“I’m not really a Conference type”…
Those words have sprung from the mouth of many of the people I admire, who have been Methodists for much longer than I have, and Christians for much longer than I might sustain – yet, they have always confounded me. Why wouldn’t you be a Conference type? What is it about the Methodist Conference that puts off some of the most prophetically profound people I know from wanting to be present? Many of whom I am sure would bring something fresh to Conference made up of many ‘regulars’.
I’m not sure I know why, but I think I am now beginning to know in part.
Like any annual event, there are the looked-for highlights, even more so when an event like the Conference remains almost ceremonially unchanged since its conception. In this nomadic annual pop-up parish – Wesley still rules, and make no mistake about this fact!
There are the obvious highlights, the location – this year, Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Hearing the visions, thoughts and reflections of outgoing leaders and incoming one’s. The singing of those timeless unaccompanied prayers: ‘And are we yet alive?’ and the closing hymn ‘Captain of Israel’s host and guide’, everything placed in its rightful context of a God who is before all and after all and in all…this year particularly poignant when friends in light were many, it was a tearful Conference for some, albeit at times lacking in ritualistic liturgical gravitas. And of course, the ordinations – always reminiscent of ones own but always unique. I am deeply hopeful and encouraged by some of my sisters and brothers in the Ministry who are following in the bright succession a year after me and many others – they seemed full of life, and zeal! I hope and pray that we have prophets, priests, and teachers amongst them. On that note – it really *is* important we pray for each other….immensely.
Unlike last year, I attended this Conference as a representative and only ever attended the days I was required to at the Conference I was ordained at, which met in Southport a year previous. I, like the people I refer to at the beginning, regarded myself as ‘not really a Conference type’. A position I held with integrity, though it would be a sad day when we struggled to get anyone to attend as reps. For me, Conference had always seemed too big – too central – too serious, and too divorced from reality….though infact this isn’t actually so! Lots of good and deeply important things take place at Conference – the spirit speaks, to us mere mortals in to whom the Lord has breathed life. It doesn’t always feel like it, but there are momentary glimpses of glory in the mundane business of the Conference. (Trust me on this!) It was interesting sharing lunch whilst at Conference with a colleague who is an Anglican priest, and whilst comparing the Methodist Conference to the General Synod of the Church of England, of which I knew very little – it became clear that our methods for the use of platforms and conferring are quite different, and so is the way we conduct business. For all its weaknesses, it is, I believe a benefit of the Conference that anyone who is a representative, and even guests (at the grace of the Chair) can speak, and share their thoughts….we don’t always want or need to hear them(!), but we do more times than not and I felt that people were engaged, and open.
This at least, is very good – and heart-warmingly subversive, particularly in Westminster. In the world at large in fact. We shouldn’t change this!
The over-arching theme of this Conference were those set by the presidency: ‘Holiness and Justice’. I found our Vice-Presidents address incredibly refreshing – and perhaps the most hope-filled moment for me. Here is someone who is serious about justice, and who I feel knows what the debris of humanity looks and smells like – metaphorically speaking. Both of these served as particularly poignant themes as the Conference met in the nation’s Capital – a divinely arranged coincidence. The Conference met, not only in the capital, but more acutely in the thick aftermath of the European Referendum – the wake of the ‘Vote Leave’ triumph. I had hoped for a prophetic diatribe to come forth, but we sent something slightly tamer to the powers that be across the road, also to the Press – and encouraged the Methodist people to show solidarity against racism, through the wearing of a safety pin recognising, after the event – that safety pins are not enough.
