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!