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Methodist Conference: Buildings not just sacred places, members hear

05 July 2024

Pat Ashworth reports on proceedings at the Conference in Leeds

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THE Methodist Conference pondered on the essence of what it was to “belong” in Methodism in the light of changed understandings of “local”, and also on how particular church communities related to the wider Church in a context of LEPs and movements such as Fresh Expressions and New Places for New People — a key part of growth and evangelism in the Methodist Church.

The past 20 years had expanded the ways in which Methodists understood church and the formation of sacred space, its Faith and Order committee report, Methodist Membership in the 21st Century, suggests.

“Those who were part of the Methodist movement in its early years will undoubtedly have a different perspective on space and place from those who experience the contemporary Methodist Church,” it says, observing that the basic building blocks of early Methodism were the Class Meeting and the Band Meeting.

“It is not enough to suggest that only a church building can be a sacred place for individuals or communities: rather, it is necessary to understand the way sacred places are created and sustained in community,” it says. “Where new ecclesial communities are being established, consideration should be given to as to how they are embedded within and relate to the Circuit, District and Connexion, and therefore how Connexionalism is lived and experienced within those communities.”

It identifies some misunderstandings about the nature of baptism and reception into membership, which, while connected to Christian initiation into the Church catholic, was “an expression of discipleship and commitment to the Methodist Church and the church in a particular place”. It says, too, that the number of members in a Church is one of the key measures used to record the number in each church and Circuit, for ministerial deployment.

It reflects that the inherited membership model “implies that Christians will normally be members of just one local congregation”, but says that, in the model Local Ecumenical Partnership constitution, the C of E “neither requires nor expects those applying for membership of the electoral roll to renounce any other allegiance — indeed the wording on the relevant form allows for multiple membership”.

It concludes: “The Faith and Order committee recognise that in the current life of the Methodist Church we are often working with diverse understandings of church which the Methodist Church has not previously encountered.

“The ecclesiology of emerging churches may challenge the way the Methodist Church has expressed itself to this point. Equally, we recognise that each time the Conference has been asked to consider membership it has affirmed its significance and place in the theology and practice of the church.

“As the life of the Methodist Church continues to develop and we continue to see new inclusive communities challenge and inspire our practice and theology, we will need to continue to consider how to articulate our understanding of membership for new and changing contexts and to ensure that those exploring membership in this context are appropriately resourced.”

The Conference voted to receive the report, and to reflect further.

The secretary of the Faith and Order committee, Dr Mark Rowland, said: “In the debate, we affirmed that anyone who seeks to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour is welcome as a member of the Methodist Church, and that members are called to serve Jesus in the life of the Church and the world.

“Across the breadth of the Methodist Church’s work in seeking to be a growing, inclusive, evangelistic, and justice-seeking Church, we seek to present that call of God to all people and the challenge of responding to it. This report and the debate in the Conference helped us to think about what that looks like across the variety of the Methodist Church, including in New Places for New People.”

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