Pancake Tuesday and the Methodist Machine

Today is Pancake Tuesday, one of my son Ciaran's favourite days in the year, when we make pancakes together for the rest of the family. It is our wee tradition, underpinned by the wider tradition of the church. But I don't think we will be using the Heath Robinson device in this picture.
However it did remind me of the passage in "The Contemplative Pastor" where Peterson in his exploration of the "recovery" of the "forgotten heart" of pastoral ministry, that is "the cure of souls", refers to the protestant reformation saying:
"The Reformers recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. The gospel proclamation, fresh and personal and direct, through the centuries had become an immense, lumbering Rube Goldberg mechanism; elaborately contrived ecclesiastical gears, pulleys and levers rumbled and creaked importantly but ended up doing something completely trivial."
Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson were doing similar things on opposite sides of the Atlantic, drawing not just quirky cartoons but commenting on the unnecessary technological complexity of modern society... And as I read Peterson's damning indictment of  the theology and ecclesiology of the medieval Catholic church, I see a dangerous tendency to be found in all churches, and institutions in general, across all ages. But I believe it matters more in the church because we claim to be so much more than a simple human institution and believe that what we are about is not, ultimately trivial...
However, there are aspects of ecclesiastical structures that are not only arcane but totally and utterly unfit for purpose... Huge amounts of time, energy, paper and money go into doing things that ultimately not only result in benign trivialities (which would be bad enough), but can be clearly malignant, inhumane and working-counter to the purposes of God... Yes, God can (and thankfully does) overcome that, but wouldn't things be better if we weren't trying to push soup up a hill with a fork!? 
Often these things are justified by cries of "tradition", or fenced around with fears about the law of unintended consequences. There have in Methodism, for example been unintended consequences in the Connexions process where there was a reduction in size of leaders/quarterly meetings to form Church Councils/Circuit Executives, have lead to a communication deficit with the wider congregation/circuit.
This is always a danger if you set about dismantling, or simplifying a Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson device... it may stop working altogether... far easier that you add in something rather than mess with what is there. Another layer of administration... extra legislation or guidelines to cover a possible eventuality... Responding to horses bolting by bricking up the doorway and adding a skylight by which you can extract horses in future by hiring a huge crane.
But as the machinery of church gets bigger and more unwieldy it becomes more expensive to maintain both in terms of cold hard cash, as well as the faith and general well-being of those ministers and laypeople who have to maintain them... There is a danger of it becoming a huge inhumane mincing machine... Like the mechanical behemoths of the industrial revolution which frequently mangled the young urchins who had to crawl under them to reset bobbins or flywheels or whatever... Indeed it is sometimes the children of ministers and laypeople serving the church who pay the highest price in this process, as they are deprived of the time and attention of parents or, in the case of our own Methodist "stationing" system are regularly uprooted from school and friends for the sake of the great god of itinerancy.
Itinerancy and the year by year stationing process that underpins it is one of the Irish Methodist Heath Robinson devices defended in with that word, tradition... So I would argue is the existence and role of Districts and Synods... the structure of selection, accountability and support (or lack of) for ministers... As anyone knows I COULD go on, but I won't... Things have improved to a certain extent on all these fronts during the course of my ministry, but far too often it has been at the cost of more meetings, forms to fill in, and uncertainty, because new systems have been superimposed on old structures unfit to support them.
From conversations with friends in other denominations I can see common themes, and often I am glad that Methodism is the particular machine I am caught up in (there was a discussion on the current crisis regarding ministry in the Catholic Church in Ireland on Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence this week that made me mightily glad that I am not a priest in that tradition).
I apologise to those who have no knowledge of or interest in the inner workings of the Methodist Church in Ireland... neither do I generally... The Manual of Laws that I received on ordination is only rarely opened...  But this post has been sparked not only the above cartoon and the quote from Peterson, but by
  1. the fact that I have been caught up unexpectedly in the merry-go-round of stationing and have had to try and explain the why's and wherefore's of it to my sons, and especially to my younger son Ciaran who it will affect most radically this time, and 
  2. in preparation for a more wide ranging conversation on the future of the church at conference this year I and other members of the Methodist Church have been asked to complete an online questionaire on the direction that the church should be taking... However, as I have said elsewhere, I firmly believe that any answers that can be contained within a 4 cm by 2 cm box or a choice of 5 options to tick probably aren't going to reveal much... But it's a start... let's hope it's not the start of another Byzantine process that ultimately produces very trivial results...
In the meantime, I'm going to crack some eggs and spend some quality time with Ciaran in our Pancake Tuesday tradition... The day for even that tradition will pass, but until then I'll get on with it, and hope that such memories help Ciaran to cope with the joys and sorrows of being a Methodist minister's kid...



Cynthia Astle said…
Dear Rev. Campton: United Methodist Insight,, would like to reprint this excellent post. I hope it will expand our readers' horizons to know that Methodists "across the pond" struggle with some of the same issues we do in the USA. Please reply to Thank you.

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