Strange death of Methodist England

The announcement by the President of the Methodist Conference, Rev David Gamble, that he would be pr

Methodism played an invaluable role in the development of Britain's political conscience, and was crucial to the growth of both the Liberal and the Labour parties in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I have recalled before (as have others) Harold Wilson's view that British socialism owed more to Methodism than to Karl Marx.

And the connection with the politics of the left still exists -- for instance, in the case of the veteran MP Sir Alan Beith, a former deputy leader of the old Liberal Party and of the Liberal Democrats, who is also a Methodist lay preacher.

But only just. For I'm afraid I don't quite believe Rev Gamble's explanation to the Anglican General Synod: "We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission."

The numbers speak for themselves. According to a Telegraph report, there are 265,000 Methodists in Great Britain today. But when I interviewed the then general secretary of the Methodist Church, Rev David Deeks, only five years ago, he told me there were 330,000 members. A generation ago, the figure was above a million.

The trajectory is clear. And Deeks was very frank and open about this when we spoke (the interview appeared in what older journalists would refer to as "another magazine").

"Just in the last three years," he said (this was 2005), "we have had a 30 per cent reduction in the numbers of children and young people attached to the Methodist Church. That is devastating."

He talked of a need to change, but admitted: "Whether we can deliver enough change quickly enough, I'm not sure about. To do it quickly enough when the situation is as urgent as it is, that is a more difficult question."

I do feel some sentimental attachment to the Methodists' history, remembered now only by people like my maternal grandmother. At 90, she still has, next to her piano, the Methodist hymnal she was given as a child. It is not just a matter of a faith passing away -- the theology, really, is incidental now. This is about the unnoticed disappearance of a great, and truly radical, British institution.

Just before my interview with Deeks ended, he said something I found terribly poignant, especially considering the calamitous ignorance so many Britons have of their own past. "I don't want to exaggerate," he said. "But we were something."

Yes, they were.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Meet the man forcing the Government to reveal its plans for Brexit

Grahame Pigney hopes to "peel away" the secrecy of negotiations. 

Not so long ago, the UK Government was blissfully unaware of Grahame Pigney, a British man living in semi-retirement, in France. But then came Brexit. 

Pigney, who had been campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, was devastated. But after a few days, he picked himself up and started monitoring the news. He was alarmed to discover the Government thought it could trigger Article 50 without the express permission of Parliament. 

He wasn’t alone. Gina Miller, an investor, was equally incensed and decided to take the Government to court. Pigney (pictured below) set up a crowdfunding campaign to support the case, The People’s Challenge. So far, the campaign has raised more than £100,000. 

This week, the campaign scored its first major victory, when a judge overruled the Government’s attempts to keep its legal defence secret. The case itself will be held in October. 

At a time when the minister for Brexit, David Davis, can only say it means “leaving the EU”, the defence sheds some light on the Government’s thinking. 

For example, it is clear that despite suggestions that Article 50 will be triggered in early 2017, the Government could be easily persuaded to shift the date: 

"The appropriate point at which to issue the notification under Article 50 is a matter of high, if not the highest, policy; a polycentric decision based upon a multitude of domestic and foreign policy and political concerns for which the expertise of Ministers and their officials are particularly well suited an the Courts ill-suited.”

It is also, despite Theresa May’s trips to Scotland, not a power that the Government is willing to share. In response to Pigney’s argument that triggering Article 50 without parliamentary approval impinges on Scotland’s separate body of law, it stated bluntly: “The conduct of foreign relations is a matter expressly reserved such that the devolved legislatures have no competence over it.”

Although Pigney is one of the millions of expats left in jeopardy by Brexit, he tells The Staggers he is not worried about his family. 

Instead, he says it is a matter of principle, because Parliament should be sovereign: “I am not a quitter.” 

While Davis argues he cannot reveal any information about Brexit negotiations without jeopardising them, Pigney thinks the Brexiteers simply “haven’t got anything”. 

A former union negotiator, he understands why Davis doesn’t want to reveal the details, but finds the idea of not even discussing the final goals is baffling: “When I was a union member, we wouldn’t tell them how everything was going but you did agree what the targets were that you were going for.”

He said: “The significance of what happened is we were able to peel away a layer of Government secrecy. One of the things that has characterised this Government is they want to keep everything secret.”