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Decline ‘turns to growth’

17 September 2008

Headlines depict the Church in decline, but this does not reflect what is happening on the ground, the new President of the Methodist Conference tells Pat Ashworth

Optimist: the Revd Stephen Poxon. “We need to tell the good stories”

Optimist: the Revd Stephen Poxon. “We need to tell the good stories”

THE REVD STEPHEN Poxon has had a heady start to his presidential year. He flew to Tonga directly after the opening weekend of the Lambeth Conference to be a front-row guest at the coronation of King George Tupou V, and to preach at Sunday worship in the Wesley Centenary Church in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga.

He managed to hire the last top hat in Tonga for the ceremony — a traditional British coronation done in a Pacific way for the Sandhurst- and Oxford-educated King.

The first missionaries who went to Tonga were Methodists, and its Royal Family remain staunch adherents on what is still regarded as a Methodist island. When a choir of 300 sang “Zadok the Priest” it sent a shiver down the spine, says Mr Poxon.

But it was the televising of the Sunday service — at which he preached to the 1000-strong congre­gation of guests and islanders — that really made an impact. He used the lectionary reading of the feeding of the 5000 to develop the integrated themes of hospitality and God’s grace, which will be the emphases of his year in office.

Everyone, from waiters to baggage handlers, during his stay on the island and subsequent visit to the New Zealand Church, appeared to have watched it. “I’m committed to the world church, but I hadn’t realised how important that moment was for the church there,” he observes.

He was brought up in Beeston, Nottingham, where the family attended Queens Road Methodist Church. The Boys Brigade (BB) in particular made a deep impression on him, and, although he went to Manchester University to read maths and economics, he was accepted as a candidate for ministry in his second year. After completing his degree, he did two years’ VSO with the fledgling BB in Zambia, travelling around the country on a battered Honda.

He looks back on that time with pleasure, but also acknowledges “dark and lonely” times when, living in the bush nine miles from the nearest town, he could go three days without speaking to anyone. God’s providence brought him through, he says, and the experience gave him “a vision for myself as part of the world Church that has never left me.”

AFTER TRAINING at Queen’s Bir­ming­ham — “when it was still quite a radical place, with a good number of Anglicans” — and marrying Myrtle, a fellow student training to be a deaconess, the couple underwent missionary training at Kingsmead College, Selly Oak, and were offered ministry in Jamaica. Administrative errors held up the appointment, until Dr Pauline Webb, an officer of the Overseas Division, issued the instruc­tion: “Put them on a plane,” and they found themselves with just three days to pack and leave. It was Mrs Poxon’s first time outside Britain.

Mr Poxon has spoken often, and with thankfulness, of the six-and-a-half years they were in St Ann’s Bay, where he was Superintendent Min­ister of five churches. “It was the warmth of the people, the exuberance of their faith, and the fact that they lived their faith. This was a culture where people were upfront about being Christians,” he says. “Those years shaped both of us, and shaped me into who I am today.”

Back in Britain in 1985, having had one child, Matthew, and adopted another, Tamara, he took the job of full-time Methodist/URC chaplain to Cardiff University. He and his wife shared the ministry at Cathays Meth­odist Church, in what had been Tiger Bay, and are credited with reversing its decline over the 11 years they were there.

In Preston, Lancashire, he was Min­ister of Fulwood Methodist Church for four years, before be­coming chairman of the North Lancashire District in 2000. He had allowed his name to go forward for what is, in effect, the bishop’s role, but “without any sense that it would happen”. Being able to stay in Preston, and not uproot the family of, now, four children — Joseph, the youngest, is 13 — has been a huge blessing.

STEPHEN POXON takes over the presidency at a time of great change in the central structures, which he publicly acknowledges has caused hurt and which “could have been handled with a lot more grace”. You can walk into Church House and still feel the pain, he says.

As he said to the Methodist Conference in Scarborough, in July, the past few years have been difficult as a denomination. Statisticians from the Archbishops’ Council found good and bad news when they were com­missioned to provide a detailed analysis of some of the trends. They note that it remains to be seen whether an average weekly attend­ance, higher in 2007 than 2006, represents a continuing reversal of a trend.

Mr Poxon told overseas ministers on a “Welcome to Britain” course for those wanting to serve here: “If you listen to the negative voices that say the British Church is in terminal decline, you could get quite de­pressed. But I don’t see it as pessi­mistically as a lot do.” He points to an exuberant Breakout meeting of 2000 young Methodists at Cliff College this summer, and pays tribute to their youth-club leaders as the salt of the earth. “Sometimes we need to tell the good stories.”

When the Anglican-Methodist Covenant was signed, the Lancashire churches signed a local covenant as well: a sign that, despite key differ­ences over women’s ordination, they retain a close working relationship. Several Anglicans in the diocese are associate ministers, and a growing number of Methodists hold the Bishop’s licence to celebrate com­munion.

The rise of the Regional Training Partnerships has meant the redis­covery of the need for good Bible teaching. “What is it about our Methodist people that we are so lazy about learning?” he ponders. “We wouldn’t accept it for our children, but, sadly, we are OK with a Sunday school education, and don’t want to become theologically mature.”

THE SHELVES of his sitting room at the district manse on the Blackpool Road are still littered with cards and expressions of good will from Methodists all over the country. “You are supported for the year on this wonderful wave of prayer,” he says with gratitude. His opening address to the Conference grappled with how the grace of God might transform the world: “A gospel of grace that made the Methodists an Evangelical move­ment, not as the word denotes today, but as in the words of Wesley: salvation was for ‘every soul of man’,” he told them.

He warms to the concept of gospel hospitality for all sections of the com­munity. The day before our interview he had been at the reopening of a homelessness project at the Central Methodist Church in Preston, for which the local council had offered government money. One thousand people visit the coffee shop each week, and 20 rough sleepers can now have individual rooms. The project is aided by a congregation of about 60 that keeps it going.

“I know I’ll find stories like that all over Britain,” he says. “We are not in terminal decline. Like many churches, we are beginning to bottom out, and beginning to grow.”

FRESH EXPRESSIONS is now having a real impact, he observes: another positive is the growing number of ethnic congregations, so vibrant in London District that it is a black-majority Church. The challenge now is to integrate those who want to be part of the wider Church, a dialogue he feels equipped to open.

There is dialogue, too, in rural com­munities all around the Con­nexion, where the denominations are facing difficult decisions. “There is a huge rural issue as church leaders — that we mustn’t all leave the village together,” he says. “We have now reached a point where we are having to close buildings, but maybe our work as such is finished, and we have to leave it to another Church that is still there.”

He points to Garstang, where three of the village chapels have closed, but from which came the money to fund an Evangelist, a lay pastoral worker, and a youth worker. “Let’s put the resources into people, to make new Christians, to make more disciples,” he says.

“Methodism was a movement, not a Church. It’s about looking at our Methodist DNA, the rediscovering of the small groups — Wesley’s genius that was the ‘class meeting’. . . a realisation that perhaps we don’t need buildings, perhaps we take the Old Testament model of a tent.”

He would like to think that, in a year, albeit a brief time, some of the things that he is passionate about will help to change the Church. His final remarks to the Methodist Conference sum up his aspirations: “If an individual can find in me a hospitable space where they are welcome to share my life, and discover within my openness and vulnerability the love of Christ, then perhaps that might help transform one life — and, who knows, even the world.”

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