves. Unfortunately, church people don't like saying 'no'; it's not considered acceptable to be awkward or get into conflicts, and most people are extremely passive. They accept whatever the leadership says, vote the way they're told, and leave if they don't like it. In some churches, it's considered morally wrong to oppose the leadership. So the ball's landed in my court; we agreed to have a discussion on Sunday. The only other assertive member we have is in Jamaica, where she's preparing to retire.

Looking round, the overwhelming majority of churches in the West Midlands have an 11 o'clock service. They do so because it's been found to be the most acceptable compromise. There are three churches in our circuit which have an earlier service; all three have been haemorrhaging members for the twenty-odd years I've been in Birmingham. One is on the point of collapse, one is in serious trouble, and the other is just about managing on the back of the fact that it started out with a large membership. We're the great exception; we've got twice the membership we had twenty years ago. We have to be getting something right, yet we're being asked to jeopardise it, when we already have people who struggle to get there for eleven.

Everything I've seen, in Cornwall as well as Birmingham, tells me that this is a common pattern. Persistent individuals find it easy to get into office, since churches, like all voluntary groups, are always short of people to do jobs. Then they use that to get their own way. People may not like what they're doing, but they don't like to be awkward. They start to drift away; other people who might have become members go somewhere else. The church is on the slippery slope, and it's the devil's own job to get off it again.

Yet the church isn't here for the benefit of its leaders; it isn't even here for that of its members. It's a community which is called into being to carry out a mission; to spread the Good News, however we're going to interpret that. As Archbishop Temple said, it's the only organisation which exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members. I'd put it differently; we're here for the benefit of those who will never be our members, but may yet come to find God in other ways, if they haven't done so already. One of the community groups which uses the premises on a regular basis includes a large proportion of Muslims, but we don't have an issue with that.

So why is it that, so often, the church loses sight of its mission, allows a minority to arrange things for their own benefit, and fades away rather than face up to the fact that it's become dysfunctional?

We had a comparable situation some years ago; a minister with nothing in common with us, and a bad case of glue ear, tried to get us to sell some land we lease to the National Childrens’ Homes. It’s on a 99-year lease, with a stupid clause written into the contract to say the rent can only be re-assessed every 33 years. Unfortunately, that’s where the Methodist Church was in the 1960’s; I’ve heard even worse stories. They’d had it on a peppercorn rent for many years, and the rent was due to be reassessed in 2001. We were on the receiving end of an attempt to pressurise us into selling the lease for a ‘generous’ fourteen thousand, while being denied professional advice. The leadership we had then had a long-standing policy of never saying no to a minister; this is the traditional way of getting power in Methodism. You get in the minister’s clique, and they nominate you to office. Our beloved minister brought this up in every Church council for two years, bringing everything else to a grinding halt, while everyone sat there in embarrassed silence. In the end, nobody could take any more. We got proper advice ourselves, and were told not to touch it with a bargepole. Our minister then tried to get Circuit Meeting to send it back to us again. I stopped it by jumping up and protesting, and gave everyone such a shock (nobody had done such a thing before) that we never heard another word. We’re now getting seven thousand a year for the lease, and until inflation starts up again, we’re one of the very few financially secure Methodist churches around.

We’ve discussed this idea of changing the time of the service twice in Church Council, and both times, everyone except me has sat there in silence. It’s got the same feel to it; it’s obvious nobody wants it, but those to whom the Spirit is speaking have no ears. We’ll have another discussion after the service on Sunday, and hopefully that’ll be the end of it. I suspect they won’t give up; they never do. But we can’t make the mistake of so many churches, start doing things to suit one or two people, and end up fading away like a Cheshire cat.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

There seems to be no end to the problems some people out there want to make for my church. Not only do we have one person who's been coming taking services and refusing to speak to the duty steward, who's responsible for the smooth running of the service, but her husband, a prominent official in the Circuit, does his best to stop paperwork going to the stewards as well, even when it's addressed to us. It always goes to their friend in the congregation. At the Circuit Meeting, material intended for my church is segregated, and rushed to this person as soon as she makes an appearance, in order to stop me getting hold of it.

