Is The Methodist Church About To Die?

The Methoblogosphere (at least here in the UK) is buzzing after David Gamble and Richard Vautrey, the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, addressed the Church of England General Synod yesterday and declared that Methodism was ready to die if it furthered the mission of God. They challenged the C of E to consider whether they would say the same. Good sources on this story come from Ekklesia, the President and Vice-President’s blog, Dave Warnock and various posts by Pete Phillips. Less kudos for Ruth Gledhill’s blogs in the Times, I’m afraid.

Here are a few thoughts that have been going through my mind.

The critical point is we should be willing to die for the sake of mission. Amen to that. Would that every Methodist signed up to that. ‘Unless a grain of wheat …’ etc. David Gamble said:

We are prepared to go out of existence not because we  are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission.

Indeed. However, the problem is we might cease to exist without making the choice freely because in many places we are failing in mission. The ‘mission first’ theme (as Dave Warnock calls it) has to be top priority. And not so we can save our chapels so they continue to exist; rather, because people need the love of God in Christ.

On the mission theme I found one of the most telling quotes to come from Ken Howcroft, the Assistant Secretary of Conference and Ecumenical Officer (in one of Pete’s blogs linked above):

Methodism began as a discipleship movement within the wider church, a society of people seeking holiness and engaging in mission. It’s calling was expressed as “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land”. The modern expression of that is the programme Our Calling. We have over time gradually become a church.  We cherish our traditions and history as a church. We cherish our institutions and structures. But we still have the DNA of a  movement.

Exactly. It is my understanding as one whose postgrad research was in ecclesiology that so much of Methodism is still structured like a para-church movement rather than a church. The circuit system is the most obvious example. It was created by Wesley as a way of getting preachers to go round servicing the midweek renewal groups that he established during the eighteenth century revival, but those groups were meant to worship at the parish church on Sundays. We translated that structure into a denomination, where preachers still move – but from congregation to congregation – and not midweek but on Sundays. (For anyone who wants to explore more of this academically, the late missiologist Ralph Winter wrote about it using the terms ‘modalities’ and ‘sodalities‘.)

I don’t accept the way in which the Anglo-Catholics argue we aren’t truly a church (bishops, the ‘historic succession’ and all that nonsense), but there is a real argument that we never stopped being structured as a renewal movement. The problem is, that isn’t how we’re viewed on the ground. Our members see us as a church; the world sees us as a church. And of course the church should be about mission. However, we have imported into our renewal structures other aspects that come direct from the Christendom centuries of the church (notably ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care) that bias us in a direction of being concerned for internal matters first. I applaud what David Gamble has said enthusiastically, for all my reservations about union with the Church of England (I don’t believe in a threefold order of ministry, I think what is claimed for the historic succession is bunk and is also pastorally damaging, I don’t believe in an established church). However, we have a lot to do to convince our people that he is working from the correct premises (which I think he is).

And then there is his challenge to the Church of England. Well said! I hope it will be heard and taken seriously. The difficulty comes in the fact that they are the majority party and this could be taken as Methodism going into submissive mode – ‘OK, we’ll accept your terms’. (Not that the President meant that for a moment!) Like it or not, power comes into these discussions. It was there from 1946, when Archbishop Fisher invited the Free Churches to ‘take episcopacy into their system‘. In other words, unity is on our terms, folks. It’s been explicit in Anglican unity thinking since the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886 to 1888. There was provision for episcopacy to be ‘locally adapted’, but episcopacy was still a non-negotiable.

Furthermore, we should never lose sight of the dangers of organic union. If we delude ourselves that a formal union is a great witness, we should think again. Did Jesus have merely institutional unity in mind when he prayed for the unity of his disciples, as recorded in John 17? Of course not! As the current debate underlines, it was about mission. But it isn’t simply that an institutional union provides credibility to the world: rather, mission is a spiritual activity, and must be empowered spiritually. There are too many examples littering our globe of organic unions and plummeting membership. Therefore this welcome debate has to be fuelled by a powerful renewal in the Holy Spirit or the fruits will not match the fine aspirations.

