What is the Point of Methodism?

An eight-part series on Methodist identity today by John S. Summerwill

1. Setting the scene

Much recent writing on Methodism reflects a sense of crisis in the Methodist Church today as the ageing membership diminishes and few places remain where thriving work among children and young people promises a church of the future. Within the Church there is constant debate about what, if anything, can be done to halt the decline, with often superficial remedies being advocated that do little more than express individual preferences for particular styles of worship. Much of the talk is of organisation, priorities and methods of outreach. Churches are pressed to develop five-year plans. There is very little debate on the substantial content of Methodist belief or reflection on what might be the unique selling point of the Methodist brand of Christianity. Perhaps it is too readily assumed that what we have to offer is not wanted.

For Methodist theologians the focus is naturally more on the Methodist understanding of Christianity and what, if anything, about it is distinctive and worth preserving and celebrating. For example, Jane Craske collaborated with Clive Marsh in 1999 to edit Methodism and the Future, a fine collection of essays by young theologians reflecting on Methodist perspectives, and—with some guarded optimism—on Methodism's future as a movement if not as a church. Unmasking Methodist Theology (edited by Marsh et al, 2004) brings together more than twenty writers (including Susan Howdle) exploring the way that Methodist theology has evolved historically, the methods by which it is worked out, and the directions in which it is moving. The late Angela Shier-Jones' A Work in Progress: Methodists doing theology (2004) is significant as a rare attempt to present a sort of Methodist systematic theology, taking as its structure the arrangement of themes in Hymns and Psalms. Most of these contributors are concerned in some way to wrestle with the notion of distinctiveness and to show as false the perception that Methodism has no distinctive identity or theology, and no future other than decline or absorption into another church. What emerges from the picture they collectively paint is that Methodism has a distinctive way of doing theology, and a unique combination of elements that may exist separately elsewhere but not with the nuances they have in Methodism. They also highlight the danger that Methodists are losing the sense of what makes them distinctive, even a sense of who they are, which contributes to decline.

Distinctiveness does not necessarily equal uniqueness. In this series I will try to show that Methodism, sharing much in common with other Christian denominations, has a character of its own and a significant contribution to make, whether independently or as part of a wider church, which is the result not only of what it believes but of what it does not believe.

As is well-known, Methodism began as a 'society' or movement within the Church of England and became a separate denomination after the deaths of John and Charles Wesley. The wider evangelical movement began before them and large parts of it were not under their control. George Whitefield and the Calvinistic wing of Methodism were equally successful and prominent, especially in Wales and America. What we now know as Methodism is just the Wesleyan wing. In the 19th century it split into various sects, most of which in Britain became reunited in 1932 to form the Methodist Church. It is beyond the scope of the series to explore Methodism outside England, but it is worth noting that the Methodist Church as we know it is only part of Methodism in Britain and a very small part of the world Methodist movement. The Independent Methodists and the Wesleyan Reform Union still exist as separate bodies and have a claim to having a Methodist identity. To them we might also add the most recent secession, that of the Free Methodist Churches, founded in 1971, with a commitment to evangelicalism. At the last count, in 2015, the British Methodist Church had 220,000 members and frequent contact with over half a million people. There are about 80 million Methodists across the world.

Methodist Membership

The most obvious starting point for a study of Methodist identity might seem to be an examination of what is required—and not required—for membership of the Methodist Church. Membership requires no statement of faith or subscription to creeds beyond a simple statement of trust in God as Father, Son and Spirit. Membership is optional and there is little pressure on anyone to make that formal commitment. The theological basis for what may seem a lax openness is in Methodism’s universalist theology, in what John Wesley called 'catholic spirit', and in the belief that every act and attitude of a Methodist should be motivated and guided by, and expressive of, love for God and for one's neighbour. What is also important is the sense of the prevenience (coming in advance) of divine love, its undeservedness and generosity, challenging those who become aware of receiving it to emulate it. So Methodism practises infant baptism in confidence of prevenient grace; it declares the communion table to be the Lord's Table, to which all are invited; it welcomes people in anticipation that they will come to faith rather than requiring faith as a precondition of fellowship.

On a strict view, a Methodist is a member of the Methodist Church in good standing who fulfils the duties of a member and has a valid current membership ticket. Throughout the 19th century Methodist discipline was enforced with some rigour, and membership tickets were withdrawn from those who failed to 'walk worthily of the gospel', or who 'ceased to meet'. Without a ticket there was no admittance to Holy Communion. The disciplinary machinery still exists and occasionally is invoked where need arises. Few Methodists today, though, would approve of a heavy-handed approach to discipline. The Church has for a long time had two lists of those whom it acknowledges as Methodists: one of members (who have entered obligations and are eligible for office) and another, the 'community roll', which includes anyone loosely associated with the local church. All are under the local church's pastoral care.

The 20th century saw changes that made Methodism increasingly more open and welcoming. Two developments were particularly significant: the first, in the 1970s, and as a result of the influence of the Liturgical Movement, was the practice of incorporating Holy Communion with the Ministry of the Word in a single act of worship. Formerly a break after the preaching service allowed non-members to leave before the Lord's Supper. Making the service a unity encouraged non-members to communicate, increasing participation, fellowship and religious commitment, whilst arguably weakening the concept of membership. The second change soon followed. If adult non-members could receive Communion, why not children too? Reports in 1973 and 1975 which suggested children might be allowed were followed in 1987 by one positively commending children's participation, which has since become the norm.

Methodist identity, then, cannot be confined to those who are formally members. It includes children, and must in some measure include others with Methodist links: children in its uniformed organisations and their parents; people who join in the local church's social activities, though not necessarily its worship, except perhaps at Christmas; those whose only connection with Methodism—but an important one—is that the local Methodist church is 'their church' for marriages, christenings and funerals. Those who are linked in these ways may know very little of Methodist doctrine, values and practice, and even less of its organisation and activities beyond the local community. If asked their religion, they might nevertheless say 'Methodist'.

2. Two styles of Methodism

Although the Methodist Church has been one since 1932, the two styles of Methodism that were Wesleyan and Primitive Methodism are still very evident in many ways. It would be too crude altogether to divide Methodists into two distinct identities: the similarities and differences are far too intricate and subtle for that. It is not unreasonable, though, to think of two magnetic poles of Methodism, with Methodists tending to be drawn to one rather the other, or to hover between them.

