The Methodist Church of NZ
To understand where Methodism in New Zealand is heading as it approaches the year 2000 it is essential that some account be taken of its beginnings and of its journey so far.
For the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, the goal was the revival, the redirection of the Church of England. To the end of his life he disclaimed any intention to set up a separate denomination. In spite of this he structured the societies which were 'in connexion' with him in such a way that a challenge to the established Church was inevitable, and within a decade or so of his death the break had been made and the vast majority of Methodists looked upon themselves as constituting an independent body within English religious life.
Because Wesley largely failed to carry with him a significant number of Anglican clergy he found it necessary to organise and authorise a growing number of men whom he personally chose to care for the developing Methodist societies, and whose oversight was his constant priority. These itinerant preachers came almost always from among the lower classes of society, and while lacking in formal education made up for this with their evangelical fervour, their preaching in a language understandable to people of their own class, and their disciplined and strenuous care for the people in their charge.
The Wesleyan message was centred on the grace of God, and the human response to it. Wesley was bitterly opposed to any suggestion that the human response was secondary, and looked always for changed lives. He believed implicitly that the Gospel was able to address the human predicament and that those who believed in the Gospel were able to do something about their own predicament. He called this 'scriptural holiness' and saw it as a means of societal, not just individual, transformation. As people became aware of themselves as being under God's grace (as being 'saved') so they would be able to improve themselves and care for those in need.
The Methodist movement was profoundly effective within the lower strata of English society. As people became secure in their faith so they became aware of the real possibility of improving their own position. Within that dichotomy lay the seeds of both successs and failure. Undoubtedly many of the people called Methodist were committed in their faith and led exemplary lives. In today's language, however, they became upwardly mobile, and as that happened their desire for 'respectability' too often overcame their openness to the challenge of the Gospel. By the early years of the 19th century they saw themselves as a church made up of law-abiding members, taking their rightful place within the same society that had disregarded them for so long. Their very respectability gave rise about 1810 to two major Wesleyan off-shoots, the Primitive Methodists and the Bible Christians, both of which sought to maintain their working-class roots.
English Methodism, therefore, about mid-century was, so far as Wesleyanism was concerned, self-confident and growing, especially in the newer industrial cities of the English midlands. It was from these urban centres with their Brunswick chapels and their organs and their comfortable pews and their professional ministry that the leadership of the Church, both lay and ordained, was found. It was conservative in approach to the Gospel and to the political and social problems of the time. It looked back to Wesley for its justification, forgetting that the founder had spent so much of his time among the poor and the rejected, and inclined to be thankful that they themselves were not so placed.
The Methodists who started to come to New Zealand in larger numbers in the 1870's in particular were often from the rural areas where Methodism had once been strong. They were themselves often poor enough, but they were driven by the same vision of self-improvement. They formed their societies in New Zealand as mirror images of what they had left behind. The urban churches had copied the great chapels in England in style, though not always in size and affluence. The wooden chapels in the rural areas, while humble in the extreme, were equally committed to the goal of progress. They were fervent in their worship and effective in promoting fellowship among themselves, but they were losing touch with the casualties of society, especially during the decade of economic depression in the 1880's.
Their numbers were growing, however, and at their peak just after the turn of the 20th century about 1 in 10 of New Zealanders were part of the wider Methodist family. They were more often than not supporters of Richard John Seddon (himself of Primitive Methodist background) and his vision of a country in which the state would have a major part in ensuring the welfare of all, especially the old and the young. Methodists tended to see social problems through a narrow lens, ascribing many of the ills to drunkenness, and were therefore active and visible out of proportion to their size in the campaign for prohibition. They were loyal, too, and had no doubt that both the Boer War and the 1914-1918 War were the occasion for fighting on God's side.
It would be too much of a simplification altogether to characterise Methodist theology in New Zealand as basically liberal or basically conservative. The evidence would tend to support the view that the majority of ordinary congregational members, insofar as they think on such matters, are somewhat conservative. On the other hand the training of ministers in this country has been predominantly in the hands of teachers of a liberal bent. This probably reflects the influence of a substantial group of younger college-trained ministers who came to New Zealand towards the end of the last century and who made their mark as leaders within the Connexion in the first decades of this century.
Reference is made to this point as a way of understanding where New Zealand Methodism is at this moment. The issues that have moved the Church most strongly over the past 25 years or so have been able to affect the overall direction of the Church largely because its leadership is not of a dogmatic cast of mind, and is able to approach the issues of justice and equity without needing to defend a position which is founded on a conservative tradition which looks to either John Wesley or to biblical literalism for its justification.
Almost nothing about Methodism is unique. Other denominations will share our wide-ranging attitudes to social and political and faith issues. One thing I suggest, however, is quite fundamental, and that is 'connexionalism'. This word goes back to Wesley himself, and describes the relationship that both the societies and the travelling preachers had with and through him personally. He was the heart of the Connexion - he knew it intimately, and he was no stranger to any Methodist member, however remote s/he might be from headquarters in London. The whole dynamic of Methodism, then as now, is built around this idea of extended relationship, mutual responsibility, and accountability to the primary symbol of Methodist connexionalism, the annual Conference. Connexionalism underpins Methodist church order and does make it unique. Connexionalism means extended family (whanau) or even 'tribe' (iwi). Methodism ceases to be Methodism when it fails to be connexional.
