If you look up the word “advocate” you read, “to support or recommend publicly; plead for or speak in favour of.” The phrase “plead for” seems to me to have a great deal more strength to it than “speak in favour of,” however I feel that the significant shift towards evangelical inclusion within Methodism over the past thirty years means that the latter phrase is more indicative as to where we should be. Does this mean I have lost my passion for the evangelical gospel? No it does not, but it does mean that times have changed. However, I am not too sure that all MET members have realised the significance of that change, which means that newer members stand back and watch us tilting at windmills that no longer turn, and wonder quite what is going on.
When I first went to the Methodist Conference in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Paul Smith, former MET Chair, would often speak of the MET members meeting in a telephone kiosk! Paul himself was harangued and booed during one Conference, we were a seriously marginalized minority and, other than the giant evangelical presence of Donald English, we had no voice at the top table. In both formal and informal debate the evangelical position was marginalized and ridiculed, we did not just need to plead for our voice to be heard, we also needed to push and to shout.
The debate on human sexuality was a bruising time; some of our evangelical sisters and brothers left us, no one group saw the outcome as a triumph, but the debate did have the effect of galvanising evangelical Methodists to realise that if they wanted to have a voice they needed to play a part. Many evangelicals stood to be representatives to Conference, whilst still more started to get stuck in at District and Circuit level. Clearly this had an effect upon decision making, but a more subtle effect was that, on the one hand evangelicals began to be known as the individuals they were rather than just by their label, and on the other hand evangelicals discovered that those they in turn had labelled as either woolly liberals or wild radicals also read their Bibles each day, said their prayers and wanted to win people to faith in Jesus Christ. The key policy of MET (then Headway) at this time was a strong encouragement to members to allow themselves to be nominated for various posts and committees. There was a considerable cost to that, for allowing one’s name to go forward for a Connexional role and then time and again not being selected was tough. However some were chosen. I think for example of the then Headway Secretary, Alan Eccles, who was appointed to the Candidates Committee to give an evangelical voice, but who then went on to Co-Chair the Committee for a number of years; a quality person is recognised regardless of their theological position. In recent years MET members and fellow travellers have been appointed to senior positions as District Chairs, college tutors and on a range of Connexional committees, plus one or two serving with great distinction as President or Vice President of Conference.
The point I am making is that the days of us stridently pushing for a place and a voice are over. Younger evangelicals do not want to keep fighting old battles. For some MET members, doctrinal credibility begins and ends with moral matters! Many younger members have grown up in different times, they have their views and stand firm for truth but their priorities are elsewhere. Their concern is with those marginalized by traditional Church, they have a deep compassion for social justice, they live with a world view shaped by immigration and they rejoice that the UK is such a vibrant multi-cultural community.
If MET is therefore to be an advocate within the Church as it is becoming, I think the key priorities are:-
- Relational, we will win influence only as people know and trust us.
- Resourced, we also win influence as we gain respect. We need to use the academics amongst us to produce the materials to help us understand the key issues, produce study materials for local Church and small groups. We must inspire preachers to wrestle with these issues Sunday by Sunday. We must build a reputation that MET is worth listening to.
- Presentational, if “the medium is the message” we must learn to speak always with grace. We can only object to being called “hard liners” if we do not come across as hard!
- Prioritised, MET needs to be clear where the key debates of the Church lie. To me three key areas present themselves.
- The uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one sure ground of salvation is of far more significance than any moral debate; this will be the most crucial theological issue in a multi-faith society.
- The marginalization of faith of any sort by secularism is something to be resisted vigorously; this will call for political involvement and action.
- Local and world poverty and justice are issues that many of other or no faith work for. Here we can build bridges in working for that which is an absolutely central plank of Biblical teaching.
I have also been asked to reflect upon how MET can represent Methodism within the wider evangelical world. I have to confess here that I am not at all sure that Methodist evangelicals, whether MET members or not, will ever sit comfortably with much of the public face of 21st century evangelicalism! When we look at so many Churches rooted in Western capitalism, the “Prosperity Gospel” is a false gospel with no cross at the heart of it. Then our Arminian theology that Christ died for all will always cause some evangelicals to be suspicious of us.
In the face of this I am not advocating that we simply trundle on down our little Methodist branch line. No, what I am saying is that we need to be very careful as to who our fellow travellers are and make sure that we stand for the gospel of grace, which is at the heart of Methodist theology. This may mean that we stand back from some evangelicals, pray with them and for them, but make sure that we do not confuse what seems like success with God’s blessing.
So what do Methodist evangelicals bring to the wider table? Can I suggest three gifts we can offer?
- An emphasis upon holiness. Donald English said of our doctrine of Christian Perfection that it was the crown jewel that Methodism could bring to the wider Church. This doctrine drives us forward towards Christ, it creates Godly men and women who become dynamic Christians, it creates Christians who non- believers respect because they see something of God’s love in their lives.
- An emphasis upon grace. I love the “Four Alls” of Methodism:
- All need to be saved.
- All can be saved.
- All can know that they are saved.
- All can be saved to the uttermost.
Our emphasis upon Christ dying for all stands against the rigours of Calvinism and presents a cross which is profoundly wide in its reach. This gospel of grace is not an easy gospel because it asks many questions as to boundaries, but it reminds the wider Church that there is no limit to the work of Christ on Calvary.
- An emphasis upon social righteousness. The picture of a Methodist with Bible in one hand and union membership card in the other is an idealised picture of the Nineteenth Century. It does however have a great seed of truth, the biblical idea of faith expressing itself in works. I was the only Methodist at a recent gathering of national evangelical leaders, also one of only a few local pastors there, the rest were national or parachurch leaders. The energy came from detailed discussion of theology, of who was “in” and who was “out”. I found so much of the discussion irrelevant to my world. Methodism is best on the ground, pragmatic, meeting human need where it is, engaging in communities.
So MET can be an advocate within Methodism, and an advocate from Methodism to the wider evangelical community. As we seek to be that advocate, may it all be in the wisdom, grace and strength of Jesus Christ, our one Advocate on high and of the Holy Spirit our advocate and guide.