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).

Methodism as an Extraordinary Ministry

Some people have suggested that if John Wesley were born in another century, or another country – that is, in a Catholic time or place – he might have founded a religious order, rather than a movement which ended up becoming a new church.   Although he was not able to convince his followers to uphold his views on the matter, Wesley consistently argued that Methodism was a religious society within the Church of England, rather than a distinct Christian church.  The decisions he made which led toward separation (notably his ordinations of ministers for America) were done under necessity.  In other words, he did not want to compete with the Church of England, and only ordained ministers in places where the Church was not keeping up with the demands of the mission (and ignoring his pleas that it grant ordinations to his preachers to fill the gaps).

I came across this discussion of the issue by Gordon Rupp from 1968.  Rupp makes reference to Wesley’s remarkable 1789 sermon, “The Ministerial Office” (now identified in the scholarly literature as “Prophets and Priests”).  Here, as Rupp notes, Wesley does some creative exegesis in order to establish his claim of  a distinction between the priestly and prophetic ministries, while maintaining that Methodism must be understood as the latter.

The issue, particularly in the way that Rupp frames it here, raises classic issues that I hope my dissertation on “eccleisal charisms” might help to answer.  While I won’t be making my arguments in the same way as Wesley, my conclusions will end up supporting Wesley’s distinction between ordinary and extraordinary ministies.

Here then, is a claim to be called by God, to an extraordinary ministry of evangelism and of building up men and women to salvation (for John Wesley claimed that the doctrine of perfect love was the grand depositum of Methodism for which God appeared to have chiefly raised them up).

But the Methodists had a double pattern of spirituality. There were the ordinances of the Church of England, of Word and sacraments.  There was also the spiritual fabric of the Methodists, the intimate bands which were almost lay confessionals, the class meeting which was the essential cell, or koinonia, the love feasts and the occasional splendid eucharistic solemnities when thousands gathered at the Lord’s table and when Wesley and his ordained Anglican friends administered…

Wesley himself distinguished clearly between the commission to preach and authority to administer the sacraments: the first he thought a prophetic office, the second to depend on ecclesiastical authority.  He developed this in his sermon on “The Ministerial Office.”  He affirms that in ancient times the office of a priest and that of a preacher were distinct – from Noah to Moses “the eldest of the family was the priest, but any other might be the prophet”.  So in the New Israel, in the early Church, “I do not find that ever the office of Evangelist was the same with that of a pastor, frequently called a bishop.  He presided over the flock and administered the sacraments.”  In this light, Wesley goes on, are the lay preachers of Methodism to be regarded.  “We received them wholly and solely to preach, not to administer the sacraments…In 1744 all the Methodist Preachers had their first Conference.  But none of them dreamed that being called to preach gave them any right to administer sacraments.”

Whatever we think of Wesley’s strange view of sacred history in the matter of priests and prophets, and his sometimes eccentric exegesis, his distinction is important and deserve serious consideration, for it had important practical consequences.  While he lived, the Methodists who acknowledged his authority did not permit laymen to administer the sacraments…It was the failure of the bishop of London, despite repeated petitions, to provide sufficient clergy for North America, and the ecclesiastical chaos caused by the War of Independence, which led Wesley in 1784 to ordain four clergymen for America, and in later years a handful of clergy for Scotland and England.

At the end of his life, Wesley pondered the swift, deep extension of the revival to the very ends of the land.  Though he did not live to see it, the great work was to be repeated in the next generation in North America, the West Indies, Africa, Australia and the islands of the Pacific.  His own comment on it was: “What hath God wrought!”  and whether we take it affirmatively, or whether we turn it into a question mark, it is the question which John Wesley and his work ask of contemporary ecumenical theology.

From Gordon Rupp, “John Wesley: Christian Prophet,” in Prophets in the Church, Concilium 37, ed. Roger Aubert (New York: Paulist, 1968), 54-56.