The Methodist Church in Ireland met for its annual conference in Belfast from 10-13 June 2010, and, along with Mr Campbell Young, I attended to represent the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It’s theme was taken from a line in one of Wesley’s hymns, “Our Calling to Fulfil”. It was a good opportunity to renew personal friendships with many fellow ministers in the Methodist Church, as well as to chat with Bishop Harold Millar, the Church of Ireland representative to the Conference.
At the opening night service in St Mark’s, Dundela, (famous for its close links with C.S.Lewis), the Conference installed Reverend Paul Kingston as its President, succeeding Reverend Donald Ker. In addition, for the first time, it also installed Mrs Gillian Kingston as its Lay Leader. It was an interesting innovation, and the way the duties of chairing the Conference were shared between the President and the Lay Leader reflected the concern of the church to recognise the gifts of all God’s people.
Paul and Gillian are not related, but one can imagine that many people will assume that they are. To complicate matters, a former President of the Conference in 1984 was also called Paul Kingston, and he is a first cousin of the current President. Added to that, the current President and the out-going President, Donald Ker, are also first cousins. Methodists in Ireland are a close-knit family.
The issues addressed at this Conference were remarkably similar to the issues which we have heard discussed at other church assemblies this year: falling numbers, financial pressures and consideration of new models of ministry.
The statistics reveal that the Methodist Church in Ireland has lost approximately 2,500 people in the last five years, bringing its current full membership to around 51,500. Allied to this decline, serious concerns were expressed about the church’s financial position. The proposed budget increase of 5% was met with some expressions of concern. But in spite of fears that they will be stretched to reach the new target, the Conference approved the increased budget. There is a serious pension deficit that needs to be addressed and more funds are needed for the training and support of new ministers. Like many other churches, the Conference directed its Finance Committee to undertake a wide-ranging review of all church finances.
One strategy that was strongly commended to the Conference was the Back to Church Sunday in which a deliberate effort is made to invite people to come to church on a given Sunday. In 2010, it is 26 September. This initiative challenges the general delusion that exists in many churches that they are welcoming of new visitors, and that visitors will naturally feel at home. As well as being a simple strategy in getting church members to invite their friends to come to church, it also challenges churches to re-think how accesible and welcoming they really are.
The Conference also considered a report on interchangeability of ministry between the Methodist Church and the Church of Ireland. The goal is to move to a position where there will be mutual involvement in the consecration of bishops and dedication of presidents, and eventually an interchangeable ministry where a duly ordained presbyter/priest of either church may administer communion in the other church according to either rite or ceremony.
The final service of the Conference was an impressive service of ordination and communion held in Bloomfield Presbyterian Church. The President of the British Methodist Conference, Rev David Gamble, preached an engaging sermon on using one’s God-given gifts, and four new ministers were ordained. Their personal testimonies of their call to the ministry were full of evangelical warmth and commitment.
Like many other churches, the Methodist Church in Ireland is facing challenging times. They have a “calling to fulfil”. The mood of this Conference reflected a real desire to respond to those challenges, to fulfil their calling, and to advance the gospel throughout Ireland.