The End of Tolerance and Reconciliation.




A  retired former BBC TV journalist, Peter Hill, considers the detail of a film he has made and had  placed on the internet. It is about a dispute within the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Unable to understand why there appears to be no possibility of a just and peaceful resolution to the argument that is detailed in the film, in this article he attempts to trace the historical influences and events that have prompted the Church Executives to reach the decision that they have in the case he has filmed.



The Methodist Church is currently failing. In spite of serious efforts to stem the decline, over the ten year period from 2006 to 2016 membership decreased from 262,972 to 188,398 – a decline of 3.5% per annum. There are many supposed reasons for this.


Some take the view that we are living in what is the first genuinely pagan age. Some think that external politics have increasingly become a part of the influences on the Church over the past century.


Some trace the problems back to the Union of 1932, when several of the larger Methodist denominations joined together. Various divergent groups, one might count even as many as six, which had sprung up from the Wesleyan Methodists since the death of John Wesley, decided to join the parent body. They each had their own style of Methodism, which the new body, the Methodist Church, needed to pull together. 


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.


Later, the report stated somewhat defiantly :


“The Methodist Church in Britain is ready for change.”


This, some seventy years after the Union of 1932 indicates how differences in opinions and interpretations across the Methodist community still existed. Some of the challenges of unification in 1932 remained. Even seventy years later some thought that there should be more ‘limits to toleration in the Church’. The Church was still looking for change.


A constant in the “Methodist Way”, after the death of  John Wesley, was that his followers, with their diverse views, nevertheless lived with each other in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation. The new film on the internet, entitled "The disciples of John Wesley"  ( suggests that there is now little tolerance and reconciliation in the Church today – and one wonders why this might be suggested. Is this why attendances are falling?


There has certainly been some friction during the period of the unification of the church, to the point when open hostility has sometimes broken out.


In 1967, Donald Soper, an ardent socialist and a prominent methodist minister, was extremely popular  nationally for his promotion of pacifism and nuclear disarmament. He was genuinely chagrined in his later years when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – for she was a more strictly moralist Methodist,   much more attuned to the austere Methodist zeal of the Victorian age. This contrast between two senior members of the Church illustrates the potential divisions in the Church.


Donald Soper argued that the policies of Margaret Thatcher were inherently incompatible with Christianity. He considered her something of a throwback to a former age. He was supported by Methodists of a similar external political persuasion. Prime Minister James Callaghan was a “socialist” Methodist. He used to say that his kind of socialism owed as much to Methodism as to Marx.


Margaret Thatcher’s brand of Methodism came from her father, who was a lay preacher. She, herself, preached in a Methodist Church  whilst she was studying at  Oxford. Her Methodism was one of such passion that it was perhaps even foreign to the English Establishment as a whole, never mind to the Methodist Church of the kind that Donald Soper and his followers would wish to have.  She considered the Methodism that had grown up, particularly  since 1932,  to be a powerful and marvellous evangelical faith – though she wished that it had an even more formal theology. It was this puritan passion within Methodism which took Margaret Thatcher into high office as much as her conservative monetarist policies.


If such external political divisions did not seriously influence the internal affairs of the Church, then it is probably solely due to the fact that such differences had long been present within the Methodist Church -  and the church had never sought to discourage them. The policy of tolerance and reconciliation had always prevailed.


However, the changes brought about by efforts to organise and consolidate the unity of the Methodist Church have meant that tolerance and reconciliation are not as common as they were. Strong unifying guidance has been needed – and that has come from the centre,  the Executive in Methodist Church House. This is perhaps why there was no sign of either tolerance or reconciliation throughout the whole of the case involving Rev Timms – as illustrated in the film “The DIsciples of John Wesley".


One catalyst for this change in mood may have been the Methodist Act of 1976 which established the church. By allying itself to the State, the Methodist Church came to enjoy certain, particularly financial and economic, privileges, as well as furthering the unification of the Church.  On the other hand it meant that the Church owed certain responsibilities to the State. It took those responsibilities seriously -  perhaps too seriously for its own good. And therein may lie a major  problem.