Last week I had yet another letter addressed to 'the Senior Steward' (we don't appoint one, as it leads to one steward being singled out, and it's not an official office, but it's effectively me) passed on to me by someone else, with a note telling me what to do with it. This time I've made a complaint, and I'm meeting with our minister tomorrow to discuss how to handle the situation. I've been at my church since 1987, and in all that time, none of our stewards have been accorded proper recognition unless they were in a very small, exclusive clique. Our current minister is the first who's really accepted the people we choose to elect.

This goes on everywhere in the Methodist Church, perhaps not quite as blatantly as this, but it's there all the same. Back in the 1980's, there were complaints about black stewards not being recognised, but that was only one aspect of the problem. It's no wonder Methodist membership is declining! You try to run a church democratically and inclusively, and all these people can do is make endless obsessive attempts to undermine you and put themselves in control. The fact that they have no support outside their own little circle has nothing to do with it as far as they're concerned.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

How not to be the Church

I’m suffering from daily headaches at the moment, and it’s making it really hard to write anything. But never mind, this is an issue that’s been worrying me for many years.
I’ve been a member of the Methodist Church for twenty-eight years now, since 1982. I’ve been in two very different churches; one in a village in Cornwall, in a rural circuit where every church was slowly collapsing due to a combination of declining membership and inappropriate buildings, and one in central Birmingham. The first was all white, the second eighty percent black, with members from three continents. My current circuit is urban, multicultural, and some churches, at least, have modern buildings which are more or less appropriate to their needs. Others are being brought to their knees by the cost of maintaining dilapidated Victorian barns. I should know; I’ve been responsible for the property in both the churches where I’ve been a member. You’d have thought the problems in the two circuits would have been very different, but no. They’re almost identical.

Firstly, buildings. I’ll never forget one church I used to preach at in Cornwall. When it was built, at the end of Victoria’s reign, there was, apparently, a village there. The church would seat about 100 comfortably. When I started preaching, in the mid-1980’s, the village had disappeared without trace, the walls were streaked with green mould, and part of the ceiling had collapsed. The congregation was about half a dozen, which came out from St. Austell, a few miles away. Another, in a slightly better state, served a village that had long disappeared under a mountain of china clay waste. One in the town itself had been built for 750 people, and I used to get a congregation of three or four, including the organist.

In my present circuit we have one church which has a huge, cathedral-like building, with an extensive range of rooms which include a large hall in which they now meet. The congregation is about fifteen to twenty. I always feel there’s some life there, but it’s slowly being stifled by a derelict building they don’t seem, finally, to be able to get rid of. Other churches are also struggling with buildings they don’t need. In many cases they could sell, buy a large house nearby, convert the ground floor into a church, and upstairs into flats. The rents would go a long way towards maintaining the church.

Another, associated, problem is poor to suicidal leadership. As long as I’ve been in the Methodist Church, I’ve seen a slow trickle of people leaving because they’re marginalized, ignored, their ideas aren’t wanted. In the worst cases, they go due to outright bullying and rudeness. In some cases the behavior I’ve come across has been truly abominable. Only last year, I had to deal with a case of libelous letters being sent, falsely accusing a builder’s workmen of theft. The firm had been contracted by the Church Council to do work which the writers hadn’t wanted, and this was their way of hitting back. Clearly, the people responsible are no longer running that church. But they make it blindingly obvious that they think they ought to be.

On many occasions, I’ve seen good people elected to office, then not recognized. In the 1980’s, there were complaints about black church stewards being used as tokens, without being allowed to do the job. It goes deeper than that; it happens to white people as well. It happened to me. When I was in Cornwall, the Senior Steward at my church retired, then carried straight on doing the job exactly as before, ignoring their successor. Officially, there’s no such office as Senior Steward, but it’s always been more convenient for ministers to have to talk to one person rather than all the stewards, and for anyone wanting power, this is always the one to go for. Then they can exclude all the other stewards. In my present church, I was a steward for years before anyone asked my opinion of anything. Eventually, once again, the Senior Steward retired.

