An interview with Mark Wakelin

The Revd Dr Mark Wakelin is the new President of the British Methodist Conference and he spoke with MetConnexion’s Greg Obong-Oshotse in the Philip Porter Room at the Methodist Church House in London.

How do you feel as you approach the time of your presidency?

Well, it’s very strange because I grew up in Methodism and I grew up to admire the Presidents of Conference. I think back to some of the great names that have sat there and you feel very, very tentative about taking that role on. I feel a great sense of privilege and it does feel a bit odd and strange that I should have that privilege and what I do with it is quite troubling I suppose.

What would be your main thing during your presidential year?

My purpose is very much in line with the Conference decision last year, wanting the Methodist Church to become more of a discipleship movement shaped for mission. Within that I suppose I’m particularly keen on the rhythm between the Church’s struggle to know God and God’s gracious pouring of Himself into us through the Holy Spirit; where it is appropriate for us to struggle, what kind of struggles we’re into to know God better and where we must be more open to receive the graciousness of God who wants to pour His life into us. For me that’s very much the theme of discipleship. The phrase I have in my mind is that “the disciplines of discipleship are the method of Methodism”. And we have ways of approaching God in terms of Bible study and prayer (‘vital piety’ was one of Wesley’s expressions), but also acts of mercy, and of being engaged in social action and political action and generally being involved in the community.

What I long for, for myself and indeed for the Church also, is, in old fashioned language, an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon us, but we need to raise the sails to catch it. We need to be in the place where God is. We need to move closer to God, we need to prepare ourselves so that God’s Holy Spirit can be poured into us. I think the one thing that Methodism needs more than any other thing is a genuine, overwhelming, overpowering sense of God’s love and belief in us. And if we have that and that gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and the knowledge that his love is in us, then I think we’ll behave very differently as a people. We’ll be much more confident in the ministry and the mission that we have from God.

You have been quoted as saying that “the presidency can help the Church find and catch a vision that will play a part in God transforming Methodism for the next generation and of Methodism playing its proper role in transforming our society and world.” Would you say that what you’ve just mentioned about discipleship is like an outline of that kind of vision?

I think the one thing needful in Methodism at the moment is not just a cerebral thing; it is much more the whole of me knowing it. The word ‘knowing’ in the Bible is a very strong word, it’s like a carpenter knows wood. It’s different from the way I know wood. They know it with their hands and with their noses. I think we need to know God, that sense of God’s love for us.

Wesley struggled to come closer to God and he was overwhelmed. He became available to God through that struggling, and that transformed his ministry and indeed many places round the world. And I think that’s where Methodism has a contribution to make: without priest or building, without high liturgy or anything else, we can come close to God unmediated and God can pour his love into us. But that isn’t cheap. That’s what I’ve been thinking and struggling about in my own heart. The Holy Spirit is not a cheap gift that we can sort of turn on the tap and turn off the tap like magic. The Holy Spirit is a relational part of God. There is a demand on us to move closer to God, and the moving closer for us is through the disciplines of discipleship.

There is a Charles Wesley hymn that says:

My God I know I feel thee mine
and will not quit my claim…

What I want to do, as part of what I have done for many years as a Methodist minister, is to remind people that we’ve got a claim to make, and it’s worth making it, and don’t quit.

The hollowness you mentioned resonates with at least one Methodist scholar’s impression that, although the Methodist Church accepts the need to evangelise, there is also this national consensus that there is a lack of confidence to engage locally. Is there any link between this discipleship thing you are talking about and the lack of confidence to engage locally in terms of evangelism? And when you talk about the hollow at a personal level, do you see that in the national body as well?

Well it’s difficult not to speak on that and sound like I am being critical. To be honest I have a profound affection for Methodism and for Methodists. I think we struggle and we work hard. I think what we may have done is not that we’ve lacked conviction or even courage – what we’ve kind of almost forgotten is how much God loves us. So we want to love God, we want to love God’s people, we feel overly anxious about our declining and our failure apparently, and we think therefore we’ve got to work harder and try harder. But the key thing to try hard at seems to me to not quit your claim on God.

Faith is digging a bean trench, you dig it deep, you double dig it, you fill it with manure, you cover it in soil, you do it four months before the beans are planted in the faith that the beans will grow. I can’t make a bean grow but I have to work hard for the bean to grow. I’ve got this image of Jessica Ennis, a great athlete from Sheffield, and I’m going to see her at the Olympics this year. I am very proud of this. And faith is Jessica Ennis eating a diet suitable for her health, getting up in the morning and going for running, having ice packs, doing it on Christmas day. God has given her the gift. She couldn’t, without God’s gift, run an inch; but if she hadn’t done all that training and exercise, then those gifts would not have been released. The one I am most moved by is the sails on a sailing boat, which have to be raised to catch the wind. I believe that in the Baptist Church, the Reformed Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and right across the Pentecostal Churches, the old house churches, that there is a real desire for a much more discipleship oriented version of Christianity. I believe that this is God’s Holy Spirit – it’s a breeze blowing across the Christian Churches in Western lands - and about time too. And we can’t make that happen, but we can raise our sails to catch the breeze and it’s our business to raise the sails and we have a method for that.

