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Methodism at work

12 September 2014

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IT IS part of the Church in England; but could never be the Church of England. This judgement on the state of Methodism and its relationship to the Establishment came at the end of a typically acerbic critique by Quentin Letts: What's the Point of . . . The Methodists? (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week).

And the point of the Methodists is . . . that they played a formative part in the trade-union and Labour movements; that their stance on self-determination has inspired everyone from the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Margaret Thatcher; and that they do not like booze or gambling - much.

Nothing on doctrine or liturgical practice; but that is not what Letts is about. For What's the Point of . . . ? is a strand which gives full rein to the presenter's ego and prodigious talent for offhand jibes. To the policy adviser who reminded us that the Methodists had stood up against deregulation of gambling, he retorted: "It's a shame the country didn't notice." The Church of England is "moist", and full of "snoots". All of this makes for a kind of clubbable entertainment; so long as you are content to join the club, and titter with its host. But, if you are not, then I imagine the effect is infuriating.

Especially when behind the supercilious patter is a story of vertiginous decline, the Church having lost a third of its membership in the past ten years. The cross-party Methodist group in Parliament now relies on some C of E members for the numbers required (20) to have it officially recognised.

We might have heard more about initiatives such as the New Song Network, in Warrington; and about what this movement regards as core Methodist values. But that all sounds rather serious for a show of this intellectual flippancy.

The accusation of flippancy is not something that could ever be levelled at BBC Wales's Drama on 3 production August 1914 (Radio 3, Sunday); a two-hour adaption of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's historical novel, first published in 1971, but released in its uncensored version only in 1984. In its treatment of the disastrous opening of the Russian campaign against Germany, it has all the sweep, dramatic range, and domestic detail that one could hope for in a Russian novel; yet also is driven by that sense of outrage that continues to energise our reading of the Great War.

On one level, the book, like this adaptation, is complex. Yet, fundamentally, it is about a single campaign; and war is war. The skill of this production was to maintain our interest as familiar stories of bungling generals and vast loss of life were incessantly repeated.

Having Fiona Shaw as narrator helped - her voice captivates the listener through any amount of gunfire. The story of Lenin and his response to the news of Russian losses marked out useful staging-posts along the way. And remarkable scenes of calm and lucidity, such as the suicide of General Samsonov, enabled the listener to follow some of the more important character arcs in a way that can so often be obscured.

Like the campaign itself, this was a brave and ambitious undertaking - but, unlike the campaign, with terrific results.

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