The 'Wesleyan' pole inherits the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. It pulls toward the Church of England, and its exponents favour the covenant with that church. It is associated with: the valuing of the Wesleyan theological and cultural inheritance; appreciation of Charles Wesley's hymns and other hymns in the conventional mode; liturgical as well as free forms of worship; a preference for dignity, order, ritual, quietness in worship; reasoned, substantial, systematic preaching, often based on lectionary readings and observant of the seasons, feasts and festivals of the Christian calendar; robed clergy; Holy Communion received at the communion rail; a focus on what Methodists call ‘connexionalism.’, with the observance of standing orders and traditions in the governance of church, circuit, district and connexional life. In theology it leans towards liberalism.

The other pole of Methodism inherits the Primitive Methodist tradition, which began as a working-class revivalist movement in the early 19th century in the Potteries. Its lay founders, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, thought that Methodism had become too gentrified and had lost its original evangelical fervour. The ‘Prim’ tradition finds Anglicanism rather too ritualistic and dry for its taste, and feels more affinity to the Free Churches, Salvation Army and Pentecostalism. It favours a theologically conservative, Spirit-led, evangelistic style of Christianity, focused on lay leadership of worship, active participation, spontaneity and informality. Contemporary worship songs, or songs in the Sankey tradition, accompanied by guitars rather than the organ, are enjoyed; preaching is most appreciated when simple, anecdotal and delivered without notes and not from a pulpit; extempore prayer is preferred; the communion elements are received in the pews (or the chairs that have replaced them) and consumed by all simultaneously; there is a tendency to congregationalist independence. Churches of this 'Primitive' or charismatic style are more likely than 'Wesleyan' ones to run Alpha courses and to bring in new members who have less commitment to, and feeling for, the traditions of Methodism. Politically, Primitive Methodism was always to the left of Wesleyan.

Some aspects of Methodist life, practice and outlook show close affinity to dissent or non-conformity, though technically Methodists have never been dissenters or non-conformists. Those terms were legally outdated by the time Methodism separated from the Church of England. They persisted, though, and it was a Methodist President, Hugh Price Hughes, who coined the phrase ‘non-conformist conscience’ in relation to Methodism’s deep social concern.

Methodist church buildings are mainly very similar to those of Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, especially those whose origin was Primitive Methodist. They are essentially preaching places, with pulpit and organ in central focus, although there is much variety and those built or refurbished in the last half century are more likely to be designed with a modest side-pulpit (which some preachers will not use) and central communion table. 'Small', 'plain', 'homely', 'intimate' are the sort of words Methodists might wish to use. This plainness reflects both lack of finance—since Methodists were generally not well off and lacked endowments—and contempt for ostentatiousness and waste. Nevertheless, where wealth was available it was sometimes used for grand displays of carved mahogany or oak, and often in suburbia Methodists tried to emulate or surpass the parish church. Lidgett Park as originally designed had choir stalls lining the chancel in Anglican style.

The affinity to dissent, strongest in the ‘Prim’ tradition, expresses itself in an ardent desire for lay leadership and involvement, a valuing of spontaneity in prayer and preaching, a rejection of priestly views of ministry and of episcopacy, and a suspicion of symbolism and mysticism of all sorts. This tradition is still a powerful influence in Methodism. Much of the opposition to attempts in and since the 1960s to join the Methodist Church more closely with the Church of England has come from Methodists who identify themselves as Protestants not Catholics, as dissenters not conformists, and as 'free church' not establishment. Some preachers and congregations want worship to be informal, participatory, novel, creative, lively and entertaining. There have been numerous experiments with ‘fresh expressions’ of church, including café church services.

In other ways, though, Methodists, especially Wesleyans, have an affinity to the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican traditions that can appear rather 'high church' to other Protestants. The sources of authority to which Methodism appeals—scripture, tradition, reason and experience—are, apart from the distinctive last one, those of Anglicanism and Catholicism. This is not the sola scriptura (scripture alone) of the Reformation churches. Whilst Methodism does not have bishops, it does have episkopē (oversight). It is a matter of debate in Methodism whether it lies in the Conference, which ordains and legislates, or in the circuit superintendents, whose very name declares their overseeing role.

Methodist liturgy has always been close to its origins in the Book of Common Prayer, and in its most recent forms it has grown even closer to Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgies because of the common influence of the Joint Liturgical Movement, which has profoundly affected Methodism.. Methodists sometimes recite one of the historic creeds—though some disapprove. They have become tolerant of ministers wearing vestments, and often encourage it. The use of the Revised Common Lectionary has become so ubiquitous that in some churches there is pressure upon preachers to use it, or at least an element of surprise if other readings are chosen. Although lay celebration of Holy Communion is permitted, it requires a special dispensation from the Methodist Conference in response to demonstration of need and is not taken as normal as in other Free Churches, despite the Methodist claim to believe in the priesthood of all believers. Liturgical forms of worship, both traditional and modern, are common and extemporary prayer has become rare in public worship. Most telling, perhaps, is that Methodist do not jib at the word 'catholic' as applied to the Church, or associate it with Rome, but simply with the universal Church of which they believe themselves to be a part. Although there is a diversity of views about the sacramental nature of Holy Communion, Methodists tend more to a 'real presence' interpretation than to a 'bare memorial' view.

One thing that Methodists of both traditions like is to sing hymns—typically five in a Sunday service. Few in the congregations now can sing the alto, tenor or bass line, where once there were many. Memorable words, catchy tunes, the uplift that comes from singing together, the emotional impact of a volume of rich harmonic sound—and the work of the Holy Spirit within—combine to embed the doctrines in heart and soul, as well as mind. For that reason, and because it matters what we sing, the Methodist denominations have always until recent times been very careful what hymns they have approved for congregational use. The core—in all branches of Methodism—is the hymns of Charles Wesley, many of which are known to all English-speaking Christians, and many more of which are hardly known at all outside Methodism. John Wesley compiled and published several collections, mainly comprising Charles’s writings, and also including his own translations of Lutheran and Moravian hymns and ‘modern’ English ones by Watts, Cowper, Newton and others. Methodism’s hymnody has always been ecumenical. During the 19th and 20th centuries it expanded to include the writings of contemporary Methodists and the best hymns from other denominations, even including—surprisingly— Roman Catholic ones. Currently the Methodist Church has three authorised hymnbooks that have Conference approval—The Methodist Hymnbook (MHB), Hymns and Psalms and Singing the Faith. Other, unauthorised books are in use and some preachers choose items from other sources, especially now that projection has made it so easy. They are not always mindful when they do so that they may be diluting and weakening people’s grasp of Methodist doctrines and sense of Methodist identity.

