Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury District report from Conference 2014
Conference was held this year in the Birmingham district and our district had 10 full members of conference in attendance: these included 1 Deacon and the Chair of District, 3 presbyters and 5 lay representatives. The representative session started with the traditional unaccompanied singing of “And are we yet alive”. During the first session the new president Revd Kenneth Howcroft and the new vice-president, Mrs. Gillian Dascombe, were inducted by standing vote and the World Church partners were welcomed. These included Bishop Samuel from Rwanda. Also welcomed were the Ecumenical and Interfaith guests. Bishop Amos Ndhlumbi from Zimbabwe and Revd Neil Kirkham, Moderator-elect of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, responded. Before tea-break, the new president addressed conference. He suggested that many do not know what to make of us and that what we are at times is almost indefinable, even by those within the church. He asked ‘What do Methodists bring to the party?’ and quoted the 1932 Deed of Union, Methodists are ‘raised up by God’, ‘known by what we do, what we say and what we are’, called to ’spread scriptural holiness’, sinners trying ‘to be more Godly’, ‘to proclaim the evangelical faith’. Even if we do not know how to solve the problems of the world, we learn to live with contradictory convictions. He urged us as the body of Christ to work together to be who and what Christ wants us to be and have the faith to put ourselves into the hands of God. What are Methodists for today? The president says we are what we always have been, for mission and evangelism. Can we keep on doing it? ‘Since God has not given up on us yet, by God’s grace, yes we can’ After tea, we heard the vice-president’s address. She reminded us of the importance of Lay Ministry from the beginnings up to today. The full text of both addresses can be found in the Methodist recorder and on-line. On Sunday the j service included the Reception into Full Connexion of the Ordinands and then Conference dispersed to a range of Ordination venues. Many of us went to Darlington Street to support Denise Williams of the Tipton and West Bromwich Circuit and Heather Wilson of the Shropshire and Marches Circuit.
The Challenge of the Covenant
It is ten years since the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England was signed. The Joint Implementation Committee formed to oversee the working out of the Covenant produced a report after 5 years and a long report last Autumn on where we have come in a decade. The report to Conference reflected that report and the feedback received about it. Generally it seems things have not moved forward as fast as we would have liked. The Report challenges both churches to seriously tackle the main issues that prevent interchangeable ministry between our denominations. For Methodists this is to accept some form of the historic episcopate ie we need to have bishops. Many years ago Conference voted to accept the historic episcopate but debates on what form that should take have foundered. Potentially our President of Conference could become a Presiding Bishop. For the Church of England it is to allow the ministry of women at all levels. Both churches must address the question of reconciling, with integrity, the existing presbyteral and diaconal ministries of our two churches which can lead to interchangeability of ministries. To this end the Faith and Order Commission of the C of E and our Faith and Order Committee will work together to bring forward proposals. However, in the ‘waiting time’ we are all encouraged to make use of what it is already possible for us to do together.
Response of the Methodist Church to the Commission of the Covenanted Churches in Wales
This covenant in Wales dates back to 1975. The commission proposed a much greater working together with the member denominations being known as the Uniting Church in Wales. However, the Methodist response after wide consultation particularly with the Methodist people in Wales is that there is insufficient support both in Wales and the wider connexion at this time to accept the invitation of the Commission. For any who are particularly interested in the details of the invitation it can be found in the Conference Agenda on the Methodist Conference website.
Most reports that Conference debates get only one appearance, but not so with the budget. In terms of our mission, we should not be concentrating on money but, in reality, we have to find the money for the church nationally to do the work we expect of it. This is quite a challenge, particularly as when Conference meets, it can decide that any number of additional items of work are to be done. The budget is therefore formally presented on the first day of the Representative Session; it then makes a further appearance in the middle of Conference as new items involving extra costs are discussed; then finally the budget is agreed on the last morning.
Among the main points which were made when the budget was presented were:
1 Following a query by the auditor in respect of the effect on our charitable status, there would be significant use of Reserves to bring these down to a more appropriate level (although this might result in greater calls on churches at some future time)
2 The District Assessments would increase by 2% per year over the next 3 years.
In the discussion that followed, the main concern related to the budget for Youth Work and whether certain income was ring-fenced for it. The response was that the money would not be ring-fenced but they would try to spend it wisely – the team were trying to work holistically, rather than compartmentalising work as had happened in the past.
