Having told us why he is glad to be a Methodist, Dave Warnock owns up to some stuff that worries him about the Methodist Church. His post, and the subsequent conversation, is very helpful. Meanwhile, Kim’s comments here contribute a critical friend’s reflection on whether there is any continued need for a seperate Methodist denomination. Dave’s first worry dovetails neatly with Kim’s thoughts. Here’s Dave first
I worry that the Methodist Church will not exist within in a relatively short period of time. Obviously I am not alone, anyone who can read basic numbers and look at an age profile would have significant concerns. Yet there is also plenty of encourage reports on change and response to change. The church will certainly need to look a lot different in 5 or 10 years which could be a fantastic new start for us or a very rapid disappearance.
Methodism began as an evangelistic and social action movement within Anglicanism, i.e. it was a supplement. John Wesley himself was never kicked out of the Church of England, and he always insisted that Methodists were ancillaries to the C of E and should never leave it. “Methodism,” observes Martyn Percy, “is rather like Wales - you can see the point of it, granted. But it is a distinctive principality rather than a full-blown country.” …
Methodism is too tied to the theology of one man, viz. John Wesley himself. Or at least it was until Wesley’s theology seems to have become adiaphora in UK Methodist training colleges themselves! Okay, there is also Charles, the second greatest hymn writer. Two men then. Furthermore, name me a really great Methodist theologian…
On the subject of theology, there are no really distinctive doctrines in Methodism that cannot be found in other confessions, with the exception of Wesley’s doctrine of perfection, which, granted that it is usually misunderstood…
I understand Dave’s worry. People have been predicting the demise of the Methodist Church for a long time. Sooner or later, those predictions are going to come true — I can say with confidence that the Methodist Church is dying because I know for certain that the Methodist Church is not eternal. One day, just like every reader of this blog and every organisation that they might belong to, the Methodist Church will be no more.
It doesn’t matter that we’re dying. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Death isn’t failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. What matters is what we do with the knowledge of our mortality. That’s as true for an institutional church as it is for an individual. In any case, death and resurrection are central to the Christian gospel. To quote Will Willimon, “We serve a God who lives to raise the dead–even us. Therefore, we work with hope–not hope in ourselves and our efforts, but with hope in Christ.”
Which brings me to Kim’s contribution, most of which I accept completely. (The quote above is an extract, you should really read the whole thing) If we were atarting from scratch, you wouldn’t invent the Methodist Church. It arose, humanly speaking, by accident. John Wesley had no intention of starting a new denomination. But it was John Wesley’s own actions that made seperation from the Church of England inevitable. He put pastoral considerations ahead of Church order: by consecrating Thomas Coke as a Superintendent for the work in North America, Wesley opened a can of worms which led to the creation of the Methodist Church. It might not have been Wesley’s intention, but ‘blame’ for the Methodist Church most definitely belongs to him.
It’s that pragmatism that continues to attract me to the Methodist Church. The truth is, the people called Methodist are apt to act first and do the theological thinking afterward. The way I read it, every significant development in the life of the church has been driven by practicalities rather than the outcome of a theology. One example will have to suffice. The Methodist Church in Britain has a body of lay preachers who are the envy of other denominations. On any given Sunday of the year, most Methodist pulpits in Britain will be occupied by the Local Preachers, trained, tested and authorized by the church for the conduct of worship and the preaching of the gospel. But the office of the Local Preacher was not dreamt up as a response to thinking through the implications of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. It came about because there simply weren’t enough ordained preachers to serve the growing number of Methodist societies. Pragmatism, not theology, called the shots. Since that time we have developed a robust theology of lay preaching and I would argue that our Local Preachers are a model to which the wider church should pay particular attention.
I’m not very disturbed that Kim can’t think of any great Methodist theologians. Truly great thinkers are not thick on the ground in any discipline. But quality thinkers? I’m confident I could name more than a few if pressed. Much more importantly, the Methodist Church remains for many a place where God’s love is found and shared. That’s what excites me about the church, what keeps me within it despite its many shortcomings.
Of course, God’s love is to be found in many other places too. But the people called Methodist are my spiritual family. That’s not a bond I’d give up lightly.