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Interview: Gareth Powell Secretary of the Methodist Conference

23 June 2017

‘Christian mission is about being profligate, without too much worry about the returns’

THE Secretary of the Conference is the executive officer, and plays a principal part in the oversight and leadership of the Church. Some of my responsibilities are similar to those of the Secretary-General of the General Synod, but the post of secretary is open only to presbyters; so it’s undertaken in the context of a ministry of word and sacrament.

In particular, I’m responsible for ensuring that the Church has structures and processes that enable the Conference, other connexional bodies, districts, circuits, and local churches to develop our vision of unity, mission, evangelism, and worship, and develop strategic management.

There’s very little obvious rhythm to daily life, and that’s a challenge. I travel a great deal, spend too much time in meetings, and try to visit as many churches as possible. And there’s the tyranny of the instant answer to the complex email.

I was shaped by local Methodism: pastoral care, challenging preaching, a deep sense of awe of the sacraments, and hymns that spoke of the love of God. I encountered groups that expressed the gospel of mercy and of joy by serious engagement with society. I still recall the challenge of “No holiness without social holiness”, a key strand of John Wesley’s offer of Christ to all.

John and Charles Wesley’s hymns on the Lord’s Supper convinced me that Methodism was the community to which I wanted to belong.

My wife, who’s a special needs teacher, and our two daughters, are members of the Church of England; so ecumenical dialogue can spill over to the meal table.

Methodism certainly encourages a servant-leadership model, though early Methodism was participative rather than a community of equals. There was a wide contribution of views and ideas, but a few made the final decisions.

Now the Conference is the supreme decision-making body, with 306 individuals, lay and ordained, representing the districts and particular concerns and responsibilities. This has its challenges, but it ensures wide consultation and dissemination. The drawback is that we can be suspicious of individuals who take too much of a lead.

Since the 18th century, the overarching questions facing the annual Methodist Conference are: what is the state of the work of God in our Connexion and in the world? How is God is calling us to participate in the divine mission?

This year, we’ll address the continued outworking of the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review [on safeguarding], including the policy around ministerial supervision, work on the significance of connexionalism in the 21st century, and the triennial statistical overview of the Methodist Church.

It’s exciting to consider God’s work across the Connexion — to celebrate good news and to acknowledge the challenges and opportunities facing the Church in the present age. We must remember we’re only part of God’s tapestry, and have courage to live ecumenically, on a very large map.

Christian mission seems to me to be about being profligate, without too much worry about the returns, and we have to challenge assumptions in the Church and our society about what it means to live as the community of the resurrection. Ultimately, we must ensure that we’re rooted in God, and therefore able to listen to God’s claims upon us, and not be too worried about what others think. The early Methodists didn’t mind being unpopular as long as they were faithful.

Local ecumenical work catches the imagination, but it’s harder to replicate this on a national or connexional scale. Ecumenical dialogues focus on sharing experiences of God, sharing stories, encounters, prayer. Ministry and oversight are the most challenging issues for Methodists and Anglicans in England, but addressing these is a sign of progress.

My vision is that we live more faithfully as a royal priesthood, a holy nation. I spent a semester at the graduate school in the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, in 1995-96, encountering different cultural and ecclesial traditions. It changed me, as true encounter does.

We were all committed to the proclamation of God’s love for the world — African Pentecostalists, Orthodox priests and laity, some from Eastern Europe — so it challenged you about the things that defined you. It forced me to strip back my Methodism to what really mattered, and strengthened my belief that social holiness was vital.

I also discovered that I’d find it very difficult to pray without my hymn book.

We’re engaged in ecumenical tasks — not because it makes logistical sense, but because we’re called by God to live in ever fuller union with all God’s people.

I was born in south Wales, and it was there that I failed miserably to learn the piano. My grandmother was responsible for my view that a daily dose of chocolate is essential.

Methodist Sunday school taught me God’s love through Bible stories. I read theology at Westminster College, Oxford, taught for a year in a small liberal-arts college in Tennessee, and then trained for ordained ministry at Queen’s, Birmingham, and Bossey.

Thoughtful Sunday-school teachers and preachers taught me that there’s an inseparable link between worship and witness — and witness, like God, is about the whole of creation. They challenged and enlarged my thinking, reminding me that God will not be defined.

Wesley’s “duty of constant communion” is vital to my experience. At the church I attended as a child, there was only a monthly celebration of holy communion. It was treated with huge respect, and the minister took seriously the task of preparing us for receiving it.

I’m aware of being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”. I’ve been influenced by some deeply faithful people. At the age of 18, I met a Methodist minister who taught me to think. He assured me that multi-disciplinary inquiry about God and the world was the essence of our faith. He died this year, and I’m without one of the most perceptive individuals I’ve ever met; but his influence shapes my ministry.

I’m sure John Wesley was a rather difficult person to have as a colleague. I’m realistic about their flaws, and know that holy people have feet of clay; but the Wesleys were significant for the way their personal encounter with God shaped the understanding of their communities.

I enjoy being out of doors, gardening or walking, conversations — not least when good food is involved — and poetry.

I like the sound of tea being poured into a china cup at about 4 p.m., followed by conversation with friends.

My prayer is that the Methodist Church will be alert to what God asks of us — and that I be alert to what God requires of me. Too much of our concern for the institution can focus on targets, planning, and mitigating risk. The incarnation is messy, and I’m eager to explore what that means for us, and when we must take risks. I pray for strength to translate the gospel into all sorts of contexts; and I seek to be thankful.

I’m a huge fan of the Church of England’s Daily Prayer app: everything in one place, which is vital when you need to travel light. Wesley would approve.

People’s willingness to form views without considering all aspects of a situation, argument, or person makes me angry. Judgement is more powerful than we realise, and its destructive powers cause deep hurt.

Seeing the world through the eyes of a three-year-old makes me happy, although my children would tell you that it’s ice cream that really makes me happy. Perhaps it’s all part of the same thing. I’m most peaceful when participating in the eucharist, which draws us into the economy of God’s very being, and confronts me with God’s claim upon my life.

My hope rests in believing that God cares for humankind, calling us to participate in a ministry of mercy and thanksgiving. If we take that seriously, transformation becomes more than a possibility: it’s a reality now.

Samuel Johnson complained that John Wesley “is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do”; so that rules him out as a companion if I was locked in a church. And, anyway, he’d have very strong views on what the Secretary of the Conference should be doing. I’d choose his mother, Susanna, to ask about her pattern for the domestic church in which she nurtured her children. Her prayers move me to see anew the immensity of God’s grace for all.


The Revd Gareth Powell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Methodist Conference began in Birmingham yesterday, and runs till next Thursday, 29 June.

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