I was already in a situation where I had taken on responsibility for the property, but someone else, who has never been a Property Steward, and shows no understanding of what’s involved, thought she should be in charge. So I was being undermined and pressurised in the expectation that I’d eventually give in as my predecessor had. Then the woman we’d appointed as the new Senior Steward gave up and left, after a similar experience. She was a perfectly good steward, of many years’ standing, who could be trusted to listen to the rest of us. The trouble was, she wasn’t the strongest character, and she listened to the wrong people.

Fortunately, we had a couple of strong characters in the church who were already stewards, and with support from the minister, we’ve – hopefully – been able to get to a situation where people appointed to do jobs actually get to do them. We still get undermined though, and still have situations like the woman who comes occasionally taking services, and refuses to speak to the duty steward. She’ll only work with her friend the former steward, and we haven’t really tackled that one yet.

This is why the Six Year Rule, which says that stewards, who are officially responsible for ‘providing leadership’, have to step down after six years, doesn’t work. By the time it gets to that point, the person in control has probably been bullying everyone else for years, and anyone who might stand up to them has left. On the rare occasions when a minister insists on applying it, they carry straight on pulling strings, then force their way back in as soon as that minister leaves. Problem people in a church can only be dealt with effectively by laypeople who are there for the long haul, and are prepared to stand up for themselves over many years if necessary.

The root of many of our problems has probably been the ordained ministry. Ministers come and go. The norm at present is that they come for an initial five years, which can be extended. If things don’t work out, they can be moved on, but this is rare and difficult; normally you just have to endure them. Some are brilliant, some appalling, but very few look beyond their few years in that church. The result is that we suffer from short-termism, and systemic problems are rarely even considered. I’ve been in my current circuit since 1987; over that time, we’ve lost a large number of members. In all that time, there has never been any discussion about the problems. In many cases, the same people who were running things when I arrived are still there now. At last, we’ve scheduled an extra Circuit Meeting, where it will be on the agenda, but this came from laypeople not ministers.

Where ministers attempt to provide leadership, and there are still plenty out there trying to operate on a minister-led model, they routinely fail. We had one who wanted to turn us all into charismatics, another who bullied and upset everyone. They arrive, not knowing the people, with little real information about the church, and try to take charge when they’re actually less qualified to do so that anyone else. This can only lead to problems, and sometimes it creates mayhem. One church in the circuit was disastrously split by a minister who openly tried to elbow aside everyone but fundamentalist charismatics, and almost twenty years after he retired, that church still has serious problems. His successor had a similar attitude, surrounded himself with yes-people, and pushed them into office long before they were ready. On one notorious occasion, he nominated someone for a note to preach, the beginning of the training system for lay preachers, a fortnight after he had become a Christian. The better ministers listen, and try to encourage the good things they find going on in a church. But then they move on, and we never know what we’re going to be landed with next. When there are major problems, they can offer little help.

Lacking information, sometimes with their heads full of stereotypes of what they think the church ought to be, they’re vulnerable to manipulation. Power in the Methodist Church has traditionally come via a sort of devil’s bargain between ministers and their yes-people. Anyone eager for position and power would gather round the minister, agreeing to anything they said, in the hope of being ‘nominated’ for office. In return, the minister supported the office-holders, and ensured that they should rule the roost – which is probably the main thing they wanted – unchallenged.

