Transcription of Article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by W.C. Ball
ONE of the earliest duties that will confront our Church in the second century of its career will be to deal definitely and courageously with the question of the test of membership. The problem cannot much longer be postponed. Some of the conditions of membership laid down in our rules are in many instances a dead letter, and to attempt to enforce them would precipitate a catastrophe. To unchurch all who failed to fulfil the letter of the law of membership would mean the enforced exodus of quite one half of our people, including many whose personal piety and steadfast devotion are beyond reproach. This being so, we submit that the time has come when our Connexional statesmen should give us a fearless lead on this most vital question.
What is the present situation? The obligations of members of our Church as defined in our Consolidated Minutes are four in number. 1. Faith in Jesus Christ. 2. A life consistent therewith. 3. Regular attendance at the class meeting. 4. Payment of class money weekly, with an additional contribution as means allow on receipt of the quarterly ticket. It should be noted that the demand for consistent living excludes all that would bring discredit on the Church of Christ. By a recent rule, anyone who has a license to sell intoxicating drinks is not allowed to be an approved member. The above conditions apply to private members. Official members must believe and teach the doctrines of our Church. No doctrinal test is imposed upon private members, though the first condition above-named would probably exclude those holding Unitarian views. It is of course assumed that all our members are in sympathy with our doctrines, and it is expressly laid down that any unsoundness in doctrine likely to be injurious to the Church must be prohibited. It may be as well to add that active members of Christian Endeavour classes are approved members of our Church, and Associate members are members on trial, and to both classes the above conditions apply.
Of these rules the only one that causes difficulty is that which relates to regular attendance at class. It is an open secret that numbers of our members never attend class, and these, as we have already said, include some of the cream of Primitive Methodism. It is idle, therefore, to assert, as many do, that the neglect of the class meeting is in all cases to be traced to spiritual decline amongst the members. In some cases, probably in many, this explanation is admissible, but it is nothing less than an insult to apply it all round. It is far better to open our eyes to the truth that there is an increasing number who are not greatly charmed with the class meeting, especially as usually conducted, and who do not find it any appreciable help in their Christian life. Such persons are not to be sneered at, nor preached to as though they were grovelling in wickedness, but their convictions are to be respected, and if it is evident, as it often is, that their witness for Christ in daily life is as faithful as that of the majority of their brethren, who are we that we should deny them a place in the Kingdom of Jesus! And what right have we to exalt into an essential a special type of meeting however beneficial we ourselves may find it?
There can be little doubt that a class meeting of an entirely new type would receive the support of many who now view the class meeting with disfavour, and it is a matter for thankfulness that the establishment of such classes as we refer to is slowly but surely taking place. But this alone will not solve our problem. We must go to the root of the difficulty and that is to be done only in one way, viz., by absolutely and unconditionally sweeping away the obligation to attend class.
We are quite aware that this simple suggestion will be received with a storm of protest by many who sincerely believe that its adoption would involve disastrous results to our Church. But this is pure assumption. As a matter of fact the net result of such a course would be to enrich and not to pauperise, to establish rather than to pull down. Let us see how the matter would work out. If we had our way, our rules of membership would run somewhat as follows.
“Any person shall be accepted as a member if he has faith in Jesus Christ, if he diligently attends the regular services, and contributes as per rule below, providing also his life is consistent with the Gospel.” Here might follow certain modes of living and occupations not deemed by us in harmony with the Christian character. The doctrinal conditions which apply to official members, and their bearing upon private members could next be stated, and following on these, the financial obligations of membership. Then would naturally come the present rule prohibiting the oppression of the very poor of our Church, and the section would conclude with the laws relating to complaints and appeals, and the miscellaneous recommendations concerning Sabbath observance, family worship, temperance advocacy, etc. For apart from the alteration we propose, it is astonishing that long ere this our rules of membership have not been gathered into one complete and consecutive paragraph.
But what, say some, would become of the class meeting in the event of the change you advocate? Our unshaken conviction is that it would rise into newness of life. Let it once be understood that attendance at class was perfectly optional, then the class meeting like all other institutions would have to set its house in order, and its leaders be made to feel that there is only one sure way of securing success, and that is by deserving it. That which has life and “go” within it will not need coercion as a driving power; it will force its own way to the front, and demonstrate its value by the attraction it exerts. It is because we believe in the possibilities of the class meeting that we are pleading for the change suggested. Just as most of us hold that a living Church should scorn the support of a temporal power, so some of us are convinced that so potent an institution for good as the class meeting is only crippled when allegiance to it is demanded at the point of the sword. We are its friends and not its foes when we say, loose it and let it go. Give it scope to make its own appeal. If it be of God, it will be a growing power for good: but if it have not the breath of Heaven upon it, it will perish, your best endeavours notwithstanding.
Under our system, the class meeting would hold on its way, in many cases practically unchanged. At seasonable times and in suitable ways its value would be emphasised, and those who were attracted by it would rally to its support. Its leaders would retain, as a recognition of their work, their voice and vote in the Circuit’s Quarterly meeting. The Leaders’ meeting would, as now, meet quarterly, and enquire into the character and habits of the members. No person, of course, would be dismembered for non-attendance at class ; nevertheless the class meetings would be under the control of the Leaders’ meeting, and from time to time steps would be taken to increase their efficiency.
How simple all this is, and how completely it would end the present painful state of things. Do we hear someone whisper, “What about the Deed Poll?” If that is the only difficulty, let us face it boldly. Some of the clauses of that famous document have long and loudly called for amendment. The polity of our honoured founders has held sway for a hundred years. Surely none will dub us iconoclasts if on the threshold of the second century, we demand a constitution in harmony with the age in which God has called us to live.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/218