Spirit of the Age: Book launch with a difference

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THERE WERE only 26 people in the room, but no one could accuse the Methodists of not trying. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in an echoing Victorian church of rust-red brick in Gloucester. Those present were hard-core enthusiasts who had driven as much as four hours - from Dorking, Ilfracombe, Salisbury and Weston-Super-Mare - to be there for this historic occasion.

We were trying out the new Methodist Worship Book, only the third since John Wesley revised Cranmer's 1662 Book of Common Prayer in 1784 and his followers broke away from the Church of England and began the great Non-Conformist awakening of the 18th and 19th centuries in the industrial parishes and rural fastnesses where the old Anglican order was failing.

Methodism could do with another revival. Today if you visit many of its churches you will find the pews are fuller than you might expect, but their occupants are of an age which means the seats will be empty in 20 or 30 years time. If the Church of England is, as George Carey is fond of saying, only a generation away from extinction, then Methodism seems perilously closer.

All the more surprising, then, that a staggering third of all registered Methodists (they have a million regular church-goers of whom 380,000 are signed-up members) have bought a copy of the new book, which will be used officially for the first time throughout the land on Easter Sunday; and particularly so since all that they will have heard about it from the newspapers is that it is a dangerously trendy document which, for the first time, addresses God as Mother.

The folk in Gloucester have travelled not simply to get a sneak preview of the services. In between the morning Eucharist and evening prayer they get to meet, over a shared indoor picnic lunch, the Rev Norman Wallwork, one of the committee of 15 who have spent the past eight years compiling the book.

Norman is something of a legendary character in Methodist circles. He is a Friar Tuck of a man: of considerable girth, with a twinkling eye, a booming chuckling voice and a prelate's bald pate surrounded by soft white curls. He is clever but wears his erudition lightly and deploys his ready humour on the engagingly dry side. He must have cut an odd figure on BBC1's The Vanessa Show, where he appeared to defend the notion of Mother God.

"It seemed after eight years work the book was going to be known for just two words," he said, loading the church-hall table with a cornucopia of home-baked provisions from his parish's bring-and-buy. "And there is only one reference to God as Mother compared with 424 to God the Father."

In fact there is more to it than that. Inclusive language is normative in the book and some eucharistic prayers have been purged of all references not just to "Father" but also to "Almighty". "Almighty is a bossy masculine assertive image," he says between mouthfuls of quiche, "so we don't always want that, not that there aren't plenty of bossy masculine assertive women around in the Church. But we want to say, with Julian of Norwich, `as surely as God is our Father so surely he is our Mother'."

Yet if inclusivity is a throwback to the more mystical theology of the early Church, other parts of the book are unashamedly innovative (within bounds: the committee slipped into the wastebin prayers which began "Troubadour God" and "Invisible God, we see you").

Part of that novelty is splendidly practical; it has been designed so that each service is self-contained and requires no unnecessary page- turning. Part of it is about sensitivity to sociological change; there is a ceremony for the burial of ashes, a funeral for a still-born child and prayers in which there is no word that cannot be signed for the deaf. The innovation that brides may be "presented" rather than "given away" simply reflects the reality that 62 per cent of Methodist weddings are second marriages.

But there was something else. When we trooped into the church, with its herring-boned oak roof and geometric stained glass, for one of the new communion services, I couldn't help but think it was terribly, well, Anglican. It was there in the book, too; in the Latin and candles, the ashes at the start of Lent, the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday and the kindling of fire at the Easter Vigil. And the prayer of eucharistic consecration had been worded so as to allow the listener to believe whatever he or she wants on transubstantiation, consubstantiation or mere symbolism. Whatever happened to the Reformation, I wondered.

No, said Norman, there had always been Catholic corpuscles in Methodism. Wesley had never wanted to leave the Church of England (the split happened after his death). The Method he advocated - of daily bible study and weekly visits to hospitals and prisons also included a weekly Eucharist.

"If there's overlap it is just the product of the common mind of the times. Methodist scholars dialogue regularly with their Anglican, Roman and Orthodox counterparts," he said. But it was hard to escape the conclusion that the new book is aimed at smoothing the path to reunification with the C of E, which has been agreed in principle but foundered in practice in 1969, 1972 and 1982.

But what about long-standing Methodist traditions, such as great preaching services and free-form extemporary prayer? "We've left room for all that. The book is a guide and a resource rather than an instruction manual," said Norman. "We're trying to cater for everyone. We've even," he added mischievously, "put some bits of Cranmer back to be used in homes for the elderly and bewildered." Don't laugh. It will come to us all.