Bishop on the importance of being a connectional church

May 2008    

Lay Leaders Fellowship

LAY LEADERS and Local Church Executive Committee (LCEC) heads learned about Methodist connectionalism at the Bishop’s Lunch Fellowship on March 29. Bishop Dr Robert Solomon shared with the 55 lay leaders about the importance of being a connectional church.

He pointed out that, unlike some other Protestant denominations in which each congregation is independent, Methodists share a mutual bond at various levels. That connection has Scriptural roots in the New Testament teaching on the body of Christ.

Many Methodists throughout the world still refer to themselves as the “Methodist connection”.

“We are connected by a common faith, a common polity, a common mission and a common ethos,” Bishop Dr Solomon said, referring to a section within the United Methodist Book of Discipline. In addition, he said, all our properties are held in trust for the connection.

Methodist connectionalism emerged from the 18th-century English revivals, with the voluntary association of Methodist preachers.

“The early Methodist preachers, who were mostly lay preachers, were associated with John Wesley himself,” said the Bishop. They were in connection with his understanding of God’s purpose for the movement, which was to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land.

Key elements in early Methodist connectionalism included the formation of societies, conferences and the itinerant system of travelling preachers.

The Bishop said that the early societies were quite diverse theologically, including the societies which Wesley had started, in addition to other revival groups of Calvinist and Moravian background.

After several attempts to establish a gathering of these diverse groups, Wesley finally convened his first annual conference in June 1744, consisting only of those connected directly to him and his doctrine, polity and mission.

From then on Wesley began developing consistent rules and regulations for the Methodists, including the “General Rules” which became part of the Methodist Book of Discipline. Wesley also began defi ning the itinerancy system, in which preachers are appointed by a central authority, initially himself, “to the best advantage of the mission”.

Known as “travelling preachers”, these were committed “to the Methodist mission and discipleship by their covenant to submit to the Wesleyan appointment wherever and whenever they were needed”.

While many of the early preachers were “rough” part-timers and uneducated, Bishop Dr Solomon said, Wesley was committed to using them for the movement. They were given a period to be “on trial” before being received into “full connection”.

Wesley proposed an ordination process for his preachers, including “Articles of Agreement” with three points. They were to devote themselves entirely to God, preach Methodist doctrines and observe the Methodist discipline.

In the early days of Methodism, Bishop Dr Solomon said, the preachers moved at least once every three months. While it was later changed to a maximum of two years, it is very different to the situation today, he said.

Wesley believed firmly in the itinerancy as a major element in the Methodist connection. “It provided both common direction and accountability, as well as protecting doctrine and polity,” the Bishop said. One incident that forced Wesley to strengthen the itinerant system involved the trustees of a Methodist preaching house who refused to allow a Wesley-appointed preacher to preach, he said.

Bishop Dr Solomon said that before Wesley died he was very concerned about the continuance of the connection and the itinerant system, hoping “to

keep all the Methodists in Great Britain one connected people”. One important document that came about was a deed of trust that required the trustees to accept preachers appointed by Wesley so long as they “preach no other doctrine” than the Methodist doctrine.

Wesley came to identify Methodism with the connection and the itinerant system, and he was concerned about its possible erosion in the context of democratic America. Bishop Dr Solomon quoted Wesley as saying, “If itinerancy is interrupted, Methodism will speedily come to nothing.”

Following the presentation, the lay leaders broke into small groups for discussion. While all valued the idea of the Methodist connection, there was concern about the role of such Methodist institutions as the intinerant system.

“It’s important to be in connection,” said Mr Eddie Goh, LCEC Chairman of Covenant Community Methodist Church. “In fact, it would be good to have some annual events in which we all get together to pray and remember that we are one body.”

Dr Stephen Yeo, LCEC Chairman of Bukit Panjang Methodist Church, said: “We really depend a lot on the pastor to make sure we maintain our connection with the whole Methodist church.”

Referring to the early three-month appointments, he said: “It would be very difficult to have such short pastoral appointments. There is a problem when one pastor does things one way, and the next pastor comes along and reverses everything.”

Mr David Lim, Associate Lay Leader of Fairfi eld Methodist Church, said: “Often we don’t know about what the rest of the church is doing.” He was not sure about how the laity could hold pastors accountable to Methodist doctrine. “Not many in the congregation are qualified to judge the pastor,” he said.

Mr William Goh, LCEC Vice-Chairman of Trinity Methodist Church, said: “I think we have to live with the itinerancy system whether we like it or not.”

The Rev George Martzen is Minister attached to the Bishop’s Office.


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