Chapter 7 - The Future
Chapter 7: The Future?
As I reflect on 30 years as a Methodist minister ‘in the active work’, I have revisited some of the writing that I have done over the years, in particular the reflections I wrote during my first Sabbatical in 1993.
It is a strange and somewhat uncomfortable experience, mostly because despite the massive changes in my personal life and in the world around us, it almost seems as far as the Methodist church is concerned nothing has changed in 23 years! My question at the beginning of those reflections was: ‘What is the future for the Methodist church?’ and the starting point was a live television broadcast of the Conference Service from Newcastle in 1992. Something that would never happen now.
My reflection on that service read: ‘What image of Methodism would this give to the outside world? First, I was struck by the average age, particularly of the district choir. There seemed to be very few people in it under the age of sixty, and for all the musical skill it sounded like that as well. Secondly, I wondered what someone who did not know their Christian faith, and was not used to the way things were done in church, would find relevant and meaningful, and I could find little there. This was an ageing, irrelevant group, doing its own thing, for its own sake, an organisation keeping itself going, but going where….?’
Since then we have had the digital revolution, the rise of social media, 9/11, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion.’. The world is very different, and yet I am not sure fundamentally that the Methodist church is in a very different place. Speaking personally, I am now one of those over-sixties, and it still not unusual for me to be the youngest person in worship. For British Methodism the question of the future stares us even more starkly in the face.
For me, this is not just about the future of the Methodist Church of Great Britain as an institution, but a wider question about the future of a tradition of Christianity, which I would call liberal evangelical protestantism: the tradition that has nurtured and shaped me, and given my life purpose and meaning.
What I find challenging about my reflections of 1993 is how the concerns I shared then, are still fundamentally the same ones as I have now, namely, how to make an inclusive, open, thoughtful Church built on the tradition of the ‘warmed heart’ meaningful and relevant in today’s culture in Britain.
My reflections include a letter I wrote to the then Convenor of the Methodist Faith and Order committee, who had written an article in the Epworth Review complaining about the triviality of much modern worship and the ‘ditties’ that people are introducing, and saying that all Methodist worship, including ‘All-Age worship’ should not use any music that is not in Hymns and Psalms, believing that was the only way to ensure ‘depth’ in worship.
It includes, in embryo, many of the points made in this paper.
If we have made any steps forward it is that leadership of the Methodist church would now not endorse such culturally conservative views, but the lack of Methodism as a whole to address the questions of how we relate to a society that has moved on so radically in the last twenty years needs to be taken seriously.
The critique of religion that Richard Dawkins and his followers offer, and the rise of atheism as the intellectual ‘norm’ for younger generations, given ammunition by the growing association of all religion with extremism and violence after the horrors of 9/11 have added to the challenges that we face.
In the face of those challenges it still seems intellectually surprising to me that it is those churches with a more fundamentalist approach to scripture and a more supernaturalist approach to God’s intervention in the world, who have a younger age profile and have declined more slowly.
My interpretation of this, at least in part, has been that their willingness to adapt the cultural expressions of faith, in worship and ecclesiology, especially including must has played a significant part in their appeal.
I also have to recognise that there is also, in a complex world, an attraction with a ‘simple faith’ If faith is too complex, ‘how can the occurrence of faith yield joy in the heart of the believer?’
In my reading about music, I have learnt that whereas most people look to music to speak to them directly, through their emotions, trained musicians, tend to listen to music more cognitively, looking for the meaning and the patterns, and discovering its emotional power that way. Such trained musicians sometimes look down on the ‘uneducated’ response of others. Yet that response is just as valid and important to them.