Methodism (of the Wesleyan variety) began as a missionary enterprise to the Maori in 1822. The missionary ethos was, unavoidably, paternalistic, seeing Maori as children to be civilised and converted. It took exactly 150 years for paternalism within the Church to be officially discarded when the Maori Division (now Taha Maori) was constituted in 1972. It took another 10 years for the pakeha church to begin to come to terms with Maori integrity, and only now are the implications being more or less fully understood. The Methodist Church at its 1983 Conference officially committed itself to its bicultural journey, and very slowly indeed are the traditional structures of the Church being dismantled or replaced. It is hard, if not impossible, to see this process being diverted now. Gradually the Connexion is understanding that democracy based on numbers is no model for God's justice. Gradually it will dawn on ordinary members that the absence of Maori worshipping with them is no reason for setting aside consideration of Maori issues and concerns. The bicultural journey is one which, almost certainly, will not reach its goal before 2000, but there can be no turning back.
Interpreting what God's justice means for the present moment underlies the debate that has taken place within New Zealand Methodism over the issue of homosexuality. This debate began over 30 years ago but came to a head when inevitably it became an issue of church discipline rather than something that was 'out there' in society. When ordinary Methodists were challenged to consider the possibility of a declared homosexual being their minister the depth of feeling was brought to light and the basis for the divisions uncovered. By and large the leadership of the Church took its stand on grounds of natural justice, and aligned itself with the Human Rights Act of 1993 whose intention is to abolish discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Conference in 1993 affirmed that it will 'choose to order its life and practice' within the intent of the Act. Those who oppose this view frequently make scripture the ground for their opposition. The debate at Conference 1996 showed how far from resolution the question is. In the meantime, however, some declared homosexuals are employed in ministry, and some congregations have declared themselves to be 'inclusive' as a way of indicating their support for the Church's official stance.
The reliance on scriptural evidence has almost evaporated in the matter of the place of women in ministry. It would be difficult to show that women within New Zealand Methodism are in any way disadvantaged in respect to their participation in the ordering and governance of the Church though, in truth, it is sometimes necessary to remind committees and boards of the need to look at gender balance more carefully. In this matter it would seem that God's justice is to be discerned through the ways in which contemporary society is generally moving. Consistency would suggest that this argument should apply equally to the matter of homosexuality.
For nearly 50 years the Methodist Church of New Zealand has been moving, inexorably as it seemed, towards organic union with some of its traditional denominational partners. The growth of cooperative ventures has been one of the remarkable features of recent New Zealand church life. Organic union has, however, hardly produced the fruits it seemed to promise. It may be that Methodists are beginning to realize that they helped bring to birth a new denomination rather than an altogether new expression of church community. With our strong and fundamental belief in connexionalism we have watched the growth of a host of basically congregational units. Conference 1996 reached the point where it was determined to call a halt, though possibly a temporary one, to this trend. A further factor in this decision was the concern that the Methodist commitment to its bicultural journey was being hindered rather than helped by attitudes and practices in our sister churches with which we were uncomfortable, or to which we were opposed.
It also became clear that the concern about a loss of Methodist identity was shared by Methodists in Aotearoa New Zealand who were of Pacific Islands origin. Statistical evidence underlines the fact that the fastest growing part of the Methodist Church of New Zealand is that centred on Samoan and Tongan congregations and fellowships. The bicultural journey has a multi-cultural goal, and Methodism in the near future in this country will no longer be dominated by pakeha/palagi interests and structures.
A phenomenon of the past thirty years has been the changing appearance of the Methodist ministry. From being male dominated, and offering employment for an expected 30+ years, the Methodist ministry has become a vocation in which, firstly, there is an approaching parity of women and men. Secondly the age at which ministry is entered has changed markedly and very few under the age of thirty now offer and/or are accepted. The average length of ministry has shortened dramatically. Thirdly, there is a greater variety of means of entry, and the expectation that a student will receive three years college training prior to taking up her/his first appointment is no longer valid. Fourthly, some ministers are locally trained, seek only local appointments, and are not available for a fully itinerant ministry. All this means that the Church has been forced to re-examine the whole basis of its training of ministers. When this is coupled with the stated principle of 'every member a minister' it is difficult to foretell what further changes will be made over the next few years.
One senses an almost instinctive mistrust within Methodism of 'theology'. It is probably regarded as a somewhat esoteric subject, too academic to be relevant to everyday life. Methodist mythology looks back to its beginnings in the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century with its homespun preaching and its intimate awareness of, and involvement in, the predicament of the poor. The hard questions are set aside in favour of preaching to and about everyday human experience. Theology is about God and God's gracious relationship with God's creation. Evangelical theology - and Methodism belongs in that tradition - addresses that relationship in terms of Jesus of Nazareth as God's good news for the poor. Following Jesus' example (as well as John Wesley's) Methodist theology for the new millenium must have at its heart that good news. Finding ways to express that truth is not a matter of the heart alone - it demands most rigorous and disciplined study and reflection.
Because Methodism's beginnings are relatively recent and we know that what Wesley put in place in terms of church structure was a quite pragmatic response to the conditions of the day, we today feel perfectly free to continue in that pragmatic spirit. Very little indeed is regarded as 'sacred' so far as the shape of the Methodist Church is concerned. With the exception of its connexionalism, as has already been noted, nothing else is beyond change. In one sense this is no bad thing, and if a structure fails to serve a useful purpose then it should be discarded or improved. On the other hand organisational tinkering can become an end in itself, and I fear that too often that is where church energy is diverted. The Church, for a Methodist, is a human structure, a creature of its own time. Methodism is not true to itself if it imagines it is in the business of establishing the City of God. Sadly, I cannot envisage a time when there will not be that quest for perfection.
In November 1997 the Methodist Conference received the recommendation, from the appropriate bicultural nominating committee, that the Revd Dr David Bromell, a homosexual minister not yet in Full Connexion with our Church, be stationed as Superintendent of Christchurch Methodist Mission, an important connexional appointment. In spite of the earlier decision there was strong opposition from some sections of Conference. Conference accepted the recommendation, however, and received Dr Bromell into "Full Connexion".
See also the item Our sexuality controversy on the Dunedin Methodist Parish page.