Monday, 29 December 2008

Equality in the church (3)

In my previous two posts I have already set out my reasons for these particular posts and as I have said these are thoughts drawn from my personal observations. I do realise that as with most things in Methodism there will be a range of viewpoints on any given topic but present these as mine, and who knows they may even start some discussion.
Synod and Conference.
In today’s post I thought I would give some consideration to both synod and conference and again I have attended both so feel reasonably qualified to have a view on both.
Starting with synod I have recently started attending synod after a 20+ year break and you can imagine that I was quite surprised to find that there were people at synod who were there when I last attended. I should perhaps just say that did not include the person from our circuit who has been going for almost 30 years apparently.
I looked around the room and I suppose in fairness I would have to say it seemed that synod was fairly representative of the majority of congregations that I visit and was probably more representative than when I attended over 20 years ago. Certainly 20 years ago I was the youngest person in attendance and in some senses felt very out of place a feeling that in some ways has not lessened. As I look around the room(s) there are two things that strike me, one is that people tend to sit in their circuit groups (safety in numbers?) and that it is little bit like a member’s only club with many people seeming to gravitate towards one another in the breaks but not necessarily engaging in conversation with newcomers like myself. I do feel that I am slightly invisible to the majority of synod members and those who know me will understand that it is not easy for me to be invisible given that I am a fairly big lad (hence fat prophet) and I am certainly not a shy retiring type. It does seem however that apart from the people I know at synod there is little interaction from other members and if I were twenty years younger I might be tempted to say I would not go again. The actual format of our synods is far better than I remember it and there seems have been a serious streamlining of the business allowing time for other activities such as workshops and presentations which on the three synods I have attended have been very good.
I do understand that lay representatives to synod are elected by local circuit meetings but I do wonder how much equality is exercised in this respect if one person is elected each year for many years or even volunteers for many years and gets the nod of the circuit meeting because other people really don’t want to be chosen. I always think these are the parts of our meetings where almost everyone looks at the floor and hopes the Superintendent doesn’t catch their eye. Apart from a reference to members of district committees I can find no mention of the six year rule in relation to membership of synod and it seems if this rule does not apply to synod membership then the same people could attend ad infinitum and it could be very difficult for ‘new blood’ to become involved and for the synod to be truly representative.
In respect of conference it could be said I had a meteoric rise to fame in this respect because at the first synod I attended in 1981 I was chosen to attend the conference in Plymouth in 1982. I hadn’t at that time developed the knack of looking at the floor and I was unemployed at the time so I think someone thought it would be quite easy for me to attend if I was still out of work by the time conference came around. In some ways I was very fortunate because I travelled and stayed in a house with Reverend Robin Napier who for many years reported on the conference for the Recorder, so was always able to ask those nagging questions that came up. The other good thing was that I sat next to Reverend Tony Kinch who seemed to know what conference was all about and certainly guided me on the best times to go for a coffee break (usually during finance and property business as I recall). I think it would be true to say I had a range of feelings and emotions in respect of conference some of which were good and some not so good. I have to stress yet again that these were my observations at the time and any references to the conference now will be based on what I read in the Methodist Recorder.
I think the first feeling I had in 1982 was absolute amazement when this voice seemed to come from nowhere and lead the conference in the singing of Wesley’s hymn ‘And are we yet alive’. I did eventually work out where it came from and I also found out that the person who did it was the ‘precentor’. I remember looking round the room and feeling a little bit like the poor relation – many of the representatives were dressed in their Sunday best which was far superior to my Sunday best, lots of them spoke very nicely, certainly not with a broad Black Country accent like me and again there seemed to be a lot of people who knew each other quite well.
There were a range of debates and some excellent speakers but I remembering saying to Tony Kinch that in one debate to do with unemployment the people who had spoken all appeared well to do and probably had never had a day’s unemployment in their lives. He said if I felt strongly I should go up to the podium and say something – sadly I was not brave enough at that time, now I would have no hesitation but of course with experience would probably be far more articulate.
There was also a rule at conference that you could not applaud and another highlight for me was when the President Rev Norwyn Denny during the singing of the hymn ‘I am so glad that our Father in heaven’ started clapping and was quickly joined by many of the conference representatives.
I am conscious that there was no great emphasis on equality all those years ago and I suppose the conference then was as representative as the systems and viewpoints of the time allowed, but what of today how much equality is there and how representative is the conference of the wider church membership? The simple answer is I don’t know but as the path to conference starts with the circuit meeting it could be argued that conference can only be as good as the basics allow. If we don’t get it right in the circuit this has a knock on effect on synod and ultimately on conference.
Because of the connection with Robin Napier who was my minister when I first started attending a Methodist Church I have always followed the reports on conference in the recorder with great interest and I am always intrigued by the fact that a number of names consistently appear across the range of debates at conference and wonder how equal the contribution from conference members is – I suspect the President has a similar role at times to the Speaker in The House of Commons in trying to ensure equity in contributions to debates on any particular topic. I am also aware that often the names that appear year on year are those representatives who are elected by conference. As far as I can see there is no restriction on length of service as a conference elected member of conference so effectively once elected someone could remain there until death removes them. I am not sure this gives any opportunity for equality given that unless you are well versed in the working of conference you may be tempted to vote on issues with the guidance of another member of the conference – I certainly did when I attended because in respect of voting for conference elected members I would not necessarily have know who they were. Perhaps if it doesn’t already exist the six year rule should be applied to these type of positions to enable a broader brush approach and perhaps a more equality based approach.
Well I seem to have written rather a lot here and on reading it back may not really have got down to looking at equality as was my own brief, but then perhaps I have because it has to start at the bottom and work up, we have to do the choosing of representatives to synod at circuit level so the onus is very much on us to ensure that the synod is being provided with people using equality rather than some of the other methods that might be used.
Watch out for the next post which will be about local preachers.

1 comment:

PamBG said...

I have a few 'generic' thoughts here about 'fitting in' and I speak as someone who has probably moved more than most people - and lived in three countries.

My generic thought is that 'groups are hard to break into'.

I think that what you say about Conference and Synod are totally accurate but the experience there is, I would say, about 6 - if 1 is awful, 5 is average and 10 is superb.

I think what happens is that people who belong to a group get comfortable in that group. After many years of being a member, you think that your group's experience is a 10 or a 9 or an 8 and you don't really understand that outsiders might be experiencing your 'wonderful friendly group' as a 2 or a 3.

I say this not to excuse Conference or Synod but rather to challenge congregations as to how 'friendly' they may seem to outsiders. I know that one of my congregations sees itself as a 10 and I experienced it as a '5' - and I was the new minister whose arrival they genuinely welcomed. Imagine how I might have felt if I'd been a 17 year old single mother?

Actually, I think that groups have to make an extra effort to be friendly to new people. And we also have to do it without appearing desperate - a balancing act that is often quite difficult!