Change or Die?

Troubleshooter and former chairman if ICI, Sir John Harvey-Jones, once wrote, "Unless a company is progressing the whole time, it is, in fact, moving backwards. It is quite impossible to maintain the status quo, or a steady-state position". Those words challenge me to consider the state of the Church in general and the Methodist Church, in particular. I conclude that there are some vital options for the Methodist Church at local and national level. We are faced with two sets of two choices, at national levela and at local level.

At National Level.    We must choose whether Methodism tries to remain a Large Church or become a Small Church.

To remain a Large Church, implies that we have been one! This may, or may not be true. It is my perception that for most of the last century at national level, the Methodist Church has adopted a "me too" policy in the nation's life. In the mid 19th century there emerged what became known as "The Non-Conformist Conscience", at the peak of attendance in the various Methodist Churches, along with the Congregational and Baptist churches. Their Christian faith inspired liberal and radical social and political thinking only they could achieve. The 19th century Church of England was still so closely wedded to the establishment in every way and could not consider such activity; the Roman Catholic Church was still emerging from a newly-found legal entitlement to exist and was (rightly) preoccupied with serving the burgeoning population of poor and migrant workers from a Roman Catholic background.

The emergence of the Free Church Federal Council and the reunion of most strands of Methodism at Methodist Union followed. This left the newly-created connexion with two not- quite-compatible positions. They could demonstrate a preeminence among the Free Churches, with some 700,000 members and almost twice as many adherents, children and others less-closely affiliated, giving a Methodist "population" around two million. Thus, they were "a big church". Or, they could seek closer ties with the Anglican Church, as some had desired well before reunion. In effect they would be one big church searching for acceptance and fellowship (even union) with another. This uncomfortable bilateral approach continues. At national level, we have, until quite recently sought to resource every possible avenue of church thinking and action, usually duplicating in large measure that done by all the other major mainstream denominations. Additionally, The Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland and the now 150-year-old Evangelical Alliance have both become prominent in British society and politics in more recent years.

Remaining A Large Church?

The logic of seeking to be a Large Church demands a twofold response:-

  1. That we must seek to maintain our prominent and influential official position at national level as a first priority - even at the expense of local churches and their resources.
  2. If we wish to remain a Large Church, we must be prepared to respond to every event in national life, additionally resourcing adequately agencies which can take initiatives at national level.

Becoming a Small Church?

To become a Small Church would imply that the national organisation exists primarily to promote the advance of the denominational cause at the local level. This has two consequences:-

  1. It may mean sacrificing national influence and involvement directly, leaving that to motivated individuals inside or outside the national organisation.
  2. The national organisation would become primarily proactive, seeking, taking, supporting and offering opportunities which local churches may take up or not as they find appropriate in their setting.

We must choose whether Methodism tries to remain a Large Church or become a Small Church. We must decide between maintaining the status quo and becoming a missionary movement again...

At Local Level we must also make a choice - Whether to become More Congregational or More Connexional.

This will be the subject of part 2...

You can download this article in Word 6.0 (2x2part1.doc) or RTF (2x2part1.rtf) formats...

David Miller