When we reached the point of agreeing the budget on the final day, the only significant change was, in fact, in relation to work which had been discussed by the Methodist Council after the budget was prepared, subject to an amendment to the formal resolution that the Connexion considers carefully the timing of the release of reserves.
The Connexional Allowances Committee report was agreed with no question, mainly because the controversial issue which had been included in the original report presented to the Methodist Council had already been referred back for further consideration and consultation. (Mr Bell was grateful for the lack of questions, although he had about 147 answers prepared). Particular appreciation was expressed for the increase in the payments allowed from the Methodist Ministers Childrens Fund.
In presenting the accounts, the lead Connexional Treasurer contrasted the static (and tightly controlled) nature of the Central Services Budget with the dynamic nature of the overall accounts, with the many variables. He also spoke of the proud record of receiving, in full, the amounts assessed on the Districts and hence Circuits and Churches. In presenting a graphical representation of the changes of various income sources over the years, he used a moving comparison, referring to his grandfather who was killed during the First World War where the reports were sent back that this happened whilst he was “straightening out the lines”. He still did not understand the meaning of this term, but would like to be able to straighten out the lines of the graph of our income so that, in the future, they all showed steady progress. One of the more surprising comments he made was that he looked forward to the time when we would slip into deficit on the Central Services Budget, simply because the budgeting was so tight. The only question related to the purchase of manses for ministerial staff of the DMLN. The response was, in essence, that the accounts presented to Conference are an extract of the full accounts and do not show capital transactions, but that all proper care was taken to ensure purchases were appropriate.
General Secretary’s report
The General Secretary’s Report can be split into 4 sections:-
1) The General Secretary thanked all those on the Connexional team with special mention going to the Joint Public Issues Team, the Governance Support Cluster, the new Discipleship and Ministries Cluster and the Support Cluster.
2) The general Secretary stressed the importance of building relationships within our own Connexion and beyond with our ecumenical partners and interfaith relationships. There was a focus on the various Fellowship Groups which are taking place in many of our churches and the challenges which may emerge from these. How do we integrate the fellowship groups with the Church?
3) Releasing our buildings for mission includes the ongoing issue of closing churches and the need to encourage the releasing of energy and resources for God’s mission. There is a need to change our culture to get away from the concept of “our building”. The members of conference spoke passionately about the need to look at the way we decide which churches are to close as some small churches are still doing great mission. Should the larger churches fund the smaller churches and should the assessment process be changed?
4) Realising the main thing is holding on to the focus of becoming a discipleship movement shaped for mission and reclaiming evangelism as a crucial part of God’s mission. There is a need to attend to falling numbers, prioritising growing disciples and church communities, in every neighbourhood, as an increasing matter of urgency or we will quickly find ourselves in a place where even core gospel witness and service is increasingly beyond us.
The Methodist Council have taken many decisions throughout the year including those of governance and business. The main decisions surrounded the Diaconal Order, Mission alongside the Poor, Interfaith, Belonging Together, Equality Diversity Inclusion, Complaints and Discipline and Ministries Committee.
The Diaconal Order has decided to create a Deputy Warden position as the work load was too much for the Warden. To ensure that the Warden is accountable to the whole Church, the Council concluded that what was needed was a group, representative of the whole Church, which can offer real support to the Warden. A Methodist Diaconal Order Leadership group will be created.
The Council recommended that a review of the Mission Along-side the Poor programme should be undertaken in order to make sure that we are supporting the needs of the poor in our communities. A notice of motion was passed to ensure that the conference
The Ministries Committee reviewed the progress of the Fresh Expression and Pioneer ministry movement. Overall there is much to celebrate and it continues to be a way for mission within the Connexion. The development of pathways for Pioneer ministries has been set as an early priority for the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network.
During the time allocated to the committee an appeal was made to the committee to redraft the Standing Orders for the Secretary of Conference to make the post more outward looking. It was agreed that this would be considered.
Faith & Order.
The new secretary to the Faith and Order Committee Revd Nicola Price-Tebbutt presented the report for the first time.
