Charisms and the Methodist approach to Christian Ministry

Recent ecumenical dialogue has turned to the theology of charisms as a way of building a common approach to Christian ministry.  As the landmark text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) puts it:

the Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world. They may be gifts of communicating the gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision. All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent (§M5).

The benefit of this approach is that it both a) grounds Christian ministry in the activity of God (because the Spirit gives the gifts which enable the various ministries) and b) grounds the theology of ordained ministry in the broader context of the ministry of the whole people of God (since the gifts are given to all, and therefore all are given a vocation to ministry).

I would argue that this consensus that has emerged regarding the theology of ministry comports well with the approach to ministry that has been practised in the Methodist tradition throughout its history.  This approach involved candidates proceeding through various orders of ministry, beginning at the local level, depending on the evidence of their gifts as seen by the community of faith. The early Methodist tradition followed a “bottom-up” pattern of discerning gifts for ministry, in which “local preachers” were chosen to assist in preaching and teaching the gospel in one location, and local preachers who showed evidence of gifts chosen to serve as “helpers.” “Assistants” were chosen from among the helpers, to assist Wesley in the oversight of a given circuit of Methodist Societies (hence their title was changed to “Superintendent” after Wesley’s death).   That was the basic track to what would later become ordination.  Beyond that, there were other important roles, such as that of the class leader, who basically acted as a pastor and spiritual director to the members of their neighbourhood small group.

This bottom-up approach to ministry makes particular sense when considered from the perspective of oversight.  Charisms are not self-authenticating, and they need to be discerned in the context of Christian community.  Each charism is interdependent, and in a sense is limited by the other charisms, like the parts of the body are interdependent and limited by their relation with other parts of the body.  Among the gifts is the gift of oversight, and those who have this particular charism are called to help others in the community discern and faithfully exercise their own gifts.

All of this best takes place in the local Christian context, where people know each other and can see each one living out their gifts in the context of the body of Christ.  So, first and foremost, the discernment of a call to any kind of ministry, including the role of pastor or teacher, should begin at the grassroots level.

Now, the fact of the matter is that the Methodist approach to ministry did not develop on the basis of an extended theological reflection on the gifts of the Spirit.  It was not even the result of thoughtful planning.  Rather it emerged, as Henry Rack says, through “a series of accidents and improvisations” (Reasonable Enthusiast, 237).  Wesley improvised the order of his movement in response to the needs of the time, believing that matters of church order were subservient to the church’s mission:

“What is the end of all ecclesiastical order?  Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God?  And to build them up in his fear and love?  Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to “John Smith,” June 25, 1746, in The Works of John Wesley, 26:206). 

In spite of Wesley’s “improvisational” approach, I would argue that the process that emerged is in fact quite consistent with a New Testament approach to gifts and ministries, and with the ecumenical consensus on these issues that has emerged in the past few decades.  Perhaps this was one of the ways in which divine providence was shaping the Methodist movement during its early years.

Remembering Margaret O’Gara

I was saddened to hear that Professor Margaret O’Gara passed away yesterday after a two year battle with cancer.  Margaret was a long-serving professor of theology at St. Michael’s College, with a distinguished record of research, publication, teaching, and service to the church. She will be remembered by many, including myself, as a great theological mentor.

When I began my doctoral studies in September of 2007, I found out that Margaret was on my supervisory committee.  My committee met without her, however, and I didn’t actually come into contact with her until I enrolled in her class “Breakthroughs and Barriers in Ecumenical Dialogue” in January of 2008.   I was somewhat unsure if I should take the class.  The course description looked good, and I was already convinced of the importance of doing theology ecumenically.  But I suppose I carried with me some of that typical evangelical reticence towards ecumenism.  One evangelical colleague even advised me that I should not take the course.  However, I was very glad that I did, because the course material, along with Margaret’s own teaching, played a significant role in shaping the direction of my dissertation.  In fact, I appreciated the course so much that I signed up for another in September of that year, “Ecumenical Dialogue on Authority.”

