Is Methodism British Christianity’s MSN?

The once mighty denomination may disappear from the UK. Despite being a Methodist myself that doesn’t really bother me.

Obsolescence

A small but important step in the evolution of the internet recently passed into history. Microsoft has announced that MSN Messenger (or Windows Live Messenger as it was inexplicably rebranded in 2005) will be closed down.

This is rather predictable. MSN has seemed dated to the point of irrelevance for a while now. But it was once a mighty force in the online world with 300 million users at its peak. And in its heyday it was actually rather radical. More than any other product it popularised instant messaging. Lee Suckling explains that:

For a good part of the 2000s, MSN Messenger was every teenager’s social life. We’d race home from school every day and jump straight on the computer at 3pm, eager to instant message our friends about everything that’d happened that day. Importantly, no longer did we have to awkwardly phone the girls or boys we liked with the immortal fear their fathers would answer our calls; we could type away with them all night long, and parentals were none the wiser. MSN was a communal hub for friendship and teenage love that had no curfews, save for the fact it tied up the family landline with an incessant busy signal.

MSN Messenger allowed us to share our teenage thoughts with far less fear than we had in real life. It was a gauge for understanding who liked us, and who didn’t; made obvious by the anxiety that came with waiting for someone to come online, and to see their first response (sometimes it took minutes!) after an initial “Hey”. Let us not even get started on the tense feelings that came after receiving a “BRB” (be right back) from someone with whom you thought you were having an intense connection.

It was not to last. The arrival of broadband enabled the rise of services like Facebook and Skype. These then began integrating instant messaging into own offers and MSN suddenly became redundant.

Christianity’s version of MSN

Much the same thing has happened to British Methodism albeit over a much longer time.

It started out in the Eighteenth Century as an alternative to an aloof and opulent Church of England. It offered a paired back and invigorated form of Christianity that appealed to labouring classes in growing industrial cities. In Methodism authority rested with the people in the pews rather than Bishops. It allowed humble church members to preach. It actively engaged its congregations with innovations like new hymns and open air preaching. And it provided Methodists with support in the present as well as the hereafter: an emphasis was placed on helping each other and on abstaining from destructive habits like drinking and gambling. As a result it ballooned into a movement with millions of members which seemed to be a credible challenger to Anglicanism and contributed hugely to the emergence of social movements like the Trade Unions.

Those glory days are now emphatically behind it. It has lost a third of its members in just the past decade. Worse still, the age profile of the 200,000 or so people still regularly attending its services mean that without an influx of new worshippers its decline is likely to accelerate.

Though I am not aware of any research that pinpoints the reasons for this decline, I can hazard a guess: where once Methodism was radical it is now staid. Perhaps the most obvious example is its music. A denomination that still looks back fondly to the musical innovations of its founders paradoxically is still relying on the hymns they wrote in the 18th century. That’s a superficial criticism but it’s indicative of a broader problem.

Giving ultimate authority to in effect the volunteers who run a church remains a good idea. However, the way Methodism does it is cumbersome. It is organised not around congregations but local groupings known as “circuits.” This formality does not, however, change the reality that most churches have a distinct identity and are the level at which most worshipers interact with the denomination. Therefore, notwithstanding the existence of circuits, much formal and informal administration still has to be done at the level of an individual congregation. This means bureaucracy winds up absorbing more volunteer energy than it needs to. Worse, however, is that ministers find their efforts scattered across a whole circuit making it harder for them to build a rapport with their flocks. The most pernicious impact though is that it creates two sets of bureaucracy in which initiatives can get lost. It effectively winds up meaning that innovative churches have to get permission from their neighbouring congregations. So rather than having churches that successfully innovate thriving, it is too often a matter of pooled decline.

It is also worth noting that a church which was once defined in no small part by its assertive support for temperance now lacks any notable social or political stances. Whatever problems they may have we understand that belonging to the Salvation Army means reaching out to the disadvantaged, that being a Quaker means being a pacifist and that Catholicism is associated with the “traditional family.” By contrast, Methodism’s in-house once had a headline proclaiming “Methodist conference agrees to discuss abortion” and our response to the Equal Marriage consultation was borderline incomprehensible.

Death is not the end

I am not optimistic about the future of Methodism as an organisation. There’s a good chance it will fade into history. But the denomination I belong to bothers me less than you might imagine. What made Methodism such a powerful force was not its formal structures but its rejuvenating spirit. And that can be found outside of Methodism.

Many of the things which set the early Methodists apart – their ‘enthusiasm’, their lack of hierarchy, their engagement with disadvantaged groups – is more redolent of the currently booming Pentecostal churches than of present day Methodism.

And that shouldn’t surprise us. One cannot really expect to be a challenge to the church establishment indefinitely. At some point your challenge will either succeeded or failed. In the former case you yourself have become the establishment and are the subject to the temptations that inspired that movement in the first place. In the latter, well you’ve failed.

N.B: For the sake of clarity when I am talking about Methodism, I am basically talking about British Methodism

N.B.2: The source and the inspiration for this post is the Radio 4 program ‘What is the point of….Methodism?’

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