28 June 2014

Back to the Bible, forward to the world: Inaugural address of the Methodist President

  • Photo of Kenneth Howcroft giving his address here
  • Profile photo of Mr Howcroft here

In his inaugural address as President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Kenneth Howcroft spoke of the "desperate need" for the Church to "speak biblically to serve the present age." He encouraged Conference representatives to turn outwards to face the world with renewed self-confidence in their Methodist identity.

Addressing the opening of the annual Methodist Conference in Birmingham, Mr Howcroft spoke of the challenge of communicating the Gospel in contemporary society, saying; "We seem less and less able to speak the languages of the people and cultures round us. We seem less and less steeped in the language and stories of the Bible."

"But God has not finished with us yet!" he added, urging people to celebrate all that Methodism is and could be.

"We are a Methodist people on pilgrimage. We are communities of very different people, sometimes multi-cultural and sometimes multi-national, connected together in what we call a 'Connexion'. We come together in small groups and communities to help each other explore the grace of God. We gather round the bible and the table in order to discover the presence of Christ amongst us in word and sacrament. We encourage each other and watch over one another in love. What we have in common is that we all recognise our need of and dependence on the grace of God: the God who loves us before we know it; who saves us through Christ when we do not deserve it; who sanctifies our thoughts, feelings, intentions, words and actions through the Spirit working within us when we are unable to do it for ourselves; who comes to us, is made real for us, nurtures and guides us through various outward and visible and, therefore, sacramental signs."

The full text of the address follows:

What are we Methodists for?

People outside the churches often show that they do not know the answer to that. Once upon a time it was easy: we were the people who, as Colin Morris once somewhat unkindly put it, could be caricatured as saying "If it is fun, we are against it. If it is a lot of fun, we are very much against it. And if it is whoopee ….. we will write to the Methodist Recorder about it!". Now, though, people are not clear about what we are against, still less why we are against it - either because they do not understand, or because they are just not interested in what we are for.

People from other churches often do not know what to make of us, either. They do not know where to put us on the Christian spectrum. Sometimes they just seem politely puzzled. Sometimes they ask. "Are you like Lutherans? Reformed? Baptists? Pentecostalists? Anglicans? Roman Catholics? Orthodox?". To which the answers are in some respects like those of that character in The Vicar of Dibley "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And no".

We are and we are not like those others. But we are also characteristically ourselves - even these days, when an increasing number of us are not born and bred as Methodists or Methodist by conviction; when many of us are perhaps Methodist because it happened to be the nearest church where we liked the music, or it was the first church where the coffee was drinkable. Yet even these days, you can still walk into a group of people and often just know that they are Methodist. It is almost indefinable. It is not just the level of noise, or the almost idolatrous regard for committees and the proper storage of tea cups (and I have always said that a major part of discipleship is being prepared to drink tea and be bored for Christ in meetings!). It is something more.

So, what gifts do we Methodists bring to the party? What are we for? Maybe part of the problem for other people is that we are no longer clear about the answer ourselves (although the General Secretary's coining of the phrase "A discipleship movement shaped for mission" has got some of us thinking and arguing about the question again).

Once upon a time, though, we had an answer. It said that the Methodist Church "… ever remembers that in the providence of God Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness through the land by the proclamation of the evangelical faith and declares its unfaltering resolve to be true to its divinely appointed mission".

No. Please. Don't glaze over. I know that sounds complicated and old-fashioned. It comes from a time before any of us were adults, even our distinguished predecessors in these presidential and vice-presidential roles here today! It is from the Deed of Methodist Union 1932, when our current Methodist Church in Great Britain was formed out of the main churches into which the original Methodist movement in this country had splintered. Bear with me for a moment as we look at it again. Because it is still the basis of our Church, our Conference, our Connexion. Yet do we still 'ever remember' what it says? Do we know what our 'divinely appointed mission' is? And do we still have an 'unfaltering resolve to be true' to it'?

What we are meant to remember is that we have been 'raised up' by God. Who we are, what we do and what we are for is not a matter of our own whims or choice. We are not a voluntary association of people in that sense. Rather we are a group of people called and made by God. The choice we have is whether we freely and gratefully respond to the grace of that calling.

