Why I am at odds with the Church – Norwyn Denny

Two years ago today my Grandad died.  I have shared many times regarding the wonderful man that he was (see here) and some of the things he said (e.g. see here).  I wished to commemorate the anniversary by sharing one of his addresses, called “Why I am at odds with the church”.  I am unsure of the details of when he gave the address, but as I understand it, it was in front of a large crowd, at an important occasion, although I stand to be corrected (he was himself a Methodist minister, and at one point Chairman of the Methodist Conference, the highest position within British Methodism).  However, granddad’s loyalty was NEVER to the church, his loyalty was to Jesus.  The address is, as will be clear, dated and addressed to a largely Methodist group, but I believe contains very important messages for the whole Church, very much including the Church of England.  I have highlighted sections which stuck out to me, and some idea of what is said could be gained from just reading the highlighted sections.

I remain proud to be his Grandson, and only pray I can be a poor shadow of the man who never failed to call the church to account.  I still miss you Grandad.

The rest of the words here belong to him, Norwyn Denny, my Grandad:

Why I am at odds with the Church

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the Church.  In the early days of learning the faith, in Norwich, with the Larkman Group of young people, we were always a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment!  Later in the Renewal Group in Methodism, which became he ecumenical ‘One for Christian Renewal’, we made many criticisms (constructive I hope) of the Church.  When this finished I was in the Alliance of Radical Methodists.  At the time, a number of young ministers and others were leaving the Church, but some of us stayed on because we felt that renewal was required from within, and indeed that real change was essential.

It may now be my age and the reflections of retirement but I am more irascible, less patient, prone to swear at the T.V. and manifest other symptoms of being a grumpy old man!  Further, the Iraq War has been a catalyst for examining afresh all my assumptions, especially in relation to politics, the Government and the Labour Party, from which I have resigned.

The Church now seems to me to be dealing with the things that are comparatively unimportant, while leaving the great things alone.  We should be biblically and theologically challenged to do differently.  Accompanying this we have seen more recently, the farce of the Anglican Church imploding on sexuality, and the Roman Catholic Church becoming more conservative.

I had the whole nature of Church sharpened for me by an article by Madeline Bunting in the Guardian.  Amongst other things she said: “The Church of England cannot hope to regain moral authority while it remains seduced by temporal power.”  This is not simply the question of Establishment, and it applies to all the Churches.  We like to have temporal influence and acclaim, by the powers that be.  But power instead of servanthood in our society will never enable us to speak the right word to our contemporaries.  While we look, in any way, for prestige, and success, instead of being at the points of failure and need, we disown the Gospel of Jesus.

So I ask you to look with me at some of the things we have done, and are doing, within the life of the Church, that I find increasingly mistaken.  I make the point that I am speaking about the Church in general, and here and there about the Methodist Church in particular.

Let me begin however, Methodistically, with “Our Calling”.  You couldn’t find a more innocuous document!  (That is the trouble).  It asks what the Church is for, and responds with a programme of Worship, Learning and Caring, Service and Evangelism.  Nothing to find fault with – so far as it goes.  But it does not go anywhere near far enough.

There is no call to the Cross.  Bonhoeffer said that when Jesus calls someone to follow him, he calls them to die.  I await a call from the Church, to people, especially young people, to sacrifice and challenge.  The call to discipleship is not an easy call; but the call to commitment in the faith requires that of us.  Many young people today could be challenged to service, if we made it clear it was not easy and demanded real commitment.

We are concerned about a dying Church, and various estimates have been made.  We could celebrate a Church that is not afraid to die, and got on with the business of living in discipleship – regardless.  We should know that the only way to save your life is to lose it. Why don’t we see it as axiomatic that the church must die for the Kingdom to come.  But that is a risk that we seem unprepared to take, even when we know that the Kingdom is all about risk.  Of course it must be a principled death, not one of complacency, of faith, not of despair … “Follow me and learn to die – to self & to success”.  The dying of the Church to itself, to success, to power and influence, to money and possessions, is a necessary step and resolution to new life for all.  If Jesus had to die to bring saving grace and the kingdom, why should the Church be exempt?  The fear is seen in schemes for the unity of the churches, when the feeling may be that ‘our way’ may die out … ‘O you of little faith!’

