Most of the time, to be honest, Conference reports are destined to gather dust on shelves - even those which are received with great aplomb and welcomed whole-heartedly by the church. I well remember the enthusiasm with which 'Charter 95' was embraced in Bristol, calling for the young people of Methodism to be given a greater part in the life of the church. The following year a 'young person' was nominated for the office of Vice President of Conference - here's the chance to stand by our words of 12 months ago, I thought, but what happened? Nothing. Conference reports come and go. Conference initiatives come and go. Presidents and Vice-Presidents, and even Secretaries of Conference/ General Secretaries of the Methodist Church come and go, yet very little seems to change.
So why am I getting so animated about another such report? Because I think this one has the potential to make a huge difference to the life, ethos and potentially the future of the British Methodist Church. It is the report of the General Secretary, Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, to the Conference of 2011, in which he calls on the Methodist people to rediscover their calling to be a Discipleship movement shaped for mission.
I was first alerted to it by an article in the Methodist Recorder which picked up on many of its salient points, but that didn't really do justice to its 24 pages in the agenda. In the report, Martyn:
seeks to discern and describe a vision of the direction of travel of the life and work, worship and mission of the Methodist Church as it responds in loving obedience to the gracious prompting of the Spirit;and to set an emphasis on the Methodist Church as a discipleship movement shaped for mission. The report sets out the consequent challenges; reconsiders connexionalism in the light of them; and outlines various recommendations for further work to address them in the areas of patterns of ministry; property and stewardship; worship; a mixed economy of traditional and new patterns of being the Church; evangelism; and partnerships. [from the summary of the paper]In the paper ideas put forward by previous leaders of the Church, dormant for a number of years (the ideas, not the leaders), resurface in the belief that their rhema-moment has now come: ideas such as Nigel Collinson's desire for there to be a pastor for every church, and Tom Stuckey's call for Circuit Meetings to have more say on the closure and disposal of churches which have come to the end of their mission. These are set alongside a timely call for better, targeted training for Superintendent ministers; the encouragement of a mixed economy of ministry in circuits between lay, diaconal and presbyteral, with a wider sharing of pastoral responsibility; the encouragement of more small group leadership (which is one of the factors in how early Methodism grew in the way it did). And there's so much more in it: take a look at the full report, which you can find on pages 23-48 of volume 1 of the agenda, available on the Methodist Conference website.
I find quite striking a couple of words in the header pages of the report: when assessing the impact of the report, it simply states 'potentially considerable.' But only if we take these prophetic words to heart, and act on them as expediently as possible. As it goes on to say about the risk of this report: 'A wide ranging number of risks involved in pursuing … and not pursuing such priorities.'