How decisions are made

How does the Church decide what is right and wrong in the morally complex modern world?

Morality, or ethics, by which we mean 'what is right', is concerned with three types of conduct.

  1. Personal - Personal morality is concerned with how people behave as individuals towards other individuals, towards the groups to which they belong and towards the world in which they live and its resources.

  2. Social - Social morality is concerned with how groups behave and how people behave in groups. Examples include families, neighbourhoods, football crowds, schools and colleges, workplaces, nations.

  3. Public - Public ethics is concerned with what is expected from us and what we properly owe as citizens to public organisations. These range from bodies such as local, regional and national government (not forgetting the international or supranational bodies which are increasingly influential in our lives, such as the European Union and the United Nations) to the professional and other bodies such as trades unions, the judiciary, the civil service, the medical profession and so on which play such an important role at a level between the citizen and government.

Scripture and tradition

The basic legal documents of the Methodist Church go back to the eighteenth century but are now contained in the Model Deed and the Methodist Church Act of 1976. These state that the Methodist Church draws its teaching about matters of faith and practice (its doctrinal standards) from two sources

  1. The Christian Scriptures - The doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church are 'based upon the Divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures', which revelation Methodism 'acknowledges as the supreme rule of faith and practice'.

  2. The Christian tradition - Tradition means teaching (which includes example as well as precept) handed down from one generation to the next. For Methodists this teaching includes 'the Apostolic Faith' and certain writings of John Wesley, the leader of the revival and renewal movement within the Church of England in the 18th century which became the Methodist Church.

    'The Apostolic Faith' means the beliefs of the early followers of Christ, as these are expressed in the 'fundamental principles of the historic creeds' (the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed), 'and of the Protestant Reformation'.

    While John Wesley's writings are respected, neither these nor his brother's hymns are 'intended to impose a system of formal or speculative theology on Methodist preachers'. They serve, rather, as standards which should 'secure loyalty to the fundamental truths of the Gospel of Redemption and ensure the continued witness of the Church to the realities of the Christian experience of salvation'. (The Deed of Union, clause 4)

Faith community

These words from The Deed of Union highlight the importance of Christian experience in Methodism. In Methodist teaching 'experience' includes emotions, but much else besides: it is the reflective response of all aspects of our being (intellectual, moral, emotional and spiritual) to the person and activity of God in our lives and in creation as a whole.

Experience in this broad sense may be mediated through science, art or politics and by other people (who will not necessarily be Christian); and it includes our sense of vocation, our inner values and ambitions, and our discernment of meaning and purpose for our lives.

Christian judgements about personal, social and public ethics are formed as we reflect on the sources of Christian belief and practice in the light of our daily experience of the modern world. As experience changes, our insights, convictions and moral perspectives may grow and develop, or may require to be formulated in new ways.

It is at this point that the faith community of the Church becomes very important, for this experience must of course be tested against the 'fundamental doctrines' of the Christian scriptures and tradition. It is in Church life as a whole, congregational, national and international, that this process of testing takes place.

In this way 'the mind of the Church' emerges as to where God is leading us about personal, social and public conduct for our age. This whole approach to Christian decision-making in the field of personal, social and public ethics is well illustrated by two paragraphs in the introduction to the 1992 Declaration of the Methodist Conference on A Christian Understanding of Family Life, the Single Person and Marriage:

1.21 Everyone - including Christians - who would understand the issues raised by contemporary life must make positive use of the best informed teaching of modern knowledge. In reaching a specifically Christian judgement however, there are three major resources to be brought to bear on the situation and 'the best informed teaching of modern knowledge' upon it: the Christian scriptures; what is taught by the Christian tradition and community; and the personal experience and prayer of Christians.

1.24 The Holy Spirit in the community of the Church is the source of discernment and renewal who enables us to uncover, through a process of spiritual education, and on the basis of well informed modern knowledge what is true and right for today.

The practical stages of decision making for the Methodist Church.

Processes

The governing body of the Methodist Church is its annual Conference. Operating within guidelines set out above, the Conference is the formal authority on all matters of belief and practice. Proposals for a change or development of Methodist teaching about personal, social or public Christian ethics can be initiated:

  1. by any two representatives to the annual Conference proposing a resolution (known as a Notice of Motion) at the Conference itself

  2. by local groupings of churches (gathered in what are known as Circuit Meetings) or by regional groupings of churches (gathered in a District Synod) proposing a resolution to the Conference

  3. by a resolution to Conference from the Methodist Council (a smaller representative body which meets four times a year between Conferences).

If, by methods 1 and 2 above, the proposed change or development is significant, the Conference will usually direct the Methodist Council to look into the issues and to present a report at a subsequent Conference.

In the course of preparing the report, staff who are appointed or employed by the Council will be responsible for developing the Church's thinking with the help of professional and theological expertise.

They must undertake a wide range of consultations - in the Methodist Church itself, with partner Churches (Methodist and ecumenical) in Britain, and elsewhere in the world. Then the report, with or without specific recommendations, will be presented to Conference for debate.

Examples of issues dealt with in this way are: abortion; civil disobedience; nuclear deterrence; the manufacture and sale of arms; disarmament; care of the environment; family and divorce law; gambling; housing; overseas development and fair trading; poverty; racial justice; asylum and immigration issues; human sexuality; political responsibility.

Sometimes the Conference will attempt a definitive judgement on an important theme which is intended to represent the Church's mind for a decade or more. In such cases a final decision is made after two debates in Conference, separated by at least a year, to allow for discussion in all parts of the Church's life.

Topics of personal, social or public Christian ethics dealt with in this way become official Statements or Declarations of the Church on the subject concerned, for example, Family Life, the Single Person and Marriage.

Debates in the annual Conference take place in a setting of worship, prayer and bible study, and with prayers for the guidance of God through the presence of the Spirit.

Text reproduced with permission from "What the Churches say on moral and social issues" (Christian Education Movement). 

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