I suppose, I almost went to Conference out of sardonic curiosity; half hoping that I would find something other than what I feared. And as I write this I realise that I’m talking about ‘the Conference’ as though it were not the group of people I happened to be a part of that year…but bear with this shortcoming on my part – it is one of many. One thing that was abundantly clear to me, and I hope to others, was the lack of ethnic diversity on the platform of the Conference. We have nailed equality, but we don’t quite do justice yet. If justice is what love looks like in public – then we have a long, long way to go. Sadly, this is not unusual, and as time went on I began to realise that this is reflected in the wider context of the Conference makeup – it starts at Circuit level, and manifests itself at Synod level – birthing itself in an unavoidable streaming lack of cultural dynamic at Methodism’s highest echelons. For me there is still in my heart an uncanny paradox between the sighs that echoed around the Great Hall in Westminster as we heard that, yet again, a large number of World Church attendees had had their visas rejected, and when I shared my realities of ministry as a black man. The paradox being as bizarre as those who say to me “you have so much potential” but who fail to see the way they themselves uphold systems within and without the Church that will only ever enable potential to be just that. So if we look at the make up of the Conference, we can extract its diversity fairly quickly.
If, for example, you remove all volunteers for a start, and then you take away the number of World Church Representatives present at the Conference, the number of EDI reps, Members of the Connexional Team, Visiting guests, and the number of us there as ‘Racial Justice’ representatives – and the single BAME Chair of District, and those there as translators etc you would, at that point, be left with a very different Conference (and I can comment only on London 2016). Reflecting on the fact that, in reality, the only reason I happened to attend Conference as a representative was because I met a particularly helpful requirement – not really for the totality of who I am, or what I bring, but for concerns of race, which is an issue in itself perhaps – the better way to increase diversity would be to take a long hard look at why it is lacking in the first place, and why Conference seems so inaccessible. If the only way we can get better representation to the Conference is by hand-picking a few BME people to attend, that doesn’t speak directly to the systemic issues at play. Now, I’m not saying that the Conference hasn’t tried exceptionally hard to remedy these things, and to look at them, I’m simply saying that whatever we are doing isn’t working as it ought. Nor am I saying that the Conference as it is, isn’t actually representative of Methodism – I think it is. But is it representative of the world or country in which we live? Is it representative of the Kingdom of God? Is the Conference makeup a foretaste of the heaven of which we are citizens in any way….? Maybe for you, the answer is yes. I don’t know.
For me, even as an active member of the Conference, it still felt too much like a spectator sport. This isn’t necessarily to do with race – but many things – age, sexuality, race, cultural background, spirituality. This is not simply to do with internal factors but it is projected by the assumption from many folk that you are by nature an ‘outsider’ because you don’t fit in to the majority….a bit like your own family members asking you, if you are lost as you walk around the home, or wanting to verbally trace your lineage every morning you join them at the breakfast table….sort of. If I may expand a little further. It was put on my heart, particularly during the conversations on SSM, to share my own experience as someone black and bisexual – the fascinating shift in attitude pre that disclosure and post from some World Church reps was quite interesting. I was no longer to be acknowledged with familial affection from sisters and brothers from around the world – I felt that I had ‘let the side down’ – I had done the un-black thing…though this wasn’t true for all, of course not, how could it be? There were also black colleagues who sought me out to salute my courage, and thank me for sharing what falling in love with another man was like. I know though, that there are some who like to capitalise on the ‘all black people are homophobic’ stereotype. That golden calf is being destroyed, and I thank God. There is as much variety in black experience as there is in every other human beings experience, and the day more people read bell hooks, cornel west, chimamanda ngozi adichie, taiye selasi, and james baldwin will be the day the world is allowed to be as big as it actually is.
The other side of this, is that when I shared some of my experiences of racism within and without the Church – the only people who told me, that day, and since then, that I was not right – that I shouldn’t have shared – that it is just as well I didn’t mention the area I serve in, or that I should select my words more carefully in future – were white men. It’s fair to say, that at this point I can say ‘I am really not a conference type’. If Conference is a place in which it isn’t acceptable to speak your lived truth, then Conference isn’t a place for me. Sadly, I know that my experiences are not unusual – there is a whole plethora of trappings associated with the Conference, and I was concerned that one younger BME person shared that they have heard and seen things at Conference that may have slightly put them off candidating for the ministry. A negative of the Conference is that if you are there for the first time, you by nature, are seen as a Conference virgin who, over time, will learn the ropes. If you are there as someone from the BME community, you are told in verbal and non-verbal ways that if you wish to put a Notice of Motion forward, or send a Memorial (from a Circuit or District) you need to put it in certain terms, choose your words particularly, not be too radical – but this can mean, for some, learning to speak as a white person to white people in a mostly white-led institution. This is problematic. Please note I said that THIS is problematic, not that white people are the problem.
