Transcription of Article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by R.N. Wycherley
PRIMITIVE Methodism, with all its romance, is continuously exposed to a very insidious danger, due to the itinerant part of the Methodist system. Itinerancy means frequent change of men, and this too often involves frequent change of policy, with the result that circuits enjoy little continuity in the various branches of their work. Men differ. They differ in their opinions of what is best and how that best should be done. And these differences affect the work. Unconsciously, perhaps, men show their preferences. Some kinds of work they agree with and help forward, but others, which may be just as deserving, they meet with scant courtesy and less support.
Here is a minister who comes to a circuit where triennial engagements have been faithfully observed. His predecessor gave much anxious thought to the needs of the circuit, and, with statesmanlike foresight, sought to lay a sure foundation for the future. He cleared away the debris of superfluous meetings, and with skill and endless patience organised what was best adapted to local requirements.
But the incoming minister has views of his own, and he is not prepared to stifle them. He does not agree with the organisations of his predecessor. He thinks that many of the meetings are not of the kind that should be encouraged in church work. He refuses to be bound by the conditions that prevail. He initiates a new policy and concentrates all his strength upon this. The well-laid schemes of three years ago fall like a pack of cards and the circuit is called upon to begin to remodel the foundations. This is not a fanciful case. I believe that circuits could supply many of the kind.
I once heard of a circuit in the Midlands, where for years the work had been in a languishing condition. A minister came on the ground who went to the trouble of investigating the cause of the weakness and of devising a careful plan by which he hoped to restore prosperity. He began by renovating the church property and enlarging the accommodation for the Sunday School. He suggested that certain services should be held on Sunday and during the week, and these only. All others were given up as unnecessary. In order to provide for any young people who might be induced to attend, he established a class for the study of the Scriptures and occasional Christian testimony. These schemes were justified by future events. The Bible Class alone had nearly seventy members, the majority of whom were fresh to the church, and the church itself was well filled for the Sunday services.
After a lengthened stay this minister was succeeded by one whose notions of circuit requirements seemed to be quite different. This man knew nothing of the early struggles, he did not understand that the members and congregations were only just touching rock. And without any ado he gave up the class and started in its place something that was supposed to be more modern. But the results were deplorable. The violent change of policy shook the church and led it into a most perilous condition.
Now I submit that this constant and injudicious changing cannot be a good thing for circuits. I know that men do not like the idea of surrendering their own schemes and fancies, but surely the work should stand first. The one vital thing is the prosperity of Zion and not the satisfaction of our own little whims. It seems to me that men who are not willing to admit this have scarcely seen the vision, which, radiating the soul and clarifying the eye, compels us to say, “None of self and all of Thee.”
Moreover the circuits of Primitive Methodism are kept in a state of continual uncertainty. If they start something to-day they do not know whether it may not be crushed to-morrow. They are under the itinerant system and they may have a change of ministers at any time, and a change of ministers may mean the reversal of policies. The lack of finality is their constant impediment, a danger that threatens them from every side. And because of it they are not free to do as their judgment indicates.
I know a church of some considerable size where they have no C.E. Society. I enquired from one of the leaders how this came about. It seemed to me to be an inexcusable oversight. His explanation was to the effect, that some years ago they had a very prosperous C.E., but a minister came to the circuit who did not believe in the movement. He refused to attend the meetings, to encourage the young people, or to countenance the Society in any way. He did not stop it openly, but he ruined it by putting his influence against it. And the young people and leaders were so annoyed that it should be possible for the itinerancy to be abused in this way that they declared they would never support a C.E. again.
I was amazed, and yet I discovered afterwards that the story was quite true. Is it surprising that churches should feel like this when they are badgered about so much? But it is fatal to prosperity.
Under such conditions the work itself never takes firm root. I hope I may not be regarded as hypercritical when I say that there is a tremendous lot which is superficial, unreliable and unsatisfactory in our church work. But what else can be expected when policies and schemes are always changing? One essential for depth is steadfast perseverance, and only where we have depth can we look for buoyancy and strength. So long as many parts of the Connexion are afflicted in this way we must expect nothing better than what we see at present. It is impossible for the work to become stable and for existing organisations to flourish and for weak interests to be rejuvenated. We only reap what we sow.
Therefore I enter a strong plea for continuity in our work. We must set our face against the danger to which we are so singularly exposed. Work which has been commenced and shows signs of usefulness, organisations which have been established with every prospect of increasing success must not be ruthlessly cast aside. They must be loyally supported and, if possible, developed. A change of minister, need not mean a change of ministry, a reversal of policy. It certainly ought not to result in the serious dislocation of prosperous agencies. In Methodism the man is less than the system. No man is charged with the task of remodelling the system to meet his own passing fancy.
His first duty is to fill in his place and take up the work which devoted predecessors have proved to be eminently suited to the needs of the people. He may then indulge his own gifts and graces by extending the work and perfecting the organisations, and handing down to his successors a more precious heritage still. We want to understand and apply the law of orderly development. Violent changes are anathema. Our hope lies in continuity. Dr. Guthrie remarks: “It is not occasional, but continuous, prolonged, and life-long efforts that are required. . . It is not by a few, rough, spasmodic blows of the hammer that a graceful statue is brought out of the marble block, but by the labour of continuous days, and many delicate touches of the sculptor’s chisel.”
It may be well to point out the various directions in which the principle should be especially applied. Certainly heed should be given to it in the work of individual churches. I have already indicated the harm which repeated and thoughtless change does to the interests of a congregation. The whole life continues in a state of ebb and flow. The church never seems to put on strength: it never seems to know its own mind upon important issues. Its usefulness is crippled. Its prospects delude and disappoint. Here then continuity should find a place. It is imperative. Let the church persevere in its well-considered plans. In spite of ministerial change, in spite of seasons of depression, in spite even of seeming failure let it patiently toil on. It will then have the satisfaction of knowing that it is doing the best for the cause and will, in the end, command real and abiding success.
“Perseverance is a virtue
That wins each god-like act, and plucks success
E’en from the spear-proof crest of rugged danger.”
But the principle is equally good for circuits as a whole. Judicious forethought should be brought to bear upon the interests of the circuit. There is a need for “more thinking,” as one of our leading politicians would say. We proceed too much upon the consideration of the simple requirements of the present. We visit, preach, attend to pressing business, and then return home. We congratulate ourselves upon the assurance that we have done what we could. But it is a mistake that is costing us much every year. I believe that a surprising transformation would be effected in many of our circuits if ministers took more trouble to think out large and prudent schemes, and made these the bases of their labour. Circuits would be more independent of particular ministries, and while, of course, profiting by the most gifted and painstaking, pursue a more even and useful course.
And the principle is undoubtedly the best for the management of our important Connexional offices. Indeed, it is already largely observed here. There is a loyalty to predecessors and their work which is both refreshing and creditable. And yet there is room for improvement. Sometimes a man with a strong individuality is called to be chief and he shows little respect for precedents and a dangerous impatience to strike out into new lines. But where this happens the results as a rule are not very gratifying. Confidence is shaken, and as a consequence those very interests the officer is seeking to enhance, seriously suffer. More continuity in our Connexional departments would be all to the good and infuse additional force into Connexional movements.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/105