I think there is a parallel with faith. As Sykes points out, those who are trained theologically, (and these are the people who naturally have the positions of influence within the church), are able to ‘tolerate complexity and ambiguity because it is seen to derive from a culturally valued study of he past… but the puzzlement bred by complexity and ambiguity has a different significance for laypersons, … it can undermine the possibility of that single minded commitment of which the gospel speaks. … The power of fundamentalism lies precisely in its realisation that the threat of pluralism is felt most acutely by the laity. It meets the dilemma of the diminished prestige of the institution by constantly reassuring the believer that he or she has joined the most successful available religious option, as proved by miracles, physical and financial, and by the evidence of ever-expanding numerical growth. It resolves the dilemma of Christianity’s ambiguous and complex past by ignoring it completely. … ‘Modernist’ theologians, who are prone to turn from fundamentalism with cultural distaste, have much to learn form it about the acute ‘dilemma of commitment’ into which the lay Christian falls in the modern world.’ ‘A contemporary understanding of faith has, therefore, both to resolve the ‘dilemma of commitment’ of the modern layperson and simultaneously to give at least the beginning of an adequate answer to the problem of Christianity’s complexity and ambiguity.’
Twenty three yeas ago, I commented on that passage: ‘What is the way forward in communicating our complex, ambiguous, yet wonderful faith in the modern world?’ and I realise that coming to the end of my active ministry I am still absorbed by that question. How do we express the commitment to a transforming faith in a way that will attract those who have for whatever reason turned their back on Christianity, without ignoring the complexity and the ambiguity?
I do that still believing that the Methodist tradition has something profound to offer here. This is a tradition founded on John Wesley’s experience of a warmed heart, that led his brother to write: ‘My heart is full of Christ and longs its glorious matter to declare’, but in which John also says: ‘It is a fundamental principle with us, that to renounce reason is to renounce religion and that all irrational religion is false religion.’
The challenge is how we hold that together in a twenty-first century culture.
On one level I find it somewhat disturbing to look back at what I wrote twenty three years ago and reflect on how little has changed, both in my own priorities and in my frustration with a Methodist church that is not able to respond to the challenges it faces.
What has changed, as well as the fast moving world context in which we find ourselves, is my personal experience and context. Twenty three years ago I was an inexperienced minister with a young family. Mark was three months old, and there were no thoughts that he would not develop neurotypically. Music has become, if anything, even more important, not just as a hobby but as a vehicle for spiritual reflection and refreshment, and I am now a comparatively experienced minister not far off retirement, and a Chair of District.
The years bringing up an autistic child, my developing involvement and reflection upon music and the experience of twenty three more years of ministry, now expressed in the context of being a Chair of District do mean I come to the issues with a different perspective. It is as if I am seeing the same scene, with the same questions, but through a different set of lenses.
The lens of being a parent of an autistic child has taught me that for all the attractions of simplicity and certainty, I cannot approach the Christian faith ignoring the issues of complexity and ambiguity without denying the reality of my own experience.
I relate to what Sykes says about the puzzlement bred by complexity and ambiguity making faith difficult for lay people, but I think rather than running away into a simple, certainty that might give people comfort for a while, we have to find ways of embracing the difficulties.
One way of doing that is not so much through abstract thinking, but in the sharing of stories. One thing that being parents of Mark has opened up for us is the realisation of how many families have issues with which they are struggling. How welcome are they to share those stories in church?
I have tried to be quite careful in rationing how often I talk about the experience of parenting Mark from the pulpit, but when I do the response is almost uniformly positive and grateful, and it usually provokes a conversation with someone about something in their experience, how they are coping and how it relates to their faith.
Since I wrote 23 years ago, I do believe that the independent evangelical churches have begun to take these issues far more seriously, as they have had to cope with the varied life experiences of their members and the need to respond to world events.
I have mentioned Matt Redman’s song ‘Blessed be your name’ as one from that tradition that I find powerful because it is prepared to embrace something of the ambiguity of life, and work to praising God through it. A few years after writing the song Redman wrote a book of the same name about the integration of the pain of the world into worship and explained the origin of the song:
“A few weeks after 9/11, we wrote the worship song "Blessed Be Your Name." It wasn't written consciously in response to those dark events- but no doubt, being immersed in the spiritual and emotional climate of those days was an important factor in birthing it. Many people ask if there was a particular life event that triggered off the writing of this song, and in all truth, the answer is no. It's really a song born out of the whole of life- a realization that we will all face seasons of pain or unease. And in these seasons we will need to find our voice before God. The Church (and indeed the world) needs it songs of lament.”
