How broad a church are we?
Our Editor's request for an article on this topic seemed at first a fairly straightforward exercise. However, the more I have reflected upon the topic, and the more certain experiences of God and other people have touched my life, the more I have realised that this is an area where I am struggling, and I hope that you will be prepared to struggle with me!
First, what do we mean by ‘Church’? The Christian Church in its huge breadth across nations and denominations? The worldwide Methodist Church with it equally broad life and expression of faith? Or our own British Methodist Church? I have assumed here that we mean the latter.
Second, what does the word ‘broad’ mean? There are some who would see ‘broad’ as a description to be applauded and rejoiced in, whilst for others the term would have links with a lack of definition and wishy-washy theology. The word is given a measure of value judgement by either side.
Third, the title itself is ambivalent. Does the question ‘How broad a Church are we?’ seek an answer in description, or is it rather posing a question as to what boundaries should be set by our Methodist Church, and within that by those of us who call ourselves evangelicals? As I am writing for Headline I have assumed that our particular concern is how broad a Church can we who are evangelicals cope with!
So how broad a Church are we? Of course, it all depends what you are speaking about. If we turn to what in common use we call Churchmanship evangelicals spread themselves pretty well across the whole range of Methodist practice. Some evangelicals also hold membership of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship, they would be thought ‘high’ in dress and practice, but the gospel they preach is an evangelical one. Many evangelicals would also call themselves charismatic, and one of the great differences between the Methodist and the Anglican Churches is that within our evangelical grouping there is not the hard-line division seen within Anglicanism between those still firmly rooted in Calvinistic theology (who tend to be anti-charismatic and anti-women in leadership), and those who stand within the charismatic tradition. In Methodism few evangelicals are untouched by charismatic theology, and that gives both a unity and an openness to any new thing God may want to teach us. Some Methodist evangelicals would be called ‘low’ Church, but this is not an exclusive preserve of evangelicals, for some radical and liberal Methodists are also of this churchmanship. Evangelicalism within Methodism therefore spreads right across all styles of churchmanship. We can claim no one area as our own.
What then if we turn to political and social involvement? Again evangelicals stand broadly within the Methodist tradition of expressing faith through political and social action, the right wing politics associated with the conservative theology in the States have (thankfully) passed us by.
What about valuing the Bible? Our President, Neil Richardson, has been on something of a crusade this year to get Methodists reading the Bible, as he fears that our views are ‘more shaped by our newspapers than by scripture!’ As evangelicals we talk a great deal about reading and valuing scripture, but when I am away on conferences and committees I notice time and again that those from the more liberal end of the Church value scripture and read their Bible just as much as we do. Evangelicals have no monopoly on valuing the Bible.
Interfaith matters is another key area of understanding for Christians working in multi-faith Britain. Here evangelicals will be rooted in the view that faith in Jesus and his cross is the only sure way to God, an attitude which is often greeted with amazement that anyone still believes that! Here we must stand firm, in that we are not speaking of cultural expression but of the clear word of Jesus about himself. However, if when I get to heaven I discover many Muslims or Hindus there I will not be surprised, because time and again I am amazed at the grace of God. Nevertheless, as I understand scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus is a key area where we must hold firm. To lose that unique claim of Jesus is both to be unfaithful to scripture and also to undermine the root of evangelism - a love and care for the lost.
Morality is where evangelicals pose the sharpest questions as to where we draw a line, and especially in the field of human sexuality. As we join in Covenant with our Anglican friends we watch in horror as the debate about human sexuality tears them apart. Within Methodism the so-called ‘Derby Resolutions’ have held us together for a good time now. The problem is that how we interpret them is unclear, and there is an extent to which we are living with both hypocrisy and fudge. How evangelicals respond on this issue is a deep test of both grace and truth. Speaking personally, my understanding of the ‘Derby Resolutions’ is that the Methodist Church believes sexuality should be expressed within marriage, but that a same-sex orientation is in no way a bar to effective ministry. The problem is that resolutions and words do not always cope easily with the complications of real life. The gay community often interpret these resolutions differently, and for many years have also felt rejected and hurt by the Church. This hurt is not all one-sided however, for evangelicals have also been very hurt that their deeply held principles have been the reason for censure by those in authority. My prayer is that because we are a smaller denomination and therefore know and respect one another we can in some way walk forward together, respecting each other but also being given assurances as evangelicals that where a Circuit or Church has a particular viewpoint, no person in a same sex relationship will be forced upon them in ministry. This is where we differ from the Anglicans and have a special problem: their layering of parishes into streams of churchmanship means that evangelicals would never be faced with the dilemma now facing some of us. For me the key to our holding together is to allow deeply held views to be respected. That will need give in both directions, and rather more flexibility than is allowed at present in allowing churches to declare where they stand on this particular issue.
I finish, however, with a reflection - whether we ask ‘How broad a Church are we?’ or whether a far better question might be ‘How broad a God do we worship?’. Those ‘Four Alls’ which Methodists hold in such reverence say it all: the love of God is so wide that no one is left out, all are welcome, ‘sinners Jesus will receive’. We dare not place a limit on the grace and love of God. The need of our world for God is so very desperate, people are longing for the meaning and purpose which can only be found in Jesus. Might we do better to get on with sharing the Good News and leaving God to worry about where the boundary lines are set?
The Rev Martin Turner is Superintendent Minister of Westminster Central Hall and a former Chairman of Headway.
Headline, Winter 2003/4 pp 23-24.