Christians must take greater risks in the cause of unity if they are to effectively counter the rising challenge of secularism, one of Britain’s most senior Methodists has said.
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port suggested that the churches were failing to effectively preach the Gospel in the West because they were assailed by problems within and without.
Speaking Chester Cathedral, the Labour peer cited clerical sex abuse scandals within the US Catholic Church and infighting over homosexuality in the Church of England as examples of corruption and divisions that were hampering Christian witness.
He said: “As far as the Free Churches, well they have been with their own problems and in my beloved Wales, I don’t know whether this Church is standing any more.
“The whole place has been completely stripped. We are in a bad time.”
The former President of the Methodist Conference then referred to a YouGov survey, published last week by Lancaster University, revealed that for the first time in modern British history Christians found themselves outnumbered by people who considered themselves to have no religious faith.
“Religion is simply irrelevant to them,” said Lord Griffiths, 73. “We can’t content ourselves any longer with a cosmetic response to the urgent question that God places in our way: ‘Are you going to express that unity which is my gift to you, will you ever express it … will you ever be seen by the outside world as an army on the march for God and for Christ?’.”
He continued: “I am 50 years old than I was when I was filled with idealism. I trust my idealism will not be replaced by cynicism.
“We are called to be salt, not to draw attention to ourselves, not to be prima donnas, to be active, working, adding value to life, making a difference, an army on the move.
“Our divisions must not stand in the way of the great task that has come upon us in these increasingly secular times.
“It would be a derogation of our duty if we let our divisions stand in the way of that.”
In his homily, Lord Griffiths in particular lamented the failure of the Church of England to unite with the Methodist Church.
He said: “For 50 years I have been hoping and praying for Church unity. The first Methodist Conference I went to in 1969 saw Methodism voting itself out of existence.
“For a few minutes, in those days before the internet was constructed, there was no Methodist Church. By the necessary majority of over 75 per cent we had voted ourselves away – only to find that the Anglicans in the congregation had not quite done it to match us.”
Lord Griffiths said: “We felt jilted at the altar. But since then, for 50 years, it has been my hope and prayer that we could do better than we have done and certainly to overcome that huge disastrous step way back then. The result – I don’t think we have.”
The Methodist Church has declined steadily with the advance of secularism, with recent figures showing that about 200,000 people attend Sunday services compared with some 800,000 in 1980, and most of them are above retirement age.
The Church of England has also recorded decline in attendance at religious services, with numbers recently dropping to a third of that witnessed in the 1960s. Mass attendance in Catholic churches has also plummeted by about a third in the last 25 years.
Lord Griffiths was the guest preacher at the ecumenical worship service, an event organised by Churches Together in Cheshire for the 2016 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
(Photo by Simon Caldwell)