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.

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.

Methodist Influence on Isaac Hecker

One of the reasons I chose to study the Paulist Fathers alongside The Salvation Army in my dissertation is because the Paulist Founder, Isaac Hecker, had connections to the Methodist tradition.  Hecker’s Methodist grounding was tenuous, and nothing like William Booth’s ardent devotion to all things Wesleyan.  Booth is famously quoted as describing his early commitment to Methodism in the following terms: “To me there was one God, and John Wesley was his prophet.” (Booth-Tucker, Life of Catherine Booth, I: 52). Hecker had a fairly negative view of all the Protestant denominations, and spoke very negatively of his religious upbringing.  However, some have suggested that Methodism had more of an influence on Hecker than he himself might have wanted to acknowledge.

Issac Hecker was born in New York, the son of German immigrants, in 1819.  His parents married in the Dutch Reformed Church, but his mother Caroline soon joined the Methodist Church, and was a faithful member of Forsythe Street Church for the remainder of her life, even though most of her family members had no association with Methodism.  Of the four Hecker children, only one, Elizabeth, joined her mother’s church.  Caroline Hecker seems to have maintained a remarkably tolerant attitude in matters of religion, and was quite content to let her sons worship in other traditions.

Although not a great deal is known of Isaac Hecker’s involvement with the Methodists, it seems clear that he did have at least some exposure to Methodism as a child, and he had his first job working for a Methodist publishing house.  Vincent Holden, one of his biographers, claims Hecker “became acquainted with fundamental Methodist doctrine and with the Methodist form of worship.”  (The Yankee Paulp. 7)

Indeed, it has been argued that some of the Methodist ethos remained with Hecker in subtle ways throughout his life.  The point is made by John Farina, both in his Introduction to Isaac T. Hecker, The Diary: Romantic Religion in Ante-Bellum America, as well as in chapter 2 of his book, An American Experience of God.

Farina highlights several features of Methodism that would have been formative to Hecker’s early religious instruction, and which remained prominent in his own thinking and experience throughout his life:

  • The ideal of Christian community
  • A doctrine of God’s special providence
  • The doctrine of Christian perfection
  • A focus on personal experience
  • An emphasis on free will and human agency

Anyone picking up Hecker’s own writings, or reading the story of his life, can see how these emphases remained an important part of his spirituality after he became a Catholic.

Hecker was surely exaggerating when he later claimed, “no positive religious instructions were imparted to me in my youth.” (The Paulist Vocation, 49).  By the time he had reached adolescence, however, he seems to have decided that Methodism was not sufficient for the spiritual desires he felt had been placed in his own heart.  He started off on a circuitous spiritual quest that led him through political action and Transcendentalism, before he came back to the Christian Church, and eventually entered the Roman Catholic church.

Hecker was an enthusiastic Catholic, and had some strong criticisms for the Protestant traditions. In a document submitted to his spiritual directors in Rome as part of his petition for permission to found the Paulists (1858), Hecker recalled that he considered the various protestant bodies but “none answered the demands of my reason or proved satisfactory to my conscience.” In The Paulist Vocation, 52.

More specifically, regarding Methodism, Hecker commented in 1887: “…in our time it had no stated intellectual basis.  It was founded totally on emotional “conversion,” with the notorious exclusion of the intellect.” See “Dr. Brownson and Catholicity,” The Catholic World 46 (November 1887): 231.

Farina suggests that his critique of the “intellectual basis” of Methodism (and other protestant traditions) was aimed not at the internal coherence of protestant doctrine, but more fundamental questions about the nature of religious faith, and the correspondence between inner religious experience and the external world (Farina, An American Experience of God, 29).

In spite of his criticisms of the Methodism he had known as a child, I think Farina is correct in suggesting that Methodist influence can be seen in Hecker’s own thought.  I hope that at some point in my future writing I will have a chance to take up this question and provide a thorough scholarly demonstration the Methodist influence on Hecker.

Book Review – Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community

Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, both professors of evangelism as United Methodist seminaries, wrote Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010) as a contribution to the “New Monastic Library” series, from Wipf and Stock.   The book is an engagement with the “new monasticism” movement from a specifically United Methodist perspective.  The authors are both advocates for new monasticism as a renewal movement, and both are involved in new monastic communities.   Heath and Kisker see the new monasticism as a way forward in the quest to renew the Methodist tradition in America.

