Fifth Annual Wesley Studies Symposium at Tyndale Seminary

Richard Watson via wikimedia commonsOnce again this year Tyndale Seminary is hosting a Wesley Studies Symposium.   This symposium aims not only to promote Wesleyan scholarship in the Canadian context, but also to help build a network of people interested in Wesleyan theology and history.

Although this is an academic event, we purposely blur the lines a bit between scholarship and ministry, in part because it is thoroughly Wesleyan to integrate theology and practice.  So we typically have a nice mix of academics, graduate students, and practitioners in attendance.

The Symposium is scheduled for Tuesday March 12, and we have another interesting lineup of papers covering a range of topics and disciplines.   The papers to be presented this year are:

  • “Rediscovering Discipleship as a Pathway to Ekklesial Reformation – Wesley did!!” by Cliff Fletcher (Pastor, Whitby FMC / DMin graduate, Gordon-Conwell).
  • “The Importance of Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes for Methodist History,” by Barry Hamilton (Northeastern Seminary).
  • “Leading with the Ear: The Church as a Listening Community,” by Aaron Perry (Pastor, Centennial Road Standard Church / PhD Candidate, Regent University).
  • “The Character of God Revealed by The Incarnate Word in the Theology of John Wesley,” by Niven Harrichand (ThM graduate, Tyndale).
  • A Book Panel on Witnesses of Perfect Love: Narratives of Christian Perfection in Early Methodism, by Amy Caswell [Panelists TBA]

After dinner we will have a guest lecture by Donald E. Burke (President, Booth University College, Winnipeg) on “Salvation for Both Worlds: Contours of a Wesleyan/Biblical Social Theology.”

Registration is free, and you can sign up here. Please spread the word about this event among those who might be interested.

Sermon: A Testimony to Hope

Yesterday I was privileged to give this short sermon at the funeral of my Uncle, who died suddenly last week.   He had left some guidance about what he would like for the service, including the scripture readings: Psalm 31:1-5, Matthew 8:5-13, and Revelation 21:3-7.  

In a different setting I would have taken the time to explain that the Isenheim altarpiece I talk about at the beginning was a favourite painting of Karl Barth, and that it was through Barth that I first encountered the long pointing finger of the Baptist – but I didn’t think it was the time or place for a discussion of Barth.

Isenheim altarpiece via ibiblio

In a small museum in Northeastern France, there is a famous sixteenth-century altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim.  In the centre of this massive work of art is Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross.  On his right, his mother, Mary, collapses into the arms of the beloved disciple, John, overcome by her grief.  At his feet, Mary Magdalene prays fervently, the jar of perfume ready and waiting to anoint her saviour.  But on his left is John the Baptist, standing out of place and out of time.  Of course John the Baptist was not really at the crucifixion, because he had already died, but the artist decided to include John in this scene. So there he stands, barefoot, with his cloak of camel’s hair, and his long beard; in his left hand, he holds an open book; his mouth is closed; but with his right hand he is pointing to Jesus. And in the painting that outstretched right index finger is disproportionately long; so as you look at the scene your eye is drawn to the long finger of the Baptist, pointing to the Christ.

Some have suggested that this image of John the Baptist is a model of Christian witness.  This arresting figure draws our attention only to point away from himself, to Another.  Though John the Baptist was, by all accounts, a very holy man – the greatest of all the prophets – his message was, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  And that is what Christian witness ought to be.  We do not proclaim ourselves.  We do not claim that we are always right; we do not preach that we are always good; we don’t think we have all the answers.  No – we point to Another, we put our trust in Another.

We are gathered here to remember Robert; Bob – Uncle Bob to some of us.  We celebrate his life.  We remember the person he was; we remember his good character; we give thanks for the wonderful things he did, for the times we spent with him, and the way his life intersected with each of our lives. We rightly praise him for a life given in caring and advocating for neglected people.  He spent his days trying to help people that most of us would probably avoid if we ran into them on the street.  The mentally ill might be the most marginalized of all people in our society today.  Helping these often-overlooked people was his life’s work.  There are many things about Bob that we can admire, and that we would do well emulate.

But as we gather to remember and honour Robert today, we also have questions.  Why did this have to happen?  Why now?  He’s gone too soon.  It’s not fair – it’s not right.  The truth is we don’t have a simple answer for those questions.  But as we struggle to come to grips with this sudden loss, Robert has left us with a gift.  It is not an answer to our questions, but he has left us with a testimony to the hope that was in him – the hope that allowed him to say, “It is well with my soul.”  All of the scripture readings and the hymns for today’s service were chosen by Bob himself, because they were particularly important to him. And as we read these scripture passages, and sing these songs, I think we are hearing Uncle Bob’s witness.  He is pointing us beyond himself, to Another.

