working with paedophiles

The Methodist Church began in small communities around England which hardly ever communicated with each other. John Wesley rode around the country to preach at the various chapels that had been  built.  

In 1784 he made provision for the communications within his church to continue after his death by creating the Conference – a national body that met once a year. This was designed to connect the various churches – and thus the Methodist Church claims to be “connexional”.  

Better communications over the years have made the physical contacts between the various districts more easy. Perhaps the need for the Conference is not as necessary as it was in Wesley’s day. But it remains; and it makes the rules – the “Standing Orders”.  

The Methodist churches around the country had always had their differences of approach, but the increased ease of communication made this less popular with the central organisers of the church.  

 A report to the Methodist Conference in 2004 stated:  

 “The phrase “tolerant of different views within the Christian family” is a focus for many issues. Some correspondents wrote about the need for limits to toleration in the Church. Everything must be tested against the truth of the gospel. In a diverse Church there are many interpretations of the gospel, as there are many understandings of the authority of the scriptures. So debates about the meaning of faith, tradition and experience are part of our ongoing ‘Methodist way' of being Church.”  

John Wesley may well have been surprised to hear some of his followers claiming that there are “limits to toleration”. But such has been the price of growth, for the Methodist Church of Britain is now an established church in law.

There had been increased church unity – and consequent uniformity with the Deed of Union made in 1932. But the full consolidation took place with the Methodist Church Act in 1976. Since the Act requires that the Methodist Church upholds – and is seen to uphold – it central doctrine, a complete new set of rules was thought necessary.  

By the year 2000, Conference had introduced a completely new process for dealing with complaints and discipline. There were significant changes – some of which were difficult for the average person to understand. The new Standing Orders had a legalistic approach; reconciliation was still mentioned in the wording – but tolerance had been forgotten.  

The new Standing Orders were written by lawyers, for lawyers – and written to protect the people who paid those lawyers – the Executive of the Methodist Church. The congregational membership had no say in the matter of how they were to practice their religion. This idea was anathema to John Wesley’s original thinking. Centralisation had produced consolidation - and the potential for authoritarianism.  

Even those in power recognised that the new work on Standing Orders was too big and unapproachable to the average church member. They therefore asked  a senior member of the church, his Honour Judge Clifford Bellamy, to chair a committee and write a guidance to the Standing Orders. Bellamy’s guide was a noble attempt to make the new system more accessible to members of the Church- and, in particular, to set out the balance between one Standing Order and another.  It employed the same skills that a High Court judge shows when explaining the evidence of a case to the ordinary man and woman  on the jury before him.

Ever diligent, the Conference considered, and adopted, improvements to the Standing Orders almost every year. The Guide could not cope with the modifications and additions. By 2008 Bellamy’s Guide had gone through three editions – and was then, within a couple of years, effectively abandoned as being no longer relevant, nor adequate to the task. In the end the Guide had proved to be, in itself, so long, complex and cumbersome, that it was not fulfilling its role of enlightening many of its readers.   The intense organisation which had produced the detailed Standing Orders, and the guide to them, had effectively ground the organisation of it to a halt. The many changes in Standing Orders had begun to cause confusion – and that has continued during the past decade.  

The need for a guide, as perceived in 2000, is again becoming clear. But the sad history of Bellamy’s guide does not encourage another such venture.  

The consequence is that individuals tend to interpret Standing Orders as they would wish to see them, or as, in their view, any “reasonable person” might see them. Their own external political beliefs inevitably decide the way they see things.

The polarities in such views of church members are assumed, or expected, as they have always been, to be held together in a dialogue of listening and speaking in mutual respect, love and prayer. When this occurs, the Standing Orders may be ignored – after all, they do not attempt to find ‘common ground’, and they are too complex to be applied.    

 Read more on this in the articles “The importance of Clifford Bellamy” and “Is the Church democratic?” elsewhere on this site.    







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