‘Sweetly may we all agree’?

By this stage in our year of Methodist anniversaries readers of this magazine may be heartily sick of Methodist history and heritage: out of breath from countless Charles Wesley sing-a-longs and rheumatic from the Primitive Methodist bicentenary celebrations on a wind-and rain swept Mow Cop. There is one element of the story still to be told, though, because the union of 1932 brought together not two but three Methodist denominations, and the smallest of the partners of 1932, the United Methodist Church, was itself a federation of other groups.

The United Methodist Church was only twenty five years old in 1932 (so the mathematically astute will realise that we are also marking its centenary this year). It represented three quite distinct older traditions, the Methodist New Connexion, the Bible Christians and the United Methodist Free Churches.

The New Connexion began in 1797, with a small group of ministers and lay people who wanted a greater say for the laity in the government of the church. Their leading spokesman, Alexander Kilham, had been expelled by the Conference in 1796. It remained a small body, only reaching a membership of 40,000 by 1907. Its strength lay in northern manufacturing towns and its affinities were towards the Wesleyans.

The Bible Christians, on the other hand, resembled the Primitive Methodists in style and evangelistic fervour, if not in numbers. Founded in the West Country in 1815 by the revivalist William O’Bryan, a former Wesleyan Local Preacher whose freelance evangelism proved too independent for the old Connexion, the Bible Christians were strong in Devon and Cornwall and in the Channel Islands, Kent and along the South Coast .They also established outposts in the North East of England through migration. Lacking the industrial wealth of the New Connexion, the Bible Christians brought about 32,000 members into the 1907 union.

The United Methodist Free Churches were constituted in 1857 after thirty years of wrangling within Wesleyan Methodism. This was a time of tremendous numerical growth, but cutting a long and sad story short, a series of conflicts between central control and local autonomy, made worse by personality clashes and power struggles, brought about many secessions and expulsions from the 1820s to the 1850s. A complicated process of negotiations drew several of these dissident groups together in the UMFC, a body which was jealous of the rights of lay people, local churches and circuits. This denomination contributed about 72,000 members to the United Methodist Church in 1907.

The story of the division and gradual reunion of Methodism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries raises interesting questions. For much of the twentieth century it has been axiomatic that denominational division is deplorable and that reunion is a good thing. Most of the Methodist divisions, however, occurred at times of growth and revival, and the reunions have coincided with catastrophic numerical decline! We may observe that boundless enthusiasm and zeal may make people intolerant of others, and there was certainly a feeling abroad in the 1830/40’s that those who dissented from the party line (of either side) were obstructing the work of God. It is always likely that people at the centre of the church’s organisation will have a different perspective from those in the localities, and it then becomes all too easy for a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality to develop: nineteenth century Reformers were sure that the Connexion was dominated by a ministerial clique which was self-serving and out of touch with ‘real’ Methodism, whereas the Connexional leadership, both lay and ordained, found the Reformers short-sighted, parochial, disloyal and sometimes plain spiteful. It is encouraging to note that through all the debates and divisions there was a strong sense of shared Methodist identity: somehow the ‘DNA’ came through, and this awareness of a Methodism greater than the particular denominations was one of the features inspiring the long quest for union, which began within a decade of the formation of the UMFC. Another salutary warning from history is that unions at national level took a very long time to have an impact on the grass roots of the Church. One argument for union was that it would remove competition between different Methodist churches in the same community enabling resources to be pooled for mission. The sad reality was that overlapping circuits continued for many years and rival chapels glowered at one another until forced to amalgamate by debt, death or dry rot. An intense loyalty to place, to ‘our chapel’ remains a reality for our circuit strategies, our mission and our ecumenical plans – one which we ignore at our peril.

As our year of Methodist anniversaries draws to its close, it is good to be reminded that there is more to the history and heritage of Methodism than the Wesleys – more even than the inspiring tradition of Primitive Methodism. United Methodism remains the Cinderella of historical scholarship, but it offers a rich quarry to be mined, enjoyed and used, and it raises pertinent questions for today.