The singing of the Lord’s Prayer is still common: it is the norm in many chapels. Singing the Faith, unlike its predecessors, gives no musical settings for the canticles and psalms. Methodists—even some Primitive Methodists— used to be able to sing them: that ability has been lost except in a few places. The exception in the Leeds North and East Circuit is Roscoe, where the Venite and Te Deum (MHB settings) are well known by all and sung at the monthly service of Morning Prayer, which is essentially that of the Book of Common Prayer.

Methodism, then, embraces quite a variety of tastes, emphases and preferences. People of different styles of Methodism identify themselves as Methodist; they may not always and easily recognise other styles as being Methodist too. They may sing ‘E’en now we think and feel the same and cordially agree’, but it ain’t necessarily so!

3. What makes Methodists tick

Methodism has never claimed to have unique Methodist doctrine: to the contrary, it has always been at pains to emphasise that its doctrine is orthodox and unoriginal. The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds are used in its liturgies and quoted in its Catechism. The Deed of Union (1932) sets out the doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church in a few hundred words of general statements, whose brevity indicates that there is little that is controversial.

'The Methodist Church claims and cherishes its place in the Holy Catholic Church which is the Body of Christ. It rejoices in the inheritance of the apostolic faith and loyally accepts the fundamental principles of the historic creeds and of the Protestant Reformation. It ever remembers that in the providence of God Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness through the land by the proclamation of the evangelical faith... The doctrines of the evangelical faith which Methodism has held from the beginning and still holds are based upon the divine revelation recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The Methodist Church acknowledges this revelation as the supreme rule of faith and practice.'

This statement, which represents the common ground shared by the 'high church' Wesleyans and the 'low church' Primitive Methodists in 1932, seems to suggest that there is really nothing very distinctive about Methodism at all: it is just mainstream Protestant evangelicalism. This hardly does justice to the true catholicity of the Methodist inheritance. Several recent biographers of John and Charles Wesley have noted and explored the influence on their thought of the early Church Fathers, who provided one source of the Wesleys' somewhat mystical focus on inward holiness and their sacramentalism. Although John Wesley was a child of the Reformation, he softened the emphasis on Original Sin and distanced himself in various ways from some of the doctrines and emphases of Luther and especially of Calvin.

So what is distinctive about Methodist doctrine and life?

Some of the central convictions of Methodist thinking were very well summed up by William Fitzgerald in a book in 1903 as the 'Four Alls':

They form the core of John Wesley's preaching and are prominent themes in Charles Wesley's hymns. Methodists are so familiar with them that they may take it for granted that these are what all Christians believe. In fact, only the first can be considered universal. That all can be saved was the doctrine that caused the deepest rift among the early Methodists, dividing the Arminian Wesleys from the Calvinistic George Whitefield, who believed that Christ died only for those predestined to be saved. The conviction that Christ died for all and that no-one is beyond the reach of God's saving grace underpins Methodists' optimistic view of the world and inspires commitment to mission and evangelism. Calvinists reject this view.

The doctrine of assurance is founded on scriptural promises and on the experience of the warmed heart, which the Wesleys took to be evidence of the Holy Spirit 'bearing witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God' (Romans 8:16). The authority of personal experience, something that Wesley learnt from Moravian pietism, was added to the authorities of classical Anglicanism — scripture, tradition and reason — to produce a style of Christianity that was both classical and dynamic, theological and experiential. It later spread to the Salvation Army and Pentecostalism. Many Christians in other traditions are very sceptical about the presumption that we can know in this life that we are saved.

The last of the Four Alls, known variously as 'Christian perfection', 'Christian holiness’, 'entire sanctification' or 'perfect love', is the most distinctively Wesleyan. John Wesley insisted that Jesus would not have said ‘You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48) if that was not possible for every Christian. He claimed that what it meant was nothing less than what everyone prayed for in the service of Holy Communion: ‘ ... cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love Thee.’ The Methodist concept of holiness has much in common with the goals of the religious life in Catholicism. The key difference is that Methodism does not consider such goals attainable only through a contemplative life in a community of celibates: it expects them of every Christian. The holy life is to be lived in the secular world, in marriage and family life and in one's secular occupation. The Holiness Churches, especially in America, are the principal standard-bearers for this Wesleyan doctrine.

How then can Methodists grow into holiness and attain the fullness of Christian love? This is where the organisational features of the church come into play, for they are designed to assist. Lay leadership, for example is important not only because it expresses the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—which is dear to the heart of all Protestants—but because it gives practical expression to the belief that all are called to salvation and to holiness of life. Local Preachers provide a lay ministry of preaching and conduct of worship that has never been just a stop-gap measure because of a shortage of ministers: it is a ministry in its own right intended to witness to the belief that God calls people from all walks of life to preach the word and so help others to come to faith and grow in it. From the very beginning Methodists have met in small groups, often lay-led, originally 'bands' and 'classes' which met for prayer and mutual examination in spiritual growth. These have become in time house-groups for Bible-study, discussion and fellowship. Only a minority of Methodists engages in them today, and the intense pietism that they once encouraged is rare now. Their value continues to be that they assist the process of growing in holiness, which is seen in Methodism as a social and communal process, not a purely individual one. Methodists, in other words, see themselves as having a communal identity, not just an individual one. Christian holiness or perfect love cannot exist in isolation: it requires relationships for its expression and growth. The Circuit system and Connexional system likewise give contexts in which love can be expressed practically on a wider basis by allowing redistribution of resources, the stronger churches and circuits supporting the weaker ones, and by the exercise of efficient stewardship of what God has given.

Hymn-singing, too, contributes to holiness. It is valued by Methodists because it enables the expression of many emotions that are part of the developing Christian experience: guilt, fear, hopelessness and self-deprecation; the dawning of faith and the joy of forgiveness; the sense of assurance; the flowing and ebbing of faith through the vicissitudes of life's pilgrim experiences; the aspiration to the holy life in this world and the next. Methodist hymn books, from Wesley's day to the present, have always been arranged thematically according to both experiential and theological themes so that they aim to be, as John described them, 'a little body of experimental and practical divinity'. Methodists have learnt the doctrines through them. Hymns allow the active participation of all, and they strengthen the sense of community. The growing use of non-Methodist hymns and songs, and diminishing use of Wesley's hymns, constitutes some risk to one of the chief sources of nurture of Methodist identity. Worship songs that lack theological depth hinder growth in holiness rather than nourish it.

