Langley's Piece

A pastoral message from the Secretary of the Conference

A message from the Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler to the Methodist people following a further lockdown in England and continued restrictions in Wales and Scotland.

I don’t want to exaggerate our current situation by suggesting any similarity between our position and his, but I have turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison as I think about the ‘lockdown’ that began at midnight today. Even ‘lockdown’ can seem to be an exaggeration as for many life will not be so very different. Unlike in the Spring, schools and other educational establishments are still open; there is no restriction on the number of times per day that someone can leave their home; churches can be open for individual prayer, funerals, and the live streaming of acts of worship (as always, up-to-date guidance for ministers and managing trustees is available on the Methodist Church website). Our liberty has been restricted for the sake of others; it is going too far (I think) to claim that our liberties have been infringed.

None of that makes lockdown easy; there is a number of reasons why this feels so hard. One is the divergence with which we have to live in the Connexion. As activities in England become more confined, there is soon to be an easing of the restrictions in Wales. Scotland (at the time of writing) continues to operate a policy of regional tiers. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have had a very different experience in some respects and may feel more isolated than before from the rest of the British Isles. Remembering that we are one Connexion has never seemed so important.

Another reason that this feels hard is the time of year. Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents on 9 November 1943, ‘Now the dismal autumn days have begun and one has to try to get light from within.’ I was talking to a friend last week about some practical arrangements which involved meeting outdoors  and said that I supposed it was harder than in the Spring because November seems grimmer than April. ‘That’s because,’ he replied, ‘November is grimmer than April.’ This might be one year when we do not complain about preparations for Christmas beginning too early; the Christian message is that it is when the darkness is deepest the light of Christ shines most brightly.

Bonhoeffer continued that letter in November 1943, ‘Your letters always help with this.’ The discovery of pandemic for me and many others has been the range of communication technology available to us and the simple importance of keeping in touch. One of the principal tasks of ministry (for the whole community not just the ordained) is to maintain the links; that many church buildings had not reopened for worship before governments ordered their closure again was testament to the imaginative ways of sustaining fellowship that had been adopted. Of course, meeting online is not the same as gathering around a table but neither is it simply ‘better than nothing’ and we shall continue to reflect and to explore what it means to be a church that is drawn together in physical and non-physical ways.

A third reason that this is hard, however, is the (temporary) loss of a church service in those buildings where public worship had resumed. Bonhoeffer wrote in April 1943 of the ringing of the prison chapel bell being the best time to write home. ‘It’s remarkable what power church bells have over human beings and how deeply they can affect us. So many of life’s experiences gather around them.’ Meeting in a church building has a similar resonance. It is not simply about being in a particular place for a particular purpose on a particular day but about somewhere that has resonance with an host of memories, both communal and individual. ‘I think,’ Bonhoeffer went on, ‘of all the different parishes I have worked in, then of all the family occasions…. I really cannot count all the memories that come alive to me, and they all inspire peace, thankfulness, and confidence.’ At a time when we are anxious about when the restrictions will be lifted, reminding ourselves not of what we are missing but of what has blessed us in the past can be a gateway to peace, thankfulness, and confidence, and not only for us but for one another as, confined to our homes though we we might be, we make sure that we keep in touch. ‘I don’t expect a long letter from you’ wrote Bonhoeffer to one of his friends, ‘but let’s promise to remain faithful in interceding for each other.’

Jonathan Hustler, 5 November 2020

 

Weekly Bulletin from Langley (4/11/20)

Greetings all,

I have set to with this Weekly Bulletin earlier rather than later, given that, shortly, we will be entering into a further period of lockdown. The Government has today confirmed that churches are amongst the venues that must be closed so there will no church-based communal worship until further notice. Our Circuit Livestream Sunday morning worship and weekday ‘Morning Prayers’ will continue.
Weddings cannot take place. Funerals can be attended by a maximum of 30 people.

Clearly, we are much better adjusted to this lockdown the second time round, and people are aware of where to look to seek clarification.