I was raised in a tradition that has a very strong sense of denominational identity.  Even more than that, The Salvation Army claims to have a distinctive mission within the broader Christian church.  I believe to this day that The Salvation Army does have a special vocation within the church, but I have pushed back against some of the ways that this has been explained and conceived in Salvationist thinking.  I think that Salvationist identity sometimes morphs itself into a prideful triumphalism, wherein The Salvation Army is seen as something “other than” or “more than” the church.  For this reason, I had, before studying ecumenical dialogue, begun to see all claims to a unique denominational identity and mission as problematic and divisive.

Margaret’s approach to ecumenical dialogue was to conceive of it as a “gift exchange.”  This idea was not unique to her – she drew it out of magisterial sources in her own Catholic tradition –  but she was able to express it in a way that brought helpful conceptual clarity to the process of ecumenical dialogue.  She literally wrote the book on the subject (see The Ecumenical Gift Exchange).  Her expertise on ecumenical dialogue was developed out of decades of participation in national and international bilateral dialogues, which included work with Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, the Disciples of Christ, and evangelicals.

When we began the class, she introduced the idea of the gift exchange, and asked us to introduce ourselves by sharing a) one gift which our church tradition could share with others and b) one gift we would like to receive from another tradition.  I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that both courses I took from Margaret were living examples of this exchange of gifts, as the students, drawn from a variety of church traditions, not only shared from the gifts of our own traditions, but studied the various gift exchanges that have taken place through the ecumenical dialogues of the past fifty years.

The idea of “gifts” found within different traditions is, ultimately, what led me to my dissertation topic of ecclesial charisms, though my argument proceeds along quite different grounds from Margaret’s conceptualization of the process of ecumenical dialogue.  I am looking at a more specific question about a particular kind of gifts (charisms) and how these might expressed corporately in ecclesial bodies of various kinds.  The specific idea of using the language of “charisms” in this regard comes not from the ecumenical dialogues we studied in those classes (though it is occasionally treated there), but rather from the Catholic theology of religious life (religious orders and societies in the church), which I am applying more generally and ecumenically to “movements” in the church.   Indeed, part of my argument is that the language of “charisms” should not be applied across the board to all of the various “gifts” found in our traditions (and shared in ecumenical relationships), but more specifically to personal gifts of grace which carry a vocational obligation.

Nevertheless, in spite of the differences, my dissertation on ecclesial charisms may not have existed if not for Margaret’s work on the gift exchange of ecumenical dialogue.  Not only that, but Margaret also provided a great deal of personal guidance and encouragement for the project.  She helped me work through the ideas as I was conceiving the topic, and also played a pivotal role in shaping my comprehensive exams, which formed the background for my work.  For example, it was Margaret who suggested that my second comprehensive exam should be on reform movements before the reformation – an idea I never would have thought of, but which gave me a wonderful historical perspective on various movements of reform and renewal, and how they  related to the established church.

I suppose, if it wasn’t for Margaret, I also might not have applied to work with the Commission on Faith and Witness at the Canadian Council of Churches.  I worked there throughout 2010 and 2011, and was able to experience the joys and frustrations of ecumenical dialogue for myself.  This only confirmed much of what I had already learned from Margaret in the classroom.  One of the highlights of my two years there was a three-person panel I helped organize for the November 2010 Governing Board meetings, entitled “Ecumenical Dialogue as a Gift Exchange.”  Margaret was one of the presenters.

There is much more that could be said, and I am sure that others, who knew Margaret much better than I did, will offer fitting tributes to her life and work.  I am just one of the many people she influenced.  I am truly thankful that, through God’s providence, I was able to benefit from Margaret’s wonderful gifts as a theologian.

What does it mean for the church to be one?

In John 17, Jesus prays the following prayer for the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

This text has always been foundational for Christians who are concerned about the unity of Christ’s church.  But there are a broad variety of perspectives on what unity should be all about.  As a kind of follow up to my post on the limits of legitimate diversity, I’m going to summarize six dominant visions of unity that cut across the denominational spectrum.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, though some are definitely in tension with one another.

Spiritual unity:  Evangelicals in particular have often emphasized that Christian unity is primarily a spiritual reality.  This emphasis developed in response to the Catholic and Orthodox emphasis on “organic” unity as the goal toward which all churches should move, and also a way to bolster the legitimacy of protestant denominations as bona fide churches.  This is a basic concept underlying denominationalism – the idea that the existence of separate church bodies is not contrary to God’s will, but an acceptable form of diversity, because underneath all our divisions we are spiritually one in Jesus Christ.

