LEADINF ARTICLE : The end of civic Christianity

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The Independent Online
The Methodists have gone public with a gloomy picture of their future. Without revivalist fervour of a kind the church has not seen in a century - which would take divine intercession - the Methodist church will die off. It's not alone. The fall in the numbers of Methodists is reflected across the established churches. Protestantism in Britain has reached its end game.

The consequences go wider than the fate of one denomination. A pillar of British identity is crumbling. Methodism's tradition of outward-going, practical-minded faith has been a vital source of our political values and social ideals. How will the springs of civic action and social concern be replenished once Methodism is no more?

For the Methodists, as for the Baptists and the United Reformed Church, the figures are grim. Methodism recruited 19, 071 new members in the past three years, but lost 22,460. More worrying, however, 30,813 members died. The number of Methodists under 26 has shrunk by one-fifth. Churches are closing at the rate of almost two a week. Church demography is not much better for the Anglicans or the Roman Catholics, either. Attendance at Sunday worship in Anglican churches is broadly stable at about 1.1 million. However the state church's age structure is similar to that of the other denominations: Christian worship and church membership are old people's activities. Some children come to Sunday school, but once they hit their teens they drop away and never return.

Push the curve of membership forward into the next century and the mainstream Christian church - the denominations with hierarchies and centralised structures - effectively come to an end. In contrast, the decentralised, theologically promiscuous fringe churches, often lumped together as "fundamentalist" show signs of vitality. But few of them show the wide, generous engagement with politics and society that, at its best, characterised Methodism.

What the Methodist meltdown symbolises is the end of civic Christianity. Years before there were Victorian values, John Wesley took his movement across industrialising Britain, establishing a personal faith linked to social purpose. Methodism, in a sense, helped provide the industrialised modern world a sense of spirituality and moral purpose. No wonder the historical cliche behind the rise of the Labour Party has been that it owed more to Methodism than Marx.

This is the broad tradition of Christian socialism into which Tony Blair has been trying to tap as he fashions new Labour. His problem is that this tradition no longer has much of a social basis. Mrs Thatcher could appeal to a new generation of gung-ho entrepreneurs to carry forward her revolution. Mr Blair faces an uphill struggle to find an equivalent constituency to be the bearers of his values. Methodism helped to provide the industrialised modern world with a sense of spirituality and moral purpose. There is no latter-day equivalent as Britain's moves into the world of the infotainment global economy. A values gap yawns before us.