Following the report from the Joint Implementation Group for the Anglican/Methodist Covenant it was agreed that the Faith and Order Committee would this year work on a report on the subject of “Theology and Nature of Lay and Ordained Ministry in the Methodist Church. They also agreed to do further work on “The Theology of Pastoral Care” This is working on a revision of a previous report now considered to be out of date.
The largest section of the Faith & Order report was dedicated to a report “Encountering Christ the Savior. Church and Sacraments.” This had been produced as our response to the Report of the International Commission for Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council. Those interested can find this report on the Methodist Web Site.
Law & Polity
Part of the role of the Law and Polity Committee is to tidy up sections of CPD when changes of practice or language has taken place in the church. Along with many other such “tidying up” changes a series of changes were agreed which brought up to date our present usage of the words “Deacon” and “Presbyter” in the place of “Minister.”
More substantial were the new standing orders that were approved relating to Safeguarding. These were aimed at giving the Safeguarding Advisory Group wider scope to consider matters where safeguarding issues are alongside other disciplinary matters. There were a number of other areas where the Law & Polity Committee gave guidance on practice, including the difficult matter of when in safeguarding cases new evidence becomes available after the Churches' hearings have been concluded. It was agreed that these should form new cases.
During the time allocated to the committee an appeal was made to the committee to redraft the Standing Orders for the Secretary of Conference to make the post more outward looking. It was agreed that this would be considered.
Statistics for Mission Report
The report on Statistics for Mission was presented at Methodist conference 2014. As in the past this report concentrated on tabular presentation of membership and attendance figures A which showed year-on-year decreases across the connexion and suggested a narrative of general decline.
It reported that Methodist membership stands at 208,679 as at 31 October 2013, compared with 231,708 three years previously (LEP churches excluded); and average weekly attendance at 193,210 compared with 208,962. The report showed that while weekly attendance has fallen 32% over the course of a decade, the rate of decline has slowed from 4.5% a year during in the first triennium period (2004 to 2007) to 2.6% during the third (2010 to 2013).
Discussions on the floor of Conference acknowledged that although these statistics paint a gloomy picture, we should avoid the danger of talking ourselves to oblivion.
It was also pointed out that growth is not only about numbers; that there is spiritual growth which does not always go with an increase in numbers. Some contributors even questioned the accuracy of the figures like in the case of community rolls numbers.
It was suggested that further work is done to verify numbers in two areas that have presented challenges to the recording and reporting process namely church closure
Conference received a report on Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) prepared by the Joint Public Issues Team and commended it to the Methodist People for study, reflection and prayer. It wishes to continue in dialogue with those closely affected, including Forum for Discussion on Israel/Palestine(FODIP), Council for Christians and Jews, Christian Muslim Forum, EAPPI, ICAHD UK and Kairos Britain. It declined a series of Resolutions from Revd Peter Barber and Revd John Howard, which would have led to the possibility of Conference 2015 being invited to make a commitment to BDS. Rather it decided that it did not wish to talk about the issue for the next three years, in spite of being told by Law and Polity, that this could not prevent memorials or resolutions being brought.
Conference commended the Time for Action, a British response to the Kairos Palestine document for prayer, reflection, study and action.
Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment (JACEI)
Conference received the report which included positions on gambling, electricity generation, fossil fuels, carbon disclosure, the living wage, high interest lenders, textiles and Bangladesh, telecommunications and pornography, business ethics and tax justice, breast milk substitutes and human rights.
Other Social Responsibility Issues
Conference accepted the call from Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury District to set a target of half a million pounds to be raised for Mission Alongside the Poor.
Conference expressed concern about the situation in Syria. It called for prayers for the peoples of Nigeria, Korea, and Pakistan.
Conference accepted a Notices of Motion (NoM) about Caste Discrimination and the position of Dalits. It expressed support for the “No more Page Three” Campaign. It called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and urged Methodists to engage with MPs and Parliamentary candidates about this issue. While appreciating the hospitality which Conference received, we expressed concern that the Hilton Group is not a living wage employer, nor does it make use of Fair Trade products, and asked that this be considered when future venues are decided.
The report of the One Mission Working Party which was set up following the 2013 Conference, makes a significant contribution to the development of our understanding of how and in what ways we engage in God’s mission in the world. The report draws attention to the changing nature of the world in which we live, necessitating a fresh approach to how mission is understood, whilst emphasising that God’s mission is one – whether local or global, evangelism or social action.