My reflection is that Methodism has in many places a theology that can respond to these issues, but perhaps because we fear expressions of emotional depth, not enough churches are places where experiences like ours, and those of many others, are able to be shared in a creative way in the context of a life of discipleship.
I would urge us to be true to ourselves, with our tradition of marrying head and heart, and valuing the importance of experience as a way of understanding God. The decline of the house group/class meeting is well documented and widely lamented. I share that lament, but wonder if it is because too many became Bible studies for teaching, rather than the fellowship groups for sharing Christian experience, for which Wesley created them.
This means in our evangelism we have to be a listening church, as much as a proclaiming one. When we listen, our proclamation, however it is done must speak to the experience and the emotional journey of those to whom we have listened. In the current climate we will have to work hard to earn the right to listen, let alone be listened to. The extent to which people will want to share at depth what is important to them with people who are seen to be out of touch culturally, and who are probably thought to be judgmental on social and moral issues, is likely to be very limited, so we will have to work harder at making connections.
So, the lens of autism teaches me the importance of sharing experience and taking the range of people’s experiences seriously within the church, without trying to produce a ‘right answer’. We perhaps need to be better equipped how to respond to the spiritual questions that people’s personal experiences raise for them. A few years ago Methodism promoted a programme: ‘Time to talk of God’ which was well-received, but in my experience it was a struggle to get it disseminated widely. Finding ways to relate our complex and ambiguous experiences to our journey with God and helping others inside and outside the church to do that needs to be an ongoing part of church life at every level.
The other key thing that the lens of autism teaches me in relation to church life is the need to respect and understand the spectrum of personality and the different spiritual responses that will lead to. I see from my notes from 1993 that the last book I read on that Sabbatical was the book that introduced me the Myers Briggs personality type indicator. The need for people of different personalities to understand each other and learn how to work together is now taken for granted in business and increasingly in church. My experience of involvement in the autistic world has helped to increase those understandings, and has also led me to ask questions about the ‘personality of Methodism’ as whole today. I have come to understand how different styles of worship might relate more comfortably to different personalities, and am not surprised that those who have done Myers Briggs testing with Methodist groups and clergy speak of a preponderance of Introverts over Extraverts. I have learnt from this that the resistance to change and the importance of regular routine, which drives me up the wall is for some people an important survival mechanism in the social world, and I have learnt to be more diplomatic and careful in working for change and changing routines.
I was not surprised when reading the Church of England’s report on growing churches: ‘Anecdote to Evidence’ to find that their research showed that leaders, (usually ordained leaders) of growing churches tended to have an Extravert, iNtuitive personality. Outgoing people with a big picture vision, prepared to work alongside other people for the detail. That is actually my type! However, my hunch, that is not mentioned in the evidence, is that the church leader is more likely to grow a church if they are also what MBTI calls a Thinker, not in this case an intellectual, but someone who is prepared sometimes to forego harmony in the interests of clarity, and is prepared to stand up clearly to those with whom they disagree. (I am in this area a Feeler, someone who works for harmony and community, and is prepared to compromise my own ideas so that people get along.)
A key issue for the Methodist church nationally, as it faces declining resources, particularly of people, is to ensure that its leadership is properly deployed. If different churches need leaders of different personality types, and particularly churches with the potential for growth need ENTs, I am led to ask how issues like that can be taken account in our stationing and appointment procedures. This also relates to how you build a circuit leadership team. Does such a team have a balance of skills and personalities, and when a member leaves, what criteria are used to replace them, especially if it is the replacement of an ordained minister through stationing?
An awareness of the gifts and needs of people with different personalities can help build community, and enable people to give of their best for the whole. We must not forget that in our stationing and appointment procedures.
Looking at the church through my experience as the parent of an autistic son reinforces my need to recognise and respond to the complexity and ambiguity in our faith, and to recognise and respond to the variety of human personality, making the most of people’s gifts.
Looking at it through the lens of music, also raises wider issues. The first is the need for the church to be aware of its cultural expressions and how those relate both to the people within the church and more importantly to those outside the church. We need to be far more aware of what Walton calls the subterranean meanings we send out, through our cultural expression. I have focused on music, as that is my particular interest, and I do think we have to take seriously how important style, genre and quality of music are to people’s self image and cultural identity. I have outlined the issues earlier, but would ask for a deeper engagement about their significance across the church.
But, of course, this goes far wider than music. The look of our buildings is crucial. Does it lift your spirits to walk into your local church? Would it if you were a stranger and were looking at it objectively? Why do so many Methodist churches look as if they are make do and mend, and used up all the beige and magnolia paint that no one else wanted?
I hear those who say that spending money on ourselves is immoral in a needy world, and I do not want to advocate extravagance. We do want to give a message that we have different priorities from the acquisitive, looks obsessed culture of the world outside,
but if our buildings look uncared for, it gives the message that we do not think church and what it stands for is important.
Other cultural issues relate to the quality of our welcome, the way we dress and our coffee! (The only place I ever drink instant coffee now is on church premises!)
The most disturbing bit of evidence to me in Anecdote to Evidence about church leadership was that the age of the church leader was crucial in the culture of the church. People were unlikely to join a church if the church leader was more than ten years older than them. ‘Young man with family’ was the most common profile of a leader of a growing church in the Church of England. Regardless of the gender question, I hope that is not true in Methodism, and we have not done the research, but it does speak of our need to encourage younger people into leadership, and the model of a more mature minister working alongside a younger youth or church family worker is one that is increasingly being developed.
Many church congregations lament the lack of children and young people, but I have to confess that I think that for many of our churches the time when they are likely to be able to graft young people, or younger adults onto their existing congregation has passed. The way forward I believe is to consider the planting of new congregations with different cultural expressions alongside existing ones, perhaps worshipping together occasionally, and certainly with a sense of being joined in fellowship. This is happening in two or three places in the Birmingham Methodist district, and in those cases, although it can cause some tensions, it seems to be working.
So questions about the way music is used in worship, develop into wider questions about the whole culture of an individual church, and perhaps even into questions about the culture of the Methodist Church of Great Britain as an institution. The flexible ecclesiology of some of the newer churches does seem to reflect the more flexible, informal culture of our society, and some are frustrated by the bureaucracy of the Connexion, but the same time the proper demands of oversight of safeguarding, finance and property, and the need to be compliant with the Charity Commission are actually increasing our need to be institutional. We do have to be careful though, that we are not running a central operation in the Methodist church that assumes a wider Connexion which is twice the size and with considerably more resources, particularly of able people, than is actually the case.
If the institutional pull of Methodists procedures is too strong, it will alienate lay people from the involvement and growth of lay leadership that Methodism vitally needs if it is survive in a healthy state.
The other area that looking at the church through the lens of music opens up for me is the issue of how we address emotion in church. I have talked about the Wesleyan balance of warmed heart and rational thinking, but in practice particularly for people who cannot relate emotionally to hymn singing, the balance of Methodist practice has been to shy away from emotional expression. I remember my school chaplain, who went on to lecture at Methodist ministerial training colleges, holding his hands up in horror when some teenage boys asked for more emotion in services in college chapel. ‘There is no place for emotion in worship!’ he said. Actually, I think he meant emotionalism, and we too frequently get the two mixed up, and so end up not touching the emotional depths in ways that enable us to relate to the God who is the God of our whole being.
Careful use of music in worship can help people relate in culturally appropriate ways with their deepest feelings and relate them to God.
Again, this goes far beyond music. Methodism prides itself of the warmth of its fellowship, but how deep does this go?
Scott Peck the psychologist writes in ‘A Different Drum’ of four stages of growth towards true community. It starts with what he calls Pseudo-community, the essential dynamic of which is conflict avoidance. People, wanting to be loving, withheld some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict. The group may appear to be functioning smoothly but individuality, intimacy, and honesty are crushed.
I wonder how many Methodist churches that describes.
However, perhaps that is not a surprising place to be because the next stage is Chaos, as individual differences come out into the open, a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle that seems to be going nowhere.
The easiest response to this is to retreat back to Pseudo-Community, and I sense after times of conflict some churches have done that.