One of our Methodist scholars says Methodism has not recovered from being twice left at the altar by the Anglicans and that it had affected our confidence and perhaps our identity as well. Do you think we have recovered from that now? And do you think some of the seeming gap between our intention and achievement in discipleship and mission and evangelism might be traceable to that?

Well it would be an argument to make. But the thing that would make me want to suggest that it might be more complicated than that is that Methodism isn’t the only Church that’s been in sharp decline for over 130 years. It’s a general Western phenomenon. I think we ought to be extraordinarily careful about understanding what’s happened to us as a Church in simple human or secular terms.

Just because things don’t go our way doesn’t mean that God’s stopped being in charge. We have prayed for quite a lot of things in the Church: revival, ecumenical partnerships etc. And those prayers, in our minds, haven’t been answered. Therefore we don’t want to blame God, understandably. But what if God is in the Church’s decline? What if God is still sovereign in the Church and in the world and we’re in decline? How can we understand where we are now in the light of God’s continued sovereignty?

I think there is a profound sense of us needing to remember that God is still sovereign, and including in our ecumenical prayers. So we prayed for Anglican unity two times and it didn’t happen. I am not saying that God willed it not to happen or that God let us down. All I am saying is, what ever happened remains in God’s will. We’ve got to rethink our predicament in the light of God’s glory and grace and power and stop talking about ourselves as if God had nothing to do with it.

I want us to put God back in our story and say ‘where is God in our sorrow, in our sadness, in our victories and in our trials?’ and understand success with a more careful mind and certainly in the light of God.

Preaching is one of your gifts and passions. As you know, MET shares that passion and has a series of preaching conferences to encourage the gift of expository preaching. How can we further develop that kind of preaching in the Connexion?

I have to refer MET readers to the ‘Fruitful Field’ project and the huge importance that is placing on learning as close as possible to where it’s needed - that includes both lay and ordained people; that is driven by a renewed, refreshed relationship with the academic world; that is made available to the local people, and that is driven on a vision of God equipping the people of God to preach the Gospel. So in a new world, I am hoping that we are going to have some really good group of people who are going to be part of the training network. I’m believing this would transform not just preaching but the way we do all our work. But I’ll say, watch the space of fruitful field and pray. In all my life as a passionate educationalist, I’ve never been so excited by the thinking of people around the colleges, around the Connexion, as to what we might do if we really think in the exciting way we’re thinking.

During Lent you gave a series of reflections on the BBC on the theme of wilderness. I wonder if you might want to locate the Methodist Church in that wilderness today and where we might be.

Its feeling is in the wilderness. Not everyone is, but I feel that’s there. I suppose that there are a number of things that come out of that for me. One is that God is in the wilderness. How do we understand this? Not that God wills cruel punishment, but that he knows what’s in store for us and it is for our good not for our evil. I would want to locate it within a rhythm of struggling grace, of Jesus who is given the extraordinary baptism and the tremendous overwhelming sense of God’s presence. And then, immediately, forty days in the wilderness of Jesus struggling. And there is also the experience of movement towards freedom of the children of Israel, with the complaining and muttering and the misery, the longing for the past. I have wondered whether one of the reasons why struggle in the wilderness is so important to us is that we’re not grown up enough to take the free gift properly. We always have to go through the struggling in order to learn how to receive grace. It’s a tough thing to receive and not to treat it as cheap because it was free. I don’t think people take free gifts very well.

Do you have any heroes among past presidents of conference beginning with Wesley, and could you name them?

Harry Morton - I had huge respect for when I was a young man. I listened to him many times and was deeply impressed by him. And Colin Morris, who is still alive, was a great hero of our family because he was in Zambia when I was a little boy in Kenya (and before that in Sierra Leone in West Africa). Morris was a friend of Kaunda and had taken a very, very clear line among the white expat community about integration in those days. But there are others.

What is your favourite scripture passage and why?

It’s Romans 8: ‘God works together all things for those who love him.’ I love this concept of a God working together all things - intermingling all things for good for those that love him; that he hasn’t finished with me or the Methodist Church and he will never finish with me. He’ll keep working on me till glory.

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