Sophie Morris: Methodists are giving up the fight

The church of my childhood is too willing to abandon its path

Monday 15 February 2010 01:00

I grew up attending the local Methodist church, following the faith of my maternal grandmother. My friends find this hilarious – abstinence is no longer my strong point – but from toddlerhood until my early teens, Sundays meant Methodist Sunday School: hearty bouts of "Jesus Ladder Ladder", marvelling at Jesus's power to turn water into wine, and regular cress-planting sessions.

Occasional forays into "big church", with its cold wooden pews and dragging hymns, were only saved by the minister's eagerness to engage us with energetic Bible teachings, illustrated with drawings on a long roll of paper, which he dropped from the pulpit scene by scene.

I've rarely been back to church since I ducked out of attendance at 12 or 13, save for weddings, christenings and funerals. The death of my great uncle prompted one such visit last month, and with it the chance to look around the spartan hall of worship where my grandma had also been laid to rest. The pulpit had been replaced with a lectern and there was a new door. Otherwise little appeared to have changed.

For Methodism itself, though, big changes are afoot. At a powwow with the Church of England last week, the head of the Method-ists said he would be happy for his church to be swallowed into the larger one. "We are prepared to go out of existence, not because we are declining or failing in mission [though at 265,000 members they're not exactly at capacity] but for the sake of mission."

I'm not sure what "for the sake of mission" means, but the CofE clearly has more cash and a greater reach. Yet Methodists started off preaching on the road and in front rooms. Do they need a wealthy godparent to continue such a mission?

Few were able to attend my uncle's funeral service. Apart from the fact that, at 95, he had outlived most of his contemporaries, the pavements outside were coated in black ice. At the lunch afterwards, I struggled to make small talk with the minister. When I asked about his current congregation, he said that most, like my uncle, my aunt who survives him, and my grandma, were elderly. There was no way to attract the young, he said.

Accepting that a good number of your congregation are dying, or well on their way, is one thing. Does the church have to try and beat them to it? Can't they go out looking for new recruits? Isn't that what Jesus did? Isn't the point of being a minister, preacher, Christian, convert, whatever, to shout it from the rooftops?

This willingness to abandon one's path for the sake of popularity reminds me of the politicised nature of organised religion that turned me off it in the first place. That and Methodism's dour and joyless approach to worship. Agreed, it doesn't hold quite the same reformatory draw it did during the Industrial Revolution and the first half of the 20th century, when it strove to keep the poor working class – my grandma and her family and ancestors – out of the pub and inside the mill.

But if one of Methodism's social aims was to save Britain from poverty and alcoholism, we can hardly say that its work is done. Maybe the Methodist Church should focus on attracting (and holding on to) new followers before it rolls over for a belly tickle from Rowan Williams.

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