Now it is theoretically, of course, entirely possible that in the 18th century God called our predecessors into existence for a purpose that no longer exists in the 21st century, and so God is gently letting us slide out of existence again. Let me say right now that I do not believe that this is the case. It is not that God is refusing or just forgetting to raise us up. There may be occasions when we ignore our calling and forget to let God raise us. But God has not finished with us yet!

So, what is it that we are meant to be doing (and are doing in many places and in all sorts of ways; some of them extraordinary, but many of them ordinary, involving ordinary people in ordinary situations, and all the more wonderful for that)? To paraphrase the sentence I quoted a moment ago, it is about demonstrating and proclaiming by who we are, what we do and what we say that Christian faith in the sense of a living relationship with Jesus Christ is good news for people.

To put that another way it is about "spreading scriptural holiness through the land". That phrase in the Deed of Union echoes something that goes back to John and Charles Wesley and the earliest Methodists. In the Large Minutes of the earliest Methodist Conferences we find:  

Q. 3. What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists?  A. Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.  

So, a small task to begin with: reforming the nation (or, as we should now say with regard to the areas under the jurisdiction of this Conference, the nations). We tend not to use phrases like 'reforming the nation' these days. That may be because we have lost confidence in ourselves and our Christian conscience. Or it may be because we have learnt that, if we do talk like that, people will immediately assume that we are not just talking politically, but advocating party politics, because sadly the politics of power seem to have become the all-controlling way of looking at the world.

But this was true to some extent in Wesley's day as well. He often protested that he did not want to enter political debates. Yet he did have things to say about the state of what we would call society. He asked whether Oxford with its University was a Christian city. He asked a question which has suddenly become contemporary again as to whether this is a Christian country. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently said that if you mean by that that the cultural and moral background of the country and its institutions have been influenced and shaped by Christian faith and values, the answer is clearly yes, it is a Christian country. But if you mean that it is a nation of believers, the answer is clearly no.

Wesley would have agreed.  In his 1744 sermon "Scriptural Christianity," he asks, "Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are 'all … filled with the Holy Ghost?' Who one and all have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbour as themselves? Why, then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon the earth". As the American scholar Henry H Knight III summarises it, Wesley  ".. wants evidence of hearts and lives characterized and motivated by love. The evidence he sees points in the opposite direction: the accumulation of riches coupled with a lack of generosity, unnecessary wars, the slave trade, uncharitable conversation, and lifestyles that reflect neither love for God nor neighbour."

Those things sound familiar, don't they? But changing them is difficult. Having hearts and lives characterised and motivated by love is not just something that happens inside a private individual. The values and dynamics running through the institutions and structures of society need to allow that love to flourish and to be expressed in action. That means that those values and dynamics, which St Paul calls the 'principalities and powers' need to be constantly sanctified or, again as St Paul implies, they will have a tendency to become demonic.  On the other hand, living in a country whose institutions and structures do not prevent religious believing and godly living does not of itself ensure that people are transformed and enabled to believe and act in a way motivated by God's love. To extend Wesley's comment about people's inner life and their life in organised Methodist groups to their life in society as a whole, having the form or structures of godliness is not enough: people still need to seek its transforming power.

Is reforming the world beyond us now? Yes, and rightly so, if what we are interested in is demonstrating our status, our power and our self-importance rather than looking to co-operate with the love and will of God; or if we see ourselves as a group that is set over against a society that is by definition wrong, as if we were not ourselves part of that society.

Christians have sometimes been criticised for being so concerned with heaven that they are no earthly use, although to be so would be a travesty of a faith which places so much emphasis on the creation of material things and on incarnation (heavenly things being made flesh).

A better formulation might be that we are "in the world but not of it". But even there we need to recognise that we are too often "of the world" but not "in it": not engaging with the rest of society because we do not want to admit that we are affected by the same values and problems that we see in the rest of it. If we are honest, we are not meant to be a perfectly 'saved' and 'holy' group of people who have the answers to questions and problems that the rest of society does not even recognise.

