Postcard from London

Every three months or so I lead worship and preach at a Methodist church a couple of hundred yards from our parish church in north Ealing, midway between the City and Heathrow Airport. I’ve had links with local Methodists for about ten years. There’s been an alarming decline in Methodist numbers during that time. Now Sunday worshipers at this parish are often less than ten.

This mirrors somewhat the situation of Methodism in England. Overall, Methodists are asset-rich and boast many excellent church facilities across the country. Our local Methodist church is in the same situation. It’s a delightful complex, replete with a gracious church building, assorted kitchens, and halls that produce healthy rental income.

As revealed in a report to last month’s annual Methodist Conference, however, Methodism has suffered a 3.5 percent year-on-year decline in membership in the past decade. Total membership now stands at just 188,000, with 500,000 people attending worship each week.

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“Like many others, I know the deep joy and profound impact that finding a home in the Methodist Church has had in my faith journey, and I know that I desperately want others to have that same experience,” said Doug Swanney, secretary of the British Methodist Church’s connectional team. “We continue to rejoice in the good news stories and shoots of growth in certain areas of the Methodist Church, but we cannot ignore the importance of these numbers.”

The senior minister at Ealing Trinity Circuit says that during the next three years the little congregation in north Ealing will need to make some hard decisions. Close by in Southall, an Asian-majority area, the tiny Methodist community has reverted to a class model.

Classes, brainchild of the founder John Wesley, were the movement’s primary unit. They met weekly, often in homes, to study, sing, pray, and contribute a regular sum to support the church. Modern Methodist music underwent changes in the early part of the 20th century. Before then, tunes were mostly in the style of chamber music that used slow tempos, often set in minor keys, suited to small-group singing.

Methodists have also discussed of a proposed Anglican-Methodist Covenant. On the table is a plan that would bring an end to the break between Anglicans and Methodists in the late 1700s. It envisions a new Methodist “president bishop” and interchangeability of ministries. The plan still needs endorsement by top Church of England and Methodist governing bodies.

Twice before, plans for Anglican-Methodist union failed at the eleventh hour. In 1972 a full-union proposal was approved by Methodists, only to fail to achieve a two-thirds majority in the Church of England’s General Synod. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said it was “the saddest day in my life.”

In 1982, another vote by General Synod derailed a Covenant for Unity between Anglicans, Methodists and the United Reformed Church, again after it won approval by the other parties. In both instances, Anglican traditionalists could not accept a plan that included women ministers.

These actions by the Church of England inflicted real pain, particularly on Methodists, who are generally church-unity enthusiasts. A fresh covenant initiative began in 2003, but has moved at a snail’s pace. A big change that removes the key impediments to its adoptions by Anglicans is that the Church of England now welcomes women as priests and bihsops.

Wesley and his brother Charles considered themselves lifelong Anglicans. John, however, agreed to the consecration of Thomas Coke in 1784 as bishop of the American Connection, although he would not take such a title as leader of English Methodists. His contemporary successors hail the proposal for a president bishop and interchangeability of ministers as “a deeply Methodist way for John Wesley’s people to engage at every level with the Church of England.”

John Martin

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