The report, which proposes the formation of a One Mission Forum from September 2015, was well received by Conference members who welcomed the development of mission for the 21st century which has an intentional focus on promoting a partnership ethos across all levels of the Methodist Church including the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network, Methodist Women in Britain, Children and Youth, World Church Relationships, Joint Public Issues and Fresh Ways of being Church.
Concerns for Racial Justice raised the issue about the use of language when referring to mission overseas and the chair of the working party responded with reassurances that we are no longer the church that sends the gospel overseas, but a church whose global mission is truly a partnership with others.
3Generate is quickly becoming a popular event for children and young people where they can connect with God and others in creative ways, have their voices heard and choose who represents their views in the wider Methodist Church.
Concerns were raised about the event being unable to accommodate all the young people who would like to attend, especially in the 8-11’s age group which sells out very quickly (this year this age stream sold out 5 days after opening for booking on 7th June). In response to this there are plans to increase the resources available to allow more people to attend next year, in the meantime children and youth leaders are encouraged to use the Big Sleepover resources to engage young people in their local context. In contrast to the younger age streams, there is poor attendance in the 18-25 year age group and Circuits are challenged to encourage attendance in this age stream.
Tamara Wray (Youth President) praised the work of the Youth Representatives who she described as an inspiring group of individuals and encouraged Districts to invite them to engage with some of their young people. She highlighted 3 issues which young people had engaged passionately with at 3Generate – mental health, interfaith relationships and same sex marriage and urged the Conference to involve young people in further conversations and ensure updates about consultations are made known to them.
Whilst the report was warmly received, concerns were expressed that maybe young people’s voices were not being truly heard as the resolutions were made ‘Conference friendly’ and lost some of the meaning and passion that the young people intended. It was also questioned why the report made some ‘Recommendations’ rather than resolutions which the Conference would have had to engage with.
Working party of Marriage and Civil Partnerships
The working party, established by the 2013 Conference, brought a report to the 2014 Conference which considered the implications for the Methodist Church of the change to marriage legislation in England and Wales – notably that marriage of same sex couples is lawful. To summarise a 75 page report and two debates on the floor of Conference is a near impossible task. At the conclusion of the debates there was a wide-spread feeling that the conversations over this difficult, complex and contentious area were entered into in grace and love and this should be the model of conversation within all of our churches.
Sadly, though, there was concern raised that some of the responses to the consultation questionnaire issued earlier in the year, had not been completed in the same spirit. The Conference therefore agreed to work on clear guidance on what is and is not homophobic and a formal statement will be submitted for adoption by a future Conference.
These are the significant decisions of the Conference:
1. The Conference decided that now is not the time to revisit the definition of Marriage as understood by the Methodist Church. However the Conference urged the Methodist people to prayerfully and graciously reflect on the continuing debate about same-sex marriage.
2. The Conference agreed to establish a working party to engage the church more widely in exploring what it means to live with contradictory convictions about marriage and the nature of authority of the Bible. One key aspect of this work is to explore the missional challenges involved and how the Methodist Church lives within contexts where its values, teaching and practice are not shared with the surrounding society.
3. The Conference adopted new guidance in dealing pastorally with requests for prayers and blessings for civil partnerships which seek to give further guidance to individuals and local churches on responding to requests.
4. The Conference affirmed that there is no reason per se why anyone in the Church, ordained or lay, can enter into or remain within a same-sex marriage. This extends the affirmation that was made to couples who enter into civil-partnerships.
Commemoration of the Genocide in Rwanda 1994
The president of Conference led morning prayers. He spoke of WW1 being ‘the war to end all wars’, of other wars since then, referring to Rwanda. Bishop Samuel and Revd John Howard led a silent procession of all our district representatives through conference. We carried a banner and a candle brought from Rwanda and wore neckerchiefs – grey to symbolise the ashes of the genocide. Powerful images from Rwanda were projected on the screen. The Rwanda candle lit a conference candle which the president gave to Bishop Samuel who spoke movingly to conference. We led prayers of intercession and ended by singing ‘Beauty for Brokenness’ with the whole conference.