The Gospel Church Secure: The official history of
the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship
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
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
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.