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12 February 2010

Strange death of Methodist England

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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.

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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”).

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“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.