The President Speaks

I am grateful for the Editor’s invitation 'share with you something of my own faith story and convictions and/or suggest different ways in which evangelicals might make a helpful contribution to the life of Methodism'.

I was brought up in the Potteries at a time when the potbanks (pottery factories) and mines were still in operation and, together with two iron and steel works, were the main employers. The political outlook of the Potteries was strongly socialist with education valued very highly. The city is made up of six towns each with their parks and town halls and Primitive Methodism was still for many the established ‘folk religion’ - but not for me.

My family had no church or chapel connections and it wasn’t until I began studying RE and particularly the Gospels at senior school that I gave serious thought to Christian faith and experience. The teacher was also a youth fellowship leader and I was invited to a Sunday evening youth fellowship, that was really the Senior Sunday School Class meeting in homes in the evening, and to the badminton club that met at the chapel.

The combination of genuine and sincere friendship, thoughtful study, and meeting people whose faith was lively and relevant to them proved attractive and winsome. I came to faith and commitment to God in Christ through relational evangelism that encouraged me to ask deep questions and search with openness of heart and mind. As the youth fellowship grew in number and as I became more involved in the life of the church I sensed a call to preach and later to ordained ministry. I will forever be indebted to those who, by God’s grace, opened up such a path.

The ‘small world’ of my upbringing expanded rapidly. I went off to university to read theology - more friendships, an encouragement to explore my faith and discover new truth – and also, not least through university student groups, an introduction to some of the labels (such as conservative, liberal, and evangelical, radical, sacramental) that Christians want to add to themselves. I never joined any such groups or accepted a label. I wanted to sing ‘…names and sects and parties fall, thou O Christ art all in all’, and to practise it as fully as possible in the here and now.

~jWhen I suddenly lost my hearing at 19 years of age I found the support of Christian friends to be invaluable. The sense that faith involves a journey of discovery continued through all the heartache of the experience of hearing loss. I found the closed authoritative ‘explanations’ offered, however sincerely, by some Christian groups to be unhelpful and sometimes hurtful. They spoke of personal sin and suffering, forgiveness and healing in ways that, if you weren’t physically healed, induced guilt. I rejected such a picture of God. My faith journey continued to lead me to trust in God who I believe is committed to holding all of creation and thus holds me.j~

In the years that have followed I have found it impossible to believe in a God who shows partiality. The covenant God places the rainbow in the sky as the sign of covenant with the whole inhabited earth. The Bible then speaks of repeated breaking and renewal of covenant until in Christ ‘the covenant in my blood’ is given as the sign and seal of God’s covenant love as ‘for those that will not come to him the ransom of his life was paid’. The journey continues to the new heaven and new earth (not a return to paradise).

The image I carry within me is of God at the centre of all life, and it is impossible to describe the circumference of God’s love or selfhood. I am challenged by the verses of Frederick William Faber’s hymn:


~q


For the love of God is broader than the measure of man’s mind;

and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own;

and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.

q~

Is there then a place for parties, of whatever label, within the church and if so what might evangelicals contribute?

As the years have gone by I’ve come to better appreciate that people can find meeting with others under a certain label to be helpful in sharing and exploring a common experience and understanding. I also appreciate that it can help people to become confident enough to make their contribution to the wider whole. I see Headway providing such a helpful meeting place.

I’m aware too of a danger that sub-groups in the church can become comfortable places in which we avoid the challenge that the God who knows no circumference presents in the immense diversity of humankind. I once spoke to a student group and as a result was asked if I’d be willing to speak at the Christian Union. Subsequently the invitation was withdrawn as I was regarded as ‘unsound’ because I wasn’t signed up to a particular view of the inerrancy of scripture. I wasn’t hurt, just saddened that for them God was being put into a comfortable closed box and that there was so little openness to hear God outside of that box.

There is also the danger that we stereotype by labels; a danger that we not only define ourselves but also define others by the labels we give. Discrimination is a short step from there.

So I want to encourage as much creative interchange between groups in the church as possible, not only so that we grow as a fellowship of Christians, but more importantly for the sake of the world. I would expect Methodists who embrace the title 'evangelical' to follow Wesley’s example and be profoundly interested and concerned for the world in which we live. It is encouraging to see a concern for mission overriding some of our previous (mis)conceptions of groups in the church.

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