Discussions for Conference 2021

President Rev Andrew Doubleday —

Rev Andrew Doubleday, President MCNZ, shares his vision for Conference 2021.

We live in rapidly changing times. Change brings uncertainty. And, it offers opportunity. As a church we are rooted in the colonial history of Aotearoa, and we derive much of our law, ways of being and of doing things, from that era.

We face being consigned to irrelevance if we do not adapt. The longer we wait to initiate that process, the harder and more painful it will be, the lower the chances of making the necessary changes, and ultimately the lower the possibility of success.

I love and believe in the church. I believe in Te Haahi Weteriana. And, I believe we have something unique to offer both the wider church and the community of Aotearoa. We stand in a generous liberal tradition that was birthed ultimately in an evangelical expression of a “strangely warmed heart” encounter with Christ.

The current reality is that parts of the church are in trouble. Observably so for English speaking Tauiwi, and, my intuitive sense, also for Te Taha Māori. It may be less so in Pasifika, though ultimately they will face similar challenges as succeeding generations increasingly identify themselves as citizens of Aotearoa rather that their islands of origin.

We need to start exploring the territory ahead, what the givens are of who we are from the past, what we will take with us into the future, and what we will leave behind.

We are planning four thematic questions as discussion starters at Conference 2021. I don’t imagine for a moment that we will sort the future in one afternoon. I do hope that the discussions on who we are, where we are going, and how we will get there, will start in earnest. These questions are simply intended to get the conversation going.

We have teams of facilitators preparing to lead the workshops. Not all facilitators will lead in English - Some will lead in their native tongue.

I believe if we embraced the four themes below, we could see a new day dawning for Te Hāhi.

a. Being Tauiwi in a Tiriti-honouring church – a workshop for Tauiwi by Tauiwi An examination of biblical and theological examples which face us with the inescapable awareness that we are bound together in Covenant as Māori and Tauiwi, and being bicultural is core to who we are called to be in Aotearoa. We recognise that where once we led wider Tauiwi society, now we lag behind. Given where we are today, what needs to happen now within Tauiwi to give fuller expression to this commitment?

b. How are we known, seen, experienced? How can we be good news for the 21st century?

What is it that is positive and life-giving that we stand for that ordinary folk in Aotearoa will be able to automatically associate with Te Hāhi Weteriana? I’ve been met with surprise that the Methodist Church still exists - that it could be more than a dried-up relic from a bygone age. At present we are often seen as the ‘also-ran’ in traditional ‘mainline’ churches that have passed their use-by-date and haven’t yet realised it.

I’ve been engaging over the years with the words of Jesus in John 10:10 – “I’ve come that you might have life, and have it in all its fullness”. Its possibilities as a lens, an interpretive grid, a paradigm, for how we interpret our mission statement and do mission in Aotearoa excite me. We are a theologically broad church, with no readily identifiable agreed metanarrative of what it means to be Methodist. While we would all give mental assent to our mission statement, it seems to have little impact on how we are and how we relate to the communities in which we find ourselves. Part of the reason is that it is long – it starts with that great intentional paragraph:

‘Our Church's Mission in Aotearoa New Zealand is to reflect and proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the Scriptures. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God in the world. The Treaty of Waitangi is the covenant establishing our nation on the basis of a power-sharing relationship, and will guide how we undertake mission.

In seeking to carry out our mission we will work according to these principles – eleven of them. Few of us, if any, will carry this complete checklist around in our pockets let alone our hearts.

However, in my view, “I’ve come that you might have life in its abundance” is an effective summary of our mission statement.

Embraced across the breadth of Te Haahi, the statement will give us a clear focus as we move forward, just as it gave Jesus clarity as he fulfilled his mission. It will provide a point of difference from the other churches in the ‘religious marketplace’. Rather than ‘fear based’, it expresses a theology of life.

In the end this is the view point of only one person. It may or may not have wheels to go further.

What does need to happen is that we start a serious conversation about how we are seen, how Te Hāhi Weteriana is experienced as ‘good news’ within both the Christian and secular worlds in which we now find ourselves.

c. The Law Book. More tinkering or a new start?

Our Law Book is rooted in colonial soil and does not adequately express the bicultural nature of our church. In many ways it is a hotch-potch of adaptations and bolted-on-bits that have been added over the decades as the church has changed. It will be argued that it is no longer fit-for-purpose.

In preparing for these thematic workshops, it has become clear that because the Law Book establishes Conference around a set of prescribed questions, it leaves little room for decisions to be made ‘in the moment’. There is the danger that these workshops become just another talk-fest because there is no ready pathway to quickly make decisions as a Conference to chart a new course. Although the Law Book can protect us from our rasher impulses, it can also act as a very effective hand brake or road-block to much needed change.

Are we going to continue to tinker with it or take a fresh look at who we are now and what structures, laws and ‘permission giving’ mechanisms we need as we seek to chart our course into the future?

d. How do we resource our congregations for mission?

It’s my conviction that the local congregation is the basis for mission. It is the local expression of the Body of Christ. Yet, rather than recognising this we so readily look at ourselves through the lens of poverty and lack. This is understandable - for many our greatest struggle is keeping the doors open another year. We worry about the shortage of people to do the jobs and the resources to keep the institution going. We compare ourselves with our more ‘successful’ neighbours and fail to see the richness amongst us.

Each facilitated thematic group will start with a short pre-prepared video presentation introducing the issues. This will be followed by an open discussion, later feeding back into Conference plenary. Conference will then decide if and how these conversations are taken forward.

It’s only a starting point which may or may not find legs to go further. I live in hope!