Much of what is distinctively and maybe uniquely Methodist is not readily visible to those outside Methodism, and perhaps too familiar to Methodists themselves to be noticeable. Misunderstanding can arise when people of different religious traditions use common theological words not quite grasping how differently they are understood by others. For example, Methodist definitions would be significantly different from Roman Catholic definitions of words like 'confession', 'religious', 'saint' and 'catholic'. The word 'faith' in particular is slippery. To Roman Catholics, and to some other Protestants, 'faith' has reference to 'articles of faith' or credal statements: 'the faith' is what one believes; faith is the opposite of doubt. For Methodists credal propositions are relatively unimportant: one may believe yet lack the 'warmed heart', like John Wesley before his Aldersgate Street experience. 'Faith' is therefore better defined as a personal commitment made in trust. It is not the opposite of doubt; it is not certainty; it has little or nothing to do with theological assertions. It is, in Wesley's words, 'a sure confidence that a man has in God'. This is a Reformation understanding of faith with the addition of a distinctive Methodist emphasis: that faith 'working by love' produces holiness. Singing the Faith is a profoundly unmethodist title for a Methodist hymnbook!

A Methodist understanding of Methodist identity, then, is likely to contain a sense of being part of a community of people who have experienced (or hope to experience) the forgiving love of God, and who seek in response to live in a manner that expresses a growing and maturing love for God and other people, to be expressed in practical ways. Methodists do not consider themselves to be the exclusive recipients of this grace, or deserving of it: it is a gift God for intends all humankind, and therefore to be shared as widely as possible.

4. Methodists thinking

John Wesley was an academic and a polymath. His main source of income in the early years of his ministry was his salary as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. His publications were extensive and extraordinarily various, including not only Bible commentaries, sermons, essays, articles, hymn books and his monumental Journal, but also books on natural history, electricity, medicine and foreign language grammars. He wanted all of his preachers to be well-read, so he published for them, at cheap prices, a 50-volume library of condensed religious works by a wide range of mainly recent European authors, including ones he had translated himself from French, German, Spanish or Latin. John and Charles sometimes conversed with each other in Greek. John thus set a trend in Methodism that admired scholarship, embraced new thinking, and saw theology and science as partners in the unveiling of the secrets of God’s Universe. Being learners as members of a class was part of Methodist identity.

The Wesleyan stream of Methodism in particular has sought to follow that trend, and Methodism has a tradition that is proud of its scholarship and determined to ensure that those who preach and minister should be intellectually equipped to do so, as well as being people of faith and ‘warmed hearts’. Local preachers undergo a quite rigorous training course over a period of usually two or three years in which they engage in critical study of the Bible, theology and worship, with a smattering of ethics, and learn how to apply that knowledge in organising services, selecting hymns, composing prayers and writing sermons. The level of study is roughly equivalent to that of a degree foundation course. Presbyteral ministers must be local preachers first, and their college training takes them further and wider in theological and pastoral Biblical studies, for a degree if they have the capacity, or a higher degree if they have already graduated.

Half a century ago the Methodist Church had theological colleges for training ministers at Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Headingley, Manchester and Richmond, a missionary college at Selly Oak, a deaconess college at Ilkley, and Cliff College for training lay evangelists, as well as two teacher training colleges in London and Oxford. The Connexional Study Centre ran correspondence courses for anyone who wanted to learn more of the Bible, theology, church history and even New Testament Greek. Many of the staff of the colleges, and circuit ministers too, were scholars of international renown who contributed to non-denominational academic journals as well as Methodist ones. The Epworth Press published many excellent books to support preachers.

The collapse of that framework for Methodist theological education has been catastrophic. All of the colleges have closed except Cliff and Wesley House, Cambridge, which is no longer supported by the Methodist Church. We have no theological journal or publishing house able to produce anything of substance. We do still provide training for local preachers locally and for presbyters and deacons in ecumenical institutions such as The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham (the former Handsworth). Some see great benefit in ecumenical rather than denominational training. What is inevitably missing from it is the experience of living immersed in a thoroughly Methodist environment for a few impressionable years, which gave previous generations of ministers and teachers a strong sense of their Methodist identity, a clear understanding of its distinctiveness, and a grasp and love of the richness of their Methodist heritage. All these are now at risk. The only institutions able to maintain a Methodist identity are the very few independent schools, like Ashville College and Woodhouse Grove, and a handful of Methodist controlled primary schools, of which the only one in our District is in Wakefield.

One reason why we have come to this is that not all Methodists value theological education. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the fact that there were some notable Primitive Methodist scholars, many Primitive Methodists and some ‘Low Church’ Wesleyans provided training only reluctantly, fearing that college education would ruin a good man by sowing doubts. The evangelical tradition has often been scornful of the uselessness of theological speculation and insisted that Methodism has been at its strongest when relatively uneducated preachers of strong faith and passionate conviction have preached the simple gospel to common folk in common language. One needs no qualification to share one’s love of Jesus with one’s neighbours. After all, Jesus was no scholar, and his disciples had no qualifications. The anti-intellectual strain in Methodism is still very much alive. It not infrequently manifests itself in would-be local preachers who think that undergoing a training course is a waste of time and a hindrance to their ministry. Fortunately, most discover that the more they learn, the more they realise how much they need to learn!

As with many other aspects of Methodism, therefore, there is a huge diversity among the membership and leadership in terms of the depth and breadth of their intellectual grasp of the Christian faith and diversity too in the perspectives from which they view it. At one end of a spectrum are a small minority of fundamentalists who hold the scriptures to be verbally inspired and infallible. They reject evolutionary theory and embrace Creationism. This stance tends to be associated with belief in the historicity of all Biblical miracles, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and with a literalistic understanding of Jesus’ death as a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. Many who support the basis of faith of the Evangelical Alliance have given up on the Methodist Church, finding it too liberal, and broken away to form the Free Methodist Churches. Others hold on as members of Methodist Evangelicals Together, seeking to influence the Church in a more evangelical direction, with some success.

At the other end of the spectrum Methodism includes Radical Methodists like John Vincent of Sheffield, who would sell up all buildings and reconstitute the Church as a network of cells or housegroups, like the Wesleys’ Holy Club in Oxford or the 1st century Christians. Methodism also includes members of the Progressive Christian Network and others who sympathise with their sceptical approach to much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and desire to discard most of the legacy of traditional theology, liturgy and hymns and replace them with modern (or postmodern), rational, contemporary alternatives.

