Sermon by the President of the Methodist Conference

The sermon preached by the President of the Methodist Conference (2003-2004), The Revd Dr Neil Richardson, at the Service of Thanksgiving to mark the signing of AnĀ Anglican-Methodist Covenant in Westminster Abbey:

‘Into all the World: Our Churches’ Shared Mission’

The concerns of the Church extend way beyond the Church. The Church does not exist just, or even primarily, for the sake of its members. So Churches wrapped up in themselves are a travesty of what they should be. If today we appear to be a little wrapped up in ourselves, the reality is otherwise. We have not voted for this Covenant in order to get a better deal for our ‘shareholders’, but because we believe it to be right. We have become convinced that we shall serve the purpose of God more effectively together than separately.

The Gospel reading we have just heardĀ bids us look way beyond the walls of our churches. We cannot be faithful to the Bible, or indeed to influential voices within our own traditions, unless we do. Archbishop William Temple is remembered for saying that the Church exists for those who are not yet members of it. John Wesley (perhaps to the chagrin of some of his fellow clergymen!) insisted that the world was his parish. So the concerns of the Church – of our Churches – extend way beyond our boundaries.

What might those concerns be? They reach at least as far as the neediest and poorest people in our country – and beyond our country. It may not always look like that, but how can we be faithful to Jesus, unless we are so concerned – and put our concern into practice?

Or consider the kind of society we should like to see in our country. The Church subscribes to a religion which insists that it’s more important to be human than religious. What human beings are, and what we are for, are two of the great unanswered questions of our time. So the Church is committed to humanizing life – helping people to discover in and beyond themselves resources of faith, hope and love which maybe they didn’t know were there.

We are also committed, as Churches, to exploring, and helping our nation to explore, what are the things which really matter in life, and, conversely, what are the illusions and falsehoods which disfigure our national life. We are committed to the care of the planet, from which one species per day is now disappearing. (How can we believe that God took the trouble to make an environment of such wonderful intricacy and variety without committing ourselves to trying to prevent its destruction?)

And we are committed, not least, to sharing the love of God – of which we certainly have no monopoly – because we believe that love is the ultimate environment in which we all live.

It is possible that people of other faiths, or of no faith, may be worried by talk of a Church whose concerns extend way beyond its four walls. So allow me to say this: the Church’s mission can never become a crusade, because of God. True, even ‘God’ – or shall we say, especially ‘God’ – can be a dangerous word. But if we maintain, as we must, that God is love, and seek to live by that, then the Church’s mission can never be a threatening or oppressive crusade, and the Church is simply untrue to itself when that happens.

Rather, the Church’s mission begins with the infinite value which our Creator God attaches to every single human life. It derives its character from Jesus, who, for Christians, is the mirror of divine gentleness, sympathy and practical service. And it receives its momentum from the breath of God which breathed a world into life. So, whilst Churches inevitably have ‘domestic’ matters to attend to, the well-being of our country and the healing of God’s world are absolutely central to our agenda.

In different, but complementary ways, the two traditions represented here today enrich this vision of a world infused by the grace and love of God. Methodist ‘connexionalism’ reminds us that the world is not as disconnected as it seems. Rather, all things are connected in and by the Love which is at the world’s heart. The great liturgical tradition of the Anglican Church reminds us that life itself is intended to be a liturgy of praise to God in a world which has found reconciliation and peace.

To that vision, that wider ecumenism, we pledge ourselves today. As Churches we are clear that what we already share far exceeds our remaining differences. This Covenant is a call to go forward together in faith, hope and love. May it be a catalyst for the renewal of our common life and mission. And may its benefits be felt way beyond our Churches.

The Revd Dr Neil Richardson