New monasticism is a relatively recent movement of Christians who are banding together and forming intentional communities of radical discipleship, often (but not always) including communal living in what New Monastics call “the abondoned places of empire.”  Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way community in Philadelphia are probably the most well-known examples of new monasticism, but there are many others.  If you’re trying to get a sense of what the movement is about, look up the 12 Marks of New Monasticism.  For a book-length introduction, see Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008).

Heath and Kisker have written a book which is aimed at a United Methodist audience.   That means they document new monastic communities within the UMC, locating them within the broader new monastic movement, and they also lay out a proposal for further development of new monastic communities in the UMC.   In doing this, they argue that the new monasticism resonates with the heart of the Wesleyan vision for Christian community.  That is, they argue that Methodists can embrace the new monasticism as an authentic re-envisioned embodiment of the original Methodist communities.

After an opening chapter in which the authors recount their personal stories, the book spends two chapters looking at the history of intentional communities in the church: an initial chapter focused mainly on the history of monasticism in the early church and the middle ages, followed by a chapter discussing “Protestant Models of Intentional Community.”  The book does not present detailed scholarship (that is not its purpose), but provides an interesting narrative of church history from the perspective of intentional communities and their role in renewing the church.  So, the Anabaptist, Pietist, Moravian, and Methodist movements are laid out as part of a history of intentional communities of radical discipleship – a history that extends back to the ancient monks of the Egyptian desert.  The point is not to say that Methodism (which is the main focus of the book) was “monastic,” but that it shared many of the aims and features of monastic communities, in its own way, even as its forms of life were more directly borrowed from the Anglican religious societies and the Moravians.

Next, in chapter four, Heath and Kisker briefly describe the new monasticism, focusing particularly on how United Methodists have become involved.  The fifth chapter was the one I found most interesting, because it makes some concrete suggestions about how the UMC could embrace new monasticism.  For example, a rule of life is offered, based on United Methodist membership vows.  Phoebe Palmer is presented as a potential “patron saint” of new monasticism, someone who “embodied just about everything that the new monasticism holds dear” (53).  And the chapter deals with such concrete issues as appointments and the possibilities of bi-vocational ministry.   The book closes with reports from three United Methodist new monastic communities.

This is a very short book, and as I said above, it is not an attempt at rigorous scholarship, though it is well written.  It’s very accessible, and it offers an interesting window on the new monastic movement from a Methodist perspective.  Because it is aimed specifically at a United Methodist audience, I did feel at times like I was listening in to someone else’s conversation.   But I think this was a necessary consequence of the authors’ choice to write specifically for United Methodists.

As a Wesleyan who is interested in the history and theology of renewal movements I find the prospect of a “Methodist new monasticism” to be very intriguing.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, the origin of Methodism as a religious society in the Church of England means that Methodists have inherited a somewhat ambiguous ecclesial status.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Methodists longing for renewal would attempt to return to radical forms of intentional community as a way of re-connecting with the Methodist ethos in a new context.

The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers: two interesting cases of missional diversity in the church

I’m switching gears now with my dissertation and moving into writing about two historical case studies: The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers.   While these two particular movements might seem like an odd pair, there are a number of reasons why I’m looking at them.

First of all, there are a number of similarities between their two founders, William Booth and Isaac Hecker.   They were near-contemporaries in age (Booth lived 1829-1912 and Hecker 1819-1888).  Both have Methodist roots, with Booth originally ordained in a Methodist tradition  and Hecker raised at Forsyth Street Church in New York City.  Both are, in many respects, men of their time, typifying the optimistic, industrious, world-encompassing spirit of the nineteenth century.  Both were “home missionaries,” who brought a missionary approach to ministry in their native countries, and each could be classified as “revivalists” in their respective traditions.  Both Booth and Hecker began their ministries in other movements – Booth the Methodist New Connexion, Hecker the Redemptorists – and both ended up branching out to found their own missionary societies because of conflicts with established leadership of those movements.  Finally, both eventually developed comprehensive visions for the worldwide mission of the Church.

I’m also interested in these two movements because they both raise interesting questions about unity and diversity in the church – questions I think might be addressed using the theology of ecclesial charisms.

The Salvation Army is an interesting case because of its original insistence that it was a missionary movement, and not a church, even while it remained independent of any formal ties to a church. Its members were not members of any other churches, creating the strange situation where Salvationists could claim to be Christians but to not be part of any church.  A decisive historical moment in the movement’s history came in 1882, when a series of serious discussions with the Church of England caused William Booth to ask himself if The Salvation Army should remain an independent mission or be placed under the auspices of the Church (if you’re interested in this episode see Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth, 140-145). The fact that such discussions took place shows that Booth was not completely sure whether or not he wanted the Army to remain autonomous.  The fact that they decided to remain independent was the result, I believe, of a lack of clarity regarding ecclesiological questions (noted by Green, p. 144-145).  The Army’s independence was of decisive significance for its future course, including its non-sacramental stance and its slow progression towards claiming “churchly” status.

