It is doubly shocking in these days of ardent conservationism that a national institution should be going out of business from lack of interest. But, fearless of the consequences of self-fulfilling prophecy, that, apparently, is what the Methodist Church has just admitted about itself.

Anglicans of a certain age will blink with astonishment.

It seems only a short while since willingness to subscribe to a scheme to unite the Methodist Church with the Church of England was the litmus test of the forward looking. Those who opposed it were regarded as theological dinosaurs, blocking the free movement of the Spirit and condemning the church to a downward spiral of irrelevance and decline. (As were those, more recently, who opposed the ordination of women).

The language used in 1968 to commend the Anglican Methodist Scheme, as it was called, seems, in the light of recent developments, quaintly optimistic. Though one suspects that its authors knew more, even then, than they were saying:

“Few will doubt,” begins the Introduction to the official documents, ” that one cause of the continued decline in influence and numerical strength of the Churches of this country is their disunity. There is also a serious decline, in large sections of both churches, in the number of men offering for the ordained ~!tistry. There is good reason to think that n many cases men who would otherwise have offered themselves have refused to enter the ministry of their Churches because of the pattern of incompetence which they present in which disunity is a main feature.”

Just recently, when the easy passage of the Porvoo legislation encouraged wider ecumenical optimism, an unnamed source in Church House told The Times that one of the gains of a reunion with the Methodists would be `a pattern of ministry based on the circuit principle, which has shown itself to have far greater flexibility for mission’. Hope, it appears, springs eternal in the liberal breast!

The truth about English Methodism, however, has for long been an open secret. The decline was palpable; and more than that, the reasons for the decline were not difficult to determine. Methodism was in decline because, quite simply, it had no reason to go on existing. Nothing distinctive, either theologically or liturgically, marked it out from other liberal Protestant bodies. And the age of emerging industrialization, which had shaped it and given it scope, was long past. The Methodism of our youth, and our parents’ youth – the Methodism of Bright Hours, Sewing Circles, Cycling and Rambling Clubs and Sunday School Anniversaries – is now merely the bright tissue of Alan Bennett’s wry nostalgia. Nothing substantial remains.

It is strange that Sunday trading was singled out by the Press as one of the contributory factors to the decline. Sunday trading, of course, is a relatively recent development which can as yet have had no significant, measurable or enduring impact. And yet… there is a nagging suspicion that the press probably got it right. That the ‘chapel crowd’ should, with the passage of a generation or two, become the B&Q crowd’ seems all too likely; the two expressing with unerring accuracy the leisure interests of the lower middle classes at a particular historical moment.

If it seems unjust that something with so robust a past should have no future at all, it is nevertheless a fact of life with which Methodists have been living for some time. The great chapels of the West Riding, with their pulpits like opera boxes and their elliptical galleries echoing to tunes like Cwm Rhonnda, Gopsal, Aberystwth, Savannah, and David’s Harp

have long been carpet repositories, auction houses or storage depots. The great ~ tradition of total abstinence (which had already been largely abandoned in response to market forces) looks faintly ridiculous now that the apostle Paul and the Ministry of Health are of one accord (cf. I Tim 5:23).

The truth is that in a mufti-ethnic, multicultural world – and in a nation where there are more Buddhists than Baptists, where there are more Muslims than Methodists, and where the most striking religious edifice in a generation is a Hindu temple in Neasden – there is no longer room for a church which merely baptizes the presuppositions of a particular social class. The much diminished market for Christianity which has resulted from cultural change is a market for doctrinal distinctiveness and rigour; for a religion which makes confident demands and requires intellectual commitment. The demand, in fact, is for everything which established liberal Protestantism has self-consciously set aside.

Anglicans will view the predicted demise of the Church of England’s only daughter with a sense of foreboding. There but for the grace of God …. The symptoms have an ominous familiarity.

In the name of greater fidelity to primitive Christianity Methodism systematically abandoned every mark of the early church: apostolic order, the centrality of the sacraments, fidelity to scripture. Instead it erected a polity of its own: its own orders, worship services of its own devising, emphasis on a doctrine (total abstinence) indefensible from scripture and indeed inimical to it. It was (though apparently it is no longer) well attuned to the Spirit of the Age.

Anglican traditionalists will hear again, with an added frisson, the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the debate of November 11 1992. “We must draw on all available talents if we are to be a credible church engaged in mission and ministry in an increasingly confused and lost world. We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of our society’s life save the ordained priesthood.”

They will reflect that in `an increasingly confused and lost world’ the guiding and enduring lights for faithful Christians are those of scripture and tradition and not of contemporary experience.