Changing Scenes but the Same Mission

We have recently established a "Good Book Group" in Belfast South Methodist, and for our third book we wanted to slip in something easy to read before the summer. As it  happens Belfast Central Mission recently distributed copies of an A4 publication tentitled "Through Changing Scenes" to both mark the 125th anniversary of the Mission and highlight a proposed new development - Copelands Dementia and Nursing Care on the site of its former Child Haven/Craigmore complex at Millisle. So we decided to read this, although some, put off by the A4 magazine format, didn't thinkthat it was particularly suitable for a "book" group.
Actually, had the material been in a more traditional format it would probably have been longer than either of our previous reads (Tim Keller's "Prodigal God" and Henri Nouwen's "The Way of the Heart"), while the A4 format seems to psychologically devalue its depth and importance.
I only recently fully read Eric Gallagher's centennial history of BCM, 'At Points of Need' which was in a more traditional format and took a more traditional chronological approach. This history, by Wesley Weir (who assisted Dr. Gallagher with the earlier book and has acted as BCM archivist for many years) takes a more thematic approach, which, I believe allows the reader a greater sense of the breadth of the mission's work over the years, and its ability to adapt its ways of working to address key themes in different social contexts. It also has an advantage over Eric Gallagher's account in that it can more fully reflect the importance of his own role as both Superintendent of the mission and a church leader before and during the early years of the Troubles. This was an era where all the churches had almost an expectation that they would be listened to in the corridors of power and in wider society. Sometimes that privilege was abused or unused, but Dr. Gallagher used his place in the public sphere, partly afforded to him as Secretary of the Conference and erstwhile President, but also on the basis of the respect afforded to the mission, intelligently, courageously and unselfishly. We do not have the same place in the public square today, but where we are afforded the chance to speak and act, we should do so in the same spirit as Eric Gallagher, and indeed his predecessors as superintendents of the Mission, who all spoke with evangelical passion and a strong social conscience.
This account also contains a fuller exposition of the changes in Belfast city centre Methodism than it would may been politic for Dr. Gallagher to explore, and it may have been different had it been written by a member of the erstwhile Donegall Square Methodist. Whilst Donegall Square and the Grosvenor Hall congregations worked together at times and indeed were on a single circuit for a time, there were clearly always tensions and a difference in emphasis of the two societies. That added to the devotion of each congregation to its historic location, seems to have stymied any attempt to have a shared vision of a focused Methodist outreach to Belfast City Centre, and one wonders what might have been achieved had the energies devoted to self-preservation had been diverted into a combined mission initiative.We can't change the past, but I hope that the current generation of Methodist societies do not replicate the mistakes of the past and so exacerbate a period of necessary retrenchment and redeployment of resources.
The account of the 25 years since the publication of Eric Gallagher's book does read in a somewhat disjointed manner, but that may be a function of them being so recent preventing the perspective allowed with previous years... but it may also be a feature of contemporary church and social mission work, particularly where churches like BCM have entered into partnership with Statutory bodies. Instead of having a cohesive mission programme that flows directly our of the worshipping congregation, the current range of programmes are more like a mosaic within a broad social outreach. The proposed Copelands initiative will hopefully be a large part of that mosaic.
However, as I read the closing chapter, whilst I recognised that the mission ethos is still the same, the professional socialwork framework and the contemporary connexional structure of institutional Methodism tend to conspire to prevent the evangelistic opportunism and buccaneering approach to social need as seen in earlier years. The ability to move fast and take risks has now moved to other churches and institutions with lighter administrative structures, like Jack McKee's New Life Church off the Shankill in West Belfast, or, coming from an entirely different tradition, Belfast Vineyard, and their Storehouse ministry...
But at the end of the day I don't care what denominational banner such things happen under, so long as they happen... I have no inherent desire to see the expansion of Methodism in Belfast or anywhere else (except insofar as it is the Methodist Church that pays my stipend) so long as the Kingdom of God is extended, through the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, by Word and Deed.
But in conclusion let me recommend Wesley Weir's "Through Changing Scenes" - and I look forward to the next installment in 25 years time...


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