It's nearly 90 years since the Methodist Church in Great Britain came into existence. For non-Methodists, this might come as a bit of a surprise, as surely John and Charles Wesley lived in the 18th century. True, but their followers in the 19th century were a fractious lot and ended up establishing a number of different denominations that bore the name 'Methodist' or 'Wesleyan'. First in 1907, and then 1932, a total of five of those separate Connexions came to form a new united Church.
A significant number of the current membership of the Methodist Church were born after 1932, and even more do not remember a time when it was divided into Primitive, Wesleyan, United, Bible Christian, or New Connexion. However, that does not stop many today claiming the pre-1932 labels, and that especially relates to those who still identify as 'Prim'. Even some brought up in what were previously Wesleyan chapels can be heard to use 'Prim' as a battle cry and a badge of honour. Many of them seek to reduce the Primitive tradition to a kind of Methodism that was lay-led (or even dominated) and working class, and held strongly to the values of equality, liturgical freedom and anti-hierarchy. More than that, they wish to characiture the alternative - Wesleyanism - as elitist, middle-class, authoritarian, clerical and establishment. In secular terms, Prim has become the equivalent of the 99%, Occupy or Momentum.
Of course, history is never that simple or polarised, and the myths of origins can become romanticised and distorted. I was minister in a former United Methodist Free Church, one that might well be described as on the Prim side of the divide. One of its former ministers was William Booth, who left the denomination to form the Salvation Army because it has begun to talk of the 'undeserving poor'. This was not a rejection of Wesleyan, but United Methodist snobbery. Again, in the late 19th century, it was the Wesleyan Forward Movement that established Central Halls and Settlements in the most deprived parts of British cities and inspired Methodists to follow suit as far away as Australia.
The Deed of Union, finally agreed in 1932 after a decade of negotiation, did not seek to solve or overcome these polarised theological (and ideological) positions. Rather, it simply juxtaposed statements that, on the face of it, seemed contradictory, and left the new denomination to work out how they fitted together.
Ninety years on, we are still drawing the battlelines in what seems like a zero-sum theological dispute. These two streams of authentic Methodist spirituality and praxis, rather than flowing together, or even being held in a creative tension, have too often been weaponised and used to polarise.
Nine decades on, we are still no