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Big issues swirl around Methodist Conference 2007

By Paul Titus

When they set the theme for Methodist Conference 2007 the presidential team of Rev Brian Turner and Dr Barbara Peddie raised two key challenges. Can we reconcile the differences within our ranks? Can we make a difference in our communities?

These questions agitate us in the 21st century but in their induction service address, Brian and Barbara pointed out that cultural and theological differences have dogged the Church

Conference 2007 (From top): Wesley Wellington Taranaki Street; Waiting for the powhiri; Induction service; New ordinands (left to right) Saikalone Taufa, Philomeno Kinera, Vai Ngahe and Tau Lasi; Choir singers.
since it began. Early Jewish and Gentile Christians disagreed sharply on the need to observe the laws of the Torah.

Different streams of thought were apparent at several points during Conference this year. Opinions clashed over proposals to change the way ministers are paid, the appointment of a commissioner to replace the Board of Ministry, and Lloyd Geering.

Nevertheless Conference was of a shared mind on many issues that affect the life of the Methodist Church, and many commented on the positive atmosphere that prevailed.

After the formalities on both Saturday and Sunday, members of Conference had a chance to grapple with social and theological issues in a series of interest group discussions. Major issues of our day were explored in several other sessions and evening events as well.

Green Party co-chair Jeanette Fitzsimons gave a talk on global warming, fuel shortages, and other looming environmental problems, and Christian World Service director Jonathan Fletcher touched on similar themes in his report to Conference on how CWS helps fight poverty around the world.

Some Methodists regret that Conference no longer has committees of detail, which used to give delegates a chance to scrutinise and challenge Committee reports before they went to Conference. In a nod to this sentiment, this year Conference organised business groups on the afternoon before business sessions began. The business groups examined the major committee reports though they could not alter them.

The business group that heard the Faith and Order Committee’s report was responsible for one of the minor controversies that emerged at Conference. A notice of motion put before Faith and Order requested that Conference send greetings to Lloyd Geering on the 40th anniversary of his heresy trial. A number of delegates from Pacifica synods attending the business group disagreed with the request. Therefore it did not come before the full Conference to be acted upon. (For an account of the Geering heresy trial see Presbyterian Archives on page 15 of this publication).

Controversy also flared after Dr John Hinchcliff, the commissioner appointed to replace the Board of Ministry, was introduced to Conference. Views were expressed that the manner in which the Board was removed was insensitive, and not transparent. Former president Rev John Salmon said the Board was removed after legal advice was sought. The decision was made for structural reasons and to protect the legal status of trusts that fund Trinity College. Conference ultimately confirmed John Hinchcliff’s appointment as commissioner until the end of 2008.

More widespread disagreement was voiced over proposed changes to the way Methodist ministers are paid. During 2006 and 2007 a stipends review group examined the issue and prepared a report based on a survey of ministers and parishes. Their report urged changes in recruitment, retention, residence, remuneration and retirement.

Suggested changes would have allowed parishes and bodies within the church such as the missions to pay ministers and synod superintendents more than the standard stipend for higher levels of responsibility (or less for part-time service). Other provisions would give presbyters more flexibility in choosing their housing arrangements.

A number of people spoke against accepting the report. Among their objections were that it has no theological underpinnings and that it undermined the fundamental equality of all presbyters that a uniform stipend implies. Some members of Pasifika synods asked that a summary of the report be translated so they could discuss it.

Conference decided to accept some provisions of the report but most of it will go back to parishes, rohe, and synods for further discussion and consideration at Conference 2008.

An area that had wider agreement was a decision to change the way the Methodist Connexional Property Committee (MCPC) can loan money. Executive officer Greg Wright says the decision removes the cap of $100,000 on loans for new properties.

“Now the MCPC can loan at a level determined by the funds that are available, the value of the project, and the borrowers’ ability to repay,” Greg says. “There is a lot of interest in this in the Pacific sections of the Church. The new rules also free up MCPC’s lending criteria. Now the capital resulting from the sale of church properties can be used to fund parishes’ mission activities as well as further property development.”

Other key decisions –

  • Successor to the Churches Agency on Social Issues (CASI): A Wellington-based group led by Rev Lynne Frith will explore ways the Methodist Church can form a body to make public statements about social issues.

  • Methodist Mission and Ecumenical secretary Rev John Robert will liaise with the churches traditionally associated with ecumenical initiatives in this country to discuss establishing a new national ecumenical body to replace the Christian Conference of Aotearoa NZ (CCANZ). The Strategic Thinking Group convened to establish a wider body that includes the Vision Network has not made progress.

  • Race Relations Commissioner Joris De Bres addressed Conference and presented the government’s Statement on Religious Diversity. Conference endorsed the statement, which upholds the right to the freedom of religion and urges that reasonable steps be taken in workplaces and schools to accommodate different religious beliefs and practices.