What a treat it was to pick up yesterday's Guardian and see that the regular 'in praise of' section of the Leader page was all about the Methodist Covenant service. What had caught the editor's imagination were the words of the 'old' covenant service: "Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you." The counter-cultural implications of such a radical attitude were affirmed as the Leader went on to write of the Covenant service that "Its nobility is the recognition of the accretion of great good through small deeds."
This chimes in with so much that is being written and said regarding climate change; that each of us is part of the solution, as we can each make a significant difference through changes in our behaviour. Margot Wallström, a Vice President of the European Commission, reflects on this truth when she speaks about 'absurd optimism', hope, climate change and our common destiny. It seems to me that our Covenant service is all about hope too; the irresistible hope which the gospel gives us that we can together make a difference.
Just before Christmas my attention was held by a piece on the historian David Starkey's series on Monarchy, which quoted him as finishing the final episode with these words:"Now there is a moral vacuum left by the sellout of the state to business interests, will King Charles step into the breach? ... Something new is required. Altruism, neighbourliness, the fruits of the spirit, are as important as ever. Who will speak up for them, if not the crown?"
As the reviewer noted, "You may not agree with his conclusion, but it's a serious question to ask." Quite so. That Starkey fails to look to the churches for leadership is not surprising in secular Britain; it would be tragic, however, if we do not rise to the challenge with renewed vigour. Altruism, neighbourliness, the fruits of the spirit , these are core values, behaviours and experiences of the heart-warmed people called Methodist who dare to say the words of the covenant each January. Changing the world, changing our society, begins with changing ourselves. In this it seems to me that our Covenant service sits well with much contemporary thinking about happiness and well-being. Richard Layard's book on happiness makes salutary reading for western societies who have bought into the mantra of prosperity and ever-increasing standards of living. As we have got richer, we have become no happier. The point is made even more sharply by Oliver James in his writing on 'Affluenza' - when he asserts that Selfish capitalism is bad for our mental health. What is required if we are to move towards sustainable, healthier and happier societies is a mind-shift. Writing in the current issue of Resurgence, Ray Anderson explores this. He says: "A sustainable society will depend on (among other things) a vast, ethically driven redesign of the industrial system, triggered by an equally vast mind-shift. This shift in values is the hard part, but it will happen, it must happen, one mind at a time, one technology at a time, one community at a time, until we live within sustainable systems...a sustainable society will seek higher levels of awareness and transcendent meaning in life - more true happiness with less stuff." One mind at a time. This is surely the genius of our Covenant service: one mind at a time, many lives commit together to make a difference and find new life, renewed life, for the benefit of all.
In this covenant God promises us new life in Christ. For our part we promise to live no longer for ourselves but for God.
Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves; in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
I am no longer my own but yours. Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I may endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am troubled and when I am at peace.Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things, and when I have nothing. I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose.
If Methodism takes this seriously we can be in the vanguard of leading the changes the world so desperately needs. We will then truly deserve the appreciation the editor of the Guardian has given to us when he describes us as a "small but hugely influential church".