The 1976 Act effectively required a single unified church, speaking with one voice. Certainty and clarity are not qualities that were always  present in the traditional system, when polarities in opinion were held together in a dialogue of listening and speaking in mutual respect, love and prayer. Yet the Act was an alliance between Church and State – and Parliament requires certainty and clarity.


Because the 1976 Act made Conference the sole authority on doctrinal standards, the Methodist Church decided that it needed to enter into a review of its standards and rules of conduct.  That, it was thought, is good organisation.


The central doctrine of the Methodist Church, which was mentioned in the Act, needed clearer definition if it was to be followed in a practical manner. The little “black book” of Standing Orders that had been compiled was thought to be “too cumbersome” for practical use. So a new set of Standing Orders was commissioned. They were to be more approachable, more clear and more comprehensive – and perhaps more importantly, they would further unify the various elements of the Church. The organisation of this compilation was done by the Methodist Church’s Law and Polity Committee - a body containing a large number of lawyers.


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 work was so big and unapproachable to the average church member that a senior member of the church, his Honour Judge Clifford Bellamy, was asked 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.


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.


In disputes, most people seek ‘justice’ – but what does that mean?  Is it  ‘justice’ if someone gets ‘his just deserts’ – or is there a system in which a ‘person is innocent until proved guilty’? Is the approach to finding justice holistic – or is it specific to the accusation?


The worthy attempt to create a common set of rules for all the diverse attitudes within the Church has failed. Yet there needs to be order and unity – so those who do not interpret and obey the new Standing Orders, as issued by the central Executive, are not to be tolerated. Those who saw a need for limits to toleration in the Church have won their case.


Nor, it seems,  can there be any reconciliation between differing  views. That is how unity is achieved by managers: it is organisation that, in theory, should work. Some might term it the ‘Thatcher approach’.


The problems arise when someone, such as Rev Timms, disagrees; for  there is no remedy when any variations of interpretation occur. Important concepts such as ‘justice’, ‘honesty’ and ‘openness’ are open to different interpretations – particularly when intentions are taken into account.  Yet when one side takes one view and the other a different view, there is no real means of settling the differences within the Standing Orders. Reconciliation is easily avoided.


The comprehensive Standing Orders on Practice and Discipline  in the Church do not have the clarity of thought that Conference intended when it sought to unify such rulings and comply with the spirit of the Methodist Church Act. The organisation it created, and installed, produced a monster.


The story of Rev Peter Timms, as detailed on the internet in my film entitled “The Disciples of John Wesley", may point to a more deep-seated malaise that could threaten the unity of the Church. The film demonstrates several basic points about what has happened to the general understanding of the Church’s Standing Orders. It seems that the rules that were intended to promote peace and harmony have actually produced disastrous conflict.


The Timms dispute actually arose because of differing views on the meaning of a new Standing Order. This was the ‘molehill’ that turned into a ‘mountain’. The local Methodist administration would not tolerate any interpretation of the new standing order other than their own.


Nevertheless, individuals within the South East Circuit acted upon their own interpretation of the new Standing Order -  and when the District Chair’s differing interpretation was implemented instead of their own, they discovered that there was no means in the Standing Orders of appealing the decision and receiving an authoritative interpretation.


Any church members who complain in such circumstances discover that current Standing Orders are now so thoroughly “comprehensive” that it would seem that very few people – even in the headquarters in Methodist Church House – can understand them in total. There is no ‘interpretation’ body to intervene in disputes about the meaning of a Standing Order – interpretations are imposed by whoever is more senior in the Church, without any tolerance of any opposing interpretations.


One problem with this is that the Standing Orders were written by lawyers, and resemble an extremely lengthy legal document. Some might say they read like an Act of Parliament. Others say that one cannot see the forest for the trees.


