Inaugural address by the new President of the Methodist Conference

The new President of the Methodist Conference, the RevdMartyn Atkins, issued a call to go back to the future in hisinaugural address. Martyn said that the Church needs to rediscoverthe reasons why it was created in the first place, but not to lookback to some golden age. Rather, this rediscovery needs to takeaccount of 21st century society in order to renew the Church forthe future.

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

The People Called Methodist: God's continuing call

Giving Thanks Vice President, Members of Conference, welcomeguests, friends and family, I am acutely aware of the privilege ofbeing elected to Wesley's chair. I give thanks to God for the loveand support of the Methodist people of which I have been proud tobelong for over 30 years, and I am humbled by your continuinggraciousness to me - thank you.

I cannot adequately express what it means to me that so many ofthose who have shared my life and ministry are present today. ·Members of the Peak Circuit, not only for their lovely gift, butfor releasing Helen, my wife, from her duties as Circuit Stewardlong enough to attend this event! She wants me to tell you that shewill be at the leadership team meeting on Monday evening!Seriously, as one married to - and raised in a family of - officeholders in local churches and circuits, you are our faithful,unsung heroes, and I salute you all! · Members from churches of mypast are here - thank you for your encouragement, and lovely gifts.· Folk from Cliff College - what a talented team you are! I justknow that you are going to have a fantastic year…. without me! ·Members of the Connexional team, some of whom it has been my joy toget to know better over recent months. It has been, and remains, achallenging time for you all. On behalf of the Conference,particularly this year when a sizeable proportion of our businessconcerns your lives and ministries, I want to thank you all foryour commitment, professionalism, witness and grace, which has beeninspiring. · Many personal friends are here. Some steeped inMethodism and thrilled to be in this gathering, others who hadnever come across a Methodist until we met - and who are alreadywondering how long I am going to rabbit on for this time! Thank youall for your generous friendship and good humour. · Inevitablythere are some who are visibly missing, and I miss them greatly.But I believe that the Church in heaven surrounds us today, and Irejoice in that. · Members of my family are here. My parents andparents-in-law, who I love and respect deeply, my three lads ofwhom I am immensely proud, and Helen my wife and best friend,without whom I am not who I am. Thank you all for enriching mylife.

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

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

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

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

So it looked something like this. (on screen -PowerPoint slide) 2043 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 JohnWesley received a deep assurance of God's presence and leading. Nowone of Mr. Wesley's preachers felt likewise, and I lay in the bedand wept. God was not finished with me yet. Whatever the futureheld, I was held by God. Whatever God had intended when I wascalled 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 aYorkshireman and remain a supporter of Leeds United Football Club!- but certainly in the sense that this re-assuring experiencerefocused my own ministry onto themes about which I am passionateand therefore they will bubble up throughout this year as naturallyas breathing. Themes of God's renewal, evangelism, mission,community ministry and fresh expressions of church; all of which, Ibelieve, are located deep in the DNA of the Methodist People - apeople that, like me, received a call that is not yet ended. ForGod's continuing call remains. Not surprisingly therefore these arethe main themes of this address.

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

I understand God best in missiological terms. I instinctively dotheology with a mission lens in my camera, so that no matter whatpictures I take, they are shot with that lens. I can't help it, andto those who tire of such things quickly, I apologise inadvance!

The Holy Trinity on a mission I conceive and experience God -Father Son and Holy Spirit - as the supreme missionary andevangelist. When I read the Christian scriptures it is the goodnews story of God-on-a-mission that leaps from the pages. Iencounter 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, andlives among us, full of grace and truth. God self-sent as it were.God in Jesus Christ, doing what neither the cosmos nor humanity cando for itself, as once for all, upon a cross, dying he destroys ourdeath, and rising he restores our lives. God as Holy Spirit, whoreveals and empowers and enables the things of Christ, and comes aswind and fire, calling shivering souls behind closed doors out fromJerusalem, inviting them to partner and share the journey, to thevery ends of the earth, to the very gates of heaven. As the greatFred Bruce was wont to say about Pentecost to students atManchester, 'it is as if God drops a pebble into the pool of humanhistory, and we watch the ripples.'

The fact is that God is passionate about restoring and renewing allthings - all humanity, the whole cosmos - to God's self. God lovesand cares about each and every person on this little planet, andthe planet itself. God, conspires for goodness, and makes a way, sothat 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 myunderstanding of Church, rather than vice versa. As Tim Dearbornputs it, 'it is not the Church of God that has a mission in theworld, but the God of mission who has a Church in the world.' TheSender, Sent and Sending One has a people, whose true nature andpurpose is determined by its creator. The Church is first andforemost the product of God's mission, and then participants andpartners in God's mission to restore and renew all things. Godbrings the church into being as a chosen, loved partner - akingdom-oriented, gospel-embodying community, a hope-filled,Spirit-led community. Sharing God's mission then, is the Church'score reason for being, its true calling. Church defined in this waynever finds itself by looking in on itself, but by pouring itselfout, like its Lord. Whenever pre-occupation with its own survivaltakes centre stage then the Church has lost sight of its truenature and purpose. We so readily misread the scriptures. We liveand act as if it Jesus said 'you build my Church' and 'I will gomake disciples', rather than, as he did say, 'I will build myChurch' and 'you go make disciples'. It is in this 'going' thatChrist's promise is made: 'I am with you always, to the end of theage.'

