• David Hines

Chair in orbit

Why I bought a share in John Wesley's chair

The chair floating in orbit on my front page was a challenge to me because it was owned by Methodist founder John Wesley who used it as a platform for speaking in towns 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.

He was reluctant to do this at first but came to welcome the opportunity to speak to wider audiences and he joked about it: "The world is my parish."

He also preached on a worldwide range of topics - many of them controversial for his home church, 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.

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. I think NASA's famous picture of Earth from an orbiting satellite is also inspiring and a great backdrop for the chair. Maybe one day I will suggest Elon Musk take it to Mars.

What topics could get you kicked out of church today?

My website menu has five topic

  • Christian atheism: 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 acceptable if you include stories about Islam

  • Secular education: 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 my 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. It was only later that I encountered Christians who wanted to deny science or limit it.

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 obsession with detail, 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. One of his slogans that still impresses me: "avoid all kinds of evil, especially that which is most commonly practised". My interpretation is that he didn't want 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.

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.

  • The saddest of these expulsions came last year, when I was voted out off the NZARH board, and even barred from being a member. They had been the main funder of our religion in schools campaign. Their reason? They didn't like a public opinion survey I did early 2020. It covered a number of Christian programmes in state schools but the one that stuck in their craw was one asking whether they favoured the government's plan to introduce education about all religions and philosophies into state schools. This was too friendly to the enemy for some members.

  • 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 I wanted to discuss new issues and tactics; the alternative would have been to give up.

So Wesley got himself a chair, and I set up this website, to tell my story, and to invite others to tell their stories. In particular, I wanted to start a discussion about religion in schools, but my topics cover the full range of public issues that I have been involved in.

I am still supported by the Auckland Unitarian Church.

I have become a member of Humanist NZ, a group which strongly supports neutral education about religious and non-religious beliefs in state schools.

I still have a network of friends in a number of religious and nonreligious groups, who I have learned from along the way.

I invite you to support this work for secular education

The PayPal button and the QR code are two ways of doing the same thing, linking to my Wesleys Chair account. If you include your email address, you will get an automatic receipt. Thank you.