Between these extremes, and probably forming the majority of Methodists, are people we might call liberal traditional moderates, who want to preserve the best of the Methodist and Christian inheritance and marry it to new understandings and ways of worship suited to our age. For the most part they see no conflict between religion and science and embrace both; they may or may not believe in Biblical miracles, not making much of an issue of it either way; they are sceptical about the sort of claims about modern miracles that Catholics make, not expecting dramatic divine interventions that breach the natural order; they think that the traditional language of religion is pictorial, symbolic, metaphorical, and not to be taken too literally; they welcome scholarship that helps to interpret the Bible in simple ways and make its message relevant to everyday life; far more important to them than knowledge or tradition, scripture and theology, is a simple, living faith in Christ as saviour and example, and a commitment to following him in love of God and love of neighbour; in short, the faith they call Christianity is completely unlike anything that Richard Dawkins would recognise by that name!

The ability of the Methodist Church to hold together such a diversity of views is really rather remarkable. It is not unique: other majority denominations do so also. Nevertheless, there is a difference. Anglican parish churches, for example, tend to have a particular and enduring character—such as Anglo-Catholic, evangelical or ‘broad’—and to employ only clergy of the same tradition. The URC likewise are served mainly by one minister who works within the expectations and outlook of the church that employs him or her. In both the choice of hymns and music is usually mainly in the hands of the organist or choirmaster. Methodist churches, however, are part of a circuit which is served by a team of ministers and an even larger team of local preachers, all of whom are free as individuals to preach, lead worship and select hymns as they wish. These churches can therefore experience a wide range of thought and outlook, depending on who they have in those teams. Although the minister in pastoral charge, who chairs the Church Council, tends to have a strong influence, it is not for long. Invitations are for only five years in the first instance, and renewals are for short periods. The result is that Methodist churches everywhere do have a certain common identity and similarity of style and outlook, regardless of their size, and a remarkable tolerance of the idiosyncrasies of their ever-changing kaleidoscope of preachers.

The enormous reduction in Methodist sponsorship of theological scholarship has serious implications for the future of the Methodist Church. Over-simplification of the gospel comes at a cost, for what appeals to the non-intellectual will fail to satisfy the minds of the inquisitive. We lament the lack of young people in our churches and may suppose that the young are no longer interested in religion. Yet Religious Studies as a GCSE and A-level subject is popular and thriving as never before. RE teachers know that teenagers are still as keen as ever to discuss the big questions about God, religious experience, suffering and evil, right and wrong, and these are the content of their courses. How has it come about that few Methodist churches are able any more to meet their need? We may ask whether a church can survive, let alone grow, if it lacks intellectual substance in its preaching and hymns and lacks opportunities for people to be challenged and educated together in small groups so that they can deepen their understanding and grow in wisdom. We cannot reach out in mission if we are not confident in our grasp of our faith and assured that we have something of value to offer.

5. Methodist outreach

Methodism was, from the outset, a missionary movement that sought to spread the gospel to all. Once John Wesley had overcome his distaste for outdoor preaching he discovered he was good at it. So was Charles, who was actually a better and more fervent preacher than his brother. The growth of the movement during their lifetime was phenomenal, but the greater growth was in the 19th century. The Sunday School movement thrived. Methodist missionaries were sent in ever greater numbers to Africa and Asia, not only from Britain but from America, where Methodism became (and remains) even more successful than in Britain. As the 20th century developed, however, Methodism lost much of the confidence in mission that it had had in earlier days. Efforts at public evangelism at home produced small returns and did not stem the decline in membership that has continued for a century. Mission overseas drew back from exporting British Christianity and culture and sought more humbly to recognise that in other lands people needed to be assisted to develop their own indigenous ministries and ways of expressing their faith.

Mission has become a problem area for contemporary Methodism in Britain. Efforts to revive it through Fresh Expressions like café church and alternative worship have not had much success. The idea that Methodism grew in the past principally through conversions at public evangelical events is probably a myth, except for a brief period at the beginning of the Methodist Revival. As in other churches, most of the past growth came internally from the nurture, education and evangelical targeting of the young. Apart from the very popular ‘messy church’ in some places, the youth and children’s work that was once so prominent a part of Methodist life has all but disappeared from most Methodist churches, mainly for reasons beyond their control. Methodists worry about it a lot and do not know what to do. Efforts to engage with organisations that meet on church premises, or to reach out to people in the neighbourhood through literature or visits, have generally proved so fruitless that most churches have given up trying. One-to-one personal evangelism requires complete confidence that one has a vital truth that others need and personal contact with someone in need who is prepared to listen. Methodist discouragement of bigotry interferes with evangelism by undermining that confidence, and the more one’s life is taken up with church-based activity the fewer unchurched people one knows. No amount of urging Methodists to be more active in mission is likely to be effective if the opportunity, means and will are lacking.

Methodist social outreach, however, has grown in confidence. John Wesley saw the mission and task of Methodism as being to spread 'scriptural holiness throughout the land.' The encouragement of faith and piety, though certainly part of that goal, was by no means all of it. Holiness was, for the Wesleys, associated with love for God and neighbour, finding its expression both in worship and in practical help for those in need. John Wesley's school at Kingswood, orphanage in Newcastle and dispensary in London were institutional ways of providing help. His championing of the anti-slavery movement expressed a concern for social justice. These and other examples have always been an encouragement to Methodists to have a strong social conscience and to see their religion as something that absolutely must affect their everyday life. Holiness is conceived as the practical expression of faith and love in life and relationships. It affects choice of career, the use of one's earnings, the way one spends one's leisure, time and talents. Methodists are reminded in the Covenant Service that 'Christ has many services to be done', and the membership ticket includes as one of the four callings of a member (along with worship, learning and caring, and evangelism) 'service, by being a good neighbour in the community, challenging injustice and using my resources to support the Church in its mission in the world'.

Methodist moral attitudes have changed significantly since 1932. On alcohol, gambling and Sunday observance—issues that have both a personal and a social dimension— the once strict attitudes have weakened. On matters of social justice, particularly in relation to poverty and race relationships, Methodist commitment has been continuous. A glance at the Methodist Church website, for example, provides a glimpse of some of the wide range of issues in which Methodists are currently engaged, with pages on peacemaking, politics and elections, environment and climate change, social justice, international affairs, ethical investment and social issues. High on the agenda are concerns about the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers. A section on Public Issues points to a wide range of policy statements—many of them very detailed and closely reasoned with reference to scripture, theological principles and expert advice—on issues of the day. And for Methodists theology and politics must mix. The Methodist Church does not support one political party and there are Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Methodist MPs, all of whom would see their political commitment as an outworking of their faith.

