Sam McBratney reflects on the recent meeting of MTSE – Methodist-related Theological School in Europe – in Bulgaria
You can always be sure of a warm welcome and good humour when Methodists and Wesleyans get together. The latest meeting of the Forum of the Methodist-related Theological Schools in Europe (MTSE) in Varna, Bulgaria was no exception. Hosted by the United Methodist District Superintendent, Revd Daniel Topalski, and the congregation in Varna, colleagues from Belfast in the west to Moscow in the east gathered in January 2020 for our biennial business meeting. MTSE now boasts twenty institutional members, a remarkable fact given the minority status of all the Methodist and Wesleyan denominations on the continent. In part, this reflects the key missional emphasis placed on education right from the beginning of the Methodist movement, when John Wesley established Kingswood School and the free school in the Foundery. It also reminds us of why MTSE exists: to encourage and support each other in our common mission to equip the ministries of the Church.
There is much to learn from those in other parts of our continent as we struggle with the same issues, albeit in different contexts. Together we are committed, whatever the challenges, to keep going.
Little did we know when the meeting was planned that it would be the first after the UK had left the European Union. Whilst nothing much had changed in terms of airport check in or passport control, it was definitely a strange feeling for those of us travelling from the UK to be entering the EU and then departing it a few days later. The uncertainty that the Brexit process has created within European Higher Education remains and is unlikely to be thought a top priority in the ongoing negotiations. Yet it is also one of the EU’s success stories, encouraging partnerships in research and faculty and student exchanges that would not have happened otherwise. One of the main purposes for MTSE’s existence is to foster closer collaborations between member institutions and, whilst this might become more difficult in the coming years, it remains a passionate commitment.
The idea of ‘connection’ lies at the very heart of Methodist understanding of faith, and our meeting in Varna reaffirmed our desire to keep connected.
As part of our gathering, we spent some time discussing the issue of Methodist ecclesiology with a contribution from a Bulgarian Orthodox theologian. We were very conscious that we were also meeting in the shadow of the next United Methodist General Conference and the potential fracturing of the denomination.
It is hard to sum up the worries and sadness that the prospect of division left us with and, once again, among our own institutions and the Churches they serve, we undertook to keep united.
Finally, one of the delights of meeting with other members of the Methodist family is discovering how they do things differently. Imagine our surprise that part of the hospitality we were offered by the local church was a wine-tasting evening to enable us to sample the local produce. A time to engage at a different level and renew and deepen friendships that span a continent.