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

Britain in 2002 shows an increasing anxiety as to the directionof its sense of community, the new President of the MethodistChurch has warned. In his inaugural address at the start of the2002 Methodist Conference, the Rev Ian White outlined a series ofdanger signs that challenge the foundations of common life inBritain.

He said: "The issues of personal security, crime, health, andasylum seekers become a breeding ground for those ready to exploitthe situation and give encouragement to political extremism - adanger not just for these Islands but one of a global nature. Thereis 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 anever increasing standard of life with the consequent lack of timeto volunteer for community interests. For some this impacts uponhealth and for others it causes a loss of true humanity".

He went on to warn that the explosion of communicationtechnology - designed to make it easier for people to keep in touchfrom a distance - might actually weaken human relationships if notused wisely.

He said: "In some ways it can be said that we are a moreimpersonal society where social meeting is being replaced by linksthrough the Internet. Text messaging - with a language of its own -replaces the human voice. Many of these developments are ofbenefit, but, when done at the expense of personal contact, theyraise concern as to how we develop as a people - the socialinterface that bonds together a community. We can be linkedtogether through the Internet as a prayer chain or enter into astudy scheme but never meet face toface. We may be skilled at interactive television but not soskilled at interactive human relationships."

The President noted that there has been a major shift in howpeople interact as a community - particularly on Sundays. "Ourcurrent centres for meeting people could be said to be the shoppingmalls and places of retail therapy. A typical Sunday will find manyfamilies spending time in the local Superstore where theyexperience social interaction, gathering in the store cafŽ forlunch. In an instant there is a picture of a complete shift insocial practice and the use of Sunday."

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

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

Elsewhere in his address, the President went on to acknowledgethat despite being in a largely secular society, he was optimisticabout a "growing interest in the mysterious. We are seeing peoplewith a desire to discover something beyond themselves - a sense ofthe Other, the Holy".

It is one of the challenges of the Church to respond to thatinterest in a meaningful way. "In worship how might we help in thatjourney? Together with a sense of celebration, we need to createspace for the sense of the holy - places of prayer and reflectionwhich feed the mind and the spirit. This is one way in which we maynurture the practice of the presence of God as well as equippingthe People to live in the World."

The President, who is based in Jersey, said: "Our buildings doprovide space for prayer, reflection and nurture but how flexibleare the activities for those people for whom Sunday is not anavailable day? The recent [Methodist] membership returns do hint atsome growth in worship held during the week. A possible model isfor our worship centres to be open throughout the week. Thisministry is offered by one of our Island Churches. Many come injust to look around, others come in to be still or pray. It is acentre for stillness and is well used by members of othertraditions 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 moreoutward-looking: "My perception is that over the past few yearsthere has been an inward focus. Now is the time to turn that aroundand look outwards. he time for concentrating on internalrestructuring has passed - now we can concentrate on God's Missionin the World."

"One of the questions I was asked a year ago was - Why bePresident of a dying Church? I hope, through this Address, and theYear ahead, to indicate that the question is overstated. I do notbelieve that we have reached the end of the story of the PeopleCalled Methodist. The method of communicating the Gospel may bedifferent, the pattern of church life will change, new partnershipshave to be forged - but the Gospel story continues."

New President inducted at start of 2002Conference

Before his address, the Rev Ian White was inducted as Presidentat the start of the 2002 Methodist Conference in Wolverhamptontoday. The President of the Conference - who must be an ordainedMethodist minister - is elected annually to preside over thebusiness of the week-long Conference. The President then acts asambassador for the Methodist Church for civic functions and churchevents during the following year.

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

Ian White takes on the most senior office in the MethodistChurch in Britain in a year in which the Church will celebrate the300thanniversary of the birth of Wesley, the renownedpreacher and spiritual leader of the 'Methodist revival'. At theend of his ministry, John Wesley founded an annual conference ofpreachers to continue his work. Today the annual MethodistConference is the main decision making-body of the Methodist Churchfor Britain's 320,000 Methodists.