I think the practice of ‘nominating’ people to office is one of the worst aspects of Methodist tradition. Decisions of all sorts are taken by little in-groups, and then rubber-stamped by the meeting. This happens at every level; it has been many years since Conference last voted against the platform, for instance. Appointments are made by putting a ‘name’ to the meeting, which is then traditionally accepted without question or discussion. The result is a network of little power cliques, controlling everything, along with their ministerial allies, and having a veto over the appointment of anyone except themselves and their friends, and managing to ignore everyone else. That’s what leads to the situation I mentioned, where someone comes to my church imagining themselves too good to have to speak to the person responsible for the smooth running of the service. It’s an appallingly corrupt system, and if we want to rebuild the church, it has to go.

Fortunately, some aspects of it are dying by inches. When I was in Cornwall, I was regularly accused of being ‘disrespectful’ to a minister who I addressed, and referred to, as ‘Tom’ not ‘Reverend So-and-so’. I arrived in Birmingham to find that practice was long gone, but the slightest criticism of any minister was instantly met by patronising speeches about how ‘special’ they were. That stopped by the end of the 90’s.

When I came here, there were three Circuits, and six ministers in mine alone; I think there were a total of five in the other two. The three are now amalgamated into a single Circuit, with three ministers. The result is, of course, that a lot more is done by laypeople. I believe we are the first Circuit in the country to have appointed lay ministers, who are not ordained, but who do everything ministers do apart from weddings. There’s no block to their doing that, but they’d have to be officially appointed for a particular church, and it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t really made much difference to my church, as we’ve always done everything ourselves. Originally this was down to weak ministers and a domineering leadership clique, these days it’s because we really do believe in inclusiveness and democracy, and our current minister supports us in this. The only thing we really rely on her for is a bit of support now and then, and decisions are regularly taken over coffee after the service, with everyone participating. We’ve recently given jobs to two ladies on the fringes of the church; a new member has taken responsibility for cleaning the church, while our latest trainee worship leader hasn’t got as far as membership yet. Time will tell whether I’m right in thinking this is a way of bringing new people in. Things can be done differently; it only takes the will!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Luke and Money

One of the problems I see with the way the church uses the Bible is that it completely submerges the differences between the Biblical authors. Luke says something we want to hear, and maybe John says something roughly similar, but Matthew, let’s say, says something different. Instead of looking seriously at what Matthew says, we ignore him, and claim that ‘the Bible says’ the bit we like.

But let’s forget that, and look at Luke and money. We’ll start with Luke 18:18-27, the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Luke, of course, is adapting and expanding Mark, and follows him closely; the extent of the verbal agreement between the two is evidence that he’s using Mark as a source rather than writing an independent account. He changes Mark’s ‘one’ to ‘a certain ruler’.

Throughout his Gospel he makes a distinction between the people, who are responsive to Jesus, and the rulers, who are opposed. So we need not expect this man to become a disciple.

He’s obviously an observant Jew, who keeps the Law, and seems eager to follow Jesus. The stumbling block, of course, is the requirement that he sell everything he has, and give to the poor. This is radical stuff indeed, and the church doesn’t like it. How often do we hear a sermon telling us to take it at face value?

My interest in this began about twenty years ago, when I studied New Testament under the late Prof. Michael Goulder, who died last January. Lukan radicalism was one of the themes he covered, and there’s a chapter on it in his introduction to the New Testament, ‘A Tale of Two Missions’.

Then I found that John Wesley was another man with radical views in this area. I may do a post on this later, as it’s worth looking at in detail. Basically, his view was that money belonged to God, and if we spent more than the necessary minimum on ourselves, rather than giving it away, we were effectively stealing from God. As a young man he found he could live on twenty-eight pounds a year. There was no inflation at the time, and he continued to live on this throughout his life. Everything else - and by the end of his life he had over a thousand a year, a great deal in those days – went into his ministry. Much of it went on books which he distributed free. At the end of his life, he preached a sermon in which he said that the revival, as we'd call it today, had failed because Methodists had become too 'comfortable', meaning too rich, and weren't giving properly. If only everyone involved in what’s called ‘ministry’ followed his example today!