It is impossible to say to what extent individual Methodists are practically involved in social outreach. Undoubtedly a significant proportion of Methodists choose careers in education, social work, medicine and health care as fields in which they can give practical expression to the values in which they believe. Undoubtedly, too, there is an enormous Methodist involvement in a wide range of voluntary organisations, on magistrates' benches, in trade unionism and in local and national politics. A survey of some 6000 Methodist Local Preachers found that three quarters claimed to be involved with other voluntary, national or community activities.

There are still puritanical elements in modern Methodism, but Methodists are in general much more relaxed than Catholics, Anglicans and Pentecostalists about gay relationships, divorce, pre-marital sex, abortion and euthanasia. In general they tend to be liberal or socialist in politics, and it is the left-wing issues that exercise them most, such as anti-racism and support for women's rights and gender equality, evidenced in the ordination of women and a concern for the use of inclusive language in hymns, liturgy and all church-produced documents.

The practical expressions of Methodist social and humanitarian concern are easy to find. Even the smallest and financially poorest Methodist churches raise funds and give generously to such causes as Christian Aid, Methodist Homes and Action for Children. Lidgett Park puts a great deal of effort into raising considerable sums of money annually for charitable causes at home and abroad, and this is one of its notable strengths. Methodists certainly see it as an essential element in their identity that they exist to be the servants of Christ, doing his work in the world. They have, it seems, taken to heart the words of St Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach Jesus, if necessary using words.’

6. Methodism and other paths of faith

Methodism's catholic and universalistic outlook is fundamental to its understanding both of the gospel and of its mission as a part of the universal Church. Among John Wesley’s sermons that all local preachers are required to study are two very notable ones that have the titles ‘A Caution Against Bigotry’ and ‘The Catholic Spirit.’ In them John warns Methodists against thinking that they alone are true Christians. They must work with, pray for, love and support all people, and particularly others who follow Christ. In the 19th century Methodists lost that catholic outlook as they fractured into different denominations, unable to get along with each other, let alone with Christians in other churches. In the 20th century they found it again and played a notable part in the development of the Ecumenical Movement. Twice the Methodist Church voted, after long discussion, to join the Church of England, which rejected the proposal. Yet the process of ever closer cooperation with other churches, through national and local covenants, has gone on, and in many places local ecumenical partnerships have worked. In the Leeds North & East Circuit we have joint churches at Christ Church, Harewood, Oakwood and Trinity, and at Lidgett Park we are in covenant with St Andrew’s and St Edmund’s.

As Britain has become more pluralistic and multi-cultural, Methodists have been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue. A Methodist local preacher from Chapel Allerton, Dr Peter Bell, was one of the founders of the Concord Interfaith Fellowship, one of the first in Britain, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016. Methodists remain a disproportionately large element in its membership.

The 1983 Methodist Conference recommended Methodist engagement in interfaith dialogue. It adopted guidelines on dialogue published by the British Council of Churches written by a Methodist minister and scholar, Kenneth Cracknell. A key statement sums up the openness that needs to characterise relationships with people of other faiths:

'Conversation or dialogue is an integral part of loving another person. It is not a technique to break down the other's defences and win his allegiance to Christ more easily. In dialogue both partners have much to learn: the Christian must want to know what the God of the universe has been doing in the life and heritage of his partner as well as to share his own experience of God-in-Christ. There must be respect for the integrity and contribution of the other partner as well as freedom to witness what rings true for oneself.'

A further report in 1994 went further, displaying a 'reasonable enthusiasm' for such dialogue.

'We commend a theology of providence which believes that God has created the whole diverse human race and wants all human beings to live together in justice and peace whatever their religious belief or ethnic origin….
Like other Christians, Methodists believe that it is only by the grace of God that people of different faiths and ethnic origins can do that.
'If we believe that a multi-faith society is within the gracious purposes of God, then Methodists must display the attitude commended in John Wesley's sermon on The Catholic Spirit, and extend the hand of friendship.
This can happen at the workplace, over a garden fence at home, or by joining an inter faith group.'
(From Principles for Dialogue and Evangelism among people of other faiths, adopted by the Methodist Conference of 1994)

Of course, not all Methodists would share exactly the same views about other faiths and what they would hope for as the outcome of dialogue. There remain among Methodists those, particularly of conservative evangelical views, who hold that there is no salvation except through a conscious faith in Christ, who are committed to evangelical mission, and whose purpose in dialogue is to seek ways of persuading others to become Christians. That is no longer the position of the Methodist Church as a body. One of the notable principles that was evident in the editing of the 1984 hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms, was the removal of hymns or alteration of lines that patronised 'the heathen'. Recent decades have seen much close cooperation between Methodist churches and mosques, especially when the latter have faced Islamophobic attacks. One striking example is in South Leeds, where Trinity Tempest Road Methodist Church has worked with Muslims to create the Hamara Community Centre.

Serious involvement in interfaith dialogue is a journey very much into the unknown and not without challenges and tensions. There is considerable enrichment in discovering the spirituality and insight of people of other faith traditions where it is compatible with our Methodist perspectives. But what do we do and say about aspects of other faiths that are objectionable? Must be abandon the idea of mission? Can we still sing ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run’? There are more questions than solutions and some are endeavouring to find answers. Notable Methodist scholars and ecumenical leaders who have written on the subject are Kenneth Cracknell, Martin Forward and Wesley Ariarajah. It is significant that all of these have lived in multi-religious environments and have felt deeply uncomfortable about an inheritance of Christian triumphalism and claim to uniqueness that conflicts with what they have known at first hand of the wisdom, spirituality and depth of faith of Muslims, Hindus and others. Ariarajah, for example, felt no tension at all as a Methodist child growing up in Sri Lanka alongside his Hindu friends and neighbours. They celebrated religious festivals together. It was when he went to theological college and was told that Hindus could not be saved that he became aware of Christian exclusiveness and rebelled against it. His book Not Without My Neighbour is based on the idea that if Heaven is closed to Hindus he does not want to go there.

