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Methodist Central Hall in London was bathed in blue light on Oct. 24, 2016, as part of the year-long commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. The building hosted the organization's first assembly in early 1946

Methodist Central Hall serves the world from the heart of London

 

By Joe Iovino
March-April 2017

Fourth in a Series

During their visit to London as part of the 2016 Wesley Pilgrimage in England, United Methodist pastors and other leaders visited Methodist Central Hall, an impressive structure in a very busy section of London. Westminster Abbey is directly across the street and Big Ben is just a few blocks down the road.

Opened in 1912 to celebrate more than 100 years of Methodism in England after the death of John Wesley, the Wesleyan Methodist Church built Methodist Central Hall in Westminster as the home of a London congregation and the worldwide headquarters of their denomination. The Wesleyan Methodist Church is one of the predecessor denominations of today's Methodist Church in Great Britain.

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Choosing to build across the street from Westminster Abbey, the site of coronations and royal weddings, the Wesleyan Methodist Church made a statement about its place in the religious landscape of early 20th-century England. As one United Methodist scholar put it, Methodist Central Hall said, "We're here, and we matter."

In the United States, The United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., makes a similar statement to American policymakers about the importance of The United Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan Way

The church chose to raise the needed money to construct Methodist Central Hall in a uniquely Wesleyan way.

More than 100 years earlier, John Wesley employed a clever fundraising strategy. When the early Methodists sought to pay off the debt incurred in the building of the New Room in Bristol, they asked every member of the society to donate a penny a week.

To facilitate the weekly collection, Wesley divided the members of the society into smaller groups called classes, and assigned a leader to each class. Class leaders agreed to meet weekly with each member of their class to collect a penny and to pay for those who could not afford it.

Soon, Wesley saw relationships between leaders and class members as a wonderful way to assist Methodists in remaining faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. From these early roots, the small group ministry known as the class meeting was born.

In the early 1900s, the Wesleyan Methodist Church similarly asked every member to contribute a guinea (£1.05) toward the building of Methodist Central Hall. They were to give no more. The church sought to receive "one million guineas from one million members."

When the fund closed, they had exceeded their goal, raising 1,024,501 guineas.

More than a church

Also in the Wesleyan tradition of the New Room and other Methodist meeting houses, Methodist Central Hall serves not only the church members, but reaches out in loving service to the community surrounding it and to the world.

Wesley noted that part of being an "altogether Christian" meant loving and serving people. In his General Rules found in The Book of Discipline 2016 and at www.umc.org/what-we-believe/general-rules-of-the-methodist-church, he called Methodists to do good, to do no harm and to attend upon all the ordinances of God.

While Methodist Central Hall was constructed with many of the needs of the church in mind, it was also to be of "great service for conferences on religious, educational, scientific, philanthropic and social questions." Through the years, it has done just that.

Working for peace

For example, when Britain announced a declaration of war against Germany in World War II, the Rev. William E. Sangster was leading his first worship service as pastor at Methodist Central Hall. In the weeks that followed, Sangster organized a shelter in the basement of the building where he and other Londoners lived and slept for 1,688 days — more than four and a half years.

When the war ended and the newly founded United Nations was organizing, they selected Methodist Central Hall, also known as Central Hall Westminster, as the site of the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

From Jan. 10 to Feb. 14, 1946, delegations from the original 51 member nations elected the first General Secretary of the United Nations and appointed the first members to the Security Council. The first resolution the group passed was to establish "a commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy."

Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the delegation from the United States, read an "Open Letter to the Women of the World" urging the nations to increase opportunities and improve the standard of life for all women across the globe.

A plaque mounted on the outside of Methodist Central Hall and the "Minute Book" of that first gathering displayed under glass in the lobby remind visitors of the connection between the Methodists and this historic event.

Service to the community and world

While the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations is probably the highlight of Methodist Central Hall's history of serving the causes of human rights and peace, it is far from the only such occasion.

In that same room, Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. each spoke.

It has hosted several inquiries, including part of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry to determine responsibility for the shooting deaths of 14 civilian protesters by British soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1972.

In lighter moments, Methodist Central Hall displayed the FIFA World Cup trophy in early 1966 in preparation for England's hosting of the international football (soccer in the United States) tournament that summer.

It was the site of the first public performance of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose father, William Lloyd Webber, was musical director at Methodist Central Hall.

In recent years, Methodist Central Hall has been the place for many to ring in the New Year as part of the "Rock Big Ben" New Year's Eve concerts broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

In many ways, Methodist Central Hall stands as a model of the continued work of John Wesley's General Rules written not so long ago.

"It is therefore expected," Wesley wrote of those who desired to continue in a Methodist society, "that they should evidence their desire of salvation ... [by] doing no harm,... doing good" and "attending upon all the ordinances of God."

As a place of worship and peace, a place where the world gathers to wrestle with difficult questions and communities gather to celebrate, Methodist Central Hall celebrates and continues in the tradition of the ministry of John Wesley and the people called Methodist.

UMC.org writer the Rev. Joe Iovino and United Methodist Communications photographer Kathleen Barry were part of the July 2016 Wesley Pilgrimage in England. The 2017 tour will be July 10-20. Learn more at umcdiscipleship.org/wesleypilgrimage. This article was originally published as part of a series at www.umc.org.