I stumbled today on the recent controversy in British Methodist circles about the comments made by David Gamble, President of The Methodist Church in Great Britain. Folks across the pond seem bent out of shape over a speech he made to Church of England’s General Synod which is being interpreted as an expression of desire to merge The Methodists Church with the Church of England. Commentators have focused on these words exclusively as a sign of capitulation to the mother church:
Methodists approach the Covenant with the Church of England in the spirituality of that [Wesleyan] Covenant prayer. So when we say to God “let me have all things let me have nothing”, we say it by extension to our partners in the Church of England as well. We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission. In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.
I confess confusion over the vehemence in which folks have attacked this statement, for I would think that we all would agree that the call to mission outweighs any institution. The goal is not the maintenance of an institutional church, but the spreading of the gospel and the bringing forth of God’s kingdom into our world. And yet, the words above are seen as a clear sign of an intention to shut down Methodism in Great Britain, losing the gift of the Wesleyan heritage as the church is subsumed into the larger, more powerful Church of England.
The problem is that the critics and commentators are (as so often happens) pulling these word out of context and missing the point that Gamble was trying to make (in conjunction with his co-presenter, Dr. Richard Vautry, Vice President of the church):
I suppose my last question – at least for this morning – is how do we together respond to the challenges of the 21st century. A society of different faiths, different cultures, different histories. A society where many have no history of involvement with a faith community but where the big questions still remain on the agenda. Questions of meaning and purpose. Of how we shall live together. Of life and death. Of the future of our planet. Of right and wrong and the value of each person.
Throughout the history of churches working together, as I have experienced it, one of the major and oft-repeated texts has been John 17.21, where Christ prays for the unity of his followers not because it’s a nice idea, not because it’s financially a better use of scarce resources, but that the world might believe. It’s mission led. We only exist to glorify God, to ensure that the word is duly preached, the sacraments duly celebrated, and the people duly formed in discipleship for worship and mission.
For Methodists, the word ‘covenant’ is very important – part of our spirituality and our understanding of our relationship with God. Many of you may have shared in our annual Covenant Service, with these powerful words:
I am no longer my own but yours. 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; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
Methodists approach the Covenant with the Church of England in the spirituality of that Covenant prayer. So when we say to God “let me have all things let me have nothing”, we say it by extension to our partners in the Church of England as well. We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission. In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.
Are we willing to take our covenant that seriously? It’s quite a challenge – for both of our churches.
Gamble isn’t making a statement of intention for merger, in fact, his comments have little to do with any formal arrangements with the Church of England. No, Gamble is asking a question we all should be asking, “How do we most effectively minister in the 21st Century?” In that context he remembers Jesus’ prayer in John 17, a prayer that institutional cheerleaders conveniently forget, which recognizes that the disunity of denominationalism can and sometimes does work in opposition to the will of God, that our disunity keeps some from believing. Gamble acknowledges that the ultimate goal of the church is our mission, not maintaining power or supporting a denominational structure that my be unwieldy in a new world.
I frankly don’t understand the fuss, for Gamble’s comments seem perfectly consistent with the witness of scripture and the call of Christ on all of us. The Methodist Church (be it British or American) has been a force for good, and offers a way of thinking about God that has blessed many, but may be useless if it isn’t engaged in ensuring that “…the word is duly preached, the sacraments duly celebrated, and the people duly formed in discipleship for worship and mission.” To suggest that it may need to go away if it isn’t carrying out the mission of Christ is not capitulation, but a recognition that our structure may have outlived its usefulness and needs to be transformed into something new so as to carry out that mission. That may involve merger with someone else, renewal of the existing structures, or the creation of something entirely new. No matter how it happens, it recognizes that the goal is the bringing forth of God’s kingdom in the world, a kingdom in which all those structures and denominations will cease to be relevant, as we bow before our creator and offer praise.
What am I missing here? Explain to me again how Gamble’s statement was inappropriate.