Our engagement with other Christians and with people of other religious traditions is a necessary and vital one as we become more of a minority in an increasingly multi-religious society. Methodists, with their universalist outlook and confidence in the leading of the Spirit, are perhaps uniquely placed to build bridges, which is why there has been so significant a contribution from Methodists to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. A theology of interfaith dialogue can be developed from our Arminian belief that Christ died for all, our conviction that God wills that all should be saved, our belief that God is perfect love and our conviction that the Holy Spirit moves where it wills. Methodists still seek, as John Wesley put it, to ‘be the friends of all and the enemies of none.’ This is another distinctive mark of their identity.

7. Methodism as the Middle Way

Henry Rack's inspired title for his acclaimed biography of John Wesley, Reasonable Enthusiast, captures brilliantly the paradox of the scholarly evangelist and points to the source of so much that is paradoxical in Methodism. In Wesley's day 'enthusiasm' was a term of abuse, often levelled against Wesley and the Methodists in reference to the excesses of irrational religious excitement manifested at Methodist meetings and the outbreak of charismatic phenomena, like instant conversion, which the Established Church taught belonged only in the apostolic age. 'Enthusiasm' carried overtones of what Rack calls 'social subversion', and recalled the breakdown of authority and order of the Interregnum.

John Wesley did cause trouble, and so did Methodism. Yet the man himself was no wild ranter. His sermons are systematically ordered, reasoned, scholarly, as one would expect of an Oxford don. In all aspects of his life, from his balanced stewardship of his own time and money to his disciplined and systematic organisation of activities, resources and people (what today we would call managerial and administrative flair), everything he did was underpinned by a scriptural, orthodox, reasoned theology, which changed in 1738 only because there was added to it the personal experience of the 'warmed heart'.

'Reasonable enthusiasts' could be an appropriate way of describing the Methodist ideal today—a key to their identity—though we would need to understand 'enthusiast' more in its modern meaning than in that of the 18th century. The older sense should not be wholly forgotten. Wesley did not despise the gifts of the Spirit (healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc), though he was not enthusiastic about them. His focus was on the 'more excellent way' of love, and on the cultivation of the 'fruit of the Spirit'. Wholehearted response to divine love and total commitment to the service of God are the enthusiasms that 18th and 21st century Methodists should have in common.

Methodists today are somewhat divided over the extent to which 'enthusiasm' is to be encouraged. No-one doubts that the Christian gospel calls people to a life dedicated to God in service given not reluctantly but wholeheartedly. Half a century ago much of the preaching would have been deliberately targeted at 'seeking a verdict'—a conversion experience involving a personal encounter with Christ—and Methodists then supported Billy Graham's evangelical crusades and others of a similar kind. Some contemporary Methodists still do. Much of Methodism, though, has grown wary of such approaches, and for the most part Methodist congregations wish to be warmed rather than over-excited: they are embarrassed rather than uplifted by what they call 'happy clappy' worship. It would be easy to dismiss this as the lukewarmness of the church of Laodicea. It may be that, or it may be the result of the tension that exists between reason and enthusiasm. The 'enthusiastic' tradition of Methodism remembers Pentecost and I Corinthians 12 and looks for a new Pentecost in individuals and church communities. The rational tradition of Methodism remembers I Corinthians 13, and is wary of mistaking wishful thinking for faith, high spirits for the Holy Spirit, and entertainment for worship. It expects the Holy Spirit to work in quiet, inconspicuous ways. The middle ground between a dry, emotionless rationality and an empty-headed and ultimately godless frothiness, is not easy ground to occupy, but it is where 'reasonable enthusiasts' can find themselves, and it is of the essence of Methodism—its genius and its Achilles' heel.

It is difficult for Methodists today to shout the gospel from the rooftops because Methodism is a moderate church, occupying the middle ground. With reason as one of its declared sources of theological authority, Methodism is committed always to looking at different points of view on controversial issues and recognising that truth is often difficult to find. Before Methodists can say 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us' they feel the need to study, think, pray and confer. Reasonableness makes for modesty and a willingness to allow that different points of view may both be Christian. That leads to an inclination to dialogue rather than to debate, to educate rather than evangelise, to choose service rather than mission, and to despise propaganda and the use of emotional and psychological blackmail. Modern Methodist preaching does not seek an instant verdict as much Georgian and Victorian Methodist preaching sought to do, though it does hope to educate, inspire, challenge, nurture and comfort. This attention to reason also makes for a church critical of some of its theological inheritance and sceptical about what cannot be reconciled with science.

To be both reasonable and enthusiastic often means following what Anglicans and Buddhists call 'the middle way'. It is, of course, Anglicanism, from which Methodism split, that has been called the via media. Methodism can equally claim to be a via media between Anglicanism and Dissent. That, at least, has been its historical location. Nowadays, though, the traditional labels do not always fit. Evangelical Anglicanism is often more Protestant than Methodism, and more evangelical too, yet since Vatican II Methodist and Roman Catholic dialogue has brought more commonality than was previously appreciated on either side.

The desire of Methodists to be 'the friends of all and the enemies of none' also leads to the middle ground. Methodists are reluctant to engage in controversy, and prefer where possible to allow different views to co-exist. For example, even on what is for most Christian churches a key question—the authority of scripture—Methodists are tolerant of a diversity of views, as is strikingly shown by the Conference-approved statement, A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path (1998). This illustrates seven models of biblical authority which can all claim to be Methodist, ranging from the Bible as the inerrant word of God at one end of the spectrum, to the Bible as just a useful resource, secondary to reason and experience, at the other end. The Conference did not even attempt to choose between them and risk the schism that would inevitably have followed. Following the middle way means trying our best to accommodate them all.

Where conflict is unavoidable, there are procedures and traditions that endeavour to minimise its impact. 18th century Methodists knew from personal experience what it was like to suffer intolerance, and the Wesleys taught them to 'turn the other cheek'. Nowadays the memory of the harm done by the schisms of the 19th century is one factor in promoting a concern for harmony. As Wesley said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?’