Consequently when the Church is missionary and evangelistic in thiscosmic, wide and wonderful sense it is never more truly beingitself, and when it is not, it is never more 'unlike' its trueself. Being Spirit-led, Christ-centred and God filled are not, forme, optional extras for those who 'like that sort of thing'. Ratherthey are defining characteristics - arising as naturally as flyingto a bird - God's Church being God's Church, and not some lesser orother thing.

New ways of being Church - God's idea before it is ours Thisunderstanding of God and God's Church leads inevitably, in my mind,to the arrival of fresh ways of being church, and I am thrilledthis is a stated Priority for our Church. But I think this is God'sidea before it is ours. My own view is that new ways of beingChurch are called into being by the Spirit of God whenever existingexpressions of Church are unable or unwilling to share effectivelyin God's mission in a new time, place and context. God does notshape the mission to the Church, but reshapes Church around God'smission of reaching out, redeeming and restoring. No surprise thenthat a key characteristic of many new ways of being Church is anability to make Christ known and transform lives among people whoseemingly did not or could not encounter Him through the ministryof existing models of Church.

So for me fresh expressions of church are perfectly normal and tobe welcomed. The time to worry is when fresh expressions are notspringing up all around us, rather then when they are. Even if wehave some unease - as I do - we should proceed apace with new waysof being Church, working out our issues as we enable theiremergence, rather than kicking them into the long grass until we'vegot it all sorted. And if they are God's idea then we must continueto take ever more seriously the strategizing and managementrequired to redirect our resources, reconfigure our ministries, andrevisit and re-envision what it means to be the People calledMethodist. This declared priority needs to take priority.

The People Called Methodist - a continuing call Of course thisunderstanding of God, and God's Church, and the naturalness of newways of being Church, profoundly affects the way I understandMethodism - or, as I prefer to refer to us, employing an olderdescription but one whose time has come again I think, the Peoplecalled Methodist - and our continuing calling and purpose underGod.

I am deeply committed to ecumenism, and at a number of levels. ButI do not regard our historic denominations simply as cataclysmicmistakes requiring to be put right as quickly as possible. Missionin our emerging post-Christian context needs a monochrome Churchlike a fish needs a bicycle! Christian Churches today are called toprayer, solidarity, sharing and mutual support in common witnessand ministry, but they are not, to my mind, called to sameness. SoI hold to the view that when the missionary Spirit of God raised upthe People called Methodist, a new way of being Church, She knewexactly what She was doing!

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

Birth story Congregational theorists and organizational gurus aliketell us that the birth stories of organizations - like organisms -contain powerful, defining bits of DNA which remain throughout thelife of the group. They suggest that to inhabit a God-givenidentity and purpose is to be faithful, potentially fit forpurpose, and contribute to the ministry of the One Holy CatholicApostolic Church of God. Not to inhabit a God-given identity andpurpose, or try to be something genetically different - is a roadto oblivion.

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

An engaging evangelicalism We will have among us differentsuggestions in response to such questions - and that conversationis itself one I would hope to have and will welcome throughout thiscoming year. My own 'two-pennyworth' is that the People calledMethodist - lay and ordained, one People in Christ's ministry - area movement 'charismatised' with an engaging evangelicalism. Theroots of some traditions are found in doctrinal disputes; theWesleyan tradition emerges from an evangelistic imperative. Ourecclesiology is essentially missiological. Our charisms includehumbly but clearly sharing Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, byword and action. They include a reliance on the prevenient work ofthe Spirit, God going before and beyond and urging us to follow.They include living - individually and corporately - lives ofsocial and personal holiness and responsibility, all arising fromtaking the scriptures with the utmost seriousness. Each of theseinvolves a pragmatic, incarnational engagement rather than anunresponsive, distant disengagement. As a movement, we are createdto move, being dynamic rather than static in terms of embodying thehope that is within us. We simply do not know how to offer andshare Jesus Christ, or be Christian disciples, at a distance. Nordo we know how to live out our faith without dirt under ourfingernails. We are an involved People. As our fine new websiteputs it: 'Open to God, Open to life, Open to the world, Open toyou' - that is, each and every one.

