The Wesley Spotlight series draws an audience each month to both listen to and ask questions of a variety of people. The visit of the President of the Methodist Conference closely follows the signing of the Anglican-Methodist covenant and accordingly the crowd filled the ground floor and much of the balcony on 21 January 2004. Neil Richardson expressed his great pleasure to be in Harrogate having being born and raised in the West Riding, and indeed he passed his driving test here - albeit at the second taking!
Neil's title Can the Church survive? was a natural question for Western Europe, not just Harrogate. Figures show that, compared with 1966, the Latin American, African and Asian church has seen 6-700% growth where there has been a decline of 40% in the UK up to 1996. Further investigation suggests, with the age profile here, a question over whether or not the church will still exist in 20-30 years. The credibility gap between church goers and those who never cross the threshold is growing, with the institutional church generally being the last place that people look for answers to their search for spirituality and reason; the culture gap has never been greater. It is reported that an irate Methodist described how "Christianity is being excluded from Christmas".
What is the Church for - what is it meant to be? Neil Richardson described his hope for the church by developing the answer "the church is meant to to be the One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". These four characteristics must not be denied if there is to be any hope for the future of the Church.
Three Strategies for Recovery:
Dr Richardson provided examples of these issues: the village church and chapel in North Yorkshire which have joined together, using the two buildings for separate purposes for the united congregation; the way we can all encourage one another by affirming and strengthening each other; the realisation and proclamation of the liberal and the evangelical together to say "I need your faith to make my faith more complete", and recognising that certain issues of the day are not divisive, such as the "gay issue".
Following a recent trip to Hungary and Serbia, Neil applauded the way the Methodist church is reaching out to others - notably the Romany people there. He is encouraged by what he has seen, but all the more so by knowing the fundamental conviction that the Church will survive simply because God wants it to. It may not necessarily be the Methodist church, the Anglican church or the wider church in the UK, but the Church will survive. There is no doubt that we will all fail at the things we're supposed to be and do, but if we leave it in God's hands then the church will survive.
The Spotlight then turned for questions from the audience:
Q: Spirituality: how will the current interest in spirituality impact on the Christian Church and how should we respond?
Q: Selfish or selfless? The balance between loving self and selfishness - how can I love others as myself without the selfishness of self survival?
Q: On Catholicity meaning inclusiveness: how do we respond to those who have felt alienated by inclusive language in the prayers and services?
Q: Would Jesus recognise the Church as being built on the foundation he wanted?
Q: Is the Alpha Course the answer?
Q: What does "the church being true to itself" mean?
Q: How do we help those looking for spirituality to find Jesus in intimidating buildings like these?
Q: Has the church forgotten its purpose and that Jesus said that he will be with us to the end of the age?
Q: Considering the needs of the young folk who have heard of the creation and virgin birth but have little time for readings and sermons, how do we make what comes from our pulpits more acceptable to them?
Q: What can we learn from the persecution seen in places like China?
Q: Apathy and mockery: we're surprised by the level of this challenge and contemporary services won't change that.
Q: What about midweek services?
Dr Richardson concluded with the exhortation that "We'll never get back to 'where we were', we need to work on new things to attract new folk and we need to hand the faith on to the next generation. Our younger folk need to hear the natural, real testimony of our adults. If our faith doesn't make us more compassionate, then our faith is empty."