At our best, we are sinners who are seeking to allow ourselves to be made more holy and to live in more godly ways. Moreover, we recognise that in particular practical situations it is hard to discern what ways are more godly, because of the complexity and confusion or our rapidly-changing world. So we care not only about the need to help people have the dignity of work or self-responsibility, but also about the need to provide food banks to ensure that none is forced to go hungry in a world of waste and plenty. We care about how both Jews and Palestinians might flourish in the lands that are supposed to be holy, not least in the way they relate to each other. We care about how human beings might live life in all its fullness in traditional or fresh expressions of relationship that reflect a wide range of human sexualities. But we recognise that none of us is likely to fully understand the practical answers to these things. We recognise that we often have competing and even contradictory convictions about them because of our different histories and perspectives.

One of the most significant things that our Faith and Order Committee has produced was a report a few years ago entitled "Living with Contradictory Convictions in the Church". Looking at some of the debates we have coming up, it might repay re-reading.    As Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13 puts it, we are all looking and seeing dark shadows in a distorting mirror. It is only as my bit of vision rubs up against yours that we start to see the Spirit's vision amongst us. And rubbing our visions up against each other takes a lot of care, a lot of humility and a lot of respect.    

It is as we engage in this process, share its fruits and invite people to join us in it that we have something to offer the world. It is as we allow ourselves to be guided and transformed by God that we contribute to the reforming of the nation.

It is important at this point to recognise that we cannot do any of this on our own. The second small task that Wesley sets out for the Methodists is reforming the Church. Now, let's be honest, most of the time that feels like an even harder task than reforming the nation. If our own experience of seeking to discern how God wishes to reshape our Connexion so that we are fit for God's purpose in the 21st century is anything to go by, then doing the same for our sister churches is well nigh impossible. Some would say that the Covenant with the Church of England proves the point. Yet there are also great examples in places like Cumbria and Leeds and elsewhere of the Spirit energising us and our partners in worship and mission as we seek to discern the will of God together and to co-ordinate our responses.

For we cannot do everything on our own. Yet the fact that we cannot do everything does not mean that we can do nothing. We are sometimes too quick to complain about the effortless superiority of others, and too slow to recognise our own effortless sense of inferiority. Wesley wanted the Methodists to be a distinctive movement within the wider body of Christ. He emphatically did not want them to be a sect, in the sense of a deviant and exclusive group which existed apart from and often set over against other parts of that body.

We therefore rightly emphasise that we are a church, part of the Church of Christ. As a group of people seeking to be made into God's holy people (h-o-l-y) we are wholly Church (w-h-o-l-l-y) but not the whole of the Church (w-h-o-l-e).  We need each other. More importantly, Christ needs all of us so that the whole world may be brought to believe and know God. That urgent, evangelical, sacramental, missionary purpose is the reason that John's Gospel shows Christ praying that his whole body be one; and why St Paul shows that the different parts of the body with their different roles and characteristics can only function as parts of the whole not as separate entities. So for as long as we do not co-operate and remain separate from each other we are refusing to let ourselves be transformed by the grace for which Christ prayed. That ought to make us and our ecumenical partners drop to our knees in sackcloth and ashes.

I grew up in a Methodist church in a town centre. Of course, some things - well, alright, lots of things! - about the Church drove me to distraction. They still do! In my teenage years I leant more and more towards atheism. Then I was challenged to become a member of the Church, and something inside me made me say 'yes', despite all the doubts and questions. In a sense, the doubts and the questions were a sort of springboard to faith. I still wanted to discuss them.

So it was that both as a student and back in my home town I began to get involved in ecumenical discussion groups because - well, because that was where you could discuss things! I tended to gravitate away from those who taught absolute certainties which you just had to accept without thinking.  Perhaps that is where I began to discover that I was a Methodist after all! I think that it was another of my predecessors, Gordon Rupp, who said that John Wesley wanted his Methodists to have their hearts strangely warmed, but if he were to discover that their heads were now strangely empty, he would be revolving in his grave. Please tell me that he is not revolving yet! Is he?

It was an older Roman Catholic layman who really helped me discover that I was a Methodist. He was acting as a sort of mentor to the group back home. I learned a great deal from him. But the most important lesson was when he suddenly turned to me in the group and said "You are starting to sound like me. What does your tradition have to say about this?": and I did not know. So I went to find out. I started reading the Wesleys: and I discovered that all this Methodist stuff made sense of what I was feeling after and experiencing.

