• David Hines

Chair in orbit

My fantasy about John Wesley's chair

You may wonder why I would want to picture a chair in orbit around the Earth: well, this is no ordinary chair. It was once owned by Methodist founder John Wesley. And he didn't sit on it. He used it for a portable platform, when he was preaching in streets and fields all over England. Thousands came to hear him, but he was only 150cm tall, so he would not have been seen or heard without this chair.

There was a bitter twist to this story. The reason he was preaching in the open air was he had been banned from numerous pulpits in his home church, the Church of England.

Instead of being upset, Wesley took this as an opportunity to speak to wider audiences and he joked about it: "The world is my parish."

Wesley also preached on a worldwide range of topics. Many of them were very controversial for the C of E, which was why they banned him in the first place.

So a few years ago I took courage from this picture. I had been kicked out of several church roles and I too found that new doors opened with surprising speed. And with these new venues, I suddenly had a wider range of topics that need to be addressed. For instance: what on earth could I talk about on when I was invited to speak at a Muslim forum on the life of Muhammed? It was two weeks after the Christchurch massacre, so I spoke about common ground between Muslims and atheists, and suggested that education about religions and atheism should be part of our state education system.

I think all of us need to recognise that we live in a worldwide parish. And what better way to express that than to put John Wesley's inspirational chair into orbit, using this inspirational view of the Earth that had already been made famous by NASA. It made us all look at the Earth and its people as something beautiful and precious.

BTW: Wesley used a number of different chairs over his lifetime, but this particular one came up for auction in Auckland c2007, and four of us from Pitt St Methodist Church thought it would be a cool piece of history to have a stake in and bought it.

What topics could get you kicked out of church today?

My website menu has five topic

  • Secular education: I did get kicked out for that.

  • Science: it is still a no-no in some religious circles.

  • Inspirations: sounds like an acceptable topic in Christians, but maybe not so acceptableif you included stories about Islam

  • Christian atheism: this could get you expelled from Christian and atheist circles at the same time!

  • Politics: a controversial topic at any time, but for different reasons. You could get kicked out of some circles for talking about politics. In others (eg the Unitarian Church) you could get kicked out for not talking about it.

My vocation as a 7-year-old

Thanks to Jason Mathieson of Woet Edwin Portraits for this picture. I was kitted out for my half-marathon training run in last Sunday, when I saw his sign on the pavement inviting runners and others to take part in his forthcoming show. Contact: jmat050@aucklanduni.ac.nz

It is only in the last nine years that I have become involved in all these issues. But my involvement in two of them dates back to 1947 when I was promoted to the “standard one” class at Takapuna Primary School in Auckland.

On my new teacher's classroom wall was the famous poster of the evolution of humans from apelike ancestors. My immediate reaction: Wow, if that’s how life developed, we don’t need a god to explain it.

That was a turning point for me: privately I resolved to have a career exploring, and reconciling, the issues of science and religion.

My local church at the time encouraged this interest. It was only later that I encountered Christians who wanted to deny science.

John Wesley, a pragmatic role model

When I became a Methodist minister in 1972, I started to appreciate the history of these ideas, and was impressed at the breadth of Wesley's teaching and lifestyle. For instance:

1. He acknowledged good things done "for God" by people from non-Christian religions and non-religious people (in his "Caution on bigotry")

2. He said we should use reason as a guide in most of our decision-making. He said it belittled God to ask his advice on trivial issues when he had given us reason to figure things our ourselves (his sermon "on Enthusiasm")

3. He was active in social and welfare issues. Once a week he would visit people in prison and mental asylums; once a week he would study the Bible, six days a week he would study the classics, once a week he would hold support groups for Church members. Critics called him and his brother Charles "Methodists" because of their obsessive way of allocating their time, but the Wesleys took it as a compliment and adopted it themselves. Originally, it referred to their Oxford University "Holy Club", but later it became the title of the separate Methodist movement.

4. He wrote political pamphlets and supported public leaders such as William Wilberforce, campaigner against slavery.

5. John Wesley was also an evangelist in the traditional sense, but he repeatedly emphasised that it needed to be joined to practical issues. I was struck by the overtones of one of his slogans: "avoid all kinds of evil, especially that which is most commonly practised". My interpretation of is that he didn't merely want to live an ethical life; he also wanted to focus on issues that would have the biggest political effect: He wanted to change the world. Today, wrecking the environment would be an evil that is most commonly practised; if we all thought about it as our political priority we could be more effective.

I too have been kicked out five times

It has been my fate to follow Wesley's example by getting expelled:

  • I was rejected three times when I applied to come back into the Methodist ministry, after an intervening 30+ years as a journalist

  • I was blacklisted by a section of my own parish when I invited an atheist from the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH) to speak to our congregation.

That opened several new doors right away:

  • I was invited to speak to the NZARH on Christian humanism.

  • I became a member of the Association about two weeks later.

  • I became a leader of their new project, the Secular Education Network

  • A couple of years later I joined fellow NZARH member Tanya Jacob in launching a campaign to change the laws about religion in New Zealand state schools.

  • I was invited to speak to Jewish and Muslim meetings, to discuss secular education.

  • I invited leaders from these and other religious groups to give evidence for our court campaign.

  • Last year I was running out of groups to get kicked out of so the NZARH spun me full circle and kicked me off their board, and even barred me from being a member. Their reason? They didn't like a public opinion survey I did early 2020. I had done two previous surveys but this third one raised questions they would rather not think about: the idea that multi-faith teaching about religion should become a subject at state schools. Jewish, Muslim and Methodist leaders gave their support in this project, but not my own friends at NZARH. I was repeatedly trolled on the Facebook page of the Secular Education Network, for raising this and other new issues.

  • A few months later our whole legal campaign got kicked out: we had to withdraw our complaint to the High Court because the law we were fighting had changed, and some of our evidence ceased to be relevant. This was a further reason why we needed to discuss new issues and tactics; the alternative would have been to give up.

So Wesley got himself a chair, and I am getting myself a website. Wesley was far from the first person to try public preaching. Jesus did the same; the pre-Christian Greek philosophers did it; the Jewish prophets as well. They all wanted to discuss wider issues, so they needed to speak to wider groups.

Advice from puppy training school

When I was hospitalised for stress and the height of this debate last year, a friend unkindly commented that I was always starting fights. I recalled a similar warning from a dog trainer that you shouldn't try to make peace between two dogs that are fighting; you could end up being attacked by both of them. That has at times been my experience.

But if your goal is to reconcile these different groups of people you cannot avoid controversy.

So I prefer to take more positive advice: If you are being criticised from both sides, you must be getting it about right (advice to young journalists)

So I hope you will like this blog. I hope you will write comments on it, share it with others and lobby politicians about it, especially the secular education section.


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