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

Evangelastic! Some of us, I know, are ambivalent about evangelismat best. Though passionate about it, I cannot and will not defendinsensitive, manipulative, methods of evangelism undertaken in thename of Jesus Christ. So to any person hurt by such evangelism, Iapologize to you without reserve. But poor evangelism does notalter the fact that it is in our blood, nor removed the need forbetter evangelism. If some of us need to become more sensitiveabout how we engage in evangelism, others of us need to stop usingthe poorest examples of evangelism to excuse us from a properengagement with it. Authentic witness, making Jesus Christ known,is so important today that we must remove evangelism from the arenaof theological turf wars, and join to discover and engage inhonourable, 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 andattractive it commends itself. Steve Wild talks about Methodistevangelism as 'evangelastic'; that which stretches and alters so asto be what it is. I like this term because it also hints at alifelong process of conversion and discipleship, an Emmaus roadjourney, on which Damascus road encounters occasionally break inand lead on. And because evangelism is one of our charisms Iventure to suggest that we will find that we are talented at it,that we possess a natural Wesleyan winsomeness, which is one of thegreat gifts of God to us, given for the sake of others.

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

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

Lessons from Vatican II My favourite model of renewal arises fromVatican II and catches this energizing balance between what Godalone can do, and what lies with us. With the renewal of theirReligious Orders in mind Roman Catholic scholars suggested thatrenewal becomes more possible and probable when three things arerevisited with serious intent.

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

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

Thirdly, to do all this as you read the signs of the times. To takeseriously that you live in world radically different to that ofyour founding mothers and fathers, and therefore although thecharisms remain, how they are expressed and embodied changes.Because, in spite of the language of 'returning' this model is notabout looking backwards, or yearning for a golden past (now thereis a fatiguing Methodist exercise if ever there was one!), butenables a Christian community to become who it is called by God tobe in this time and place.

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

Let me tell a parable. At the end of the twentieth century anorganization owning and running a number of orphanages met toconsider its future. Founded in the nineteenth century it now feltitself to be in a state of crisis. Endowments were down and incomewas low. Properties were in need of repair and upgrade. It wasgetting ever harder to employ and retain good quality staff. Sothey met together to ascertain if their organization had run itscourse. Had the days of orphanages passed? Was its workfinished?

The open meeting was traumatic. Benefactors threatened to withdrawfuture 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 losingtheir jobs. Supporters wondered what would happen to needychildren. Grandees argued that they were betraying the vision ofthe founders. There was anger, anguish and tears.

Then, at a certain point in the meeting someone asked how the wholething had started. Did anyone know? A historian of the organizationproudly provided the answer. 'We were founded,' she said, 'toprotect and nurture children whose parents or guardians wereunable, incapable or unwilling to care for them.' Almost as arevelation it began to dawn on them that building and runningorphanages was not, actually, their reason for being, but wasitself an expression of their core purpose. Excitedly they began todiscern again their 'deeper calling' and this rediscovery of theircore identity and purpose enabled them to see that their vocationwas neither over nor irrelevant.

The cost was enormous, in a variety of ways. Over a number of yearsthey sold off properties given by and named after donors, andbought new ones. Fund-raising traditions came to an end and newones started. Staff were made redundant and others employed indifferent roles. Children were moved into other settings. Battleswith groups opposed to new developments rumbled on. It felt likedeath. But today, in major cities on the Eastern seaboard of theUnited States is a string of child and youth centres, withprofessional drug, sexual health and housing counsellingfacilities. Death and resurrection: the same fundamental vocationby quite different means.

Scientists and others talk nowadays about 'non-identicalreproduction'. Barbara Glasson points out that the same DNA permitsa caterpillar to become a pupa then a butterfly. But at the pupastage the caterpillar degenerates into a soup of DNA so that itentirely loses its structure and has to hang around believingsomething 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 involvesfresh expressions of our DNA, for today. It is more about raisingchildren than making clones. Such renewal is increasingly possible,though the renewed Church of the People called Methodist will bequite different to Church as we have known it for as long as we canremember. All this is certainly challenging but is also excitingand hugely energizing, effectively seeking a new release of the joythat 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 forreassurance. 'God, you… you will part the sea for us and let usacross?' 'Moses, I promised it.' 'Yes. I know. Sorry. I just wantedto make sure.' Moses reached the side of the sea, raised his staffand stretched out his hand over the water to divide it and….nothing happened. Outwardly pretending nothing was amiss he said toGod under his breath: 'Lord, I thought you promised to part the seafor us.' And God replied, 'I did, and I will. Set off, I'll part itwhen you are up to your necks!'

There can rarely have been a more exciting time to be a Christianamong the People called Methodist. Amidst all our tiredness andjadedness are winds of change, senses of divinely-inspireddiscontent and promise. We are in a kairos time of transition whenthe possibilities of further demise and deep renewal both lie openbefore us. The clock on the wall marks time and we wonder if ourwork is done. It is not. God's call to us continues. The Spiritbeckons us to follow. The Spirit says it is time. Amen.