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When tensions ceased to be creative: Colin Podmore reads an account of
the rise and decline of the Methodist Church
METHODISM, David Hempton reminds us, was essentially a sub-species of
Anglicanism that had a greater capacity to adapt to changing conditions. It
flourished where Anglican churches were struggling, but not in Roman Catholic
or Calvinist areas.
It readily expanded westwards with the United States, and was spread by a
mobile laity (settlers, traders, soldiers — and Cornish miners) throughout the
British colonial and American commercial empires, becoming a parallel empire of
Early missionaries were not pioneers, but served the Churches thus formed.
By the 1850s, Methodism was the largest American denomination, accounting for a
third of US churches; and by the 1880s there were Methodists in most countries.
British membership peaked at 841,462 in 1930, but fell to 424,5400 in 1990
(and 293,661 in 2004). US membership peaked at 10.6 million in 1970.
Hempton, a leading historian of Methodism, analyses key themes in its "rise
and fall"(growth, consolidation, decline). Examining British and American
Methodism together reveals both commonalities and illuminating differences.
Hempton distils arguments and evidence from the latest scholarship, and
presents them lucidly within a coherent framework. Those who already know the
story will welcome the thematic approach, and only occasionally is more
knowledge of that story assumed than some readers may possess.
Methodism was a movement, propagated from below, of people (predominantly
women, but with male leaders) who claimed a particular religious experience and
expressed it in song. But enthusiasm was tempered by rigid discipline, while
individualism and popular voluntarism struggled with a particularly centralised
and authoritarian ecclesiology.
The tensions may initially have been creative, but later they proved
problematic. Disputes over governance reflected political and economic conflict
in wider society. The resulting mid-19th-century schisms left English Methodism
The reasons for its rapid growth which Hempton identifies prompt reflection
on the causes of decline. A largely celibate itinerant ministry was cheap and
flexible; the married ministers who followed were more expensive and less
Methodism was good at establishing new congregations for mobile populations
(except, importantly, in mega-cities), but it "is not thriving in older, more
stable populations". "For Methodism to thrive it requires energy, change,
mobility, and flux," he writes; but it became restricted by "embourgeoisement
Symbiosis and assimilation are key themes: "Methodism’s theology shaped and
was shaped by its environment," he writes. Methodists began as outsiders, but
through work, discipline and education "moved to the cultural center". American
Methodism first renounced slavery, then accommodated it. By the 1860s,
Methodist and American values had fused; late-19th-century American Methodist
missionaries sought to export not just Protestantism, but also "American
civilisation", which they believed to enjoy divine sanction.
Methodism’s relationship with its context (the age of enlightenment,
voluntary associations, free markets, and democratic forces) prompts Hempton to
ask whether it was well adapted to a particular historical moment but
"incapable of sustaining momentum when the culture moved on". In its first 150
years, Methodism answered the needs of many; and much would not be the same had
Methodism never existed (not least in the southern hemisphere, where
Pentecostalism continues Methodism’s energy and mobility).
None the less, the changed context poses for Methodism the question all
Churches should ask themselves — if it did not exist, would it now be necessary
to invent it? If so, why?
Dr Podmore is the Secretary of the House of Clergy, the Dioceses
Commission, and the Liturgical Commission.
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