I went to church the other day. Not, however, for a service of worship but to attend a meeting organised by the Friends of Mortimer Forest because I especially wanted to hear one of the guest speakers giving his presentation about those wonderful and elusive creatures, pine martens. More of that, however, elsewhere and on another occasion.
This was only about the dozenth time, if that, I had attended any kind of meeting in a church since I retired. Nothing particularly odd about that, you might think. But I am an ordained Methodist minister and I have no intention of relinquishing my status. So this is the first of what may become a short series of posts on the topic of why I remain a Mehodist minister, alongside comments upon progress with work on my revised and expanded version of a slim volume about my approach to the Biblical narratives (How to Write a Gospel) and the character underlying Jesus of Nazareth.
When I came into the Methodist church and and started to explore the possibility of entering the ministry I had an interesting conversation with Bill Horton who was then general secretary of the division of ministries. Knowing of my unusual background, Bill asked why I had come the Methodist church.
I had two main reasons. It seemed to me at that time that the Methodist church was more committed to the ideal of Christian unity than some others. But, more importantly, what I saw was a church with breadth. There was a wide range of viewpoints and all seemed to get along well together. I had grown up with the belief that there was only one “true” religion – the Jehovah’s Witnesses – and outside of that the only prospect was damnation. By the time I came to the Methodist church I had long given up the futile search for the one true faith.
I had not given up on searching, reflecting, thinking, and studying the scriptures (not just those of my own tradition) and it was important to me always to be open to the possibility that I would, from time to time, to come to a different mind about things. It was important that if I were to decide at any time that I believed something rather different from what I had believed before, I would not have to leave this church and set off in search of another. Bill agreed warmly with my response and I think it probably reassured him that I was not a wild-eyed preacher of the one true way to which all must conform. (Whether he might have considered the possibility I could have taken the route which I have, in fact, taken is another matter.)
I was fairly well over to the liberal end of the Christian spectrum back then. And from that starting point I have travelled even further in the same direction. There have been times when I have felt very uncomfortable in the pulpit but I have never preached anything that I did not believe. But neither have I ever felt it necessary or useful to confront the whole edifice of Christian doctrine from the sceptic’s viewpoint. One step at a time will do very nicely and if folk in the churches where I have been minister have taken anything from my ministry, I hope it will include the encouragement to read the Bible without thinking that they have to believe it or reinterpret it to mean something which they can believe. “I don’t believe that,” is a perfectly acceptable reaction to scripture and I hope that folk who know me will remember that very often my response would be, not to put them right about it, but to say, “No, neither do I.”
I have been retired now for just over ten years and in that time I have never preached or led any services in church. I have not even attended a church, except for a couple of funerals and a wedding. But I remain a Methodist minister. I have no intention of resigning because I believe that within the Christian community there ought to be a place for those of us who have moved so far along the spectrum of belief that we may appear to have stepped off the end altogether.
The really interesting thing for me is that, as a liberal, I find the ancient documents that make up the Bible are more interesting and stimulating to read than ever they were when I was a fairly traditional believer. And the ancient figure of Jesus seems to me far more vibrant than ever he was before.