Very few people are acquainted with the entirety of the Standing Orders – and, since the Bellamy Guide is now defunct, there is no guide to suggest how one Standing Order might take precedence over, or qualify, another. Although the Standing Orders are supposed to promote justice, fairness and openness in the Church – in accordance with the obligations under the Methodist Act – they allow executives to pick and choose which Standing Order suits their current purpose.


The Standing Orders may easily be interpreted in a partial, one might say, a political way. One side might take the ‘Soper approach’ – the other the ‘Thatcher approach’ in interpretation.  The Standing Orders were supposed to bring together these two widely different approaches – in fact they have simply imposed a dictatorship from the Centre.


As a consequence, the Standing Orders may even prove to be prejudicial against individual members of the church – for one side is no longer actively encouraged to offer tolerance and reconciliation to the other. Tolerance and Reconciliation are now reduced to a set of  Standing Orders that detail how the Church should deal with disputes. Loving one’s neighbour no longer comes into it.


Complicating this is the fact that the Standing Orders effectively protect those same persons - the executives of the Church -   who actually employed the lawyers who drafted them. The executives have absolute power of interpretation – and we know what absolute power does to people. Why then should such executives show any tolerance or reconciliation?


Executives of the Church are even protected -  by various Standing Orders - against anyone who might complain, be they lay persons or members of the Church. This means that the Executive’s interpretation of Standing Orders will always prevail. Managerial targets make this desirable, indeed necessary.  And if something goes wrong -  and justice, tolerance and reconciliation are left behind in the process -  the Standing Orders may easily provide a “cover-up”. This is extremely dangerous for the Church.


The internet film about Rev. Timms illustrates this well. Perhaps the main problem it raises is the desire by the executives involved to create a  “cover-up”.


It is not just the interpretation of particular Standing Orders which is the problem. Several Standing Orders clearly contradict others. Further, the film about Rev. Timms also illustrates that there is no realistic system of objection against procedure - by the use of procedural motions. Procedure is whatever the Executive decides is appropriate at any given point in time.


There is no effective general system of oversight or scrutiny in the Standing Orders. This again becomes very apparent when one views the film about the case of Rev. Timms. He was denied all appeals.


As a consequence, the system of judgement in the management of complaints is haphazard. In some areas the civil law system of judgement ‘on the balance of probabilities’ is mandatory  - though that  particular system is perhaps not properly understood by the lay members of inquiry panels. Elsewhere there is no accepted system of judgement.


In fact, in many parts of the system, judgement may be by “whim” – operated by people with little or no training in assessing the probity of evidence and judgment. Each may have his or her own definition of ‘evidence’ and ‘justice’. This is little better than ‘thumbs up, thumbs down.’

 And we all know what happened to the Christians when the Roman Emperors held sway over their lives.

There is, further,  no detailed procedure of case management set down in the Standing Orders. Do complainants need to submit documentary evidence in support of the initial complaint?  Do respondents need to reply in writing? Is there any system of rebuttal? None of these issues are dealt with.


There is no system for either complainants or respondents to independently call witnesses. The panel decides who will be the witnesses. Nor is there any requirement for a panel of inquiry to insist on ‘best evidence’. Hearsay evidence seems to be quite acceptable – it is not ruled out by Standing Orders. There are no rights of disclosure of documentation. So, idle or false gossip can be strong damning evidence, even though documentary evidence to the contrary might exist, though not produced because "the panel does not require it."   


Complainants and respondents are allowed to hire a solicitor to conduct their case – but few complainants, even ministers, could ever afford the solicitor’s fees. The Church, which can afford solicitors to defend itself against complaints, will not offer financial help to the complainant for one to be hired. In other words, there is no legal aid whatsoever; he who controls the purse strings decides the case.


In general, there are few rules on how inquiries should be conducted by a connexional panel. The set procedure for investigation provides for a preliminary examination leading to a full examination. However, this system of conducting a “prima facie” case before starting a full investigation was easily by-passed in the case of Rev Timms, as is shown in the film on the internet. The panel simply used another Standing Order to subvert the requirements of the ‘prima facie’ rule.


