Fascinating partial book review from Richard Hall. As I comment on his post, this is a book I have shortlisted for reading during a sabbatical. Here is Richard’s summary of Martyn Percy on Methodism:
Connoisseurs of Connexions will be particularly challenged by
Percy’s nine-page case study of Methodism, which, beginning as a
radical intra-church movement combining missionary zeal with passionate
social concern, has become “mired within the process of
bureaucratization and routinization” (p. 128). “If any evidence of this
were needed,” Percy continues, “one need only turn to the Millennium
edition of The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church. As Angela Shier-Jones notes:
‘Pythagoras’ theorem cane be stated in 24 words. The Lord’s Prayer
in traditional English form has only 70 words… the Ten Commandments can
be listed using 179 words… [but] The Constitution, Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church requires no less than 225,966 words – to tell us what?’”
Observing that “Methodism has experienced a relatively recent
collapse in its theological confidence” (p. 130) – a crisis he relates,
in part, to the “mixed fortune” of contemporary hymnody and the decline
of “the Methodist monopoly of ’singing theology’” (p. 130) – Percy
suggests that, returning to its roots, it may be as “a movement rather than a church” that “the spirit of Methodism” (p. 131) might best be conveyed in the future.
Some of this is precisely the kind of point I have been trying to make lately. Methodism did begin as ‘an intra-church movement’. We never have built a proper ecclesiology (exactly one of Percy’s later criticisms of charismatic Christianity). We have translated an intra-church movement into a church, and got ourselves roundly confused. So often I hear it from Christians outside Methodism that they find our ecclesiological approach baffling, isn’t it time we listened?
Having said that, can Percy be serious if he associates Methodism’s loss of theological confidence with the use of contemporary hymnody? He is right about Methodists singing their theology, but how many who do so are devoted in mind and soul to the theology Wesley wrote? It had long become a cultural thing – an association with styles of poetry and music. Contemporary hymnody (and yes, much of it is theologically superficial) rode in on the back of that, often appealing to those who were culturally alienated by the dense lyricism of Wesley and the nineteenth-century hymns with SATB music in an age of solo vocals.
The bureaucratisation is bang on, though. Ordained friends from other denominations who have worked ecumenically with Methodists all attest to the fact that we are the most bureaucratic denomination (he says, in the middle of the annual October count). We suffer death by a thousand cuts of Standing Orders. About fifteen years ago, when Ronald Hoar was President of the Conference, he called for a simplification of our structures. Some of that has happened, but nothing like enough. I know I shall sit with my copy of CPD before me at a Church Council tomorrow night. It takes on more importance than Scripture. No wonder I – like thousands of others – have been attracted to the cell church movement, which has certain similarities with the Wesleyan version of the Evangelical Revival.
Yes, the cell church movement has recaptured something of the spirit of what Percy calls the Methodist movement. Might we be more profitable seeking a revival of the movement more than of the denomination?