Letter from General Secretary

September 2019
The Methodist Church

The Revd Jonathan R Hustler

Secretary of the Conference

Email:  SoC@methodistchurch.org.uk

  

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

  

Greetings at the beginning of the connexional year.

 

In the early 1990s, the Revd Michael Townsend was one of those who led the presbyteral ordinands’ retreat. He used to expound the ordination service, carefully commenting on each part. Years later he told me that he reckoned there was only one thing he said in that presentation that was remembered. When he got to the final hymn, ‘O thou who camest from above’, he prophesied woe to ‘any organist who dares to play Wilton rather than Hereford or any President who opts for “some other hymn”.’

 

It was a good line but it was not the only part of his commentary that I recall. He also used to take his audience through Philip Doddridge’s hymn with which the service opened – ‘The Saviour, when to heaven he rose’. Michael would reflect on the outpouring of the Spirit in the early Church, in the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, and in the life and ministry of the Methodist people in the subsequent two centuries, and, in response to Doddridge’s ‘So shall the bright succession run’, would say emphatically, ‘This is our succession and we need no other!’

 

I was reminded of that during discussions on Mission and Ministry in Covenant. The proposals in that Anglican-Methodist report returned to the General Synod in July with further work having been done by the Faith and Order bodies of both Churches. In welcoming the work that had been done, the Synod recognized that ‘for some within the Church of England concerns about the proposals remain’. Those concerns are mainly around the importance of the historic episcopate, the role of a bishop in ordaining, and how the office of a bishop is exercised in a way that signifies the unity of the Church. These matter both in the Church of England’s self-understanding and in its other ecumenical relationships. The Synod therefore decided not to move immediately to legislation but to ask the House of Bishops to report during the next quinquennium (2020-25) on progress made together with proposals for implementation.

 

There will inevitably be some disappointment that progress is slower than had been hoped, though there will also be relief that the Church of England remains committed to the process for the healing of division and sharing in mission. Conversations will continue, not only with the Church of England but also, following a formal invitation from the Methodist Council, with the Anglican Churches in Scotland and Wales. And we will continue to learn from the experience of our brothers and sisters in Ireland where a closer relationship between the Methodist Church and the Church in Ireland was inaugurated in 2014.

 

Perhaps this is also a moment, however, for us to consider what the notion of ‘succession’ means. One of the earliest writers to deploy the idea was Irenaeus. Listing the bishops of Rome down to his own day, Irenaeus concludes ‘In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth have come down to us.’ Aside from its implication for unity, Irenaeus’ argument challenges us to reflect on our fidelity in receiving and handing on the Good News of Christ. One expression of that fidelity this year has been in the report that the Conference received on the theology and ecclesiology underpinning the diaconate and the emphases reflected in the small changes to the ordinal. Those changes can be downloaded here.

 

With that in mind, the recent publication of the chapter on religion in the British Social Attitudes survey makes for dismal reading. The number of those identifying as Methodist amongst those questioned has dropped from 2% to 1% in the last decade. During the same period, the number of those claiming no religious identification has overtaken the number declaring themselves to be Christian; moreover, those who are non-religious are more vehemently so than in previous surveys. One of the fascinating details of the report is the authors’ conclusion that ‘religious decline is generational’. Christians are not as good at passing on their faith to their children as those without faith are at passing on non-belief to theirs.

 

The point of the succession of bishops for Irenaeus was tradition, the handing on of the truth of the gospel as ‘some precious deposit in an excellent vessel’. It is our privilege and calling as presbyters and deacons to be that ‘excellent vessel’. Of course, I hope and pray that the conversations with the Church of England will enable us to resolve the issues with which we have been wrestling since Archbishop Fisher’s invitation to ‘to take episcopacy into our system’ more than 70 years ago, not to distract us from ‘doing mission together’ where that is already possible (as in many ways it is), but to increase those possibilities. Above all, though, I hope and pray that we might be enabled to live as part of the bright succession, handing on the truth that we have received faithfully and effectively to the next generation.

 

With love and prayers,

  

Jonathan R Hustler

Secretary of the Conference

Lord, if at thy command

the word of life we sow,

watered by thy almighty hand,

the seed shall surely grow:

 

The virtue of thy grace

a large increase shall give,

and multiply the faithful race

who to thy glory live.

 

Charles Wesley (1707-88)

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,

We thank you that in every generation you give Ministers to your Church, so that through them you may nourish and sustain its life and equip your people for your service.

 

We pray that through the faithful work of those whom you have called into this Ministry, your Church may be continually strengthened to glorify your Name and to do your will.

We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

MSB

 

The following ministers have died since my last letter to you:

Deacons

Anne M Ellenor

Joyce Rawkins

 

Patricia Sanders

Presbyters

John H Atkinson

Charles Banks

Gerald S Broadbent

Julyan Drew

Marjorie Grantham

C Brian Holliday

Marjorie R C Hopp

Keith R Jefferies

Godfrey Kenyon

Keith Marsden

 

Bernard W Price

Elizabeth A Smith

David C Stringer

William O Stubbs

Marie L Whitcombe

Herbert W White

 

P Michael Willson

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