07 July 2007

Inaugural address by the new President of the Methodist Conference

The new President of the Methodist Conference, the Revd Martyn Atkins, issued a call to go back to the future in his inaugural address. Martyn said that the Church needs to rediscover the reasons why it was created in the first place, but not to look back to some golden age. Rather, this rediscovery needs to take account of 21st century society in order to renew the Church for the future.

Martyn was sworn in as President at the start of the 2007 Conference, meeting at the Norbreck Castle hotel in Blackpool. The full text of his address follows. It will also be available online at http://www.methodist.org.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=opentogod.webradio

The People Called Methodist: God's continuing call

Giving Thanks Vice President, Members of Conference, welcome guests, friends and family, I am acutely aware of the privilege of being elected to Wesley's chair. I give thanks to God for the love and support of the Methodist people of which I have been proud to belong for over 30 years, and I am humbled by your continuing graciousness to me - thank you.

I cannot adequately express what it means to me that so many of those who have shared my life and ministry are present today. · Members of the Peak Circuit, not only for their lovely gift, but for releasing Helen, my wife, from her duties as Circuit Steward long enough to attend this event! She wants me to tell you that she will be at the leadership team meeting on Monday evening! Seriously, as one married to - and raised in a family of - office holders in local churches and circuits, you are our faithful, unsung heroes, and I salute you all! · Members from churches of my past are here - thank you for your encouragement, and lovely gifts. · Folk from Cliff College - what a talented team you are! I just know that you are going to have a fantastic year…. without me! · Members of the Connexional team, some of whom it has been my joy to get to know better over recent months. It has been, and remains, a challenging time for you all. On behalf of the Conference, particularly this year when a sizeable proportion of our business concerns your lives and ministries, I want to thank you all for your commitment, professionalism, witness and grace, which has been inspiring. · Many personal friends are here. Some steeped in Methodism and thrilled to be in this gathering, others who had never come across a Methodist until we met - and who are already wondering how long I am going to rabbit on for this time! Thank you all for your generous friendship and good humour. · Inevitably there are some who are visibly missing, and I miss them greatly. But I believe that the Church in heaven surrounds us today, and I rejoice in that. · Members of my family are here. My parents and parents-in-law, who I love and respect deeply, my three lads of whom I am immensely proud, and Helen my wife and best friend, without whom I am not who I am. Thank you all for enriching my life.

The Miracle Within six hours of my return home from Conference 2001 I was admitted to hospital. There I stayed for a long week undergoing tests that some time later diagnosed a genetic blood disorder which, as you can see, has not finished me off yet! But I didn't know that then. Then I had no idea what was going on. Then I was fragile and full of fearful questions. What was God doing? Was my time almost up? Had I a future? Was my active ministry over? It was a traumatic time.

Helen had just left me as evening visiting time ended and I lay in bed resolving to get some sleep that night and trying, without much success, to say my prayers. I remember asking for some reassurance that God was with me, that I had a future and a continuing call to be in God's service.

It was then that the miracle happened! I had looked at the ward clocks opposite my bed many times each day. They were white, oblong, pre-digital LED monstrosities, one under the other, one telling the time, the other the date - except that the 'time clock' worked and the 'date clock' didn't. But now as I looked at the clocks I 'saw' it, and it was a key turning point in my ministry.

The top clock told the time in hours and minutes: 20:43. The bottom clock declared the day and month - or was supposed to - but had chosen to stop at 24:5

So it looked something like this. (on screen -PowerPoint slide) 20 43 24 05

It hit me as a revelation. How, about a quarter of a millennia ago, about a quarter before nine, on the 24th day of the 5th month John Wesley received a deep assurance of God's presence and leading. Now one of Mr. Wesley's preachers felt likewise, and I lay in the bed and wept. God was not finished with me yet. Whatever the future held, I was held by God. Whatever God had intended when I was called was not yet ended. New life the dead receive!