So we come back to the Rich Young Man. The theme is dealt with not only in his Gospel, but also in Mark and Matthew. Outside the New Testament, Origen records another version from the Gospel of the Nazoreans. Clearly, whatever was meant, the story had wide circulation, and was felt to be important. But here we’re concerned with Luke.

He and Matthew both follow Mark in saying that it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye and for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Here the preacher pricks his ears up, and of course they all go on to say that ‘all things are possible with God’. So, they tell us, if you’re rich, you can keep your money and get in after all. Luke, however, gives us examples of what he really means.

The most obvious is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10; it’s not found anywhere else). He’s a chief tax collector, and an object of well-deserved loathing. Telones, translated as ‘tax collectors’ we men who purchased the right to collect tax. They would pay them money up front – and therefore had to be seriously rich – and took it back by whatever means they could, along with their profits. It was a system established by the Greeks, and taken over by the Romans.

When the latter took control of the Levant in 57 BC, the general and politician Gabinius set up sanhedrins thoughout Palestine, and made them responsible for tax collection. Julius Caesar abolished this after a few years, and made the Ethnarch (Ruler of the People) Hyrcanus II responsible for tax collection in his territory. He, of course, passed large sums on to Rome, but as long as the money was paid to Jews, it doesn’t seem to have raised the same degree of protest.

Herod I used his own officials for tax collection. Rome eventually imposed direct rule over Judea and Samaria (6 AD), and re-introduced their own tax collectors, while Galilee and Peraea, on the East Bank, were the responsibility of Herod Antipas. Doubtless all these people used very much the same system. So tax collectors weren’t necessarily working for the Romans; it depended on where they were. Zacchaeus, operating in Jericho, was in Judea, and therefore paid his money to Rome. Both the Gospels and the Rabbis testify to just how unpopular tax collectors were.

At the bottom of the tree would have been bully-boys who may well have acted like modern bailiffs, taking whatever was of value, and not being at all scrupulous about how much they took over and above what was owed. They would have passed the money on to their bosses. As a chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus was well up in the pile, and as Luke says, he would have been rich. However, he’s falling over himself to see Jesus, and even risks the wrath of the crowd to do so. He promises to give half his money to the poor, and to repay everyone who’s been ripped off four times over, way beyond what the Law requires. Jesus himself declares that he’s now OK with God, but has he got any money left? I rather doubt it.

Then there are the women who finance Jesus’ mission (Luke 8:1-3) If they’re funding everyone with him, they’re being generous, at least. As soon as the church comes into being, we find that the group holds everything in common, with nobody claiming ownership of anything (Acts 4:33-37). Those who have property sell up, and Barnabas gives a shining example by selling his land; the term is ambiguous, and of much wider meaning than the common translation ‘field’. The result is that there isn’t a needy person to be found among them. Later on in Acts, Paul’s churches contribute enthusiastically to his collection for the mother church in Jerusalem, just as diaspora Jews contributed to the Temple. It sounds suspiciously like a primitive version of the much maligned Communism, but this is the Word of God and all that, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

Luke, of course, gives us the other side of the picture as well. The rich young ruler goes away sad, because he’s extremely wealthy, and he doesn’t want to give it all up. The fellow in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31; again, the story isn’t found anywhere else) doesn’t want to give any of it up either. Lazarus is lying at his gate with the dogs licking his sores, and this Scrooge does nothing to help, but dresses up in his finery, and eats like a glutton. Neither character actually does anything, yet Lazarus, who has suffered in this life ends up in the bosom of Father Abraham, while the rich man, having had his pleasure, goes somewhere nasty. His five brothers, who we may presume are also rich, are headed for the same place, and even someone rising from the dead (ie Jesus himself) would be unable to do anything about it.

Then there’s the awful example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). They lie to the church, and thus to the Holy Spirit, hang on to some of their money, and are struck dead on the spot. All in all, Luke doesn’t have a single good word to say about anyone who keeps their money, and gives plenty of examples of people who give it away. The church can duck and dive all it wants, and as Goulder says, a preacher who tells his congregation to give it all away this week may not have one next week. However, it seems it was not always thus. Luke must have had an audience, or his writings would never have come to regarded as holy writ.

