29 June 2002

New Methodist President expresses 'anxiety' about the state of community in Britain

Britain in 2002 shows an increasing anxiety as to the direction of its sense of community, the new President of the Methodist Church has warned. In his inaugural address at the start of the 2002 Methodist Conference, the Rev Ian White outlined a series of danger signs that challenge the foundations of common life in Britain.

He said: "The issues of personal security, crime, health, and asylum seekers become a breeding ground for those ready to exploit the situation and give encouragement to political extremism - a danger not just for these Islands but one of a global nature. There is a lack of commitment to be involved in the democratic process; an opting out of a system that appears not to serve the people. This is a danger signal to all who value truth and justice."

The President spoke out against a "peer pressure to maintain an ever increasing standard of life with the consequent lack of time to volunteer for community interests. For some this impacts upon health and for others it causes a loss of true humanity".

He went on to warn that the explosion of communication technology - designed to make it easier for people to keep in touch from a distance - might actually weaken human relationships if not used wisely.

He said: "In some ways it can be said that we are a more impersonal society where social meeting is being replaced by links through the Internet. Text messaging - with a language of its own - replaces the human voice. Many of these developments are of benefit, but, when done at the expense of personal contact, they raise concern as to how we develop as a people - the social interface that bonds together a community. We can be linked together through the Internet as a prayer chain or enter into a study scheme but never meet face to face. We may be skilled at interactive television but not so skilled at interactive human relationships."

The President noted that there has been a major shift in how people interact as a community - particularly on Sundays. "Our current centres for meeting people could be said to be the shopping malls and places of retail therapy. A typical Sunday will find many families spending time in the local Superstore where they experience social interaction, gathering in the store cafŽ for lunch. In an instant there is a picture of a complete shift in social practice and the use of Sunday."

And in a lighter aside, the President noted that the Conference was doing its own bit to accommodate shifting social practice by shifting the main Sunday service forward by an hour - "to allow members to view the World Cup Final - and rightly so," said the Manchester United fan.

Britain is a 'secular society' yet one with 'a desire to focus on mystery'

Elsewhere in his address, the President went on to acknowledge that despite being in a largely secular society, he was optimistic about a "growing interest in the mysterious. We are seeing people with a desire to discover something beyond themselves - a sense of the Other, the Holy".

It is one of the challenges of the Church to respond to that interest in a meaningful way. "In worship how might we help in that journey? Together with a sense of celebration, we need to create space for the sense of the holy - places of prayer and reflection which feed the mind and the spirit. This is one way in which we may nurture the practice of the presence of God as well as equipping the People to live in the World."

The President, who is based in Jersey, said: "Our buildings do provide space for prayer, reflection and nurture but how flexible are the activities for those people for whom Sunday is not an available day? The recent [Methodist] membership returns do hint at some growth in worship held during the week. A possible model is for our worship centres to be open throughout the week. This ministry is offered by one of our Island Churches. Many come in just to look around, others come in to be still or pray. It is a centre for stillness and is well used by members of other traditions seeking a place of prayer.

The church 'must look outward to the world'

Mr White went on to challenge to challenge the Church to be more outward-looking: "My perception is that over the past few years there has been an inward focus. Now is the time to turn that around and look outwards. he time for concentrating on internal restructuring has passed - now we can concentrate on God's Mission in the World."

"One of the questions I was asked a year ago was - Why be President of a dying Church? I hope, through this Address, and the Year ahead, to indicate that the question is overstated. I do not believe that we have reached the end of the story of the People Called Methodist. The method of communicating the Gospel may be different, the pattern of church life will change, new partnerships have to be forged - but the Gospel story continues."

New President inducted at start of 2002 Conference

Before his address, the Rev Ian White was inducted as President at the start of the 2002 Methodist Conference in Wolverhampton today. The President of the Conference - who must be an ordained Methodist minister - is elected annually to preside over the business of the week-long Conference. The President then acts as ambassador for the Methodist Church for civic functions and church events during the following year.

As well as being President, Ian White is also Superintendent Minister for Jersey as well as being Channel Islands District Chairman since 1998. Before then, he was Chairman in the Bristol District for 11 years, giving him the rare distinction of having been Chairman in two separate districts. He was Secretary of the Bristol District Synod between 1978-87. His early ministry was spent in Hull and Retford, before he moved to Bristol.

Ian White takes on the most senior office in the Methodist Church in Britain in a year in which the Church will celebrate the 300thanniversary of the birth of Wesley, the renowned preacher and spiritual leader of the 'Methodist revival'. At the end of his ministry, John Wesley founded an annual conference of preachers to continue his work. Today the annual Methodist Conference is the main decision making-body of the Methodist Church for Britain's 320,000 Methodists.

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