Primitive vs Wesleyan - why the feud must end

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 more settled in the appropriate relationship between lay and ordained. We kid ourselves that we are of, and for the working classes, when the vast majority of us have been made middle-class through our involvement with Methodism. I may have begun life in a terraced house with no indoor toilet (and I did!), but my education and work has given me social mobility. We still argue over the use of written liturgies and yet our 'non-liturgical' services have followed the same patterns for the last ninety years or more (you don't have to see the text to know it's not spontaneous!)

Thankfully some things have moved on. The evolution of the Presidency is most welcome and models a collaborative ministry of lay and ordained we would do well to embrace throughout the Connexion. We have certainly talked a good game about opening theological education to all, and indeed most of British Methodism's top academic theologians are currently lay people. But this continues to fail in practice, and lay people seeking to be equipped for ministry are being short-changed by our structures.

Rather than harking back to a past that never was, we need to move beyond this futile polarisation which, to my mind, has caused us to spend far too much time in internal squabbling and diminished our mission. This polarisation has established a continuing, and often corrosive, suspicion of anyone in a position of authority and established structures that fail to empower. It is past time when we developed a theology and models of ministry - lay and ordained - that embraced both historical streams, and allowed us to entrust each other with the mission and oversight of the Church. So I continue to long for a Methodist Church that empowers all its members to share in God's mission in the world. That will mean more collaboration, and a greater willingness to trust each other, as well as hold one another accountable. We need to embrace both strands of our Methodist tradition - the formal and the spontaneous, the need for order and liberty, for collaboration between lay and ordained. It is only by embracing both can we hope to have the tools needed to respond to God's call to join in mission in ways that are flexible and contextual. That will continue to mean that the Spirit is to be found at work well beyond our comfort zones (and our labels!) As a Methodist withour further qualification, I have the freedom to choose the best bits from the various parts of our history, theology and practice, and that is a freedom I will not surrender.

And it may mean relegating some labels to history.

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