Significantly, in the case of Rev. Timms, evidence of this subversion of the ‘prima facie’ provision only emerged by chance. The complexity of the Standing Orders makes it easy to cover up such controversial and underhand operations.


The Standing Orders provide no system of oversight concerning the workings of the complaints inquiry. In the case of Rev. Timms, a system of covert surveillance was set up to attack him – it was hushed up when it was accidentally exposed. No blame was apportioned for this – because there is no one who can apportion such blame.


Indeed, the senior complaints worker at Methodist House who chooses the members of a connexional complaints panel has no power to intervene, should any procedural mistake be made. The executives may hire, but they may not fire.


Most of these points are exemplified in the film on the internet. In one sense the film, apart from being a personal tragedy inflicted upon an aged minister, is a practical guide to what is wrong with the complaints system that the Church created in a spirit of unification and centralisation.  There are other important points which are not explicitly mentioned in the film, even though they may be applicable to the events described.


The basic problem is that the Methodist Church has tried its very best to organise itself and unify its rules of conduct in the light of the Methodist Act; but it has failed. In the process, it has forgotten its past traditions of love, tolerance and reconciliation.


Lawyers were chosen to write the Standing Orders because it was thought that they would produce a clear exposition of the Methodist Church’s doctrines in a set of Standing Orders that could be relied upon and presented, if necessary, to Parliament. The intention was sound, but the organisation of the work produced a labyrinth of rules which are of little use to the common man or woman. No doubt those lawyers who draft our laws in Parliament will appreciate such thoroughness – but most members of the Church will find that reading them is like entering a maze.


It is a classic example of someone diligently trying doing to do the right thing – and producing exactly the opposite as a result of their best endeavours.


Floundering around in the mess that Conference has created, the Church executives need clear guidance on how to interpret the present Standing Orders. They need a more manageable version of them which will fulfil the Church’s obligations both to Parliament and its own members under the Methodist Act.  It is a problem which requires clear thinking and good management – and it seems that the present executives are too embroiled in the difficulties to undertake that.


They are running around putting out the fires - when they should be looking for what is causing the conflagration.


The Church clearly recognises the need for some guidelines to the Standing Orders. They produce booklets such as “Positive Working Together”, which are specifically aimed at the average member of the Methodist Church. Such worthy efforts however seem to be merely “putting out fires”. They give good advice on Methodist behaviour without actually mentioning the Standing Orders - which the Church will ultimately rely upon to determine and guide such behaviour.


For example, “Positive Working Together” begins with the words:


“These guidelines have been produced to assist District Circuits and local churches in dealing with bullying and harassment.” 


The booklet makes no attempt to explain that malpractice such as ‘bullying’  is contrary to the Standing Orders  - which all Methodist members are bound to follow. But then,  the words ‘Standing Orders’ do not appear in the booklet at all. We might guess why.


On the other hand, the word “bullying” is not actually mentioned in any Standing Order about complaints. It is, after all, a rather vague and non-legal term which tends to reflect the interpretation by one individual of an aggressive approach from another. There is no legal definition of ‘bullying’.


The terms that are actually used in Standing Orders are ‘harassment and abuse’ – actions which are well-defined in civil law. Again, we might guess why this is so.


Most members of the Church will nevertheless claim to know exactly what ‘bullying’ is – and they will no doubt expect the word to appear in the Standing Orders. However, someone being subjected to bullying in the church may find it difficult to find support in the Standing Orders. After all – do the words “harassment and abuse” not indicate or require a series of such actions before being any complaint can be considered?

 "Bullying" may be a one-off incident.

Such precise definition of terms is not required when disputing parties are brought together by tolerance and reconciliation. But the world has changed.


Contrasting the Standing Orders with various Methodist booklets, one can see what seem to be two different languages within the Church. The ordinary members, even ministers such as Rev Timms, speak with one voice – the Executives and their lawyers speak with another.  The excessive organisation of the compilation of the Standing Orders has actually produced a situation which has become divisive. Unity has produced division.