Come, Holy Spirit.


  1. Dave,

    Good post. I share your reservations about union – but if it can be shown that it will enable mission I would move past those even if reluctantly (especially established – ugh!).

    Still so far as I can see it union is still held up by the CoE (women bishops & recognition of Methodist ordination) and Methodist (lack of Bishops). I have some hope from the more recent papers on Bishops that we might be able to model a much better example of Bishop but am not convinced the Methodist people will be persuaded to accept them.


    1. Yes indeed, Dave. I’m not opposed to union per se, like the Voice Of Methodism Association, but I want to temper all the naïve assumptions that formal union is a panacea for our ills. If such a union were structured for union and focussed on spirituality, that would substantially meet my reservations.


  2. Organic union was attempted twice, and failed twice, in 1969 and 1983. The 1983 Covenant was in my view the best scheme that was possible – it allowed for local congregations and indeed denomination traditions to continue, while bringing everything together under local/regional ‘colleges of bishops’ – like a joint circuit superintendency, but with Methodist, URC, and Anglican bishops. The vote failed, essentially because of an unholy alliance in the House of Clergy between the Anglo-Catholics and the Evangelicals to resist ‘women priests by the backdoor’.

    However, even if the vote had succeeded, it is likely we wold have swapped one set of divisions for another. C K Barrett argued at the time that if the scheme had gone ahead, we would have replaced 3 denominations with 4 – instead of Methodists, Anglicans, and URCs, there would have been the United Church in the middle, surrounded by rump Methodists, Anglicans and URCs who seceded from the federating body. And the divisions between teh federating churches and the rump churches would probably have been deeper than the divisions between the historic churches.

    If we pursue ‘organic union’ now, it will be an unholy mess. Which bit of the Church of England will we be uniting with? How much of Methodism will we take with us? How many decades will it take to sort out the legalities? How many generations will it take for local congregations to adapt and reconcile? I know a village which had 2 chapels in the 1980s, which only united just before I took over in the 1990s – one was ex-Prim, one was ex-Wesleyan, and they’d regarded each other in mutual suspicion since Union in 1932. How long will it take the chapel and the parish church to work out a successful union?

    Sorry – this is just a distraction from the task of mission. And it’s not going to work because there is too much of both churches who don’t want it to work. A more constructive approach would be to seek what ‘visible unity’ could mean for different branches of the same family. Like getting on with the job together.


    1. Tony,

      Your story of the two village chapels in the 1980s reminds me of the summer circuit practice I did at a certain famous Methodist site in 1991, where the Prims still sat on one side of the chapel and the others (Wesleyans? Uniteds? Can’t remember) sat on the other side. The minister said to me, “They only make that scowl in this part of the country.” Heaven help us.


  3. Where co-operation works locally, let it work locally. But Methodism does have a very distinctive expression of faith from our Anglican colleagues.

    Let’s carry out our mission in our distinctive ways and among our distinctive constituencies.

    One size does not fit all.


    1. Thanks for that, David. You raise an important point when you say One size does not fit all, one that affects more than just ecumenical relations. To some extent, we have moved beyond that, haven’t we, given that there is far less of what John Drane would call The McDonaldization of the Church. And of course it’s now often easier to be at one with people of a similar theological persuasion in a different denomination than those of a different theology in the same denomination.


  4. Dave, you have got it in two! When I speak to Anglicans fewer seem to know anything about the “Covenant” than does the average Methodist!

    But that doesn’t mean we should not work together where it is practical and possible. I’ve heard a number of stories about LEPs without anyone from one of the partner churches actually remaining in membership. Like a bad marriage – it is just a piece of paper.


    1. Or the old jibe about organic union that a union of two corpses doesn’t make a marriage …

      I have a great affection for the Church of England, having studied for my first Theology degree at an evangelical Anglican college, and worked now in three Anglican-Methodist LEPs. However, the consistent pain of being a Methodist minister in those LEPs is to know you can only ever be the junior partner, due to the official refusal to recognise our ordination. (Which wasn’t the attitude of my Anglican colleagues on the ground, I must stress.) I would like to think that the Covenant might have sorted that one out, but so far after six-plus years of it, I see little chance.