So I discovered that I was a Methodist through ecumenical contact. It has been the same ever since. It is often people of other traditions who are clearer about what is distinctive and valuable in our own than we are ourselves. I now say to people of other traditions that I need them to be the best Roman Catholics or Anglicans or United Reformed  or Pentecostalists (or whatever) that they can be in order to help me be a better Methodist; and that I hope that me being the best Methodist that I can be will help them be better Orthodox or Baptists (or whatever).

I say that because that is how we all become better Christians; and because the body of Christ needs all of us. As St Paul might have put it, the Methodist foot cannot say that it is not part of that body simply because it is not and does not wish to become an Anglican hand. The Pentecostal eye cannot say to the Anglican hand "I have no need of you"; nor can the Roman Catholic head to the Methodist feet. The body of Christ cannot be just all one thing or all another thing as it engages in worship and mission.  It needs all of us, all of its parts. It needs each of us to be who and what we best are. But it also needs all of us to allow ourselves to be transformed together into who and what Christ wishes us to be.

If we allow God's love to touch us through Christ in the power of the Spirit, and we start to love God in return, we shall find ourselves being challenged to love the people and things that God loves, including those other parts that make up the body of Christ, with whom we disagree or do not get on. So, just as in a communion service we offer to God in thanksgiving the gifts of God's creation in the form of bread and wine, and we receive them again as even greater gifts representing the body and blood of Christ, we need similarly to offer the gifts of ourselves and each other as individuals and churches, and we receive ourselves and each other again as the body of Christ.

So we need to be more Methodist, and we can be, because God is raising us up as Methodists and, as I said earlier, God has not finished with us yet. We need to be more ecumenical, and we can be, because that is what being Christ's body in the world requires. The two are not opposed to each other.  The love of God constrains and compels us.

So, is it madness to say that part of our calling is to reform the Church? Yes, if by that we mean that we arrogantly know what is best for the body of Christ (and that all the other parts of the body should agree with us and act like us and, preferably, give being themselves and join us). The answer is "no", if by it we mean that we have the faith to put ourselves into the hands of the living God, with all the gifts we have been given, all the distinctive characteristics we have gained, and all the things that we are good at. Put ourselves into the hands of the living God. "We'll praise him for all that is past, and trust him for all that's to come", as the hymn puts it. That way we are a community of openly broken people who are open to be raised to life. We are allowing ourselves to be transformed or re-formed by grace. And if we do that in a way which is connected with the rest of Christ's body (and, remember, connexion is a good Methodist word, and one of those things that we are supposed to be good at) then our re-formation should flow into the life blood circulating through others as well.

On the other hand, if we do not allow ourselves to be re-formed by grace in a way which connects us with the rest of Christ's body, the result is dis-ease, a lack of wholeness and, dare I say it, a deficiency of holiness, both for us and for the rest of the body.

That takes us back to the questions of who we are and what we are for. Our identity and purpose. It also takes us back to holiness. The third task in that statement I quoted earlier was "to spread scriptural holiness over the land".  The term 'holiness' tends not to get a good press these days. We all know what it means to be 'holier-than-thou', even if we struggle to explain what it means to be 'holy'. So what do we mean by 'holiness'?

Do not worry, help is at hand! Methodism is blessed in this country by having a considerable number of eminent professors of theology, particularly in the field of biblical studies, who also engage with the life of our church and put their skills at its disposal. In 2010 two of them, one lay and one ordained, Morna Hooker and Frances Young, wrote a book together called Holiness and Mission. They point out how odd it is for those terms to go together, because holiness is normally thought of as separating and withdrawing from the world, whereas mission involves going into it and engaging with it. It seems to me that the danger of thinking of them in that way is that you start to despise the world from which you withdraw (even if you only withdraw from it for an hour on a Sunday) and then you can only go out into it in order to attack it rather than love it.

