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Fellowship with a lasting influence

06 September 2013

Bernard Palmer on a body that changed Methodism while avoiding conflict

Conviction: Neville Ward, who reviewed devotional books for theChurch Times, photo­graphed in 1974

Conviction: Neville Ward, who reviewed devotional books for theChurch Times, photo­graphed in 1974

The Gospel Church Secure: The official history of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship
Norman Wallwork
Church in the Market Place Publications, £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90  (Use code CT403 )

THE Methodist Sacramental Fellowship (MSF) got off to a shaky start. Indeed, it was very nearly strangled at birth, in that its president-designate, Theophilus Gregory (a member of a family dynasty that produced no fewer than 14 Wesleyan ministers), suddenly decided to join the Church of Rome. Luckily, there was a potential successor waiting in the wings: Alfred Whitham, who was described by Sir Henry Lunn as something of a "troubadour", and as "one of the most seriously religious persons I have ever met".

It was Witham who presided at a meeting held in Westminster on 27 April 1935 at which the launch of the MSF was approved. Those present agreed to remain loyal to Methodism, but also to re-emphasise supernatural religion, and to cultivate a disciplined devotional life. The meeting focused on the centrality of holy communion, and the need to hasten reunion with the Church of England and other Christian bodies.

In its early years, the MSF encountered a fair amount of opposition, led by the Protestant Truth Society. In various ways it was considered retrograde, and its emphasis on the eucharist regrettable. Owing chiefly to Witham's skill as a negotiator, however, the opposition was neatly deflected from the floor of the Methodist Conference to the calmer waters of a committee of enquiry. And when the committee finally delivered its report, the 1938 Conference was advised to "receive" but not "adopt" it - thereby wisely declining to express an opinion on even the mildest rebukes and recommendations of the committee.

So the Fellowship's potential to create divisions within Methodism was successfully averted.

Norman Wallwork is a former Chairman of the MSF; and reading this expert and workmanlike account of the 78-year-old body is almost like reading a potted history of Methodism - though more space is necessarily devoted to MSF high-spots, such as annual conferences and jubilee celebrations, than, say, to ecumenical topics such as the Anglican-Methodist reunion scheme.

Much space is also given to notable Methodist personalities, some of whom (such as Donald Soper and Gordon Wakefield) are already well known to a wide Christian circle. Of particular interest to Church Times readers will be Wallwork's graceful tribute to Neville Ward (photo below), a significant writer on spiritual subjects who preached a sacramental Christianity with intense conviction - and who contributed regular reviews of devotional books to the Church Times for many years during my editorship.

The MSF's aims and objects have been reframed several times since 1935. Members commit themselves to disciplined lives of prayer, study, and worship; to receive holy communion regularly; to support the local church to which they belong; and to promote by prayer and action the cause of Christian unity. It is essentially a fellowship rather than a campaigning organisation - which makes its story a less exciting, but undoubtedly edifying chapter of Methodist history.

Many of its core aims have now become formally embedded in Methodism as a whole. Most significantly, as David Walton points out in his foreword, holy communion is now an integral part of the Sunday service instead of being tacked on to the end of a preaching session.

Although Wallwork's book is obviously aimed primarily at Methodists, it is likely to be of interest to any Anglican wanting to learn more about Methodism. Its only weakness, in my view, is the author's seemingly obsessive addiction to the use of the exclamation mark. But it's a very minor weakness!

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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