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Methodist Conference: Online-only churches considered

05 July 2024

Pat Ashworth reports on proceedings at the Conference in Leeds

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MORE work and research is needed on how to incorporate predominantly online churches into the structures and framework of the Methodist Church, and how to make it a “safe, diverse, and engaging space,” the Conference concluded.

Online celebrations of holy communion were acknowledged to need particular discernment, and a task group was charged with bringing recommendations to the 2026 Conference. The report Online Church and Online Communion acknowledges the increasing importance of online mission and ministry, and the way in which the Covid-19 lockdown accelerated the Church’s engagement with online work.

“It is an issue of some weight . . . which is likely to have some implications for church unity both within the Methodist Church and with ecumenical partners,” the report says.

The current period of discernment has been extended for two years. It is to include a substantial piece of research into practice across the Connexion, the range of understandings of the nature of such celebrations, and their relation to those onsite.

The report suggests: “There may be a temptation to think online provision will suffice when onsite has had to close and this may be correlated with marginalisation in other forms, including economic deprivation and the challenges faced by rural communities.

“There may also be particular questions relating to the participation of children and young people particularly [those] whose family do not participate in the church. At the same time, predominantly online churches can enable the participation of those for whom participation in onsite gatherings is difficult or impossible, including disabled people and those who are housebound, those for whom large gatherings are problematic and those who may be unable to travel to an onsite gathering.”

The ecumenical question, the report says, is also of significance in a mission context. “The Methodist Church may determine that it is willing to take this step as a development of its mission, but mission may equally imply participating as fully as possible in the wholeness of the Church catholic,” the report suggests. “To introduce predominantly online churches will create some opportunities but may also raise challenges.”

Questions relating to office-holders, safeguarding, managing and monitoring, the well-being of participants, and faith and order questions, are all deemed to be factors to be taken into consideration. “As Christians, we are constantly seeking to provide new ways for people to hear the good news of Jesus and to share in Christian fellowship,” the Secretary of the Faith and Order committee, Dr Mark Rowland, said.

“In the 21st century, that includes online contexts as much as onsite ones, and this work will help us to do that better.”

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