One of the main problems for the Institutional Church is the imperialism of buildings and money, which drives most of the activities and attitudes of Church life.  For most churches, raising money for the buildings takes most of our effort, so we have little time left for people and outreach or world concern.  We seek positions of prestige for our buildings, instead of going to the back streets, where they may not be seen to advantage.  We also like them to look good, and fell that should attract people.  Perhaps however we should be using community buildings not our own.

In the days of the ‘Renewal Group’ in Methodism, I produced a paper called “Money into Men”.  I revised it, a year or two back, in these less sexist days, to “Property into People”.  At the time, in the ’60s’ I was called to the Connexional General Purpose Committee to discuss it.  It seemed to have some effect and from it was born the ‘Connexional Advance Fund’ where a proportion of all sales of buildings was to go into provision of Ministry.  It has been watered down considerably since then!

I quote my friend John Vincent, who long ago said “The biggest problem of the Institutional Church is that we do not know how to conduct a Christian Church in any other form than of sufficient people paying sufficient money, to maintain a building and pay a professional … That’s finished”  he said!  But of course it has been an unconscionable time dying!  He als talked about ‘smallness’ and ‘incarnation’ and still does, and of course, he is right.  It is in the small and unfettered groups that the Church grows.  Real incarnation means being where people are, and doing very human things.

The other glaring thing that happens is (as in our own personal lives) as soon as we get a little more money, we spend it on ourselves, and on the building or its facilities, instead of giving it away.  I still remember the outcry when Colin Morris, then General Secretary of the Methodist Overseas Division, asked that we sell up and give away a proportion of the investment that had accumulated.  The Central Committee did it!  I suggested a year ago that we gave the proceeds of our Church Bazaar away to Christian Aid.  It was not agreed

This has all spilled over into Ministry and how we view it, as Church people.  It affects us as Ministers and how we view ourselves.  Professionalism in all its aspects has come in and we protect our rights and our positions, and justify it by the courses and the training we undertake.  Career has taken the place of commitment.  We tend to prefer the salubrious places and positions rather than being willing to go to those who need us most.

I remember for example in the Liverpool District when we were seeking a minister for the Widnes Circuit, that the Circuit Stewards approached over 40 people, most of whom didn’t even come to look at the situation.  Widnes had for them a bad name and nothing to ‘offer’.  Whereas of course it was a place of great potential and opportunity, and was proved so to be by the minister we obtained to go there.

Those who can ‘pay’ for ministry, should give to those who cannot afford the luxury.  There should be no kudos in ministry, no place should pay more to obtain people, and no position in the Church should receive more than any other.  I had various ‘fights’ on this issue as Chair of District.

One of the unfortunate aspects of our ‘paying for’ ministry, is that we then try to control what the minister does.  We expect her, for example, to be a chaplain to members essentially to run the Church.  Wouldn’t it be more like Good News for all, if we who have money would pay for ministry to others?  That is what used to inspire our giving to ‘overseas’ work, and to areas of need in this country through Home Mission, Mission in Britain, or whatever we call it?  (How much of that still obtains, or can be found, in the diffuse, multi-person offices and desks of our present set-up, I do not know)

In all this let us remember that living a lifestyle that is simple, gives us, essentially, the ability, the richness, the privilege, of being able to give away.  That applies to all ministry and mission.  Perhaps we should all aim to join the Lifestyle Movement.

One of the worst aspects of attitude to, and within, Ministry, is our misunderstanding of Episcope … The New Testament understanding has been perverted to a concept of hierarchy of power.  Ministry of every kind and Order should hear the words of Jesus regularly, “But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first, must be a slave of all.”

Episcope, or Oversight, is a position of a leader among equals.  Collaboration is the Christian concept, and is found ideally in the Circuit system and the Superintendent.  Here the person who acts in oversight is locally known, reachable, and is working in a team.  This properly represents the New Testament understanding.  When are the Anglicans and the Catholics going to learn to take Episcopacy into their system?  And when are we, as Methodists, going to put it into real practice?  the practice of having Bishops in charge of diocese stretching over large areas is not remedied by having Suffragans and Assistant Bishops to help.  They still operate from a too distant centre.  They are not local enough to people and churches.

