Hope for the Future
by Ron Abbott
The Methodist Revival Fellowship 1952-1987." was the title of The Wesley Historical Society Lecture for 2009 given by Rev. Dr. Martin Wellings, the Superintendent of the Oxford Circuit, on 27th June last year at Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford.
I am most grateful for Martin’s careful historical analysis of the M.R.F. He has used a variety of sources to give the wider church a balanced picture of a small but influential group within Methodism over the second half of the 20th Century. My own involvement has been almost from the beginning, as a layman, and as a committee member, secretary between 1970 and 1982, and editor of the magazine until the early 90’s. I became a member as an undergraduate in the spring of 1952 after a University Mission in Leicester led by Rev.The Hon Roland Lamb.
I appreciated the well-documented material which Martin provided for us in this lecture. A fairly long section of the lecture gives the background to the place of Christianity in England post Second World War, and the context which gave rise to the formation of the Revival Fellowship. I can also recall the enthusiasm with which we greeted the acceptance of the inclusion of the title "Methodist" at Conference in 1955.
Why did I join? Coming from a three generation Methodist background in the north of England and strong links with Cliff College, I felt from the beginning that this was a movement worth wholehearted support. From small beginnings the movement took shape. The commitment to a Biblical stance, to earnest prayer for revival and the affirmation of the Wesleyan teaching and experience of holiness, encouraged many Methodists to believe that things could change for the better in our church and that in God’s good time this would happen. Here was hope for the future. The support offered for Evangelicals was always there, through fellowships, larger gatherings at Swanwick and publications. Let me illustrate both the help and the hostility we faced. Sister Gladys Stephenson was a returned missionary from China and committee member. She wrote letters of encouragement to us and to many others. One of the many stories about her concerns her being challenged by a fellow Methodist with liberal leanings on a belief in the devil. "Not believe in the devil?" She retorted, "I’ve known him for so long I can’t possibly not believe!" Her bluff approach to hostility was an inspiration.
Where did many of the early members originate? In those days, strong support came from the North of England - both sides of the Pennines, the North East and the South West. Often membership came from small churches, many rural. Maybe this says something about how the Methodist church differs in various parts of the country, a point not developed by this lecture. There were a few larger churches that managed to maintain and support an evangelical minister from one term of service to another. The Connexional system did not help in those days. Indeed, as the lecture states, many newer Christians, having begun in Methodism, left for communities where their Christian outlook was more welcome.
Inevitably, as Martin points out, we were drawn into wider debates - over church unity, and later sexuality. This was where input from Conservative Evangelicals in Methodism (CEIM) was so valuable. Leadership came, officially and unofficially, from Rev. Dr. Donald English. His contribution to Methodism over these years was prodigious. As Martin points out, the charismatic movement was largely welcomed by MRF members and contributed much to the ethos and the fellowship for prayer and revival.
The lecture does refer to help for ministers, but no mention is made of work amongst young people. This was the vital work of one of the younger committee members. Nor does Martin mention the summer family camps, which began in the mid 1970’s, always held near to a village Methodist church and located in different parts of the countryside. These camps were a precursor of Easter People and the many large summer youth events of today.
Methodism has changed, and is still changing. The larger vision of a transformed country as in Wesley’s day seems afar off, but one we can still long and pray and work for. The MRF has moved on too, merging with CEIM into Headway and now MET - Methodist Evangelicals Together.
This lecture should be widely read by Methodists. The many sources held in the John Ryland’s Library suggest that it could be the basis for a larger more comprehensive document in the future.
"The Methodist Revival Fellowship 1952-1987." is published in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society Volume 57, Part 3. October 2009.
Ron Abbott is a former secretary of the Methodist Revival Fellowship, and magazine editor for both MRF and Headway.
METConnexion Summer 2010 p.16