We might consider that the remedy might be to re-draft the Standing Orders in a way in which their intention is clear and easily comprehended. That, however, has been tried over the past twenty years and there is little hope that a second attempt to produce a perfect set of Standing Orders would not fall into the same traps as the previous attempts.


In criminal and civil law, the answer to the interpretation and application of complexities in the law has been to create an appeal court – and indeed even a further court, the Supreme Court. This judicial structure points to a possible solution, though perhaps the Methodist Church may not need to go that far. If a sturdy and vibrant system of humane toleration and reconciliation cannot be resurrected, the Church must look elsewhere to impose it.


The glaring omission in the Complaints and Disciplinary Procedure is that the fact that there is no oversight or scrutiny of the application of Standing Orders to any given action. To remedy this, Conference might delegate a senior judicial figure, a person such as Clifford Bellamy, or a committee of such persons, to act in such a capacity. This would, at least, constitute a ‘safety net’ for the system. Such an initiative might also help translate the language of the Standing Orders into terms that the ordinary person can readily understand.


There is also a lesson that we might take from the English legal system. The Human Rights Act of 1998 provided a system of guidance to the general interpretation of statutes. In the complaints system,  this is what Standing Order 1100 attempts to achieve, placing it over all the other Standing Orders.


If Conference were to create a more clear separation between  the general principles of guidance of Standing Orders from other Standing Orders which outline the details of particular rights and forms of procedure, the job of the ‘oversight’ person or oversight committee might be made more easy.


As the Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church stands, it is easy to assume that all the Standing Orders are equally important and that any of them may even over-ride the general  principles which are contained in Standing Order 1100.


When such a mistake is made, it is easy to forget that all members of the Methodist Church have a right, in accordance with Standing Order 1100, to be treated with ‘justice, openness and honesty’.


Equally, all complainants and respondents have the right to expect  members of the Executive and its agents  to accept responsibility for their own acts in the interpretation of Standing Orders.


None of this appears to have occurred in the case detailed in the film “The Disciples of John Wesley". Yet there was no avenue of complaint or objection that Rev Timms was allowed to take, because other, lesser, Standing Orders were deemed to overcome all his points of dispute.  The Executive simply abandoned him, saying that there was nothing more that they, or he, could do. His letters of objection were placed on a pile, unread.


In seeking unity in the Church and compliance to the Methodist Act, Conference’s well-intentioned operation is now showing itself to be a good example of how those who diligently make detailed plans may find that they achieve the opposite of what they originally intended.


The unification of the diverse Methodist movements, followed by the alliance of the Church and State, unwittingly persuaded the Church to go astray from the Methodist Way. Tolerance and reconciliation were left by the wayside. Though it appears elsewhere in the texts, the word ‘love’ does not appear in the Standing Orders concerning complaints and discipline. Nor does ‘tolerance’.


The film on the internet about the Rev Timms’ case is no encouragement to anyone who is thinking of joining the Methodist Church. It details a situation inside the church which many current members may even find sufficient reason for them to leave the church. The executives involved may feel , however, that if they ‘give in’ to Rev Timms, such persons will lose confidence in them and may make the final decision to leave. The true centre of this dispute may be a concern about the dwindling membership of the Church.


However, the real significance of the film is that it would not have been made even three decades ago. It details problems which have only arisen since tolerance, reconciliation and love became lost in the organisation of the Church. It shows how, with the centralised re-organisation, the Executive has gone astray from the Methodist Way.

It has lessons for us all as we try to answer the main question it poses – how did the Church come to this extremely worrying situation?



- Peter Hill

 (PLEASE NOTE:  Rev Clifford Bellamy wishes to make it clear that he has taken no part, in any capacity,  in any campaign either in favour of, or against, Rev Peter Timms and that he  does not have a view on the matter. He hopes however that a mutually acceptable outcome can be negotiated so that this long outstanding matter can finally be brought to an end)






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