I could happily, at this point, enlarge on Team/Group/Collaborative Ministry.  The committee for which, for a time, I chaired.  The circuit, as it is unusually ‘run’ does not represent team-collaborative ministry, unless a real attempt is made to see that it happens, and there is a real team spirit and practice being worked out.  I refer you, theologically, to Bishop Ian Ramsay’s book – “Models of Divine Activity” (which is about the Trinity and its relationships in community).  He speaks of Economy/administration, of presence and of discourse/communication.  The Trinity helps us to understand not only about the meaning of God, but about the meaning and purpose of the Church, and tis Oversight.

I finish this first part on ‘What is done’, by re-iterating one thing:  The Church must always be at the point of the Cross.  It must be engaged in self-giving, not self-preservation.  We must not let the ethos of our society and culture take us away from our primary task.

“We cannot hope to regain moral authority while we remain seduced by temporal power”

Nor incidentally, while we give more importance to a discussion on sex and sexuality, than to that of suffering and sacrifice ….

WHAT IS LEFT UNDONE ……….

I want to start with what may seem less important, except that it is an indication of a wider attitude within the Church.  Again, this may seem to be addressed to Methodism, but all the Churches are involved.

The Community Roll in church life and how it is dealt with, says a great deal.  ‘Membership’ is now an anachronism.  why do we persist in a practice that makes us look like a club, to which you pay to belong?  The Community Roll, like our concern, should be all-embracing and we should aim to be inclusive rather than exclusive .. If we still think there are standards that need to be met – ‘Lord who shall stand?’.  I like Desmond Tutu’s comment, “God has a soft spot for sinners, his standards are quite low.”

(At a Communion Service at a small church recently, a drunken women surged in noisily.  The people took it all quite naturally.  They sat her down, and then brought her forward for communion.  She didn’t want to take Communion, but said to me, “I want forgiveness”.  So I gave her the forgiveness of God, and our Communion happily proceeded).

We do not deal well with the particular needs of individuals, especially those who are ‘excluded’ in some way.  Church standards can lead to some people being over-looked or not cared for.  The ‘process’ of the Church is not more important than how we deal with people.  Let me give you some examples that have come my way:

  • There are the spouses, usually wives, of those who have left the ministry.  The care for them is haphazard at best.
  • What about such Ministers themselves?  Following them up is left to chance or individuals.  Not much attention is given to it.  There are a number of embittered people who are not cared for.
  • And what about the widows who have to get out of the Manse quickly because their husbands have died late in the Connexional year?
  • Or what about the special needs people, with physical or other problems, and have to retire early.  until recently, there has been no thought of special provision.  (Donald Eadie has been pursuing this for some time and has a particular story to tell).

It is not enough to be ad hoc in caring, just as it is not good enough to care only for those who ‘belong’.  I am at odd with a Church that doesn’t notice.

We do not have either the mechanism or apparently the will, to learn from the past, and put it into practice later.  We go in cycles, or round in circles because of it.  We love to prepare mission statements, every so often, with plans for Churches, but we seldom get round to acting on them.  Some time later, when we see the need again, we have another working party!  Let me give you some diverse examples:

  • My last Circuit, Lowestoft, asked me some time back about implementing a form of Team Ministry, (knowing my interest).  I contacted 4 or 5 Connexional people at different desks about it.  I had only one reply, and they had no material but referred me to one such experiment.  As we have done away with the Team/Group/Collaborative Ministries Committee, and no records seem to have been kept, we have no ‘history’ or practice to call on.
  • I chaired the Commission on London in the 19080’s with a lot of hard work and research being put into that operation.  the scheme which emerged for a London District, and parallel suggestions for re-shaping other Districts were made after a lot of careful work.  Not only was the scheme turned down by Conference, for no good reason, and without dealing with the needs of London, but, now they’re doing ti all again, they seem to have no record of the previous proposals!
  • When I flitted (I use the word advisedly) around the Connexion as President in 1982/3, I held in each District, prepared Consultations on Ministry, Mission & Management.  There were detailed conclusions which some Districts acted on.  The general information, including the names of people with expertise in districts, who could be called upon, I put in booklet form and these were passed on to the Secretariat – and not doubt shelved!
  • We do not properly relate the work of the Districts to the Connexion, nor make their findings and work, the basis for the agenda and work of the Conference.  I pushed for a District-oriented agenda some years back and slight progress was made, in having a time at Conference for District concerns and reports, but I haven’t seen this advancing.  Bottom up and not top down should be our creed.
  • My own belief is that to advance both communication and a proper understanding of Episcope, and to make the local area operative in deciding the national agenda, we should do away with Districts and have larger Circuits – say 150 for the Country, all of which could then be represented at Conference without unnecessary middle management.