This desire to be moderate and to occupy the middle ground, committed and fervent yet shunning extremism, is not what the general public associate with the word ‘Methodist’, and that is one of our difficulties today. There was a time, long ago, when ‘Methodist’ was associated with being a strait-laced, severe, finger-wagging kill-joy, especially one who opposed drinking and gambling. It is doubtful if that was ever a true characterisation of Methodists: it certainly is not now. Indeed, it is probable that the vast majority of people in Britain today have no idea at all who Methodists are and what they stand for. Do Methodists know who we are? Do we have a clear notion ourselves of what it is about our identity that is distinctive and valuable and worth telling? Perhaps we need, before it is too late, to focus more upon what the commercial world calls ‘brand image’ and ‘corporate identity’. We can easily summon up an image in our mind when we hear the words ‘Starbucks’, ‘Debenhams’, ‘Premier Inn’, ‘UKIP’, ‘Greenpeace’, ‘Muslim’ (whether accurate or not). What do we want people to think when they hear the word ‘Methodist’?

8. Do we still know who we are?

A decade ago two ministers, Martin Wellings and Andrew Wood, made a study of training materials used in Methodist Sunday schools, membership classes and local preacher training, and reading lists for ministerial candidates and probationers, since the 1930s. They found a strong but changing sense of Methodist identity. In the membership materials 'the overwhelming sense is of a Trinitarian, practical, inclusive and exploratory theology.' The local preacher courses in each generation sought to address what were perceived as the current intellectual challenges to Christianity. 'Attuned to the general theological climate of the day (or sometimes the day before yesterday), with a faint and fading tinge derived from the Wesleys' they became progressively less Methodist. Their summary conclusion is:

'At its best, this theology has been practical, attuned to contemporary concerns and ready to learn. At its worst, it has been an anaemic partner of the spirit of the age, marked by a progressive attenuation of anything distinctively Methodist.'

Another study, by Philip Richter, found that some of the means by which Methodist identity can be transmitted and preserved lack distinctiveness. In its use of hymnody, for example, Methodism uses less of Wesley nowadays, and The Methodist Worship Book seems to privilege more high church traditions within Methodism. Richter said that the Methodist newspapers and magazines have a very limited circulation; Methodist Conference reports can be dry and inaccessible to the average reader; the Methodist Church website is less effective in expressing denominational identity than that of the Church of England; Methodism has few schools, no one set pattern for preparing individuals for reception into full membership, and lifelong learning opportunities are not Methodist-focused. Even the ordained ministers cannot be relied upon to be key agents in promoting denominational identity because some have switched from other denominations and initial ministerial training is often ecumenical. Richter's analysis does not make encouraging reading, but it will be easily recognised by Methodists as a fair summary of many of the practical ways in which opportunities to recognise, reflect on, develop and strengthen a sense of Methodist identity and purpose are being lost.

Jonathan Dean's reminder of the importance of the tradition is valuable here. In the 2007 Fernley Hartley Lecture Dean argues that Methodism is in danger of losing its institutional memory, rejecting its own story, and thereby losing the knowledge of its own identity, as tragic as the loss of memory and of identity in those afflicted with dementia in old age. He writes of Methodism's 'discomfort with the past', a 'collective amnesia.' He wishes Methodism to rediscover its Methodist identity as a contribution to the renewal of ecumenical effort. He sees the need for a historical hermeneutic in Methodism to rediscover, reevaluate and carry forward Methodist tradition creatively in the same way as Methodism interprets scriptures in new ways appropriate to the age. This is what Wesley did himself. He was a reinterpreter of the traditions he inherited. It is highly significant, in Dean's view, that Methodism

'is not, at root, an import from the purer Protestant air of Geneva or Zurich and Strasbourg; neither does it grow from impulses within the Church of England to greater doctrinal exactitude or rigour. It arose, rather, happily imbibing the unusual catholicity of the Church of England.'

There were aspects of Wesley's teaching that carried the Reformation even further, but Wesley also drew on older sources, patristic and eastern, that enriched and enlarged his understanding and contributed particularly to his distinctive emphases on catholic spirit, on inward holiness and on frequent Communion. Most important of all was his utter rejection of Calvinism and embracing of Arminianism. Dean concludes that what Methodism can also contribute to an ecumenical church is a focus on what is important, not the relatively unimportant issues about church structures, episcopacy or beliefs about the eucharist.


In this series I hope I have shown that there is something distinctive about Methodism, albeit it is not easy to pin it down because Methodists do not all think alike or express their spirituality in the same way. Methodism, for all that it likes order and regulation, is a movement that tolerates diversity and aspires to be open-hearted, open-handed and open-minded to all of humanity, and perceptive of the work of God that goes on outside Methodism as well as within. Methodists have what they think of as a common-sense approach to religious belief, practice and lifestyle, stemming from their recognition of reason and experience as important authorities to be considered along with scripture and tradition. It puzzles them that this middle-of-the-road, broad-minded Christianity, which seems to be consistent with Jesus' way, is not as popular or attractive as more extreme forms of Christianity, and saddens them that much anti-Christian polemic today seems unaware that an amicable, rational, liberal, contemporary, inclusive, socially responsible form of Christianity exists. They hope to see Methodism renewed and growing again, but do not know how to effect it.

Some see Methodist tradition, especially its style of worship and use of Wesley's hymns, as part of what holds Methodism back and desire a completely contemporary Methodism to appeal to contemporary people. Methodism's thinkers, though, hold that what is most distinctive and valuable about Methodism is its unique blend of traditional and modern, its comprehensiveness, its ability to be all things to all people. For Methodism to grow it needs not to forget its past but to rediscover it and to find new ways of strengthening Methodist identity. The 'Catch-22' for Methodism is that the catholicity that is so fundamental to its identity tends to challenge any distinctiveness in its identity.

It is easy to talk ourselves into depression about the future of our church, our denomination and the Christian tradition in Britain. There is no point in doing so, for we cannot change processes that have been going on for centuries in the western world. What we can do is treasure what we have and leave a good legacy in the hope that a new generation will find it and appreciate it. We can offer it as our contribution to the wider Church. Whether our future lies in independence or in a marriage with other churches, or even in some at present unimaginable coalition with completely different faiths, there is no need for us to lose the distinctive inheritance and identity which has come to us from the Wesleys and their spiritual descendants. It would be tragic for Christianity if we did.

The Church of God, in every age
Beset by change but Spirit-led,
Must claim and test its heritage
And keep on rising from the dead. (F. Pratt Green)

For further reading:

Kenneth Cracknell (1998), Our Doctrines: Methodist Theology as Classical Christianity. Cliff College Publishing. ISBN 1-89836-219-X

Jane Craske & Clive Marsh (eds) (1999,) Methodism and the Future: facing the challenge. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-70589-6

Clive Marsh et al (eds) (2004), Unmasking Methodist Theology. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7129-3


Copyright © John S. Summerwill 2020. All rights reserved.