Morna Hooker and Frances Young point out that that way of thinking does not seem to reflect very well how God treats the world or what God is like. The God we see in Jesus is a God of justice and compassion, a righteous and loving God. God is not a God who stands apart, but a God who creates and recreates, identifying with humanity and getting involved with the creation. That is what it means for God to be 'holy'. That is what we see in Jesus. That is what God hopes for and requires of his people in the world. In Leviticus 11 verses 44-45 God in a sense introduces himself to his people, pointing out that he has taken the initiative in establishing a relationship with them, a relationship in which he will be their God and they will be his people. He then asks them to consecrate themselves in order for them to be holy as God is holy: God says "You shall be holy as I am holy".

So we are meant to be allowing ourselves to become more godly, reflecting in so far as we are able God's character and co-operating to the extent that we are able with God's creative and transformative love for the world, for which he was prepared to give his only Son. If you want to see the holiness of God in action, as it were, look at Jesus. If you start to relate to Jesus, then you will find yourself drawn closer to him, transformed into being parts of his body both as individuals and as churches; and in the power of the Spirit you will find that holiness working in you through what you are, what you say and what you do.

St Paul makes this point again and again. In Philippians 2:6-11 he describes what we might dare to call Christ's 'mindset': unlike Adam, who was made in the image of God but tried to make himself into God's equal, Christ was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited for his own benefit. Instead, he emptied himself, poured himself out in love for others, even so far as dying on a cross for them like a slave. Paul says that that 'mindset' is what God exalts. And it is that 'mindset' which he says we should share as individuals and as communities.

It is fascinating that it is to that passage which John Wesley in Philippians turned in his sermon on "The New Birth" when he wished to define what he meant by scriptural or gospel holiness. He says that scriptural holiness  " .... is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus…" He goes on to say that that involves all of what we would call our instincts, feelings, emotional dispositions, ways of thinking and spiritual sensitivities being brought together, made whole and made holy. It makes us respond to God thankfully and lovingly in turn. And, says Wesley, if we start to love God, we shall naturally end up loving the rest of the world as well. We will not be able to help it. God's love will not let us.

There in a nutshell you get holiness and mission combined. Methodism began, in a sense, as a holiness movement within the wider Church. It also began as a mission movement within the wider Church. What was distinctive about it was the way in which it combined the two. I believe that at our best it is still distinctive of us now. If it isn't, then what are we?

If you were wondering what difference it makes to add the word 'scriptural' to the word 'holiness', part of the answer is that it simply reminds us that the Bible is our constant reference point for showing what Jesus is like, and therefore what the holiness of God is like. But notice that the emphasis is on having the mind that was in Christ Jesus rather than just on being able to quote one or two biblical texts.

This brings me to what I believe is a desperate need in our current situation. It is also something which I believe our tradition has had a gift for in the past. It is what I shall call "speaking biblically to serve the present age". That is not the same as just being able to quote biblical texts, although knowledge of  what the scriptures say is important. But the texts in the Bible were written down a long time ago. Not only are they written in different languages, they come from different cultures. People might be the same, but the circumstances of life then were different. Shepherding and farming, for example, were different. What people understood by 'family', and what they expected family life to be, was different. The ways in which they thought and talked about their own experience and about God were different.

Yet God is still God, despite the passage of time. People are still people. The gospel message in and through the scriptures can be and still is the word of life for them. Moreover, people still try to make sense of what is happening to them, of who they are and of their purpose in life. But many no longer use the language or stories of the Bible to do it. They have different points of reference. They use other words and pictures and stories. What is more, they do not all use the same ones. Our contemporary society is fragmented into any number of cultures and sub-cultures, each with its own language and way of looking at the world. With all the social media and technical aids now available, there is a huge amount of talking, but how much real communicating? I may be showing my age, and I do try and use some of the technology, but sometimes it feels like the babble of Babel. [And if that scriptural reference passes you by, it serves to illustrate my point!].

What we need to be able to do is to speak biblically in the context of our contemporary cultures, and in language that those cultures can understand. That involves us in understanding both what the bible is saying in its time and place, and also how people talk about what is important about life in contemporary society. Then as we begin to make connections between the two, we can encourage others to start making the same connections and so begin to hear God speaking to them. It is what that great person who could inhabit Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures, St Paul, did when according to the Acts of the Apostles he stood in the public square in Athens, talked about one of their altars, quoted the way their own poets and philosophers looked at the world and then introduced the Christian gospel of resurrection into it.