  5. David

    Your reflections on the specific Angilcan/Methodist relationship raises the wide risssues of what we hope for from the sense of co operation between denominations. So much more embedded now than when I was a boy. My perspective is varied. My mother’s family were Weslyan – not Primitive – Methodists. Mum still worships in the (now) Baptist Church her Methodist parents helped found in the mid 1930s before returning to their Methodists roots in the 1950s. My younger brother is a Baptist Minister. I have adopted, or is it been adopted by, the CoE which my wife’s family grew up in, in which I now minister as a Reader. And one of her CoE cousins is now married to a Methodist minister up County from us.

    As part of our local Churches Together pulpit swap in January, I was privileged to take the service in our nearby Methodist Church. I explored what it meant to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic and the implications for witness.

    It is worth noting that in Galations 1 v2 and 1 Thes 2 v14, Paul adresses the churches not church. I ask myself if this suggests he recognised that in a large town there may be many local congregations, o doubt with differing characteristics. However he must have presumed a fundemental unity of purpose and mission, holding fast to the faith (Jude v3 the real meaning of Apostolic Succession?) and fulfilling the Great Commission.

    I ask myself if this implies that organic/organisational unity is not actually the priority. Rather we need to learn to be comfortable with each other, hnour each other’s distinctives, and encourage each other to be robust in the fundementals of faith and mission. Agreeing what those are might be a challenge! From that perspctive I am far from sure that an effective disappearance of Methodism within the CoE monolith would be desirable or honouring to our Lord.

    So while a full unity between Angican and Methodist might be possible, I am not a present convinced that this is something we must race towards. We both have our distinctives, and both may find we should change long cherished practices. Personally I am less wedded to the episcopacy than many of my cohorts. I don’t see that Scripture lays down one valid approach to church government and management – it does give us principles of leadership. Episcopacy is one approach which has emerged from Scripture and tradition. The congregational model of, say, the Baptists seems equally Apostolic as does the Presbyterian approach (see the website of the Free Presbyterians of Scotland for an admittedly very robust exposition of that). The Methodist position of Circuits, Districts, Conference, seems to have some similarities with Presbyterianism. So to me the Episcopacy is the structure and authority within which I minister – not an end in itself or a specific sign of genuineness.

    sorry this rambles a bit. My ideas are ill formed and loosely held. I am appreciation seeing how others react. What I note is how much God has been doing in my own town in recent years. This is the result of the Church is increasingly working as One, and concentrating on that rather than pursuing goals of organisational union.


    1. Don’t do yourself down. Colin! I think your point about forms of church government is important. There is no single model, and indeed Derek Tidball’s fine book ‘Ministry by the Book’ suggests that every single NT book has a different model! We all need to accept this relativising and pursue appropriate unity in diversity.


  6. I agree, Colin – there is no single scriptural pattern of church government or organisation. However, the Anglicans insist that the historic episcopate IS scriptural, and will not accept any order of ministry which doesn’t include it. Period. So if we’re to become institutionally involved with the Anglicans, that bit has to be on their terms.

    I also agree that organic union isn’t primarily God’s will, either. The difficulty is in finding the best way for churches to act together in mission. Yes, we could just get on with the job, evangelise and reach out together, ignore the differences, and offer the Gospel – but in many places we have a duplication of buildings which is cripplingly costly, and it would be very useful to be able to combine our resources. The only way to do that is legally – which means either organic union, or lots and lots of LEPs. Either way, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare.

    It would be nice to just dump the lot, give the government the problem of dealing with all these historic piles, but that really isn’t a legal option. It would be nice to walk away from the mess, and start again with a clean slate, but that is really not possible. Groan.

    I don’t have any answers. Apart from getting on with the job, and hoping for the Parousia to short-circuit the bureaucracy!


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