For Scott Peck, the way through chaos to true community is through the next state: Emptiness. It means letting go of the barriers, the expectations and preconceptions, and also the need to heal, fix, convert or solve, and above all the need to control. It allows members to hare their own brokenness rather than acting as if they ‘have it all together’ and as such for me it relates back to sharing experience, as I have had with Mark.
And so True Community embraces the light and darkness and is both joyful and realistic. He writes ‘the transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals.’
Although not written from a specifically Christian perspective this recognition of the importance of sacrifice on the way to true community mirrors for me the journey of Christ, and something of my personal journey with Mark outlined in Chapter 1.
Scott Peck’s analysis rings bells for me particularly around the way we deal with emotions in church. For fear of upsetting others, to preserve Pseudo-community we withhold the truth about our feelings, and so miss out on the depth of fellowship with others, and perhaps also with God, that the church needs to offer.
I believe we need to find ways of helping worship to truly issue out of the community of the local church, and use those subterranean elements, including music, as well as its cognitive part to speak to people’s deepest needs and help them come together to share them and support each other.
Worship needs to inspire and be integrated into a wider church life of deep fellowship and committed service to the community in which it is set and the wider world, but I do believe it lies at the heart of what makes churches distinctive communities, and believe we need a greater commitment in Methodism to do it well and effectively.
Looking at the church through the lens of music reminds me, at least according to the Preface of the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book, Methodism was ‘Born in Song’. How true that was historically, I am unsure, but the act of singing together for all its cultural difficulties still speaks to me as a metaphor for what I value. To sing well together with others takes a commitment. It involves one’s whole being. To sing is a physical thing. To sing well you need to open your intercostal muscles and engage your diaphragm if you are to fill your lungs with air and control it. In concentrating on your breathing you are reminded of the image of God’s breath, moving over the face of the waters, and the the breath of the Holy Spirit, blowing where it will. You sing words and reflect on their meaning, but in singing them you add emotional value to them and are able to inject your own feelings. But while you can fully engage emotionally on a personal level as you sing, you are singing with others, and as you listen to them, and blend your voice with them, you are drawn into community and fellowship. And in my experience, that has the capacity to draw me into a deeper experience of God.
A faith of head and heart, inspired by the spirit, needing a physical response of action and binding us together with God and others.
That is the expression of the faith that I believe stems from our tradition, and which I long to find a way of expressing in twenty-first century terms. Not everyone will experience it through singing in that way, and others will have different pictures, but I find it a helpful one.
As I finish, I need to remind myself that this focus on the church needs to be a means to an end and not an end in itself. The church only has value inasmuch as it is an agent of the Kingdom of God. My desire for the church to grow again is because I believe the community of the church, centred on the worship and response to God in Jesus Christ, has been and can be a vehicle for the transformation of individuals, communities and the wider world.
The pressures of decline and the need to keep the infrastructure of the organisation functioning can too easily lead the church away from its Kingdom focus.
There is a challenge in the wonderful desire of many Methodists to be involved in working for the transformation of communities and wider society to reflect the values of the Kingdom not to neglect our spirituality, and simply to become a social work institution. There is an even more serious challenge not to do the opposite and retreat from a seemingly alien society into a spiritual safe haven, that can tend to social and religious conservatism.
I believe we continue to need to hold together the tradition of the warmed heart, issuing in social holiness and an engagement with society, inspired by the Holy Spirit as a foretaste of the fullness of God’s reign in individuals, in communities and in the wider world.
I hope we can find ways of using our resources to allow the Spirit to fan the sparks of God’s kingdom into flame.
Stephen Sykes: ‘Keeping the Faith’ ed G. Wainwright (SPCK 1989u) p 13
Sykes ibid. pp 13-14
Sykes ibid p 15
from a letter from Wesley to the Rev Dr Rutherford 1768
Matt and Beth Redman: ‘Blessed be your name’ Regal Press (2008) from Chap 2
Malcolm Goldsmith and Martin Wharton: ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, SPCK 1993
These words are used in a specific way in MBTI, see Goldsmith and Wharton pp 16 - 19
Scott Peck: ‘A different drum’ Touchstone Press 1998