The result is that you have elected an unbalanced President! Unbalanced, possibly in several ways - not least that I'm a Yorkshireman and remain a supporter of Leeds United Football Club! - but certainly in the sense that this re-assuring experience refocused my own ministry onto themes about which I am passionate and therefore they will bubble up throughout this year as naturally as breathing. Themes of God's renewal, evangelism, mission, community ministry and fresh expressions of church; all of which, I believe, are located deep in the DNA of the Methodist People - a people that, like me, received a call that is not yet ended. For God's continuing call remains. Not surprisingly therefore these are the main themes of this address.

A missionary, evangelist God Important though these themes are to me however, they are not where I start; but rather where I inevitably finish up when I start from a more proper place, and that concerns the nature of God.

I understand God best in missiological terms. I instinctively do theology with a mission lens in my camera, so that no matter what pictures I take, they are shot with that lens. I can't help it, and to those who tire of such things quickly, I apologise in advance!

The Holy Trinity on a mission I conceive and experience God - Father Son and Holy Spirit - as the supreme missionary and evangelist. When I read the Christian scriptures it is the good news story of God-on-a-mission that leaps from the pages. I encounter God who is dynamic creator, grieving lover, covenant-maker, prophet-provider, and people-transformer. God who, in the fullness of time takes human form, becomes incarnate, and lives among us, full of grace and truth. God self-sent as it were. God in Jesus Christ, doing what neither the cosmos nor humanity can do for itself, as once for all, upon a cross, dying he destroys our death, and rising he restores our lives. God as Holy Spirit, who reveals and empowers and enables the things of Christ, and comes as wind and fire, calling shivering souls behind closed doors out from Jerusalem, inviting them to partner and share the journey, to the very ends of the earth, to the very gates of heaven. As the great Fred Bruce was wont to say about Pentecost to students at Manchester, 'it is as if God drops a pebble into the pool of human history, and we watch the ripples.'

The fact is that God is passionate about restoring and renewing all things - all humanity, the whole cosmos - to God's self. God loves and cares about each and every person on this little planet, and the planet itself. God, conspires for goodness, and makes a way, so that we live in a world where the ultimate reality is not despair, but hope.

The Church of such a God This understanding of God shapes my understanding of Church, rather than vice versa. As Tim Dearborn puts it, 'it is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world.' The Sender, Sent and Sending One has a people, whose true nature and purpose is determined by its creator. The Church is first and foremost the product of God's mission, and then participants and partners in God's mission to restore and renew all things. God brings the church into being as a chosen, loved partner - a kingdom-oriented, gospel-embodying community, a hope-filled, Spirit-led community. Sharing God's mission then, is the Church's core reason for being, its true calling. Church defined in this way never finds itself by looking in on itself, but by pouring itself out, like its Lord. Whenever pre-occupation with its own survival takes centre stage then the Church has lost sight of its true nature and purpose. We so readily misread the scriptures. We live and act as if it Jesus said 'you build my Church' and 'I will go make disciples', rather than, as he did say, 'I will build my Church' and 'you go make disciples'. It is in this 'going' that Christ's promise is made: 'I am with you always, to the end of the age.'

Consequently when the Church is missionary and evangelistic in this cosmic, wide and wonderful sense it is never more truly being itself, and when it is not, it is never more 'unlike' its true self. Being Spirit-led, Christ-centred and God filled are not, for me, optional extras for those who 'like that sort of thing'. Rather they are defining characteristics - arising as naturally as flying to a bird - God's Church being God's Church, and not some lesser or other thing.

New ways of being Church - God's idea before it is ours This understanding of God and God's Church leads inevitably, in my mind, to the arrival of fresh ways of being church, and I am thrilled this is a stated Priority for our Church. But I think this is God's idea before it is ours. My own view is that new ways of being Church are called into being by the Spirit of God whenever existing expressions of Church are unable or unwilling to share effectively in God's mission in a new time, place and context. God does not shape the mission to the Church, but reshapes Church around God's mission of reaching out, redeeming and restoring. No surprise then that a key characteristic of many new ways of being Church is an ability to make Christ known and transform lives among people who seemingly did not or could not encounter Him through the ministry of existing models of Church.

