This week's Methodist Conference was faced with figures showing a staggering decline in the numerical strength of the denomination. One of the Church's senior officials, connexional secretary Doug Swanney, described them to the Conference as 'heartbreaking' – not an expression that found its way into the official press release, which insisted that 'membership figures don't tell the whole story'.
To be fair, such publications do need to avoid becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. A press release full of doom and gloom would reinforce a sense of crisis without encouraging a sense that something can be done about it – and the Methodist Church is still a fairly large denomination with considerable resources.
But the truth is bad enough. Methodist membership now stands at 188,000, having declined by an average of 3.5 per cent a year for the last 10 years. Actual attendance is slightly higher at around 202,000, but that's fallen by about the same amount. Worse, teenage attendance is less than half what it was in 2006 and pre-school attendance is down by three-quarters – an indication of the lack of young families. Of more than 4,500 churches, half – 2,203 – have fewer than one in 20 of the Sunday congregation aged under 20, including 1,463 which reported not a single young person coming to a Sunday service in October 2016, when the counts are made.
This year's figures didn't provide a detailed breakdown by age, but in 2013, 18 per cent of Methodists were over 81 and 51 per cent were between 66 and 80. In the nature of things, it's going to get exponentially worse.
So, said Swanney, the report 'tells us quite starkly we are failing to mitigate our top risk of failing to create enough new disciples'.
The report was exhaustively discussed over two days, and it was clear members of the Conference were extremely worried. Some spoke of a 'loss of confidence' and expressed a consciousness of the crushing weight of Methodist official structures. It was all very well the strong supporting the weak, but the weak mustn't be allowed to bleed the strong dry, one person said. Others pointed out that similar figures had been presented before, and nothing had been done.
There were others who were enthusiastic. Some spoke of it as a challenge – 'It makes it obvious what we have to focus on,' said one. Another – Rev Ashley Cooper from the 400-plus membership Swan Bank church in Stoke-on-Trent – said his church 'wouldn't understand' the tone of the report, because it was growing. 'We can, as Meth people, do it,' he said. 'But only if we take dificult decisions and invest in the right places.' He is going to be the next principal of Cliff College, the evangelical Methodist training college, where he will be able to help form a new generation of leaders.
Three concrete measures did come out of the Conference. Methodist procedures offer the opportunity for 'Notices of Motion' to be presented. These are taken very seriously and can help set Methodist Church policy. One called on Methodists to be enthusiastic in prayer and evangelism, and to consider planting new churches. Introducing it, Rev Dr Andrew Stobart said: 'We do not need more reflection on the causes of decline. We need a good old Methodist enthusiasm to do something.'
Another called for every Methodist church to prepare either a growth plan or an 'end-of-life' plan – plan to grow or plan to close, in other words. It was proposed by Rev Elaine Lindridge, a District evangelism enabler, who said: 'I've seen real fruit happening when churches take note of what they are called to do.' That was more controversial, with speakers worrying about it being too much of a burden or too threatening, but a version of it was passed.
Potentially the most helpful suggestion of all was a proposal calling for a Day of Prayer and Fasting in September, at the beginning of the Methodist year. It referred to 'the challenges and changes facing every community in these islands and the urgent call of God on the Methodist people to share the love of God in Jesus Christ in word and action'.
As one speaker, Rev Paul Smith, commented: 'All the programmes in the world are not going to get us out of this mess. We need God to do something.'
The Methodist Church has enormous problems. It has far too many buildings, many of them in the wrong place, which can't be sold because of local resistance. It's not just that the money would be useful – it is not a poor denomination – but that the need to service so many tiny congregations stretches already over-burdened ministers and volunteers past the point at which they can be effective missionaries. It has a massive superstructure of circuits, Districts and committees. It is aging very rapidly, and given its cumbersome procedures it may be that it has left it too late to do what needs to be done. (The outside observer is reminded of a sort of church supertanker, which needs years rather than miles to change course.) But many at this week's Conference did seem to feel the time had come to do something; and to pray that God would do something.