Visible unity: the call for visible unity has been paramount in the ecumenical movement.   The call for unity to be “visible” stresses the fact that unity is not merely spiritual (i.e., “invisible”).  In other words, our unity should be something that can be seen by those outside the church (obviously there’s a clear connection to Jesus’ prayer here – “so that the world may believe”).  Some people equate visible unity with “structural” unity (below), or a denominational mega-merger, but that is not necessarily implied in the concept of visible unity.  But real, shared fellowship, worship, and ministry are certainly part of any concept of visible unity.

Structural unity: Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox visions of unity typically include a structural component, although none of these traditions would want to emphasize the structural aspect of unity as paramount.   They would, however, insist on the idea that unity must include structures of authority, notably the historic episcopate.  Other protestant traditions might also envision some structures of unity as being highly expedient or functionally important for the maintaining of unity.

Doctrinal unity: The spiritual unity perspective is often accompanied with some sense that there needs to be a baseline agreement on doctrinal “essentials.”   For many, this means affirmation of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.  Others might draw up a list of basics – the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, inspiration of Scripture, and so on.  The flip side of this perspective is that anything that goes beyond the “essentials” is non-essential, and therefore disagreements on non-essentials are not church-dividing.

Unity in service: Another approach has tended to be characterized by the slogan “doctrine divides, service unites.”  People promoting this vision of unity are wary of doctrinal dialogue between churches, and would rather focus on working together on practical issues such as social justice.  The thought here is that most of our divisions are rooted in theological differences, and there isn’t much prospect of convergence on those differences.

Mutual Recognition: Some people feel that the church would be one if we could all recognize one another as legitimate Christian churches.  This might not seem like a big deal for some Christians, but historically many of our churches have condemned each other and declared one another to be outside the boundaries of the church (think Luther calling the Pope the anti-christ).  Some churches also have convictions about what it means to be the church which do not allow them to fully recognize other denominations as legitimate churches. Full recognition, of course, would involve recognizing one another’s ordinations and sacraments as valid.  Great strides have been made towards mutual recognition, but there are still many Christians who do not recognize one another.

Koinonia: A growing number of ecumenical thinkers are focusing on the concept of koinonia as  the best way to think about Christian unity.  This biblical term carries a rich breadth of meanings, including communion, fellowship, participation, and sharing.  The koinonia approach to unity begins with a conception of the Trinity as the divine koinonia, and stresses our koinonia as flowing from and being modeled on the divine kononia.  We participate in the triune communion of perfect love, as God the Father draws us to himself through the sending of Son and the Spirit.  The communion is therefore both “vertical” (between God and humanity) and “horizontal” (a communion that is shared with all who are in Christ).

This final concept has great ecumenical potential, first of all because it does not carry a lot of historical baggage.  It’s not a concept which is “owned” by one particular Christian tradition.  It also has great biblical foundations.

I wouldn’t want to exclude any of these concepts – the question is how they are related to one another, and where the priority lies.  For example, I would agree that unity is a spiritual reality, but I’m not comfortable with the spiritual unity perspective if it’s just used on its own, or as a way of justifying denominational divisions.   I’m still working through these issues now as I write my dissertation, so I don’t have any hard and fast answers, but I find it helpful as an analytic tool to lay out and compare these different visions of unity.

Unity requires conversion

NOTE: This post is my contribution the Rally to Restore Unity, hosted by Rachel Held Evans.  Head on over to her site, check out the wealth of great posts and hilarious signs about unity, and while you’re at it, consider donating to Charity:Water.

Anyone who is interested in the topic of Christian unity has got to read John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, published in 1995.  And with JPII being beatified last weekend, there’s no better time than the present to acquaint yourself with one of the former Pope’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

If you haven’t read it, and you’re a protestant, you’ll be moved by his humility, his wisdom, and his deep spiritual insight.   If you haven’t read it, and you’re a Catholic, you might be surprised that he doesn’t see Christian unity as merely being about a “return to Rome” (my Catholic friends tell me that many Catholics make that assumption).

