Methodist HQ Alcohol License Application Sparks Abstinence Debate

The Methodist Church of the Great Britain, home to the Wesleyan Movement which influenced millions across the world, has decided to apply a liquor licence for the church’s headquarters building - Westminster Central Hall - in central London. The move has outraged the traditionalist in the Church and raised the sensitive question about the Methodist attitude to Christian abstinence, especially on alcohol consumption.

Westminster Central Hall has a very unique Christian presence in the heart of London for it does not only serve as a Church hall where Christians gather for worship, but it is also designed as a well-facilitated conference centre for social, cultural and business purposes so as to serve the wider community. The revenue that comes from the rental of the premises will be directly applied to the funding of mission or social work of the Methodist Church, both in the UK and overseas.

The Rev Dr Malcolm White, a Methodist minister who was involved in drafting the application, told the London Telegraph that over the last seven or eight years there have been many events held in the Hall that people expect to be able to enjoy a glass of wine, therefore an alcohol licence for the cafe and some of the rooms is needed. The managers at Central Hall Westminster expect that the sale of alcohol will provide a significant boost in business.

As the business improves, more funds will be available for the mission or social work of the Methodist Church as well, supporters of the application argued.

White insisted that the application was in line with a decision reached at last year's Methodist Conference which said that the five churches that also provided conference facilities should be allowed to apply for such licences. The Church has debated on the application of licences since 1999.

The headquarters building of the Methodist Church will become the first national church which is not an "alcohol-free zone", if the application is successful.

The Methodist Church rules prohibit the serving of alcohol on Church property. According to the London Telegraph, more than 60 Methodists from other parts of the country are compiling a written objection, saying that the application is in defiance of Church rules.

Beyond the application of the liquor license itself, more concern has arisen of the attitude of Methodists to Christian abstinence.

Historically, Methodists are closely associated in many people’s minds with the temperance movement. In the Victorian era, heavy drinking among the working classes was seen as one of the most potent dangers facing society, the Church was actively involved in the temperance movement.

Until 1951, the Conference made a strong appeal "to practise total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, not as a burdensome duty, but as a privilege of Christian service". This is said to represent the peak of official support for abstinence in the Methodist Church, and after this time such support declined rapidly.

In 1987, a Methodist Conference Report on alcohol consumption Through a Glass Darkly was released. It gave a formal recommendation to all Methodist regarding the use of alcohol. It allows Methodist to make a personal commitment either to total abstinence or to responsible drinking.

For those who practise total abstinence, they have to take special care to avoid authoritarian attitudes which may be counter-productive; and where they practise responsible drinking take special care to demonstrate that this also involves self-control.

In addition, the Methodist Church pledged to actively engage in the promotion of responsible attitudes to alcohol and in the support (whether directly or indirectly) of those suffering the harmful consequences of their own alcohol misuse, or that of others.

Quoted from a 1999 Methodist Conference report, it reaffirmed, "Methodist attitudes to alcohol have changed significantly in recent decades from a widespread commitment to abstinence, to one in which moderate, responsible drinking is more common."

John Wesley, who co-founded Methodism in 1739 with Charles Wesley, was not teetotal and once described wine "as one of the noblest cordials in creation". He was, however, against the consumption of spirits.

The Methodist Church has around 300,000 members in Britain.

The Church of England, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales are among those churches which require communion wine to be alcoholic, and which permit the consumption of alcohol on church premises. Many Roman Catholic premises have full licences.

The United Reformed Church requires communion wine to be non-alcoholic, but permits local congregations to decide whether alcohol may be consumed on church premises.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain leaves decisions about consumption of alcohol to local congregations. Baptist churches can therefore be found in which communion wine is alcoholic, and alcohol is served on church premises.