Friday, 19 September 2014

Questions of Democracy

Democracy - rule by the people - is at the heart of Western society. It is cherished as the most equitable form of government, and much effort is put into seeking to proselytise others to its cause. But do we fully understand it?

Yesterday the people of Scotland engaged in an exercise in democracy, as they were asked to respond to a simple question: did they still wish to be a part of the United Kingdom, or was it time for them to become an independent nation (again)? They decided by 55% to 45% to stay within the Union, much to the relief of the political establishment in Westminster and financial markets across the world.

One thing that struck me about the referendum was the way in which it captured the imagination of the Scottish people, in that 85% of them actively participated in the vote. Such a turnout has not been seen in UK politics for well over 60 years, and bucks the trend of apathy that seems to be sweeping through domestic politics. This got me thinking: why would this be the case?

Was it that this election was about an issue that most people could relate to and understand - a matter of national identity?

Was it that this election was about a single issue? This has proved successful in other elections, be it Martin Bell standing against the cash-for-questions sleaze, or UKIP making immigration the scapegoat for the nation's ills.

Was it that this election was more firmly about an issue rather than individuals and personalities, in a way that national elections increasingly are not - a fact reflected in the Leaders' debates during the 2010 election which led to the relative success of the Lib Dems. People tend to talk of voting for the party leader, rather than that party's particular policies: I'm not conscious of the 'Yes' campaign putting too much emphasis on Alex Salmond over against the principle of independence.

Referenda, being single-issue plebiscites, perhaps have a tendency to be better supported than other such polls, though it will be interesting to see, if and when the tentatively-promised 'in-out' referendum on Britain's continued membership of the EU happens, whether we see anything like the figures we saw in Scotland.

There does seem to be an increasing apathy towards organised politics in the UK. Turnout for the last General election in 2010 was 65.1%; for the last Local Government elections only 36%; and for the election  of Police & Crime Commissioners a pitiful 15.1%. South Yorkshire will be holding a by-election shortly for its PCC, following the resignation of Sean Wright in the wake of the Rotherham Child abuse scandal: will the voters make an effort this time? We'll see.

From the time I turned 18, in that momentous year of 1979, I have always voted, and have always urged people to use their own vote. Compared to many countries, we have an enormous privilege in being able to have our say in the running of our nation and local communities. But in recent years I have found it increasingly difficult to decide where to place my 'X' on the ballot paper, and I recognise that others are showing their frustration with the system by simply opting out. There must be a way that we can find to enable more people to engage with the political process, but at the moment I'm at a loss to know what it might be, and I'm not sure whether the constitutional reforms hinted at by Cameron this morning will be the answer.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

One Circuit for Sheffield: how goes it?

Just over a year ago, and after much discussion and deliberation, the Methodist church in Sheffield amalgamated its then eight circuits into one 'mega-circuit' covering the whole of the city, as well as parts of north Derbyshire around Dronfield. For anyone unfamiliar with the ways of Methodism, a circuit is a geographical grouping of churches around a team of ministers for the purposes of mutual support, encouragement, mission and worship. The 'new' Sheffield Circuit (how long will we continue to call it 'new'?) brings together 64 congregations with an ordained staff team of around two dozen and other lay staff in pastoral, missional and administrative roles.

The principal reason stated for bringing this huge edifice about was to enhance and enable the mission of the church throughout the city. How has it gone so far? What does it look like from the perspective of one of those ordained ministers?

In terms of the ordinary, day-to-day life of the local congregations for which I have responsibility, very little seems to have changed. Life and ministry goes on pretty much as it did before. There have been some different faces leading worship on occasions, but otherwise very little else is different. From my own perspective, I have preached in a number of different churches, as far north as High Green and as far south as Coal Aston.

One of the priorities of the new circuit has been to conduct a full and comprehensive review of all of the worshipping communities within the circuit over the course of 3 years. The first phase of this is drawing to a close and we wait to see what proposals come from this. I hope that this does not simply degenerate into finding reasons to persuade chapels to close - to 'rationalise our resources' - but that it takes bold decisions to enable the life and mission of the church to flourish where it can within the city by ensuring that the necessary resources are provided where and when they are needed.

For those 'involved' in the life of the circuit, there have been some obvious changes. Meetings are bigger (and have been considerably longer at times, due to residual business from the previous circuits), which can at times stifle debate and discussion, but new ways of doing business are being explored which hopefully can address this. Communication - particularly making those who have previously been involved in the strategic planning in the circuit as members of the Leadership Team aware of what is being planned/ discussed/ thought about - has been patchy at best, and many of us have felt disconnected from the life of the circuit. This is being addressed, and we wait to see how effective it will prove in helping the whole circuit to feel that it is involved in the future direction of the circuit. Much business, it seems, is still being driven by the four Co-Superintendents, though this may simply be my perception.

My primary concern with this large circuit is that it may very well lead to local churches becoming more detached from one another, as the 'centre' becomes large, nebulous and distant: that we will lose our essential Methodist connectedness in all but name. 'Circuit identity' has always been an issue throughout my 25 years of ministry, and this can only be exacerbated in a larger grouping. Our corporate acts of worship, to wave farewell to, and to welcome, ministers have been inspiring times, but there is a need to ensure that behind that celebratory facade there is an underlying unity holding it all together.

We have come some way in the last 12 months to beginning to achieve this: let's pray that we continue, otherwise this will simply become another machine draining resources from local mission rather than investing those resources in the life of God's Kingdom.