The other day I came across a quarterly plan from 1966, the year I became a fully accredited Local Preacher. I had come into the Methodist church over twenty years previously when I was in my teens, probably about the age when many youngsters go through a stage of rebellion against church-going if they have not been brought up in traditionally church-going families. My initial attraction was not so much to the church as to June, who later was to become my wife. Thinking back, I realise that there have been many, many changes. That is only as it should be.
I received a draft plan from another circuit recently and on it was indicated the appropriate liturgical colours to be worn by the ministers. That is one sphere in which we have gradually come into line with the Anglicans. Our ministers in the 1940's would never wear the vestments that we have come to accept today. A dark suit and a dog-collar was the order of the day. A black preaching gown was acceptable, but not essential. The congregation would have their 'Sunday best' outfits - clothes specially kept aside for Sunday worship. There was no striving to keep up with fashion; a Sunday best suit would last for years. Ladies were expected to wear hats; it was an unwritten law. Once a year, usually at Whitsun, new hats were paraded, but that was about the limit of fashion consciousness. (Of course, clothes rationing during the war had imposed severe limitations upon what was available, apart from anything else!)
There was a much greater informality in worship generally. No such things as service books -another move towards the Anglicans? Communion services took place once a month and were often personalised.. "The body of the Lord Jesus given for you, Bill...". Ministers were expected to know their flock and to spend time in visiting, not just when people were ill or in special need. They were very much under the jurisdiction of the Leaders' Meeting and could be called to account in no uncertain manner. A Minister's day off was unheard of!
Evening services were often as well, if not better, attended than the morning services. Every church would have its choir. Choirs can enhance worship greatly, I have had the great privilege of leading worship on a Christmas morning at Central Hall Westminster. It was many years ago when the organist and choir-master was Bill Lloyd-Webber, the father of Andrew and Julian. With him on the organ and the Central Hall choir at your back, you were immediately transported into greater heights. There used to be choir festivals which brought about keen but friendly rivalry.
The standard of preaching was variable, to put it politely. Forty minute sermons were reasonably short and some preachers were renowned for their pulpit thumping to emphasise the points they made. This was especially so on Temperance Sunday when the teetotal congregation was harangued vehemently about the perils of the Demon Drink. 'Special' Sundays came far less frequently than they do today. The Sunday School anniversary was one of the highlights of the year - morning, afternoon and evening services, usually with a tea laid on. Fairs and Bazaars lasted for three days not just a couple of hours. They were great social occasions with everyone joining in whole-heartedly. Concerts and Socials were frequently held and the lives of many people were centred around the church.
I mentioned vestments, or the lack of them, earlier. Another thing which you never saw on a Methodist altar was a candle. To many, candles smacked of Popery! The only time candles were used was for the Carols by Candlelight service at Christmas. Now we often find a lighted candle in our Methodist churches - another bit of Anglicanism that has crept in unnoticed. I have never heard a Minister comment on this or point out the significance of the candle. I must admit that I no longer have any strong objections to the use of candles. Particularly since June died I have found them more significant. One Remembrance Sunday we had an evening Communion service at Martin Way at which were invited to light a candle for any loved one who had died, and that, for me, was very moving. If I'm away and go into a church or cathedral, I will now light a candle in June's memory, so candles have become more meaningful for me.
So changes there have been. I have heard the cynical comment that before long we Methodists will be more Anglican than the Anglicans. I hope that whatever Covenants or Agreements may be made by the two denominations in future, we shall each be allowed to keep our own traditions and our own identity. May there be a friendly co-operation rather than a complete take-over by either denomination.