The Paulists, on the other hand, were never outside of the Church’s fold, but rather press the question of unity and diversity from the side of the Church’s authoritative discernment.  First of all, very early in their history they were forced to make a compromise regarding their specific mission.  The founding members wanted to be an exclusively missionary society, but they could not find a Bishop who would support them unless they took on a parish.  This meant that they had to divert some of their energy to traditional parish concerns.  It seems that the bishops they approached did not recognize the particular gift of the Paulists, and so, in order to remain a part of the Catholic church, they were forced to compromise.  Another Paulist “gift” that wasn’t recognized was Hecker’s progressive ecclesiology, in which he saw the Spirit at work, adapting the Church to particular cultures and places, in concert with the providential developments in each society.  In Americathis meant making Catholicism more “American,” by becoming more democratic and embracing the separation of Church and state. This was not received well by a Catholic hierarchy which was struggling to ensure uniformity around the world, and had been marginalized by democratic governments throughout the nineteenth century.    After Hecker’s death, his ideas were taken out of context and twisted into the “phantom heresy” of “Americanism,” which was censured by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae, issued in 1899.

If the theology of charisms is in fact useful in helping us to understand reform movements as a legitimate form of diversity in the Church, then it should be able to be applied to these two cases.  My hope is that a study of their history and self-understanding, along with a sustained critical engagement with the theology of charisms in the context of the question of the church’s visible unity, will clarify some of the questions surrounding the limits of legitimate diversity in the church.

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

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.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.

Hymns that didn’t last: “Ah, Lovely Appearance of Death”

It’s interesting to speculate as to which hymns and songs we sing today will still be in use in the decades and centuries to come.   This is the kind of question that can’t really be answered until the hymns and songs in question have stood the test of time.  One way to think about it is to look back on hymns from the past that are no longer in use today.

Here’s an interesting one from Charles Wesley, called “Ah, lovely appearance of death.”  We don’t sing about death too much these days.  We don’t even like to talk about it, actually – we avoid the topic of death at all costs.   But it was not always so.  In much of human history, death was a much less “avoidable” topic – it was simply a part of every day life.

The early Methodists believed in “holy dying” as well as “holy living.”  That is, they thought a holy life needed to be crowned by a holy death, and therefore they spent significant time reflecting on what it meant to die well.  Methodist publications would frequently include death-bed stories, as examples to other believers about how death was to be faced.

Reading this hymn today seems almost comical – there’s just no way you’d get away with singing about the delight of  surveying a corpse in today’s Church.   Still, though we might not sing it, there could be a lesson here for us:  this hymn reminds us that as Christians, we ought to be able to talk freely about our mortality.   We don’t need to fear death – but we shouldn’t avoid talking about it either.

Any suggestions as to good hymn tunes for this gem?

 

Ah, lovely appearance of death!

What sight upon earth is so fair?

Not all the gay pageants that breathe

Can with a dead body compare.

With solemn delight I survey

The corpse when the spirit is fled,

In love with the beautiful clay,

And longing to lie in its stead.

 
 

How blest is our brother, bereft

Of all that could burden his mind;

How easy the soul that has left

This wearisome body behind!

Of evil incapable thou,

Whose relics with envy I see,

No longer in misery now,

No longer a sinner like me.

 
 

This earth is afflicted no more

With sickness, or shaken with pain;

The war in the members is o’er,

And never shall vex him again;

No anger henceforward, or shame,

Shall redden this innocent clay;

Extinct is the animal flame,

And passion is vanished away.

 
 

This languishing head is at rest,

Its thinking and aching are o’er;

This quiet immovable breast

Is heaved by affliction no more;

This heart is no longer the seat

Of trouble and torturing pain;

It ceases to flutter and beat,

It never shall flutter again.

 
 

The lids he seldom could close,

By sorrow forbidden to sleep,

Sealed up in eternal repose,

Have strangely forgotten to weep;

The fountains can yield no supplies,

These hollows from water are free,

The tears are all wiped from these eyes,

And evil they never shall see.

 
 

To mourn and to suffer is mine,

While bound in a prison I breathe,

And still for deliverance pine,

And press to the issues of death.

What now with my tears I bedew

O might I this moment become,

My spirit created anew,

My flesh be consigned to the tomb!

#47 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780).