The Methodist Church could benefit from a massive injection of funds if its annual Conference agrees to resolutions put forward by its Council this week.
A report from a working party with the title "Releasing Money for God's Mission" says that huge sums of money are held in small trusts associated with individual churches or circuits – groups of local churches – which are either not available to the wider Church because of restrictive conditions or which are being kept rather than spent.
The report says that £172 million is held on behalf of churches and circuits in 7,022 separate trusts, of which 4,269 (58 per cent) have balances of less than £10,000. Now, though, the working party is recommending that the Church moves to free up all such money so as to remove restrictive conditions and put it to work.
It recognises that the move might meet resistance, saying: "Despite the connexional nature of the Methodist Church, resistance to releasing money may be voiced by churches/circuits that do not think that other parts of the Connexion should interfere in how they spend 'their' funds."
However, it suggests mechanisms to channel funds back to local causes where they can be used for mission.
Ian White, chair of the working party that produced the report, told Christian Today: "The potential that lies in the Church's many restricted funds is enormous, but for legislative and constitutional reasons, releasing that money will be no simple matter."
He said that funding would be needed to enable the necessary work to be done, but added: "We are optimistic that this money, once released and if wisely used, could make a huge impact on the mission of the church on a local and national scale."
Figures released last year showed that during the last 10 years both Methodist membership and attendance have fallen by a third. Membership fell from 304,971 in 2003 to only 208,738 in 2013, while attendance fell from 326,400 in October 2003 to only 224,500 in October 2013.
Numbers on community rolls, which include the church "fringe", have fallen even further, by 48 per cent; the number of children has fallen by 58 per cent.
Of those who are left, 18 per cent are aged over 81 and 51 per cent are between 66 and 80, meaning that the next 10 years are likely to see even more dramatic falls.
The current general secretary of the Methodist Church, Rev Dr Martyn Atkins, has encouraged Methodists to see themselves as "a discipleship movement shaped for mission". The denomination provides generous funding for Fresh Expressions initiatives for non-standard church plants and a "Venture FX" programme for innovative evangelistic initiatives.