The reality of talking about race in a Christian environment, is that people want to say that our identity as Christians is in Christ – end of story. But actually, Jesus didn’t ignore the cultural and racial dynamics in his own life – they were not observed as barriers, but neither were they not real. Yes, our identity is in Christ – and yes we are all just human beings – but my identity in Christ and my being human is intimately tied up with my experience as a black person living in the society in which I live. To ignore race, and the part that that plays in the life of the Church, is to ignore the facts of the present day, and of history. It was the fact that black people were black that made them valuable as labour in the past – it is the fact that black people are black that means that certain negative responses are second nature to many people today, like the police – like the criminal justice system, like the press and mass media….like the Church. If you are one of those ‘colour-blind’ Christian folk – then actually you cannot see the Jesus who is revealed in Holy Scripture for who and what he is – because actually the fact the word became flesh in the middle east says something spectacular today, and in particular in our hermeneutic of Scripture. Think about lynching, think about the electric chair, think about the executions that have taken place in the middle-east, and of Fr Jacques Hamel in France – and think about the cross….
That in 2016, it still feels as though everything that I say, or do is happening under the critical white gaze. That in 2016, it still seems that black people are having to create safe space at fringe events to gather and be themselves in. That in 2016, a young black minister cannot speak his truths without coming under attack….is problematic, infact it is diabolical in the true sense. I grow weary because this is not the only burden I carry – and too often, white people who want to change, ask me how they should – but that makes me the only agent for your change. That puts the responsibility for your enlightenment upon black people – it is oppressive, by nature. It’s the equivalent of asking “I need you to free me, so that I can free you, because I don’t know how to free myself”. The privileged person is pretending that the person with power is the ‘other’, and that they have the power to free the oppressed, – but this is not the case in the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy that we live in. For us all to be free, we need to look at why anyone is enslaved in the first place and tackle those causes, recognising that we cannot undo history – and that history is never really history for those who didn’t write it.
I am convinced that the best and most affective method for change, no matter who we might be is simply to listen. You know, I really think that listening is grossly underrated. Listening is the most prophetic and loving thing most of us can do for each other. Listen to the stories and experiences of others, and do not allow your need to be defensive to silence their truths. Let what they have to say churn you up inside – let their truths affect you – and sit with that. Then read. Listen, and read. Particularly to those minorities who have only recently gained a platform, and confidence of character, and space, to share their truths with you. It’s in the sharing of our (you, and I) truths, that we allow the weighty truth of the Gospel to root itself more deeply in us, under the perfect but heavy gaze of God.
And yet, my critique continues. Because one thing remains clear – the only people who can afford to believe in a non-racist, non-oppressive Church are those who have shares in the status quo and rely on its dividends – and, also, the un-freed negro taking shelter in the delusion of the universe ‘massa’ has created. Like Harriet Tubman, I wanted to free people who never knew they’d been enslaved. It is true, that being a buttress to white supremacy is more comfortable than being ‘woke’ to the realties of how for one too many of our kin the words ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free’ are not actually a reality. Methodism, though it might not realise it, particularly in London – needs black people who do not challenge white supremacy to help it function – we always need door stewards, Ministers we can plug stationing holes with in desperate times, we always need people to run bits of paper around the Conference floor, we always need people to read the Holy Scriptures….as long as we ALL can FULLY understand them – then black folk are of use. What we need is a way of de-colonizing the mindset of too many British Methodist folk. That takes time, but it also takes courage – and I’m not prepared cut intelligent older people slack for growing up in a different world….they also need to listen, and read, and change.
