Now that I am back home from the Methodist Conference I am mulling over the significance of the many hours of debate, decision making, conferring, conversation and worship which took place.
How is the world a better place today because of all that was said and decided in Wolverhampton? What difference will it make here in Lincolnshire, or anywhere else for that matter? How will it be understood - if it is noticed at all - by British society? What meaning will it have for poor and disadvantaged communities here and on the other side of the world?
How has it changed me? What happens next?
These are some of the questions which I now have to answer as I seek with others to translate the experience of Wolverhampton into strategic vision and practical action across the Lincoln and Grimsby District. And translation is the right word to use for this vital task.
As you can see there was ongoing real-time language translation provided for our world church guests. Sitting in the Conference Hall each of the Districts is processing the business in real-time too. We put the stream of information through our own contextual filters and get ready to contribute if needs be. This is especially important when views from the edge which speak of being marginalised, hurt, inspired or encouraged need to be voiced and heard. Naturally enough in all of this we translate the proceedings into the familiar faith-speak and language which works in our context but crucially we are challenged with new vocabulary and fresh idioms from elsewhere too. The variety of 'faith-dialects' and nuances from across the globe as well as across the UK is one of the joys of our being together. So many postcards from the edge gathered in one place for us to appreciate.
For all of us in Conference, wherever we are from, there is one unifying task going on under the surface. The question mark on the screens in the Conference Hall could usefully have been there all week to provoke the thought: what does this mean to me/us and for me/us?
Note - not just 'to', as that points to a response which could be far too narrowly cerebral and liable to become inconsequential, but 'to and for', as that implies purposeful thinking turning into attitudes, actions, imperatives and real consequences. And because such a process of translation is hugely contextual the end result here in Lincolnshire could look markedly different to that in South London or Cardiff. It need not, but it might.
Perhaps this is the genius of being a connexional church. The collective, connected us has an amazingly diverse and fantastically rich identity. That which is expressed locally in a myriad of Methodist faith dialects reflects our rich common language. This is why Conference cannot fail to be inspiring.
And because we are Methodists what happened at Conference will make a difference locally and globally; that is how we are and this is what we do. When we vote on issues that matter to us the whole Connexion is represented.
On climate change and racism we have taken landmark decisions this week which will affect the whole church.
Ekklesia picked up the story about the BNP like this:
"The Methodist Church has become the first major denomination in the UK to ban all its members from joining the British National Party (BNP). A resolution passed by the annual Methodist Conference, meeting in Wolverhampton, declared that “No member of the Church can also be a member of a political party whose constitution, aims or objectives promote racism. This specifically includes, but is not solely limited to, the British National Party”. The news follows a similar ban on Church of England clergy, but the Methodists have gone much further, saying that no-one can even be a member of the Church while also belonging to the BNP. “We must be clear that racism is a denial of the Gospel” said Rev Sylvester Deigh, who proposed the motion. “An openness to all people, regardless of nationality, is at the heart of Methodist identity” he continued. The motion was seconded by the Rev Dr Angela Shier-Jones. While strongly condemning racism and the BNP specifically, the motion declares that “those who support racist parties are also God’s children, and in need of love, hope and redemption”. Supporters of the measure are keen to emphasise that no-one will be banned from attending a church – only from membership of it."
Crucially we hope that we express our identity in ways which the world will take notice of and understand. So far today I have yet to see this vote making headlines in the media. Through Google I did find this response, though, posted by a BNP member on an internet forum: "Following on from the C of E's banning of priests being BNP members, the rapidly declining Methodists have now gone one step further in banning BNP members from even being part of the church. Even emptier pews for the Accrington Stanley of the UK's religious league."
Now I would expect a pejorative reply, so no surprise there. Culturally, however, I am fascinated by the picture of Methodism which this man espouses, because I have a hunch that what we see here would in fact be a very widely-held view in British society.For the record Accrington Stanley finished mid way in the Coca Cola League two table for the 2008/2009 season, three places below Lincoln City and well above Grimsby Town. We are not talking top-flight Premiership here. So in terms of numbers this guy is wrong. But what of "rapidly declining" and "empty pews", these are things which we have said about and to ourselves! As key descriptors of our church is it any wonder that such things can be said about us when for too long we have engaged in such a narrative of despair? More worrying still is the implication that our pews already contain significant numbers of BNP members. I don't believe this to be the case at all, but even if there were a grain of truth in what he says it shows just how timely was the notice of motion on racism which we agreed yesterday.
The laptop on which I am writing these words needs specific bits of software - codecs - in order for it to play music and video in a wide range of formats. A missing or corrupted codec is a right pain and can be really annoying. Society at large needs up to date cultural codecs if what we say and do is not to be seen and heard as gibberish, irrelevant or, at worst, as being simply unplayable. If this is to happen we have to tell a fresh story and, more importantly, live the transforming story of the gospel at the heart of our local communities in ways which are meaningful, engaged and relevant to local needs and contexts. The resolution we passed on racism and the BNP demonstrates clearly what we stand for, who we are and what we are prepared to do. A church which is committed to improving social capital and to working with others to transform society because it is wholly and enthusiastically open to God, the gospel and to all sections of society is a resurgent church. This is who we are becoming. Right across the age spectrum. We have to do all that we can to get this new codec embedded at the centre of society, and the best way is surely to live out the gospel of grace at its sharp and painful edges. The nails which comprise the conference cross convey this truth powerfully without words. Every person on the edge is at the centre of our concern. The BNP member has a wonky codec and half a story. Through our new story we hope that he might yet find that transforming grace for himself which leads to life in its fullness. In this context the motto of the city council in Wolverhampton is highly appropriate, and is depicted in this stained glass window on display in the city art gallery. Out of darkness cometh light.