It is also what we find Jesus doing when he tells stories of farming and shepherding and hiring workers in the market place, stories which reflect everyday situations his hearers knew, but which also pointed them to God, who was very close to them. One of the fascinating things in the gospels is the way that they show the effect that Jesus had on people. They recognise that the grace of God is working in and through him and that it gives him a special quality. Jesus seems to have so digested and absorbed the knowledge of God in the scriptures that by grace they have become part of his being. As another Methodist Professor of New Testament, Jimmy Dunn, put it, when dealing with particular issues, Jesus's habit was one of "pressing behind the immediate issue to the deeper questions of motive and right..., refusing to take the easy way out in testing cases of applying the most immediately obvious ruling, and digging deep into the law to discern the divine rationale [justice] in its particular commandments. To do the will of God was still the primary goal, even if that will could not be discerned simply by reference to the Torah [Scriptures]".

In this way, Jesus was recognised as speaking as God. He calls us, his followers, to share, to the extent that we are able. in the grace of speaking in God's name. There is a huge need for that in the world and the Church today.

My worry though is that we are becoming less and less able to fulfil it. We seem less and less able to speak the languages of the people and cultures round us. We seem less and less steeped in the language and stories of the Bible. So how are we to help other people make connections and start to hear God speaking to them? At our best we have always had a gift for recasting and re-expressing things in changing circumstances. You can see the fruits of that it in all sorts of places, not least in our hymns and songs which bring together people's contemporary experience and the word of God expressed through scripture .

We need to do the same again. If we say and do now what we have previously said and done, despite the fact that circumstances have changed, we are lost. On the other hand, if we simply speak to today in today's language and reject where we have come from and the way in which things were said before in different times and places, we are in danger of making ourselves into the creators, the controllers and the content of the gospel message, rather than people who have the "mind of Christ Jesus", to return to that phrase.

Yet in each generation we Methodists have been good at:

  • reading about God the Holy Trinity in the Bible;
  • recognising that the workings of God's grace in the contexts and situations described in the Bible are also happening in our experience (with appropriate adjustments for the change in context);
  • reflecting on that in prayer, celebrating it in worship, and letting it energise us in mission; and (as part of that)
  • we've been good at re-expressing it in the languages of contemporary cultures so that others may also recognise God's grace in their situations and in their experience: in the language of Matthew's Gospel that you heard earlier in this session, that means being able to bring both old wisdom and fresh expressions of it out from the treasury as we need them.

I believe that this is still our genius, our gift. I believe that we are still doing it in all sorts of places and ways. It is just that we do not honour or celebrate it as much as we should.

When I was a schoolteacher, the Head of English once said in a sixth-former's report "If X is to get on, he needs to read about the books, think about the books, talk about the books, and, if possible, read the books!". So do we with the Bible! You want a slogan? Back to the Bible and forward to the world!

So maybe this is what Methodists bring to the party. We link holiness and mission as we link the world of the bible with our contemporary world. We are a Methodist people on pilgrimage. We are communities of very different people, sometimes multi-cultural and sometimes multi-national, connected together in what we call a "Connexion". We come together in small groups and communities to help each other explore the grace of God. We gather round the bible and the table in order to discover the presence of Christ amongst us in word and sacrament. We encourage each other and watch over one another in love. What we have in common is that we all recognise our need of and dependence on the grace of God: the God who loves us before we know it; who saves us through Christ when we do not deserve it; who sanctifies our thoughts, feelings, intentions, words and actions through the Spirit working within us when we are unable to do it for ourselves; who comes to us, is made real for us, nurtures and guides us through various outward and visible and, therefore, sacramental signs.

We then seek to embody that grace to others, playing our part in the re-forming of the nation, the re-forming of the church, and the spreading of scriptural holiness over the land. What we are for is therefore what we have always been for. We are for holiness and mission, and have been given the grace by God to speak biblically in order to serve the present age. Can we go on doing it? Since God has not given upon us yet, by God's grace yes, we can!

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