So for me fresh expressions of church are perfectly normal and to be welcomed. The time to worry is when fresh expressions are not springing up all around us, rather then when they are. Even if we have some unease - as I do - we should proceed apace with new ways of being Church, working out our issues as we enable their emergence, rather than kicking them into the long grass until we've got it all sorted. And if they are God's idea then we must continue to take ever more seriously the strategizing and management required to redirect our resources, reconfigure our ministries, and revisit and re-envision what it means to be the People called Methodist. This declared priority needs to take priority.

The People Called Methodist - a continuing call Of course this understanding of God, and God's Church, and the naturalness of new ways of being Church, profoundly affects the way I understand Methodism - or, as I prefer to refer to us, employing an older description but one whose time has come again I think, the People called Methodist - and our continuing calling and purpose under God.

I am deeply committed to ecumenism, and at a number of levels. But I do not regard our historic denominations simply as cataclysmic mistakes requiring to be put right as quickly as possible. Mission in our emerging post-Christian context needs a monochrome Church like a fish needs a bicycle! Christian Churches today are called to prayer, solidarity, sharing and mutual support in common witness and ministry, but they are not, to my mind, called to sameness. So I hold to the view that when the missionary Spirit of God raised up the People called Methodist, a new way of being Church, She knew exactly what She was doing!

A particular ministry within the whole Church I believe that the People called Methodist, like other movements in Christian history, were called by God to a particular ministry within the whole Church. This does not mean that our calling is so idiosyncratic that we are completely unlike all other expressions of Church. Rather it means that Methodism was brought into being by the restoring, renewing God with a particular DNA - or better, particular Charisms, - grace gifts of a gracious God - so as to be able to play a particular role in God's conspiracy of goodness. This identity and purpose we bring into ecumenical partnerships and covenants, humbly and without elitism or superiority. This is our true and best contribution to contemporary ecumenism in our cultural context which is so full of challenge and possibility.

Birth story Congregational theorists and organizational gurus alike tell us that the birth stories of organizations - like organisms - contain powerful, defining bits of DNA which remain throughout the life of the group. They suggest that to inhabit a God-given identity and purpose is to be faithful, potentially fit for purpose, and contribute to the ministry of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church of God. Not to inhabit a God-given identity and purpose, or try to be something genetically different - is a road to oblivion.

Why did God raise us up? So I ask, 300 years since the birth of Charles Wesley, 200 years since the first Camp Meeting of the Primitive Methodist movement, and 75th years after 'Methodist Union', why did God raise us up in the first place? What are our charisms, given by God, as part of the One Church, for the sake of the world God loves, to which if we hold fast we become truly who we are, and if we let go, lose our very selves?

An engaging evangelicalism We will have among us different suggestions in response to such questions - and that conversation is itself one I would hope to have and will welcome throughout this coming year. My own 'two-pennyworth' is that the People called Methodist - lay and ordained, one People in Christ's ministry - are a movement 'charismatised' with an engaging evangelicalism. The roots of some traditions are found in doctrinal disputes; the Wesleyan tradition emerges from an evangelistic imperative. Our ecclesiology is essentially missiological. Our charisms include humbly but clearly sharing Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, by word and action. They include a reliance on the prevenient work of the Spirit, God going before and beyond and urging us to follow. They include living - individually and corporately - lives of social and personal holiness and responsibility, all arising from taking the scriptures with the utmost seriousness. Each of these involves a pragmatic, incarnational engagement rather than an unresponsive, distant disengagement. As a movement, we are created to move, being dynamic rather than static in terms of embodying the hope that is within us. We simply do not know how to offer and share Jesus Christ, or be Christian disciples, at a distance. Nor do we know how to live out our faith without dirt under our fingernails. We are an involved People. As our fine new website puts it: 'Open to God, Open to life, Open to the world, Open to you' - that is, each and every one.