Monday, 19 July 2010

I’ve decided to start this blog out of frustration about two things. Firstly, over many years, I’ve been watching the Methodist Church here in the UK declining. I’ve heard several simplistic pseudo-explanations of this; we’re not evangelical enough, not charismatic enough, etc. I don’t happen to believe in a God who only accepts people who worship in a specific, ‘spirit-filled’ style, or people who believe a specific list of doctrines. For that matter, I don’t read about any such deity in the Bible. Meanwhile, Methodist leadership at every level persists in producing no answers. If we’re not careful, we’re going to fade away like the Cheshire cat, without its talent for reappearing.

Meanwhile, over twenty-odd years, I’ve seen a trickle of people leaving for an obvious, identifiable reason. Poor leadership combined with cliquishness. I’ve been in that situation myself; I joined a church, and found the leadership, such as it was, to be exclusive and patronizing. Nobody else’s ideas were wanted; nobody else was capable of doing anything. Everyone else was marginalized and put down, in the interests of their pathetic little smidgeon of petty power.

I’ve seen exactly the same thing happening in two circuits, in two Districts, in Cornwall and Birmingham. I don’t believe it’s down to individuals, I think it’s endemic; there’s something in our Methodist structures which fosters bad leadership, and opens the way for those who want to use God’s church for their wretched ego trips. Not all leadership is like that, of course, but too much is. More than enough to do massive damage over time.

Taken to extremes, we have the case of the church which no longer accepts new members. I saw two churches close because of this in Cornwall, and there are a couple in my current circuit. In Cornwall, I was able to find out exactly how it happened. In both cases, some little so-and-so had been Senior Steward for twenty-odd years. In theory, we have a thing called the ‘six-year rule’ which stops you being a Church Steward for more than six years; in addition, the common position of Senior Steward has no official existence. However, the rules are unworkable. I’ll explain why in a future post.

Both these characters, men I got to know a little as I went round the circuit preaching, were deeply insecure. The church gave them the only status they had, and at bottom, they were afraid. New members might upset their power trips, and so, out of insecurity, they destroyed those churches. Anyone who might stand up to them was bullied until they left, and the remaining members just gave in. Ministers did nothing, despite our suicidal tradition of looking to ministerial leadership. They come to a station for a limited period, initially five years, and very few of them look beyond those five years. If we want to build the church, we need leaders who look to the long term, and are concerned with the good of the church community, not their own needs. That can only come from the laypeople, and we have to devise structures which will encourage the right people to come forward, not the wrong ones.

My other frustration is easier to explain. The internet is full of conservative Christianity, as are religious bookshops. Liberal scholarship is there, but there are very few liberals making any serious attempt to put their views across at a popular level. Why not? Where, for instance, are the popular liberal commentaries we need to counter the fundamentalists?

Sometimes you hear triumphalist conservatives proclaiming that it’s impossible to preach liberal ideas. I’ve been doing it for twenty years, and I decline to believe them. It can be preached perfectly well, but it’s harder work, as you can’t just follow the thousands who’ve preached on the same thing before you. You have to plough your own furrow, and inevitably, you make mistakes. I know I do.

Back in the 1980’s, David Jenkins, a man I greatly admire, had a go when he was Bishop of Durham. He was consigned to what’s euphemistically called ‘a lost eternity’ in God’s imagined torture chamber, and pilloried in the popular press as an ‘unbelieving’ radical bishop, the sort who were supposedly destroying the church. In fact, he was far more conservative than me, and he never said anything that hadn’t been common currency in theological colleges since the middle of the 19th Century. So how come it wasn’t familiar to ordinary Christians? There’s no excuse, and perhaps I can make some sort of progress with this blog. Doubtless there are others out there doing the same thing, and I hope to find them!