“In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust,” says Psalm 31, read to us by Nancy; “…deliver me in thy righteousness…thou art my rock…for thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me…into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

This Psalm is about faith and trust. Faith is not some kind of “power” that we have inside of ourselves.  Faith is completely outward-focused; it is fixed on its object; and the value of faith is determined by the object that we put our faith in. If I have faith in something worthless then my faith is worthless.  If I have faith that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the cup this year, what good is that?  (I’ve used that illustration several times and for some reason it always gets a laugh.)  This faith that the Psalm is talking about is not that kind of wishful thinking, it is a sure trust and confidence in a loving a merciful God – a God to whom you can say, without reserve, “Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”

john the baptist detail isenheim altarpiece via wikipaintings

Rick read to us the second passage that Bob had chosen, about the healing of the Centurion’s servant.  And again, in this story, we see this outward-focused faith.  The centurion says to Jesus, “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”   Now, he could have come to Jesus and said, “Jesus, I think you should heal my servant because I’m a pretty good person; I’m kind to others, I give to charity, I’m honest – I think you owe me one.”  Now that it wouldn’t really be faith, because he’d be trusting in himself.  No, he says, “I am not worthy…but speak the word only.” In other words, “I’m not asking for this because I think I deserve it, I’m asking because I know who you are – you are the great physician; you are loving and merciful, and your word is faithful and true; just speak the word.”  And Jesus says, “Now that’s faith.”

And the final passage that Robert selected was about God’s promises for the future.  “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men…God himself shall be with them…God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying…Behold, I make all things new.”

These are wonderful promises for us today; and these are the words Uncle Bob wanted us to hear, as we gather today to give thanks for his life.  These scriptures that Robert loved are not an answer to all our questions, but they are like that long finger of John the Baptist, pointing us to a loving and merciful God; the crucified God; the man of sorrows; the one who is acquainted with grief; the God who went to the cross – the God who went to hell and back for us, and for Robert. Can anything separate us from the love of this God, from this Saviour, who not only died for us but rose victorious and is now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf?  We grieve our loss; but we do not grieve as those who have no hope, because the God into whose hands we commit our spirits is the same One who has already paid the price for our sins, won the victory over death, and promised us a future in which he himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Conflict with the Conference: Parallels between William Booth and Ralph Horner

I’m currently reading the recently-released book, Lift Up a Standard: The Life and Legacy of Ralph C. Horner, by Laurence and Mark Croswell.    Although Horner is not exactly a household name, he is definitely one of the most significant figures in Canadian church history, and perhaps the most significant in the 19th century Canadian holiness movement.

That is not to say that he was universally admired – on the contrary, he was a controversial person, and the dramatic and emotional nature of his services raised concerns from some of his colleagues.   Nevertheless, he was a very effective evangelist, and his ministry generated a lot of excitement in late nineteenth century Eastern Ontario.

Horner began his career in the Methodist Church, and as I’ve been reading of his conflict with the Methodist Conference (the governing body) I have been struck by the similarities between Horner’s story and that of William Booth, about 30 years earlier.  Both men desired to be itinerant evangelists, but came up against a Conference that was unwilling to allow them the freedom they were looking for in ministry.

Booth had joined the Methodist New Connexion in 1854 and was initially appointed as an evangelist in London.  He would have been happy to stay in this type of ministry, but after two years, the Conference began giving him circuit appointments – first to Brighouse, and then upon his ordination in 1858, to Gateshead.   Booth continued to communicate his desire to be free from pastoral responsibilities so he could focus on evangelism, but Conference continued to deny his requests.

Finally, in 1861, Conference attempted to appease Booth by appointing him to an important circuit in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and suggesting that he could engage in evangelistic work so long as he had properly arranged for the pastoral responsibilities of the circuit to be taken care of.   The Booths were not satisfied with this, however, so William resigned from the Connexion and went to work an independent evangelist.

Horner Revival Sermons via Internet Archive

Horner’s story is a bit different, but it centres around the same basic conflict between evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities.  Beginning in 1886, Conference appointed Horner to a series of circuits, however, every time, he refused to accept the appointment, arguing that he was called to a special ministry of itinerant evangelism.   Horner’s Conference, however, seems to have been much more forbearing, for in several instances they gave in to his requests and appointed him as Conference evangelist.

Conflict continued, however, and Conference used various methods in attempting to curtail Horner’s activities, including leaving him without an appointment at one time, and at another juncture instructing him to conduct services only under the direction of Conference.   Horner, for his part, was never willing to submit to restrictions on his “special” evangelistic activities.  As Croswell and Croswell summarize it:

It appears that the Methodist Church had no place for Ralph Horner’s ministry, and Horner had no place for the constraints of the Methodist Church (Lift Up A Standard, 62).

Unlike Booth, however, Horner was unwilling to resign, even when formally asked by the Conference.   Both sides seem to have genuinely desired to avoid a rupture of the relationship, but eventually it became clear that no resolution was possible.

It does seem Horner genuinely did not want to leave the Methodist Church, and to their credit the Methodists were doing all they could to keep Horner.   But Horner saw the church as drifting from the preaching and practice of early Methodism and consequently was trying to bring the church back to her roots…The Methodist Church was heading in a different direction and did not have a place for Horner’s interpretation of old-style Methodism.   Horner meant for his holiness revivals to be a renewal movement in the church, but the Conference saw Horner’s actions as insubordination and they could not treat him differently than any other minister (75).