Making more followers and disciples of Jesus Christ Making more followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, in a word 'evangelism', is very important to me. Sharing our faith and hope in Jesus Christ as God's incarnated good news for everyone and everything is in our genes, inherited from our earthly Founders. It is absolutely right therefore that evangelism is identified as one of our Priorities, and vital it remains at the heart of who we are and 'how we are' as we enter the future.

Evangelastic! Some of us, I know, are ambivalent about evangelism at best. Though passionate about it, I cannot and will not defend insensitive, manipulative, methods of evangelism undertaken in the name of Jesus Christ. So to any person hurt by such evangelism, I apologize to you without reserve. But poor evangelism does not alter the fact that it is in our blood, nor removed the need for better evangelism. If some of us need to become more sensitive about how we engage in evangelism, others of us need to stop using the poorest examples of evangelism to excuse us from a proper engagement with it. Authentic witness, making Jesus Christ known, is so important today that we must remove evangelism from the arena of theological turf wars, and join to discover and engage in honourable, honest, humble, sensitive, clear, sincere evangelism. Evangelism which is less like selling things, or signing folk up, and more about offering free samples of something so wonderful and attractive it commends itself. Steve Wild talks about Methodist evangelism as 'evangelastic'; that which stretches and alters so as to be what it is. I like this term because it also hints at a lifelong process of conversion and discipleship, an Emmaus road journey, on which Damascus road encounters occasionally break in and lead on. And because evangelism is one of our charisms I venture to suggest that we will find that we are talented at it, that we possess a natural Wesleyan winsomeness, which is one of the great gifts of God to us, given for the sake of others.

Renewal Renewal will be another major theme for me this year (the liturgical colour red symbolizes renewal - hence this beautiful stole as a gift from the Sheffield District. Not to mention a certain book published today under my name!). But I need to explain what I mean by renewal.

Spoof rite of renewal I was part of the group appointed by the Conference to produce what became the Methodist Worship Book. Large though it is, not all our efforts ended up in the book, which is probably just as well. For a long time we had a spoof rite of renewal consisting of a single line: 'if there is to be a spontaneous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it will happen here!' Comical, yes, but the point is plain: renewal, true renewal, is fundamentally and ultimately a sovereign work of God. We can't create it or command God to bring it about. We can't strategize or scheme so that renewal must come. On the other hand renewal is not totally disconnected from human longing and preparation. Christians can - and must - pray fervently for the renewal of God: renewal of the world, of our society and communities, our churches and ourselves. We must anticipate and prepare for it, in faith and hope, and lay our lives and the lives of our Churches open to God, without whose renewal all else is ultimately empty. Remembering too that praying for renewal is not exactly like twisting God's arm up the divine back, because God loves to renew things! So, renewal? Yes. Even the renewal of the People called Methodist? Most certainly!

Lessons from Vatican II My favourite model of renewal arises from Vatican II and catches this energizing balance between what God alone can do, and what lies with us. With the renewal of their Religious Orders in mind Roman Catholic scholars suggested that renewal becomes more possible and probable when three things are revisited with serious intent.

The first is to return to the gospel, and more particularly to those words of Jesus which most powerfully articulate 'who you are' as a community of Christ; the 'loud' words which speak prophetically to you, and relocate you in the gospel tradition.

The second is to return to the founding charisms, to revisit why God raised you up in the first place. Not that renewal comes because you have rediscovered your charisms. Rather that through the challenging process of identifying charisms, then retrieving them, and then reproducing them for today, you rediscover who you are in God's continuing call. You find yourselves again.

