In a competitive world, it can seem unusually Christian of the Methodist Church to announce that it is dying; but dying, in an alarmingly literal sense, is what last week's membership figures mean. The church is losing members at a rate of 2.5 per cent a year; if these trends persist, it will have vanished altogether by the middle of the next century.
The problem for the church is not that its members are losing faith: the number who left over the past three years is only 2,000 greater than the number who joined. No, the members the Methodists are really missing will now find their faith is stronger than ever; unfortunately, that is because they are dead. More than 30,000 Methodists have died in the past three years, and their younger replacements are nowhere to be seen. Church membership under the age of 26 has fallen by a fifth in three years. It is possible to be precise about these figures because membership of the Methodists is by subscription. Their churches do not have the large, half- believing penumbra that surrounds Anglican or Roman Catholic membership figures.
Of course, the release of this week's figures was not meant as an invitation to other denominations to start stripping the remaining assets of Methodism. It was meant, in the words of one insider, "to give the church a fright", so that its members would do something about the problem. Extinction for the Methodists had been confidently prophesied in the Fifties and averted, so why should the threat be real this time?
The answer is a profoundly gloomy one, with implications for all the mainstream denominations in Britain. Methodism, it would appear, is dying out because it is boring. Unfortunately, it is no longer boring in ways that Methodists can be proud of. Boringness used to be one of the great strengths of Methodism. It started as a frighteningly exciting mass-movement of the poor and dispossessed, but, within a generation, the poor who became Methodists stopped being so poor. They became sober, industrious, trustworthy, and so, by degrees respectable, often with the fierce, self-righteous respectability of those who know that an abyss of poverty and shame lies close beneath them. It is a process that continues to this day as protestantism advances in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
In England, it produced a serious, instantly recognisable, deeply rooted class of meritocrats, excluded perhaps from the higher reaches of the establishment, but hugely important in the provinces. Mrs Thatcher was brought up a Methodist. The people some of us came to London to escape were Methodists.
In other words, they might be boring, but they mattered. Methodism had become the natural expression of the spiritual dimension of a distinct and recognisable class. What made it boring or repellent to some people was solidity, not vapidity. And the other large Christian denominations were also embedded in a recognisable matrix. Irish working-class Catholics or Anglican old maids cycling to communion down misty country lanes both represented religions tightly established in particular social and economic roles.
This was enormously important because religions only exceptionally spread by force of argument, or by conversion. Their most effective means of transmission is by osmosis. It is a great mistake of modern secular talk to assume that religions are primarily about belief, when they are actually about practice and ritual. You are not converted to a faith - you grow up in it, without noticing that this is happening.
So religions that established themselves and put down roots in particular parts of society are very vulnerable to social change. Whether "family values" are integral to Christianity (and Jesus himself said some fierce things against families), they are certainly helpful for its transmission. The precipitous decline of the Roman Catholic church in this country is largely a function of its conversion from a working-class religion to a middle-class one, with smaller, less stable families. However, Catholicism has a solid core of doctrine that makes it attractive to intellectual converts. Though there still are distinctive and shrewd Methodist intellectuals, it is not a system of thought. When Mrs Thatcher made the shift from attending a Methodist chapel to an Anglican church, this was a social move, not a doctrinal one.
One Anglican priest who, like Mrs Thatcher, was a Methodist until he arrived at Oxford, said that he had left because of "the frightful loquacious earnestness of Methodists. I suddenly realised it was possible to be a Christian without being earnest." This was hardly a doctrinal shift. However, it does suggest ways in which the virtues that act as ropes and pitons to hold you above the abyss of poverty and shame can come to seem cramping when the abyss recedes.
This is all part of a wider pattern. The United Reform Church, itself formed from a merger of smaller congregationalist bodies, is shrinking almost as fast as the Methodists, and hopes for salvation by union with them. The Methodists, in turn, seem to have no real long-term strategy beyond union with the Church of England - but that body, too, is facing similar problems and for similar reasons. In all these churches, there are success stories, but these are local, and decentralised. People do join, even if fewer join than leave and die; and techniques for attracting new members are being developed.
In America, of course, churches have gained strength from social disruption by becoming social centres themselves. Some churches are doing that in this country now. The most successful modern evangelical technique is the Alpha course, developed at Holy Trinity Brompton, an enormously rich Anglican church in central London, whose methods have been widely adopted elsewhere.
Alpha is a course for modern, mobile and rootless people. It is taken in groups over a 10-week period, and includes a residential weekend. To outsiders, it can look like brainwashing; it is certainly as much an introduction to belonging among Christians as it is to holding particular beliefs. But if the decline of Methodism lends itself to any moral, this is surely that churches are more vigorous when they are frightening than when boring.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies