A New Kind of Leader in the Irish Methodist Church

S34736-xlimage-R2265-a-practical-theologianDr. Heather Morris, the first female leader of a major church body in Ireland, was recently installed as the President of the Methodist Church, at a gathering at Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim.

Martin O’Brien, editor of The Irish Catholic, writes that he first heard Dr Morris preach to a huge congregation at Clonard Novena where “she held in rapt attention” a large congregation. The  48-year-old wife of Neil Morris, Heather is a chartered accountant and the mother of two grown children. O’Brien says Heather Morris is “about as far as you can imagine from being a shrinking violet when it comes to presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the charism of her Church.”

He adds:

Radiating a joyous personality she could be said to embody the “heart strangely warmed [by God]” that Wesley famously wrote about in his journal. Morris says Wesley’s vision has not changed in our day but “we are in the process of rediscovery.” And she adds, “It is about being reminded of something we have forgotten. It’s about a warmed heart, and passion for God and most of all God’s passion for all, His love for all and His invitation to all.

Dr. Heather Morris is an amazingly accomplished woman. Born in Nigeria she is a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who was trained to be a speech therapist. She became deeply interested in Christian ministry later in life.

How does being a woman inform her view of God and ministry?

She answers, “our understanding of God is a matter not just for women, it is for women and men together, for the whole people of God. Theologically I believe God is male and female and far beyond our understanding of gender just as God is beyond our understanding in every way.”

She goes on to say:

And how do we translate that? That needs to be conveyed and translated in the way we speak. So I do think about the pronouns I use when I speak about God.  I do think it is important for the people of God to think about the images and the language that we use for God, because if it is true that God is beyond gender and greater than that, it limits our understanding of God if we only speak about God in a particular way.

Martin O’Brien asked Dr. Morris what she thinks she will see when she finally meets God. She answered:

Ah! My human mind is going to be limited in that. And I struggle with that and I think that’s alright. But when I think of seeing God I think of seeing someone who against all odds loves me. So I see a smile when I think about that meeting and I feel that it will be like coming home.

Dr. Morris shares my own view of ecumenism when she refers to other churches, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church, by saying that she longs to see all churches and Christians “partnering” again and again so that the need for all of us to work together will be properly stressed.

It seems to me that Dr. Morris has captured the theological and practical mind of John Wesley in her response to missional-ecumenism when she says, “I’m very fond of Wesley’s sermon on the Catholic spirit, ‘if your heart is right with my heart give me your hand’ and I think people of Christian faith can partner together.” (John Wesley’s response to Catholics in his own day was radically different from that of his peers. This impacted me more than two decades ago when I read what he actually wrote!)

Before this year’s Irish Methodist Conference a survey of Methodist representatives  showed that more than 70 per cent agree that “the growth of God’s Kingdom is more important than my Church or denomination.” This, I believe, is one of the real keys to genuine ecumenism. It is also, very sadly, a principal reason for why so many pastors will not embrace ecumenism practically even if they see the good reasons to do so. Sadly, they seem stuck on growing “their” church, not on the priority of God’s kingdom. Or worse still, they connect “their” church/brand with God’s kingdom in a one-to-one correlation.

Heather Morris finds this recent Irish survey “tremendously encouraging” because “the Methodist people are saying the most important thing is God’s kingdom here, the work of God in the Church goes beyond [the Methodist] Church. The core calling to Christians is to partner with God in what God is doing in the world.”

Her theme for this year is: “A people invited to follow. ” This theme cites Joshua 3 and the story of the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land as an invocation to people to “get their feet wet” in the cause of doing God’s will and in building up his kingdom.

Rev. Morris is not short of practical examples of how Methodists can “get their feet wet.”

It could be the “radical hospitality of each Methodist in Northern Ireland inviting a Roman Catholic neighbor in for coffee with no other agenda than just building up relationships.”

Heather Morris’s PhD is in practical theology from the University of Edinburgh focussing on pastoral communication with confused elderly people. She recently shared in a debate in which the Methodist Conference supported a report rejecting Physician Assisted Suicide, stating that what is needed is not a change in the law permitting PAS in the UK or Ireland but “a major improvement in both nations, in the care of the terminally ill.”

Towards the end of the interview with Martin O’Brien the Rev. Roy Cooper, a former Methodist President, and the Church’s current press officer, intervened to say how struck he was by Pope Francis saying that priests should serve like “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” Cooper, perhaps the only Methodist president anywhere to be installed in a Catholic Church – the Church of the Incarnation, Frankfield, Cork in 2007 – said the Pope had summed up “what pastoral ministry is all about, being close to your people as shepherds are to their sheep.”

Concurring with Cooper, Dr Morris said she found the actions of the new Pope “really hopeful, so welcome.” She added, “It is a prophetic action what he is doing. He is saying I live in a certain way to signal solidarity with those who are poor and it is absolutely welcome to see the type of Pope he is choosing to be.”

Dr. Heather Morris signals a new kind of presidency in the Methodist Church, one that will likely impact the Methodist Church in Ireland in a new way and one that is likely to impact others near and far. I prayed this would be so as I read the story of this Methodist leader last week.

 

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