Particularly towards the end, when discussing the role of the Pope in the quest for Christian unity, he says some very interesting things.  There’s his remarkable request for forgiveness from those who have “certain painful recollections” caused by actions of the Papacy in the past (§88).  Then, his reflections on Peter’s human weakness and helplessness as a grounding for his own “Petrine” ministry are an attempt to show that he by no means considers himself “qualified” for the job (§§90-93).  This is followed up by a request for help from Christian leaders of other traditions in envisioning a re-shaped Papacy that they might receive as a ministry of unity:

I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned…This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)? (§§95-96)

Adding to this spirit of humility is the way John Paul speaks of the quest for Christian unity as involving a conversion.  To be clear, he’s NOT saying that non-Catholics have to convert to Catholicism!  He’s saying that Christian unity requires conversion on the part of all Christians.  Of course he isn’t being original in saying, so but hearkening back to the teaching of Vatican II:

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (Unitatis Redintegratio, §4).

The conversion that the Pope (and the Council) are calling for is both personal and communal.   It is not simply a call to be nice and civilized to one another, but a call to “be more radically converted to the Gospel,” (Ut Unum Sint, §15) by which each of us is irrevocably bound to one another.   Today, we have become so accustomed to divisions between Christians that many of us seldom think about it, but our disunity is a scandal, and an open contradiction of the one faith, one Lord, and one baptism which we all share.

Rooting the call to Christian unity in the gospel itself means that JPII is calling us to recognize that unity is not an afterthought for Christian life and mission.

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape (Ut Unum Sint, §9).

Connecting unity, the gospel, and mission in this way is unsettling, because anyone can see that we fall far short of expressing the depth of God’s love in the way we alienate one another.  The only response possible is repentance and renewal – a conversion of our divided thinking, our divided practices, and our divided identities.

If anyone is thinking that this all sounds very Catholic, and that it therefore doesn’t apply to you (well, first of all, that way of thinking in itself is something to repent of), go and read the sections of the Cape Town Commitment that deal with unity and mission.  For example: “A divided Church has no message for a divided world. Our failure to live in reconciled unity is a major obstacle to authenticity and effectiveness in mission” (§IIF).

Protestants like myself tend to think of “conversion” as a one-time thing, but in Catholic thinking, conversion is seen as a lifelong process – a continual, Spirit-driven turning of the person away from sin and towards God and the truly human life which God desires for us and has pioneered for us in Jesus Christ.   Ecumenism (which I use broadly to refer to any efforts to restore unity among Christians) can be used by God to initiate this kind of continual turning.   As we encounter brothers and sisters of other traditions, we are drawn toward their examples of Christian life and their spiritual traditions – which often contain insights that are new to us.  At the same time, we are made more aware of the many ways in which our divisions impoverish and hinder the life and mission of the church as a whole.  JPII says it this way:

Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of “the mighty works of God” (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side”, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern (§15).

I hope the Rally to Restore Unity has been a time of conversion for at least some of Christ’s disciples – a time for celebrating the enriching differences among us, but also a time for repenting of the sinful divisions which keep us apart and obscure our witness to the gospel.

Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.

What is God’s Plan for Ecumenism?

That was the title of the episode of Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, which aired Firday night on Salt + Light TV.  Host Pedro Guevera Mann invited some representatives of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith & Witness to discuss the topic, and I was privileged to be interviewed along with my colleagues Dr. Mary Marrocco, and the Rev. Dr. Gilles Mongeau, SJ.

It is a huge topic, and we didn’t have nearly enough time, but it is wonderful that Salt + Light TV is showing an interest in ecumenism and trying to generate some discussion among their largely Catholic audience.

There isn’t an overwhelming interest in ecumenism on the grassroots level these days.  It was interesting to hear about why this is the case in Catholic circles.   In spite of clear teaching from Vatican II and subsequent magisterial documents like John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, many Catholics are still under the impression that ecumenism means bringing protestants “back to Rome.”    On the protestant side it would seem as if Christians are becoming more “ecumenical” in that denominational differences are no longer as signficant as they used to be.  Many people don’t really care at all about what denomination they belong to, as long as they feel at home in their local congregation.  But I think that it is precisely this dismissal of the significance of denominational differences that can undermine serious discussion about Christian unity.  If our differences don’t matter at all, then there is no reason to try to overcome them!