But there are larger issues still in what we have left undone, for example: “The earth is the Lord’s” – but where is the Church’s leadership in environmental concerns?  We should be in the vanguard, instead of trailing behind.  Eco-congregations pay lip service to it, and leave it to people like Friends of the Earth (You will be pleased to know that I am the ‘Green Apostle’ for our Church!)  This is a Missionary enterprise, not a minor thing.  Given our theology of creation, it should be in the forefront of our evangelism.  This applies in two senses.  One because so many young and serious-minded people (not on the whole in the Church) are involved and would be greatly influenced by the concern and influence and faith and actions of the Church.  And two because the care of the whole inhabited earth is the true ecumenism.  To save the Earth in and for God is an evangelical task.  while we try all kinds of schemes to try to win people individually the larger concerns of our world pass us by, or are, in some people’s view. confined to the secular area.  Where is the leadership of the church in all this?  I am at odds with a Church that does not, passionately, preach it.

For me, another great issue of faith is justice … Zadique (Hebrew) Dikaiosune – very important biblical words …

Our local Trade Justice group, just being formed, includes F.O.E., W.D.M., some Councillors, and Church people, and is chaired by our minister – Noel Sharp.  This is also an evangelical concern.  Poor and developing countries are being exploited and defeated by crippling debt and biased trade structures, which help the rich like us, and kill 1000’s of children daily.  Is this not an abomination unto the Lord?  Where is the constant outcry and denunciation from the Church?  “Let justice roll down like fountains and righteousness as a mighty stream”!

Oh yes, MRDF, Christian Aid, and WDM etc give a lead, but as this is essentially an Hebraic-Christian theological and prophetic concern, we should be declaring it week after week, from the house tops, in the market places, and wherever!  What are we doing in the light of the failure of ‘Cancun’?

The Church potters on with its private concerns and ignores the weightier matters of human law and compassion.  I am at odds with a Church which cannot and does not preach that – passionately!

There is for me one more great and overwhelming dispute with and within the Church.  It is not committed fully to seeking the Way of Peace (with Justice).

We do not take the words and way of Jesus seriously, and we don’t believe it will ‘work’, or that there is an alternative to the use of force in human affairs – Which is what Jesus lived and died to prove.  Why should we expect anyone else to think that the way of Jesus in all the other affairs of life is anything but an idealistic dream, if we do not believe it and live it ourselves?

Those of you who have seen my fulminations in the Methodist Recorder on the War in Iraq, and against the Government line, will know that I have resigned from the Labour Party because of it.  (I take the point made to me by others, that it is better to stay within and work.  This has been my principle example with the Church, but in this case I deemed it better to stir things this way).  I have described the War as illegal, imperialistic, immoral and inhumane, and I think more people now share this view.  The Government and Tony Blair were wrong in leading us to war and siding with the American administration and they should continue to be challenged on the matter, to admit their mistake and to apologise to the British people, to the countries in Europe, the Middle East and to other Muslim countries … or else resign.  And the Church should be leading that condemnation.  This is not directly a pacifist stance in this case, and could be taken up by most of our people.  The Church is here to take a proper and critical political stance, which is also a theological one.  Surely also we have had enough of Arms Fairs and the proliferation of deadly weapons, like cluster bombs, used to such devastating effect upon the civilian population of Iraq.  We should be shouting our disapproval, as Christians, until our voice is heard..

The Way of Peace means the Way of the Cross, which is too much for us.  But that Shalom, which includes justice, is our faith and our Gospel.  I am deeply at odds with a Church that cannot find the means and the voice to oppose, not only the War in Iraq, but all similar methods of using unwarranted violence and force, to achieve “peaceful” ends.  It is one of the things that I feel the Church has left undone, and continues to leave – undone.

I shall remain at odds with the Church that concentrates on the lesser matters of its own concerns and forgets the sacrifice demanded by Jesus, in the Way of the Cross.

About David

I'm the curate at St. Anne's Church, in the parish of Shevington, Standish Lower Ground and Crooke. I'm married to Carole and have two beautiful daughters called Sarah and Anabel
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