The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was reported to have once said that the Labour Party “…owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. Perhaps it’s worth considering therefore whether the current crisis facing the Labour Party identity has any parallels in the Methodist Church?
At the heart of the appeal from both has been a message that has somehow tried to balance, aspiration, social justice and personal responsibility alongside elements of social conservatism. Wilsons comments may have a sound historical backing to them, after all weren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs Methodists? But it is not the only political history to have been influenced by it, Margaret Thatcher in particular voicing her early Methodist upbringing as an influence on the importance of hard work and personal responsibility , or as she said in her memoirs: “Life was to work and do things.” The “natural” pre-Labour home of many Methodists was the Liberal Party, perhaps therefore it should not overly shock us that Methodism has also had its place amongst neo-liberalism, an ideology not confined to one political party alone.
Some of these differences are also mirrored in the varying historical strands within Methodism, the official website of the Methodist Church outlines some of the differences between the Primitives and Wesleyans:
“The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:
- The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.
The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
- The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship.
The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
- The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor.
The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
- The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship
The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.”
According to Martyn Atkins in the publication “Discipleship…and the People called Methodists”, Donald English, Methodist minister and twice president of the Methodist Conference, used to say, “Remember, the Methodist people want to be better than they are.”
So in what ways do we hope to become better, as Methodists, as Christians? Primarily I suppose, and I hope, this is grounded in John Wesley theology of Christian Perfection. The idea that we do not have to wait until death to gain an ever closer union with God, that what we are now can be bettered as we move towards the God intended perfection of our humanity as demonstrated and lived in the “wholly human, wholly divine” life of Jesus.
But also the idea of material aspiration has also played a role within Methodism, indeed it is one of the themes warned against by Wesley in his sermon “On the Use of Money”. Wesley urged people to use money as a means of serving God, his call to Christians to:
“Earn all you can,
Save all you can,
Give all you can”
has been used, and misused, as a mantra for hard work, careful stewardship of personal finances, as well as for charitable giving. It’s worth reminding ourselves however, that Wesley was very clear about the moral and ethical boundaries he set out for maximising the money we make, his call to save was not an exhortation to store up earthly wealth but rather to “live simply”, and therefore the primary aim was to give as much as possible of the money gained towards the building of Gods work.
Maybe the Church and the Labour Party do share a problem – maybe we’ve both become so in love with the neo-liberal world that has brought prosperity to the majority of our people, that we’ve forgotten to call out the failings of hard work, and personal responsibility. Hard work is NOT a guarantee of wealth or even nowadays of a decent income for our families, sometimes for some of us earning all we can still doesn’t put food on the table, or pay the bills. Personal responsibility is fine but that also assumes a moral conviction to do what is right, not squirrel money away to avoid tax and other liabilities (however legal this might be). We also need to regain an understanding that personal responsibility doesn’t always remain individual – sometimes our personal responsibility is served through a collective, shared responsibility. Maybe in the Church we have become overly focused on our personal journey and relationship with God, and lost sight somewhat of our collective place in the Body of Christ?
But back to this idea that the church is somehow about making people better …. it’s a question that still intrigues me. At the heart of the Christian message is one of healing, hope and liberation – we follow Jesus because of the hope of something better, the need to have our hurts healed to find a remedy for our faults, to live in a better place, a better world – the Kingdom of God. Maybe today it is in those issues of healing, hope and liberation that we will truly find our greatest needs, and maybe the Church can find its place in this?