20
Jan
11

Methodism as religious society-become-church

Continuing on the theme I posted last week: In the quote below, Albert Outler reflects on the origins of Methodism as a religious society, with a view to the way this has evolved in Methodist history.  As with many such renewal movements, Methodism became a sort of hybrid of “movement” and “church,” and its peculiar structures, practices, and culture reflect this inherited tension.  While the tension can be fruitful, it sometimes produces a certain amount of confusion regarding the nature of the movement-church, both for the membership of the movement-church and for their fellow Christians.

It is interesting that this text comes from the same time as the Rupp essay on Wesley as prophet.  In the wake of Vatican II, there was great optimism regarding the possibilities of visible Christian union.  Both Rupp and Outler are keen to stress Wesley’s insistence on Methodism’s ecclesial location as a movement within the Church of England, raised up in “extraordinary” circumstances to meet a particular need.   From the perspective of “ecclesial charisms,” the vocation to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” through the “irregular” ministry of lay preachers could be seen as the particular Methodist charism.

What happens when the specialized movement takes on the character of a “church”?  The original charism and vocation cannot help but be hampered, because the Methodists are now focused on doing all the things that the church does, rather than the specific vocation around which they were formed.  The church at large also suffers the impoverishment of being cut off from the ministry of those with the particular Methodist charism.   Again, with Rupp, he wants to stress that Wesley only broke with the Church of England because it was necessary for the provision of the mission of the Church in America.

Here is the quote, from That the World May Believe: a study of Christian unity and what it means for Methodists (New York: Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, 1966), pp. 59-63.

Methodism is a religious society that became a church without the complete loss of its character as a religious society.  Methodists are not always mindful – and many non-Methodists are not even aware –  of this dual inheritance from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions in the Christian community, an experiment in the fusion of “justification by faith alone” with a disciplined ethic of “faith working by love.”  The history of this society-become-church is often confusing both to ourselves and to our neighbours.  We are usually reckoned among the pietists – but no typically pietist group ever had anything like our General Rules and Discipline.  We classify ourselves as Protestants, but none of the classical traditions of continental Protestantism had anything like the Wesleyan ideal of “Christian perfection” and the Wesleyan concept of evangelical morality.   And yet, if the quintessential formula for ecumenism is something like “consensus in faith, community in worship, unity in mission,” then it would be true to say that Methodism has been ecumenical from the beginning.  John Wesley was a rebel and a church reformer, a critic of the standing order, and a rude disturber of the false peace of Zion.  Because he was convinced that the regular ministries of the Church of England were failing in their mission to the nation, he felt authorized by the Holy Spirit to raise up an irregular ministry of gospel proclamation and to organize a network of religious societies in England, Wales, Ireland – and later, America.  To these he gave a distinctive set of “General Rules,” a peculiar pattern of organization (classes, bands, etc.), a novel principle of lay-leadership, and a communal ethos that marked off the Methodists from the Non-conformists as well as from the “High Churchmen.”

Despite all this, Wesley was no separatist. He never lifted a finger to overthrow the power structure of the Established Church nor even to invade it.  The Methodists were ill-treated, but Wesley held them in the church and kept them loyal to the sacraments.  The Anglican bishops reacted in varying degrees of distaste and bafflement, but they wisely refrained from any resort to formal excommunication in dealing with these Wesleyan irregulars.

This self-image of an evangelical order within an inclusive church was not effaced even when the Methodist societies developed into separate churches with sacramental ministries of their own.   Thus we learned – or might have learned – that wide diversity within an inclusive fellowship is not only tolerable but can actually be a vital service to the cause of authentic unity.  The early Methodists deliberately retained their distinct ties with the ancient and universal community but, quite as deliberately, they insisted on their freedom in Christian mission and nurture.  Wesley had no qualms in his use of laymen as preachers in the Revival and as leaders of the societies.  At the same time, he refused, on principle, to allow these laymen to administer the sacraments which were available in the Church of England.  He even forbade Methodist preaching services to be scheduled in competition with “church hours.”  Given the violent and divisive spirit of the age, this uneasy maintenance of the Methodist societies within the unity of “Mother Church” is one of the most remarkable incidents in Protestant church history.  When, however, the American Revolution had deprived the Methodists in the new republic of any ordained ministry for the sacraments, Wesley proceeded – by his ordinations of Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, and Thomas Coke – to remedy this defect himself rather than to approve the pattern of sectarian self-ordination by laymen begun by Philip Gatch and others at the Fluvanna Conference of 1779.

Where was Outler going with this?  His phrase at the start of the last paragraph is telling, where he speaks of Methodist “self-image” as that of “an evangelical order within an inclusive church.”   I believe Outler longed for this to be recaptured in some way, although he was clear that this would be costly: “We are, or ought to be, willing to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God” (p. 75).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates

My book