  1. Educational Groups and Support Groups
    Thankfully, in some ways, the Lockdown is more relaxed in some respects: It is good to see that educational provision, such as pre-schools, projects that meet emergency need, such as Foodbanks and Night Shelters, and essential services (such as Blood donations), can continue in churches. However, one area where we have seen more clarity has been in which support groups can continue. For example, one of our churches can continue providing a home for a Gambler’s Anonymous group whereas, during the previous lockdown, they could not meet.
    The guidelines are clear; people can travel to support those who are vulnerable, and groups of up to 15 people can meet to support each other. There is little specificity on what defines a ‘support group’ but, it seems reasonable to me that the primary aim of such a group is to support those who are vulnerable now, or who may be at risk of becoming vulnerable as a result of the Lockdown.
    As I write, I have been thinking through this having been approached by Janet Rich at Southside, given that the church is wanting to reach out and support mothers whose children are not yet toddling. I would hold that this is entirely possible but, of course, we need to frame the aims of the project as being more than social support since, sadly, although youth sport, for example, plays a key role in safeguarding the mental and physical well-being of young people and their families, such activities are now banned.
    One might say that, if the primary focus is on football, you can’t meet but, if the primary focus is on ensuring the mental health of young people, allowing people to share their struggles, and signposting people to further support if needed, this would be. Thus, whilst I do not want to appear that I am using semantics to argue for one activity over another, it is clear to me that if the primary reason for gathering is to help people safeguard their mental and physical well-being, this is permitted. My best wishes go to the folk at Southside – and there may be other churches who would want to start a new support group for those who are vulnerable or at risk.
     
  2. The Plan
    We are mid-way through working on the next Plan. In terms of November, we revert to the same principles that were in place during the Lockdown. Churches, where they have requested, have preachers assigned. I would encourage churches to maintain their link with that preacher and to discern how you might work together to support the congregation. One suggestion that seems to be working exceedingly well, is for preachers to offer a reflection that is additional to that produced in the Vine at Home material. This could be emailed in advance to the church contact, who then disseminates it to their church members. In terms of planning across December to February, we are continuing to produce a Plan, with the flexibility of keeping our options open as the needs of the churches become clearer.
     
  3. Circuit Meeting
    Our recent Circuit Meeting (two weeks ago), was particularly helpful. I would like to offer, once again, my thanks to the Circuit Stewards for all their hard work in managing and assisting during the period when Rev Shameela left to return to Pakistan, and for all of the rapid work done in bringing together the Stationing Invitation Committee in time to submit a profile and enter into stationing for this year – the option of delaying this was of course unthinkable.

    The pressure that we were under demonstrated how important it is for everyone to work together on communication – we have noted before that, whilst communication between the Circuit Leadership Team and the Circuit Meeting has been good, the communication between us all as members of the Circuit Meeting and other leaders in our local churches has always been a challenge. We all need to work harder on this but, also be gracious with each other given the extreme pressure we have been under. And, be mindful that, if communication is difficult under normal circumstances, under the ‘new normal’ it is even harder.

    In terms of thinking about the strengths and gifts that we would look for in an incoming presbyter, we are also caught between two difficult places, and the hope is that we can find the person who God is calling to Peterborough – someone who will have that blend of openness and flexibility we need as we look to the future. Such qualities are beyond what someone can express on a profile form.
    We pray for the Stationing Committee as they meet this week. We pray for the Circuit Invitation Committee, giving thanks for how all of its contributors have been able to help develop our profile. We anticipate that God will meet our needs. It is so encouraging to hear from Rev Helen, as our Chair of District, that our profile has already generated much interest among those presbyters who are searching for a new appointment. Without wishing to sound conceited, we should not be surprised. We have some fabulous leadership and gifts within the Circuit, we are outward looking, and we have a track-record in allowing people to develop their gifts.

Looking to the future – we need to avoid buying our heads in the sand. Whilst many of our churches are doing great work, sustaining this is a challenge, especially when it comes to finding officers to fulfil some of our key roles. Some churches are doing better than others although, if I am honest, every church struggles in some way. At a circuit level, I would like to put out a plea for anyone who would be willing to offer themselves to support the work of Paul Hutchings and the Property Team.