Still, the current situation is preferable to the hostilities of past generations.  And even if there is not an overwhelming interest in “official ecumenism” via bodies like the Canadian Council of Churches, there is, it seems to me, a lot of interest in “informal ecumenism,” as seen in some current trends in worship and spirituality (such as the growing interest in spiritual direction among evangelicals).

Salt + Light decided to do a show on ecumenism because this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which runs from January 18 to 25 each year.   This year, the week of prayer is focused on the church in Jerusalem, and the resources for the week (which can be found here) were prepared by Chrisitans from Jerusalem.   The theme is “One in the Apostles’ Teaching,” taken from Acts 2:42.

I’ll leave you with my favourite prayer from this year’s Week of Prayer service:

Merciful God,
may your life-giving Spirit
move in every human heart,
that the barriers that divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear,
and hatreds cease,
and that, with divisions healed,
your people might live in justice and peace.
We pray to the Lord.


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).

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 7: Charisms as Justification for Separation

One final perspective on charisms which needs to be discussed here is found in Oscar Cullmann’s 1986 book Unity Through Diversity.  Cullmann’s fundamental thesis in this work is that “every Christian confession has a permanent spiritual gift, a charisma, which is should preserve, nurture, purify, and deepen, and which should not be given up for the sake of homogenization” (Unity Through Diversity, 9).  Cullmann is concerned that the frustration of some with an apparent lack of progress towards unity is based on a “false goal” and a false hope of homogenization, which has no basis in the New Testament (14). The goal of unity should rather be a “union of all Christian churches within which each would preserve its valuable elements, including its structure” (15).

In making this argument, Cullmann claims to be drawing upon Paul’s understanding of the Church, which is “entirely based upon this fundamental truth of the variety of charisms” (18).  Basing his argument on the Pauline texts that deal with the charismatic gifts, he argues that unity can exist through diversity, rather than in spite of diversity.  The function of the Spirit in Pauline community is to create diversity, and yet “this does not cause fragmentation, since every member is oriented to the goal of the unity of the whole body” (17).  While he acknowledges that the Pauline image of the body and its parts was not originally intended to apply to churches, he argues that it is consistent with the meaning of Paul’s charismatic theology, and that Paul does, in other places, ascribe various “gifts” to different churches.

I expected to hear more from Cullmann on this point, but his sole support is a reference Romans 1:11 as an example of Paul ascribing a “particular mission to each of the different churches.” He goes on to argue that Paul views the one church to be present in each local church, a point which he believes underscores the idea of a “union of churches” where all are given equal ecclesial status (17).

Cullmann insists that he is not suggesting that things should simple remain as they are between the churches.  He suggests that relations between the churches should proceed on the basis of attempting to speak frankly to one another about the charism or charisms that we see in each other’s traditions (19).  He also notes that there are often “peculiarities” or “distortions” of the charismatic gifts that need to be weeded out by careful self-examination (16).  For example, Cullmann identifies essential charisms of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions as “concentration on the Bible” and “freedom,” but notes that these are often found in their corresponding distorted form biblicism and anarchy (20).

What clearly sets Cullmann apart in his proposals is that he speaks of a charism as being at the root of “every confession,” and that he argues that separation and autonomy might be necessary in order for these charisms to be safeguarded. The sinful element in these historic divisions is not the fact that churches are separate, but the fact that the separations have been hostile, rather than peaceful.

But in order to preserve certain charisms in their pure form, it was perhaps also necessary hat completely autonomous churches came into being (the Orthodox and the churches that derived from the Reformation). This would not necessarily and as such have led to a hostile separation which would have excluded every kind of fellowship (koinonia), the “right hand of fellowship” could have been extended here too, despite the aspect of continuing separation, as at the apostolic council (cf. Gal. 2:9; Acts 15:1-31) (31).

What Cullmann is arguing for, then, is a unity in continued separation, in which churches would remain autonomous but share in fellowship through a council or other structure of some kind.

The main thing is the achievement of a koinonia that is a true unity through diversity.  However it is developed as a conciliar organization, it should, without itself being the church as the body of Christ, guarantee unity through the fact that it brings to expression and awareness that in each of the individual churches that belong to it, and with its particular charisms, confessional structure, faith and life, the ONE universal church is present (64).

I’ll finish off this series (finally!) with some concluding thoughts on the typology in my next post.