This morning was the annual trip to the local Methodist church for the town's exchange visit, a return visit from their visit in the Anglican direction a fortnight ago. Starting half an hour later, some Anglicans will have regarded it as a morning off, but then some regard the would have been half hour later all-age morning worship on this third Sunday as a morning off. I do, I will admit. I went to it once.
They invite the Anglicans to the Methodist Covenant service. The Anglicans who went numbered about the same as the Methodists in attendance. The Methodists come and swell the Anglican numbers, but each church alone easily absorbs two churches' worth of attenders on a Sunday morning.
I have been to two of these Covenant services before, which shows the length of my current more active phase regarding Anglican involvement. On those occasions I went forward to its rail for the Lord's Supper celebration, and this time I did not - consistent with how I am in the Anglican church at present. I've defended Methodist communions when Anglicans have thought them dodgy; I am by nature ecumenical. I prefer the Anglican approach, though I also prefer real bread.
This not going forward was made more awkward because of who took the service, someone I knew in the earliest 1980s with his ministry, with whom I had a run in over spreading my liberal views (nothing has changed) and with whom I was later reconciled. It would have been good relationally to have gone forward because I regard ministry as personal. It is just one of those things that he ended up and retired near where I ended up. So I was able to say later why I didn't go to the communion in that I am on the edge at present, and "floating about". He said I'm very welcome, but that assumes I'm dissatisfied with the Anglicans. There is a lot to be dissatisfied with the Anglicans about, but I'm not locally. It's the whole thing: Christianity, actually. (By the way, the cartoon is not of the retired minister: it's someone else with once Methodist connections and I'm giving it a day out in public).
The retired minister is, it is safe to say, of the old school: and that means the service was very well presented, calm, moderate in tone, and so well paced. This is a person who you could tell had everything he said and did running deep, and he would not slip up because this has been well and carefully trodden with no doubt a vast treasury of comments to draw upon. He communicated well. The sermon was a lesson in simple sermon messages well delivered.
There are a number of other reflections. One is the Methodist service book with the Covenant Service inside. It is well superior to Common Worship. In some cases the language is better, but what makes it superior is that it is easy to follow. In Common Worship (until you've learnt it, like I have enough) you jump about the book trying to find out where you are. The worst of it is when a celebrant says it is Eucharistic Prayer A and then a preface is used that's not there and anyone not in the know gets lost again. I think the Church of England tries its hardest to keep new people out.
Another reflection is that even in the Covenant Service no formal creed was recited, and this is a good thing. There was a very good, neat, explanation of the Trinity, though dangerously tritheistic until an end bit. But even with this, I was mumbling through parts of the service like never before. I knew this would happen: that once the fall-away starts, the decline turns into a kind of collapse. Beware of the dogma, and although there is less here than in the Anglican service, it is all parcelled up.
Anglicanism is very complex because, despite the dogma hitting you between the eyes, so many seem to regard it as water off a duck's back. After all, so did I, more than I might have believed possible. Also the added symbolic and theatrical nature in Anglicanism provides another focus while the water runs off. People get very sophisticated in interpretation. There is less pressure in a Methodist service, but more of what you see is more of what you get. I realise there are trends and tendencies in Methodism, as a new now Anglican friend tells me in more detail, but even so it feels more straightforward.
There is another reflection, though, and it is that of Methodism as a dying tradition. I thought at the end, "Gimme that old time religion," even if it was of good quality. You look at that congregation and there were more Sunday school helpers that went out than there were children to help. The actual minister there is what I'd call a 'raving evangelical'. ('Raving' indicates my negative response; I'd call today's style traditional Methodism: he is though ecumenical.) That's one reason why I don't go there on other occasions.
There was a United Reformed Church in the town, but it is long dead, and similarly I can't see the Methodist church there turning around. No doubt a similar collapse is happening all around the country - there will be better places and weak places, but in general you keep rationalising until the internal structures start to creak. I remember people who went to this retired minister's church in the earliest 1980s, and of those I still know not one of them is a church attender now.
I've just discovered that the Progressive Christianity Network is growing and dividing, such that there could soon be a local presence. It's a small grouping, but it is expanding. This is interesting in itself. It is a liberal and radical group from agnostics to those Christians who want open discussion, and people just meet where they do and make their own agendas. I would be interested. Maybe this is the way of the future, but you would think it possible to have a few reasonably healthy meeting places in the towns of Britain regarding religious worship. It's just that somehow they have become dislodged, that they have come off the rails. There are no grounds for complacency anywhere, even if we are less obsessed with numbers and more concerned with community service.
The world has changed, and these places haven't. All through this Covenant service points were being made about our dependency and I kept asking the dumb question: what about? Apparently, we cannot do what we want to do, without God's help. About what, and how does that make any difference? It all sounds consistent, it all appears logical, but it is not about anything. I have a state of life, a state of difficulty in getting through, to which this stuff makes no difference whatsoever except as some sort of palliative. Our preacher told us that without God, we can do nothing, and without us, God will do nothing. Just stop there. We do lots of things, but clearly God fell asleep a long time ago, and we do plenty. This religious language is, I suggest, a load of actual, realisable, nonsense, even though it was extremely well communicated by someone who has it deep in his soul. Say it and nod your head - but there is nothing there, nothing there at all.
Update from the Evening
This evening I went to the parish Eucharist. We got to the sermon by a preacher about to go on retreat, and he wanted to emphasise differently from last week "the vertical", the God relationship, "technically the transcendent" (and I thought that's not vertical), which is harder to talk about than the love and service we should do, emphasised last week, or "the horizontal". It wasn't anything said particularly, but I came to a full stop. I stood and sat (not to look out of place) but I didn't say the creed as I won't, but then came to full stop. I didn't sing any more, I didn't speak or sing any of the Eucharist text, didn't go forward (as I won't) and said no prayer responses and sang no hymns. I just came to a full stop. So that's that then? I don't know. I'll go, I should probably join in again in a fragmented way, or I may sit at the back and listen. It wasn't intended - it just happened.