We are also naturally at a point where we need to consider, as a circuit, and as local churches, how we are structured to make best use of our resources. This is not recent news: I have been looking back at our Reimagine documents and notice how our discussions have shaped both our practice and our culture. This work must continue.
One area that we need to consider as churches – which is part of the Connexional Property Strategy – is how we are making the best use of our buildings for the purposes of mission.  In May 2019, the Connexional Property Team asked circuits and local churches to reflect on some key questions. Granted, this was one emphasis among others, such as the Methodist Church’s concern to (i) advocate for, and fight against the plight of those members of the LGBTQ community who face discrimination, and particularly those who are transgender and experiencing a rise in hate-crime, and (ii) the Church’s need to respond to Black Lives Matter by putting an even greater emphasis on its work in EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion), and its focus on subconscious bias. (These were the first two Notices of Motion at this year’s Methodist Conference). Whilst the latter has the greatest weight in terms of our circuit having to respond with details of the progress we have made – circuits will not be permitted to enter stationing unless they have responded ­– the danger is that these important property questions will be lost. Yet, I think they are crucial and, as at least a starter to help our thinking, I outline them below:

  • How does this church property shape and give expression to the Circuit/District Mission Plan(s)?
  • What alternative uses might be made of the property/site as an expression of Methodist mission and ministry?
  • Is there any potential for Methodist mission from this property?
  • Is the site of strategic location within the locality?
  • What other Christian presence remains in the locality, particularly in rural areas?
  • Is this the only community space in the locality?
  • What are the alternative uses with the site vacated, taking into account the local authority strategic plan - could it be redeveloped to generate income for mission elsewhere?
  • What ecumenical/other partnerships opportunities exist for using the property? 
  • Are alternative sites available to better fulfil mission?

 

Allow me to be open and say what I suspect a good number of people may be thinking: These questions worry me. Not because I do not think that they are good questions – I think that they are brilliant. It is because, as we approach them, people admittedly, especially those in small chapels, will fear that their contribution to community life is being underrated, or that some great agenda exists to close small churches. I fear that, for some, this will be an underlying insecurity that inhibits the discussion of what could be meaningful and exciting options. However, allow me to assure you that our Methodist polity puts the future of local churches in the hands of the local trustees. Churches can redevelop some of their premises for community use. I have even heard of churches with post offices, children’s play areas, Internet cafés, libraries – I even know of a church that serves as a skateboard park when not in use during the week.
In terms of how they plan their mission, I know of local churches that have merged church councils and operate as ‘One Church, two Centres’. Churches can develop new Local Ecumenical Partnerships that have a particular mission focus. Thus, whilst these questions may well begin with questions about property, they often give rise to some important creative thinking about how God is calling the church to work together, and how to serve the local community. This is what we are really talking about.

 

Thus, please see this as early notification – a heads-up – that, irrespective of the position that the Coronavirus puts us in, we still have work to do. Of course, it is my duty as superintendent to lay this on the table, as well as the need to develop our work in EDI. Even so, our immediate priority needs to be on stationing, helping churches to have the confidence to respond to whatever needs that surface, and to encourage individuals to use their giftings.
 

As a final note, and with this in mind, I am delighted to share that the Circuit Meeting approved a new appointment; Matt Forsyth is now serving as our Circuit Livestream Worship Producer – at one point the meeting focused on the need to remind ourselves that although Livestream (or recorded) acts of worship require, in some cases, some particular skills, everything we offer is worship. However, we need to grow this area of our work and it is hoped that Matt will be able to help us to develop this. We wish him all the best. With Matt and Rev Dale’s support (and Grace working to encourage development of our social media for young people), I am able to step back and focus on some key questions:

 

How is Livestream Worship ‘Church’?
How do we operate in a way that balances online worship with local, face-to-face worship?

How do we pastor people ‘online’ when they express a need?

How do we make meaningful links between online worship and a local church?

How do we help people grow in confidence and develop gifts of worship leading that can be of benefit both in front of a camera and in front of a congregation?

How to we grow our Livestream audiences?

 

…..Many thanks for reading all the way through this bulletin. I have never promised that it is the finished article - it is a reflection week by week but, I think that it is important to highlight to you how we are making progress, in exceptional times, with a reduced number of ministerial staff, and with a team of circuit stewards whose openness and adaptability is astonishing.

I realise that this is echoed within much of our local church leadership as well. Allow me to put it this way - rather than questioning whether God is with us, especially during some of the challenging times we have faced, I find myself asking the question, ‘How on earth can God not be with us?’

 

Pause for thought.

 

Every blessing,

 

Langley