25 June 2010

Methodists live longer than the average Brit

Last Sunday, Stanley Lucas of Cornwall died aged 110 (born on 15 January, 1900). Stanley was thought to be not only the oldest male member of the British Methodist Church, but one of the oldest men in the world.

Is this sort of longevity characteristic of Methodists? Seemingly, yes. An analysis of family announcements printed in the Methodist Recorder carried out by British Religion in Numbers, hosted by Manchester University, shows that in 1973 the mean age of death for Methodist laity was 77.9 years for men and 83 for women. By 2008 these figures had risen to 83.9 and 91.1 respectively - well above the life expectancy for the UK population as a whole (77 for men and 82 for women).

Dr Richard Vautrey, GP and Vice President of the Methodist Conference, said, "I'm sure there are many different factors at work for Methodists to attain these numbers. But I would guess that our emphasis on caring for our spiritual as well as physical health, avoiding excess, engaging with people in our communities and being good neighbours all help."

The position for male Methodist ministers is similar, with a mean age of death of 83.4 years for those whose obituaries appeared in the 2009 edition of the Minutes of the Annual Conference and Directory of the Methodist Church. Since the Methodist Church began ordaining women in 1973, too few Methodist women ministers die each year to draw any meaningful conclusions.

And this is not a new pattern. Clive Field's unpublished Oxford DPhil thesis of 1974 revealed that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, the death rate per 1,000 among lay members of the various Methodist denominations in Britain was appreciably below the national level, especially in Wesleyan Methodism. Published studies by Kenneth Brown ('A Social History of the Nonconformist Ministry in England and Wales, 1800-1930') and Tim Allison ('An Historical Cohort Study of Methodist Ministers Examining Lifespan and Socioeconomic Status' - University of Manchester MSc thesis, 1995) demonstrate similar trends. More information about the research by British Religion in Numbers can be found at www.brin.ac.uk/news/?p=361.

Methodist commentators, both in the Victorian era and since, were quick to point out that the longevity of Methodists was not accidental. They posited a clear link between a religious, 'clean' and virtuous life on the one hand and a long one on the other. The avoidance of physical and moral excess was especially advocated.

The Church's annual governing body, the Methodist Conference, is currently meeting in Portsmouth, and begins every year with singing "And are we yet alive?", a hymn by Charles Wesley.

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