If you are a Methodist in the UK then you will have heard of the excitement caused by the President of Conferences comments about the future merger of the Methodist Church with the Church of England.
It has always been my desire to see a more united Christian church and so I see this as a positive comment. However, it seems to me that there are dangers, dangers which the Methodist church knows about only too well because it has already joined together with other denominations in it’s past. The Methodist Church in Britain and Ireland came from the amalgamation of several Methodist denominations (Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, United Methodists, Bible Christians, etc – if my memory serves me right). The danger has been that the larger denomination simply takes over the smaller ones and the distinctive nature of the smaller churches is lost. Some of those who came from the smaller denominations commented on how they had all become Wesleyan Methodists. Of course the differences between these denominations was slight and so the losses were not so great (although Bible Christians had women ministers before the merger and it took the new Methodist church quite a while to catch up with this idea).
If you walk around many towns in the UK you will see Methodist chapels of many different sorts. In the town where I live there once were 4 Methodist churches of various denominations but now there is just the 1.
So what should be retained from the Methodist church as it is now?
Of course we don’t call it the Class system anymore and we don’t insist that people who want to be Methodists join one (they are generally called House Groups or Fellowship Groups). It could be argued that these are already lost but there are those in the Methodist church who want to see them revived. These Classes were the start of the original Methodist church and were the real strength of Methodism. It seems to me that this would be an easy part to retain (or perhaps I should say revive) as they were originally formed when Methodists were still all Anglicans anyway.
The CofE has managed to produce some pretty good preachers and the Methodist church some pretty bad ones in the past, but in general Methodists have a great emphasis on preaching. Again this formed part of the original Methodist movement when it was part of the CofE. I still think that preaching is important and it needs reviving in most churches but the Methodist church has at least retained it’s importance and it’s training of local preachers (different to the Lay Readers in CofE).
Methodism has kept the work and witness of John Wesley and the early Methodists alive. It would be a shame to see these things lost.
The Methodist church has had a long tradition of services that are simple and accessible to all. No complicated liturgies to be read (unless it’s a communion service), no sung liturgies (I have seen this done but it’s very rare indeed), no fancy robes (cassock and gown at most), simple prayers and sermons.
Singing and music
I’m always struck by the difference in volume between a Methodist church and a CofE church. I have a pretty strong singing voice but in a Methodist church there are others who sing loud with me, in most CofE Churches I’ve been in I feel like I’m singing a solo. It seems to me that this is an issue bigger than just volume. Music plays an essential part in most forms of spirituality and we would lose a great deal if we lost the Methodist enthusiasm for music. We also need to keep Charles Wesley’s hymns (to be used alongside modern worship songs as well as old hymns) – many of them are fantastic.
Organisation and ministry of all believers emphasis
I hate to add this one because I’ve sat through some pretty dreadful Methodist meetings in my time, and the system can seem very slow on occasions. However, it is a system that is designed to include all the members of a church and for them all to have an equal say. I’ve talked with some CofE Clergy where they seem to be expected to do all kinds of jobs that in a Methodist church would be the responsibility of the whole church.
The present Methodist Hymn Book (Hymns & Psalms – there is a new one being planned as I write this) is arranged in a way to help Methodists with their devotions at home.
What can go?
Buildings (well some anyway)
I may not be all that old (although I’m getting there) but I have seen much of my built history demolished. Places where I grew up have disappeared. I know that this can be painful and although it’s wrong to get too attached to physical things it’s hard not to feel emotional about buildings where you were married, or had your children baptised, or held a funeral service for your mum, etc. The wonderful church (it was an amazing building built just after WW2 to replace one that had been bombed) where I went to Sunday School is now a housing estate. The church was even kind enough to support me during my training as a minister by giving me some holiday work polishing wooden floors and painting rooms (this was very important to me at the time). I even had some of my best memories singing in a youth choir there (my wife sang in the choir too). Yet, at the end of the day it was just a building and sometimes buildings fall into disuse or they become too big or they just crumble away and are hard to repair. There are many Methodist churches like this. Of course it will be sad to say goodbye to them but it doesn’t matter if the work of God goes on. Some of the better buildings must be kept of course and where the current Methodist church is growing those churches must be retained.
This is a hard one but I don’t think the name is important. It was a derogatory name in the beginning and John Wesley never really liked it himself. For those of us who grew up Methodists this may be the hardest part of all to give up but I see it as something of a maiden name that we will need to give up if we want to get married to the Church of England. Sometimes people retain maiden names and that works fine for them, this is not a comment on their choices. I’m not in favour of the business approach of combining names: Church of England & Methodists? Methodist Church of England? MethCh? I can’t see a good combination and it’s probably best just to lose it. The only way I could see it working would be to have a subheading: Church of England (Methodist)
The Methodist church, on it’s own at times, has played a very important role in the life of Britain – as well as the rest of the world. Our history will remain, of course, in those Methodist denominations that won’t be part of the joining, as it will remain in the Methodist church throughout the world. In Britain, though, we should do our best to ensure that the memory and long history of the Methodist church remains (perhaps there needs to be something of the name retained for this to happen?).
Above all I think it is important to the joining of 2 churches makes something better at the end of the process. If either one just dissolves into the other then we lost something important. My hope would be that all that has made the Methodist church a powerful force in Christian Britain will become part of a stronger and better Church of England.
Our priority must always be to do what God wants us to do. It seems clear to me that God wants unity in his church and as long as we respond to God out of desire to follow rather than fear or greed then how can this be wrong?
We must not let our personal feelings stop the work of God and how can we see Christian unity as anything but the work of God?
Do you have any suggestions as to what to keep and what not to keep?