Friday, 26 December 2008

Equality in the Church (2)

In a previous post I gave a little bit of background to myself and my journey to where I am today from a church perspective as a lead in to some thoughts on equality following a post by Dave Warnock over at 42. In this post I make some observations of where I think we are in terms of equality.
This seemed like a good place to start as in a sense members are our most important factor – much is said in many places about declining membership and while that is not a topic I particularly wish to discuss it is fairly true that we are not as healthy in this respect as we were even ten years ago.
How equal are our members? In my experience not very much so! I get the impression that in many churches there are a few who decide on all the important issues, in some churches there is often a strong group of people related to each other who hold many of the key roles. In other churches people stay in roles almost indefinitely despite the ‘six year rule’. In our circuit we have just had a senior church steward step down after 30 years, and we have another one where a person who was senior steward for many years was made to step down by the application of the six year rule but would still appear to be in charge of things.
While membership of church council is open to all members do we again find the same group of people on there, do we do enough to encourage ‘new blood’ and when we get new blood are they able to understand the way the whole thing works, and if they don’t are they frightened to ask in case they look a fool. Personally I claim to be naive in respect of the ins and outs of Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church and will always raise a question based on this naivety. It works for me but then I tend to be able to hold my own in most situations while I am aware others are the more shy retiring type.
Again when we have new or younger people join our committees and councils do we treat them differently to everyone else? Do we think because they are young they know nothing? Do we almost treat them as total idiots? These questions are as true in life away from church I believe but I am certain they go on in church. I once saw a situation where a youth group of almost 70 young people shrank very quickly following a knock back at a church council meeting on a point they raised which was an exceptional good point to do with a process that made many of them feel uncomfortable. When the question was asked there were two responses one of which was the good old chestnut that makes everything OK ‘We’ve always done it this way’ and the other was ‘What do they know they’re only young’.
We had a situation in our church council recently where an item was under discussion and one of our younger members felt that someone else was intimating the younger person had no idea what they were talking about when in reality they were probably the most knowledgeable person in the room in respect of the topic under discussion. The young person now feels it is pointless attending the church council if they are treated almost as an idiot by some members.
There is much that goes on within our church lives that affects all of our members and yet there seems to be very little consultation with them and when there is I am not entirely sure it is fed back or acted on in the proper way by those doing the feeding back. In our circuit we have recently gone through the re-invitation process for our Superintendent and because it is a Superintendent each church was asked for their thoughts with the emphasis being on the churches he is in pastoral charge of and I believe that is rightly so. What does bother me though is that the timescale and the instruction only allowed for consultation with a few ‘key’ people with the decision on who key people were in the church being made by the representative from each church who was on the invitation committee. I see all sorts of dangers in this methodology and I am sure those who have commented on the situation in the Scilly Isles would probably agree. For me we have a situation where if the representative doesn’t like someone in the local church they do not seek that person’s opinion or conversely if it does not agree with their own opinion they can ignore it. There is then a danger that at circuit meeting the recommendation of the committee and the views of a particular church can be skewed because the person representing the church decides to vote how they think personally rather than how the church as a whole might think.
Now just in case people think this is very negative I have to say that it is very much based on things I have seen and have personal knowledge of – I am hopeful that there are other places where the opposite is true and equality rules OK in these things. I just think that there are many places where it could probably be argued we have a very long way to go before we could say there is anything like equality among our members. It is an area we need to work very hard at and we really do need to encourage and nurture the younger and newer members and perhaps listen to what they have to say without assuming because they are young or new they don’t know anything.
Anyway enough for now but more will follow – I may look at Synod and Conference next or even Local Preachers where I have a few thoughts as you can imagine.


PamBG said...

I think that much of this is fair - at least about what can go on. Can I also add that it can be incredibly difficult for a minister to break up these 'cabals' which are often long-established before the minister even arrives?

In some of my churches there is a much milder form of this going on - people of sincere good will who don't realise how overpowering that they can be to others. I try to encourage the 'others' to take part but they don't have the confidence and they don't feel their opinions are 'worth anything'.

In the case of these particular churches, I suspect that the more opinionated people would be horrified if they really understood that others found them intimidating, but they don't want to accept this information. I DO think it's the minister's job to guide the congregation in this way, but it can be extremely difficult.

Of course, I also know situations where lay people who Are Always Right and who Know Better Than Everyone About Everything have bullied ministers right out of the circuit. When it happens to minister after minister, what teeth does the wider church have to stop it? Not much.

Finally, I'm frustrated by our committee system which I think stymies ongoing consultation; I've just not put my finger on how to get around this. Because the committee meetings are set for a particular time of year, there is great resistance to meeting at other times, but people want to be consulted. I don't know how we get consultation if we don't meet together. When I was in a secular job, we called meetings when they were needed and because I had the reputation of not calling a useless meeting, people would show up.

Fat Prophet said...

Thanks Pam for your constructive response - there will be more I promise but I am usually sitting writing these in the early morning after I have taken my wife to work.
I tend to agree with you about the timing of meetings which I believe is made much worse by the fact that they all happen in a very short space of time and maybe some of us get meeting fatigue.
One issue that consultation is being looked for is the proposed new hymn book but the feedback has to be made by the end of January so how will the ordinary member have any involvement in this?