It would be wrong to say that this small negative undertone that my gut was aware of in the Conference, is representative of all the Conference is about. That would be extreme. But I did find myself, at various points having to hold back indignation and wondering if anyone else just heard what I heard, or saw what I saw….?! For example, when it became clear that no part of Conference worship was going to represent the cultural diversity of the City that hosted it and the people that sustain it, or when the ‘safe space’ in the George Thomas Room was made after a Safeguarding conversation (just crass!), when an British ex-President from the Gambia tried to cut racist angry referendum folk some slack, or when the Conference could ask nothing more of the Methodist people than to attach a small symbol to their clothing in solidarity against something we still do not seem to accept exists at the centre of our institution…to me, Conference – just when it was needed, seemed nearly utterly void of prophetic imagination, barren of courage and lacking in a full confidence of the Gospel. And yes, I do realise that this is rather damning.
So, is there hope anywhere in what I have made to sound a bit too much like a Valley of Bones reminiscent of Ezekiel’s prophetic vision? Yes.
Of course there is. At the cross. That sign of total despair, upon which the prince of glory died – that bloodied gateway to new life.
The foot of the cross is where I with my questions, anger, and near-despair need to start,
The foot of the cross is where those who ask me where I am really from need to start,
The foot of the cross is where the baptismal families who voice their racism in my living room need to start.
Because it is here – that we find *our* redemption – as sinners, all of us. And in that we are not at all unique.
There is always hope, even for the ‘vilest offender’….even for the Church. Because of the Truth in which we believe – the Truth that is a person, the person of Jesus Christ – all of us, and even British Methodism with its institutional denials of the Gospel, and what I fear are its denials of that denial…still has the potential for transformation and for renewal. Our prayer should be for our imaginations to be enlarged, inflamed and filled with God’s imagination. My point is that I think as a Church we still need to acknowledge before God – our need of that change. Not just in statements, but in sacrificial actions – for the credibility of all our words is in their lived-outness. Recognising, that whilst there is no profit for the Church Militant in prophecy – an urgency in that task will enable us to develop and nurture those seeds from which true change can come.
I think a Church that is more just, will be a Church that is more real – and a Church that is more real, is a Church that will be holy – and a Church that is holy, will by nature be prophetic – and a Church which is prophetic will change the world, will say the hard things, will do the things of the Gospel – will love, naturally.
In order to do that, we need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church, and what the Spirit is saying to the Conference – and to the Connexion, and to each of us as individuals – but a religion of the Gospel prepared to compromise the truths of peoples experience to save face, or to save dealing with difficulties, or to avoid structural change, is one that probably deserves to die.
I am not a conference type and I may never go again. – But then, I don’t think Jesus would be either. And whilst I encourage people to mobilise at Circuit, Synod and Conference level, and to make their discomforts with the status quo audible to the deaf and visible to the blind – and whilst I pray, and petition heaven for a radical new vision and wisdom for all who lead the Church Catholic. It is still the case, that fundamentally, the frustration for me as an individual lies in knowing how close a heavenly gift we have in the Conference, but how marred it is, for those on the margins, by our lack of willingness to really change….to change not just our attitudes, but our beloved little sect, the sect which I love,…from glory into glory, and more into the likeness of the Body of Christ. That Body, which on earth will always in earth’s fading economy, be somewhat broken, – but which does not have to be so comfortably, and structurally; divided, and oppressive, and exclusive.
For me, far too many black men and women have been told throughout the ages to wait, patiently, for heaven to enjoy perfect justice – but I want it now, and I want it in the Church – and I want it in Methodism. That’s all I want – not just for me, but for each and every child of God, and I will labour – on the days when I have strength – until I see it come to birth.
‘The Condition of Truth, Is to Allow Suffering to Speak’ – Cornel West