Thursday, 3 November 2011


Liberals like me don't talk about this subject very often, but it's something I read quite a lot about way back before I wiped the dust of conservative theology from my feet. Even then, I felt there was something wrong.

Revival was constantly portrayed as a work of the Holy Spirit; we were just supposed to pray for it, and in God's good time, it would happen. They forgot that the church is also a thoroughly human community. From my reading of church history, I found that lots of people join churches - I think this is as good a definition of revival as we're likely to get - when they see those churches as offering something relevant to their needs. It's no good standing in the market place shouting about people needing to be saved from their sins, if those people don't feel themselves to be sinners. Not only that, I think the Gospel is rather more than justification alone. But that's another story.

Being a Methodist, I tend to think first of the Methodist Revival, as it's sometimes called today. It happened at a specific historical moment, like most of the things which happen to human beings. The old agricultural society, which had been based on access to land, rather than ownership of it, was collapsing. In modern terms, the land was being privatised. The process had been going on for several centuries, but now it accelerated, with the result that large numbers of people were forced off the land. Some of them ended up working in new industries, like the Kingswood miners John Wesley preached to. New communities sprang up, and there was an inevitable increase in poverty.

The Church of England wasn't able to adapt to population movements; it was extremely hard to change parish boundaries, and the normal rule was that there was only one church per parish. I used to live in an area of moorland near St Austell in Cornwall. There was nothing there except a few farms until the development of China clay mining in the 19th Century. The only Anglican church within reasonable walking distance was built in the mid-20th Century. Every village, however, had its Methodist church.

In the 18th Century, everyone, to all intents and purposes, believed the Christian message. They took it for granted in a way we don't today. The dominant Protestant theology was Calvinism. If you went to church, and followed the rules, there was at least a fair chance you were one of the elect. If you didn't - and if you lived too far away to get there, that wasn't your fault - they you were likely to be under the decree of reprobation, predestined from eternity for a one-way trip to the eternal gas chambers. There may well have been people going in real fear of hell. When the Wesleys and their friends went and preached to them, taking the church to the people rather than waiting for them to turn up at the door, then of course they responded.

But it didn't stop there. John Wesley was a thinker and a theologian as well as an evangelist. His theology was a response to the situation he found himself in, tailored to the needs of an age which needed to emphasise that everyone, including the reject, may be accepted by God. He did everything he could to meet the practical needs of the poor, and he developed the class system.

This fell apart in the 19th Century, but it provided a community structure for people who'd been displaced and lost their original communities. That may not have been the intention, but it provided something which had never been needed before. We let it die, but other churches have developed it into the house group. It also evolved in a secular direction, of course. Early trade unions grew from Primitive Methodist roots. There may be more radical offshoots as well; I don't know whether there was an organic link, but the class meeting looks rather like the cell structure developed by Victorian revolutionary movements like the Fenian Brotherhood.

Some things have changed; you'd go a very long way to find anyone outside the church thinking about eternal damnation these days. However, lack of community is at least as much a feature of modern life, and probably more so. We're far more mobile, and ever fewer people have extended families around to offer support. Nuclear families often don't cope, raising children who may well be unable to cope in their turn. There's an opportunity there, to offer people a place to go for support and companionship. The church is intended as a radical community, where anyone and everyone can find their place, and that's surely an essential element of the Gospel. I don't believe it can be reduced to a form of words!

There's another thing we can offer people. Value. We live in a world where people have none; where they're treated as commodities. Years ago, when black people came here in large numbers - often at the invitation of the government - they could only get the worst jobs and accommodation, and, all too often, they weren't made welcome in our churches. So they brought their own. I remember meeting an old guy who came here back then, as a missionary from Jamaica. They might be nobody all week, but on Sundays, they had a valued place in the church, and probably a vital job. They might be a bishop or an apostle. I remember a Nigerian woman who was an Archbishop, properly ordained in the Apostolic Succession. I wonder what the Pope would make of that? If we can get rid of our ingrained cliquiness, and put an end to the endless empire-building, we can offer the same. You don't need robes or a fancy title to find your place in God's church.

If we want to build our churches up again - or see revival, which means the same thing - then we've got some serious work to do.