Traditional Methodism

David Flavell

I am a died in the wool traditional Methodist. By that I mean I use the latest technology, with the latest methods and the latest music to bring as many as possible to Christ, just like Wesley and Hugh Bourne did.


Some people tell me that they are traditional Methodists too. What they mean is that they want to worship like they did when they were children, with classic hymns from two hundred years before. But why would anybody evangelistically minded want to do that? It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.


The Twentieth Century was a disaster for British Methodism, with the churches emptying decade after decade. Wanting to recreate those years of decline today seems foolish to me. The church of our childhoods was a failure. For those of us who were brought up in it and are still here, by definition it worked for us, but for most people – it didn’t. Where are all the children I went to Sunday School with? They’re not here.


Some people tell me that doesn’t matter, and they’re still Methodists really, even if they’re washing the car. However, that doesn’t fit with our tradition. Wesley must be spinning in his grave to hear that those who have no interest whatsoever in the means of grace are real Christians. He feared this would happen. He wrote:

~q‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist … but I am afraid least they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without power.’ q~


Which is exactly what we find when we behave as Twentieth Century Methodists, rather than traditional Methodists.


I had a member in my first appointment who contrasted the chapel he grew up in, with the one I was clearly inadequately running. He told me that there was a debating club and a dancing society and a wonderful time was had by all, and hadn’t I thought of doing such things? I asked him which chapel it was. “Oh it’s closed now” he replied, without any hint of irony at all.


Yet we still train people to lead worship the Twentieth Century way. If the Governor of the Bank of England announced that all his economists were going to be trained in the policies which led to the Great Depression, we would be more than concerned. So why does Faith and Worship train people to lead worship which we know doesn’t work, and led to Methodism’s Great Depression of emptying churches decade after decade?


Traditional Methodism still works. Here in Hexham we use PowerPoint, think that Mission Praise is an old hymn book, have small groups every day of the week and there are folk queuing up to join (seven new families arrived at the start of September). In some other places in the circuit we sing old-fashioned hymns with Twentieth Century worship patterns and the chapels continue to decline. I believe this is not a coincidence.


No doubt somewhere out there is a congregation which is managing to make disciples using Hymns and Psalms and the Methodist Worship Book, but that just shows how powerful the Holy Spirit is, that She can work despite such difficult obstacles.


Now some people reading this article are thinking: But we like the Wesley hymns, we like the singing, what about us?


Unfortunately “What about us?” is not a question that a traditional Methodist asks. Instead we ask “What about them?” To quote from a hymn many people like singing:

~qI would Thy precious time redeem, and longer live for this alone: to spend, and to be spent, for them who have not yet my Saviour known.q~


Traditional Methodists are prepared to “sacrifice the vain things that charm us most”, even when they are as wonderful as Watts’ and Wesley’s hymns, if that is going to bring more people into the kingdom. Worship is not about indulging a personal preference (mine is black gospel, which unfortunately does not fit Hexham’s demographic), but about changing lives. And I have firmly come to the belief that singing the old hymns warms the cockles of our hearts, but does nothing for the post-modern world.


Now some people reading this article are thinking that modern music is rubbish and just doggerel. But that’s our tradition too – the early Methodists sang doggerel. This is about as heretical as you can get, but the idea that everything in early Methodism was poetically perfect is all wrong.


It’s a bit like the erroneous idea that Georgian builders were much better than the companies today, because of the wonderful legacy of long lasting houses and churches they left behind. However, all the cowboy built ones fell down long ago, leaving only the good ones, from which we mistakenly infer that all Georgian buildings were master built.


In the same way, Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,000 hymns, but we assume they were all brilliant because we know “And Can it Be” and “Love Divine” (which traditional Methodists wouldn’t have sung to “Sagina” and “Blaenwern”). The ones that didn’t work are long forgotten, but the early Methodists would have been singing things which weren’t that good, and which others snootily looked down upon.


A good example of this is Hugh Bourne’s hymns in the Primitive Methodist hymnbook. None of his work survives in Hymns and Psalms, which we might attribute to the usual Wesleyan conspiracy theories. Now I yield to nobody in my admiration of Hugh Bourne, who was the greatest of all Methodists, but I have to say that his hymns are dire. He was a spiritual giant, but his poetry hasn’t survived the years.


Today’s music is similarly mixed between the great and the poor, and we do our best to choose worshipful material. But we sometimes get it wrong and sing doggerel, just like the early Methodists did. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter anyway, because God is not a liturgical pedant.


The case seems to be that if we have old fashioned worship, with old fashioned hymns, then the general public thinks that Christianity is old hat. Offer a band and a screen, and bright new music, and the subliminal message is that this church takes today seriously. And when this is done consistently over time, and other things are in place, then the church will grow.


Now some people reading this article are thinking, yes but, we need a balance. Unfortunately that is not our tradition either. Can you imagine Wesley writing “Half my sacred moments spend in publishing the sinners' friend, and the other half singing all the old tunes and having a cosy time together”. I think not.


Blended worship just upsets everybody. Twentieth Century Methodists don’t like the modern stuff – Spiritual Seekers wonder why we are singing these dirges.


Being a worship leader reminds me a bit of being the England football manager. Everybody has an opinion on how you can do better, and thinks if they were in charge that England would win the World Cup. However, as Fabio Capello tries to pick the very best blend for today, I doubt if anybody would advise him to pick Bobby Charlton and Gordon Banks.


So what must we do? The fault is in nobody else but those of us who lead worship. Be true to your tradition. Sing the new songs (as Wesley did). Take the flak (as Wesley did). Don’t be a museum curator.


I think the church needs to split (another Methodist tradition). We need to have the “Traditional Methodists” who want to use modern technology, new music and the latest methods to win the world for Christ. The ministers are going to have to be consistent in doing it every week, and not sliding back into the bad old habits of doing a hymn sandwich because it’s easier. Wesley would expect nothing else.


Then we can have the “Sealed Knot Wesleyan Branch” for those who are interested in re-enacting the past. They can sing the old hymns, have the harvest festivals, the pantomimes, the drama groups and even the May Queens if they want. They can enjoy having fun together, and if they want “as long as it sees them out”. The only rule is that they mustn’t call themselves Methodists, because indeed they are not.


Oh, and one more thing - the preacher must arrive on foot or by horse.

The Revd David Flavell is the author of the Love Feast, published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd

metconnexion, Spring 2008, pp.12-13