Thirdly, to do all this as you read the signs of the times. To take seriously that you live in world radically different to that of your founding mothers and fathers, and therefore although the charisms remain, how they are expressed and embodied changes. Because, in spite of the language of 'returning' this model is not about looking backwards, or yearning for a golden past (now there is a fatiguing Methodist exercise if ever there was one!), but enables a Christian community to become who it is called by God to be in this time and place.

Non-identical reproduction To remain true to your identity and calling, to continue to live out your charisms authentically then, involves profound change.

Let me tell a parable. At the end of the twentieth century an organization owning and running a number of orphanages met to consider its future. Founded in the nineteenth century it now felt itself to be in a state of crisis. Endowments were down and income was low. Properties were in need of repair and upgrade. It was getting ever harder to employ and retain good quality staff. So they met together to ascertain if their organization had run its course. Had the days of orphanages passed? Was its work finished?

The open meeting was traumatic. Benefactors threatened to withdraw future support unless things stayed essentially as they were. Balance sheets were produced as evidence that this couldn't happen. Staff made passionate speeches about the consequences of losing their jobs. Supporters wondered what would happen to needy children. Grandees argued that they were betraying the vision of the founders. There was anger, anguish and tears.

Then, at a certain point in the meeting someone asked how the whole thing had started. Did anyone know? A historian of the organization proudly provided the answer. 'We were founded,' she said, 'to protect and nurture children whose parents or guardians were unable, incapable or unwilling to care for them.' Almost as a revelation it began to dawn on them that building and running orphanages was not, actually, their reason for being, but was itself an expression of their core purpose. Excitedly they began to discern again their 'deeper calling' and this rediscovery of their core identity and purpose enabled them to see that their vocation was neither over nor irrelevant.

The cost was enormous, in a variety of ways. Over a number of years they sold off properties given by and named after donors, and bought new ones. Fund-raising traditions came to an end and new ones started. Staff were made redundant and others employed in different roles. Children were moved into other settings. Battles with groups opposed to new developments rumbled on. It felt like death. But today, in major cities on the Eastern seaboard of the United States is a string of child and youth centres, with professional drug, sexual health and housing counselling facilities. Death and resurrection: the same fundamental vocation by quite different means.

Scientists and others talk nowadays about 'non-identical reproduction'. Barbara Glasson points out that the same DNA permits a caterpillar to become a pupa then a butterfly. But at the pupa stage the caterpillar degenerates into a soup of DNA so that it entirely loses its structure and has to hang around believing something good can become of the mess. Because, Barbara comments, 'a butterfly isn't just a caterpillar with wings on!'

The continuing call of God to the People called Methodist involves fresh expressions of our DNA, for today. It is more about raising children than making clones. Such renewal is increasingly possible, though the renewed Church of the People called Methodist will be quite different to Church as we have known it for as long as we can remember. All this is certainly challenging but is also exciting and hugely energizing, effectively seeking a new release of the joy that caused us to be here at all. Such renewal involves faith, hope, change… and risk.

Risk-taking As Moses neared the Red Sea, the people of Israel, fresh out of Egypt snaking behind him, he asked God for reassurance. 'God, you… you will part the sea for us and let us across?' 'Moses, I promised it.' 'Yes. I know. Sorry. I just wanted to make sure.' Moses reached the side of the sea, raised his staff and stretched out his hand over the water to divide it and…. nothing happened. Outwardly pretending nothing was amiss he said to God under his breath: 'Lord, I thought you promised to part the sea for us.' And God replied, 'I did, and I will. Set off, I'll part it when you are up to your necks!'

There can rarely have been a more exciting time to be a Christian among the People called Methodist. Amidst all our tiredness and jadedness are winds of change, senses of divinely-inspired discontent and promise. We are in a kairos time of transition when the possibilities of further demise and deep renewal both lie open before us. The clock on the wall marks time and we wonder if our work is done. It is not. God's call to us continues. The Spirit beckons us to follow. The Spirit says it is time. Amen.

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