The following post first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 24th April 2014, as part of their “Methodism’s for Me” series. My thanks to them both for commissioning the article in the first place and then reckoning it was good enough to publish.
As a probationer in the Methodist Church going forward for ordination this summer I’ve had to reflect deeply on why I am happy to call myself Methodist. This is especially the case when you consider I grew up in a different tradition to Methodism. I’m what you might call an “accidental Methodist” – I ended up worshipping in a Methodist Church through circumstance rather than deliberate choice. Yet it is in this church that God called me as a presbyter, and so I have spent time working out why it is I’m happy to follow this call in this denomination rather than any other. My answer can be broken down into two key areas:
Connexionalism: I hold a fairly high ideal of the Church. Ask me to define the Church and I’ll tell you it’s the Body of Christ. We seek, as best we can, to live out the life of God as seen in Christ, to show the world that the Kingdom is here. We do this together. Not in our own little groupings and congregations, but together. It seems to me that our Connexionalism speaks of a deep understanding of what it means to be Christ’s Body, together, with one Head. When I candidated I was required to seek discernment of my call at Circuit, District and Connexional levels. My probation has included continuing discernment at those levels, which will (hopefully) culminate in my being Received into Full Connexion and sending forward for ordination by a standing vote of the Conference. Yet my positive view of connexionalism isn’t simply related to who it is who finally authorised my ordination as a presbyter in God’s Church. It relates also to the way in which connexionalism requires us, as Christ did, to cross boundaries. I know my coming to Cornwall has taken some by surprise. I’m certainly no typical Cornish Methodist. It has taken time for myself and the chapel folk to whom I minister to adjust to one another. Yet the reality is that adjust to one another we must – connexionalism requires it of us. Unlike other denominations there can be no* ghettoisation of different traditions, styles and theologies. Chapels may have their own ways and particularities (rightly so, for each village, town, suburb and city is different), but as Circuits, Districts and Connexion we are required to interact in a serious way with those who think and act differently to us but still worship the same God and follow the same Christ. Connexionalism speaks to the local of the wider Church, and reminds the wider Church of the local context. What better way of being the Body of Christ, the Living Word of the One who is both beyond and within?
Non-conformist liturgy: Many of my friends, colleagues and members of the chapels I minister to might be surprised by this reason. I’m known to be rather “churchy”. I am certainly someone who is most deeply fed by formal, responsive, sacramental worship, by worship with all the “bells and smells”. Yet that is personal preference. I’m also a liturgist, both academically and practically. I enjoy developing liturgy (I use the term in its widest sense of meaning the patterned public worship of any Christian community) which speaks to a vast range of people, including those with little or no experience of church worship. I also enjoy developing liturgy which is fed by the deep spiritual wells of a variety of ancient and more recent traditions. Methodism allows me, and others, the freedom to do that. I believe that when we worship as a community we worship alongside the saints that came before us, and our worship ought to recognise that, but our context is not their context, and public liturgy must reflect current context as well as the journey already travelled. I rejoice in Methodism’s willingness to train folk, both lay and ordained, as worship leaders, preachers and celebrants, and in its desire to equip them with the knowledge and skills to lead worship which is not fixed but free, able to speak of the journey that is past, the place we now are, as well as the destination for which we are aiming.
These, then, are the most significant ways in which Methodism’s for me: the way in which connexionalism speaks of how we are called to be the Body of Christ beyond boundaries (whether boundaries of geography, tradition, theology, worship style, experience, or calling); the way in which that boundary-breaking connexionalism requires us to maintain a freedom in how we worship together, so that our liturgy is varied, and so someone like myself has the freedom to develop appropriate liturgies that may be shaped by ancient and formal styles but are not bound by them.
*The original article did not contain this “no”, completely my error, not the paper’s!