So, after many years of conflict, the 1894 Conference again appointed Horner to a circuit, and decided that he would be removed from their Conference if he refused.   Of course Horner did refuse, and was suspended, before being formally deposed in 1895.  Horner would go on to found two denominations – the Holiness Movement Church and the Standard Church of America.

In part, of course, the stories of both Booth and Horner are part of the age-old conflict between established leadership structures and what are often called “charismatic” leaders.  Both men wanted to work outside the box of the established Methodist polity, and denominational leaders were unwilling to abide their apparent insubordination.

Croswell and Croswell also point to another issue, however (pp. 33-34), which I hadn’t thought of: the difference between the role of a “mass evangelist” (what Booth and Horner wanted), and the more traditional Methodist structures of ministry.   On the one hand, the early Methodist preachers were certainly evangelists rather than pastors.   Pastoral care and visitation in early Methodism was carried out mostly by class and band leaders, not preachers.   However, the early Methodist preachers were not free-ranging evangelists, like the “superstar” preachers of nineteenth century – Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, James Caughey, and later, Dwight L. Moody.   Methodist evangelists worked under the direction of Conference, and were appointed to specific circuits.   By the time of Booth and Horner, Methodism had clericalized to the point that the small-group structures were no longer in operation, and the circuit preachers had come to take on more traditional pastoral roles.

Influenced by revivalism, Booth and Horner wanted to exercise a truly itinerant and independent evangelistic ministry – something like the ministry of Finney.  Although these revivalistic evangelists had a significant influence in Methodist circles, their free-ranging evangelistic ministries were actually foreign to Methodist polity.   This helps to explain, in part, the conflict that both Horner and Booth faced with their respective Methodist Conferences.

A “greater effusion of the Holy Spirit”: Isaac Hecker’s hopes for renewal

Hecker via wikimedia commonsIn one of William Booth’s songs, he famously penned the line, “We want another Pentecost.”   Booth and his holiness movement counterparts placed a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit in their preaching, teaching, praying, and worshipping – an emphasis that David Rightmire has termed a “pneumatological priority” (see his article in the most recent Wesleyan Theological Journal and his book, Sacraments and The Salvation Army).

As I’ve noted here before, my dissertation compares the Booth and Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic movement from the same time period.   Although the two men are quite different in many ways, Hecker’s theology could also be said to evidence a certain “pneumatological priority.”

Hecker was possessed by a life-long quest for the renewal of human society.   He came to believe that societal renewal could only be achieved if individuals were renewed, and that such individual renewal could only come through religion.  As a devout Catholic, he believed that the Catholic faith was the one true religion, and therefore placed the Catholic Church at the heart of his vision for social renewal.

His particular emphasis on the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals, however, was somewhat unique among Catholic authors of his day.  While he drew on traditional Catholic sources, his particular way of emphasizing the Spirit’s direct work went against the grain of the majority of Catholics in his day, and raised some eyebrows.   He put the Spirit’s work in the individual Christian at the centre of his vision of renewal.  As John Farina has summarized, for Hecker, “The cure for the world’s problems was Spirit-filled individuals” (An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker, 150).

Hecker via bustedhaloHowever, unlike Booth, Hecker was keen to safeguard against potential fanaticism by grounding the immediate work of the Spirit upon individuals in the external authority of the church, which he also credited to the Spirit’s presence.

These twin emphases are abundantly clear in his book The Church and the Age.  Of individual renewal by the Spirit, Hecker writes:

The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age, and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul (The Church and the Age, 26).

The other side of the Spirit’s two-fold action, however, is found in the church’s external authority.

The action of the Holy Spirit embodied visibly in the authority of the Church, and the action of the Holy Spirit dwelling invisibly in the soul, form one inseparable synthesis; and he who has not a clear conception of this twofold action of the Holy Spirit is in danger of running into one or the other, and sometimes into both, of these extremes, either of which is destructive of the end of the Church (Ibid., 33).

Hecker 2 via wikimedia commonsOf course, most Protestants will note that individual discernment of the Spirit’s voice often comes into conflict with the discernment of those in ecclesial authority.  Church life is often filled with these types of conflict, and this raises questions about Hecker’s claim of an “inseparable synthesis” between the Spirit’s action in individuals and in the church’s authority structures.   When push comes to shove, how do we know which side is really hearing the voice of the Spirit?  As we would expect, Hecker takes the traditional Catholic line:

From the above plain truths the following practical rule of conduct may be drawn. The Holy Spirit is the immediate guide of the soul in the way of salvation and sanctification; and the criterion, or test, that the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, is its ready obedience to the authority of the Church. This rule removes all danger whatever, and with it the soul can walk, run, or fly, if it chooses, in the greatest safety and with perfect liberty, in the ways of sanctity (Ibid., 35).

In spite of his clear affirmations of the ultimate authority of the church over individual believers, Hecker was still accused of leaning too much towards Protestantism by some of his contemporaries.  While these concerns were probably overblown (as we might expect in the nineteenth century, given the state of Protestant-Catholic relations), he certainly shared a “pneumatological priority” with William Booth and his contemporaries, and some of his writings seem to point to a desire for “another Pentecost.”