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In Being Methodist, popular and well-loved J. Ellsworth Kalas uses his approachable style to address a topic that sometimes seems complicated even to those who have practiced it for years.
In this book, Kalas explores questions such as Who are these people called Methodists? Where have they come from, and where are they going? And how is it that so few of them really know what it means to be a Methodist? What makes them tick, and in a spasmodically changing world, what keeps them ticking?
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Being United Methodist
What It Means Why It Matters
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Once upon a time." That's the way our childhood stories used to begin, and something in us still wants to have just such a tidy starting place for all our stories, whether it's the story of a nation, an invention, a romance, a political movement, or a business. Or a religious denomination! It's often difficult to know the starting point for any "once upon a time." Most inventions, romances, or organizations are like human beings: there's conception, then a period of gestation before an actual coming to birth. The process is often so complicated that scholars can write dissertations on the birth of organizations, just as poets and novelists put together the pieces in a romance.
If we're to do justice to the movement called Methodism, then we need a scholar, a poet, a historian, and a theologian, plus some of the enthusiasm that Samuel Johnson found rather distasteful in early Methodists. Complicated as the process may be, we need to pursue it because we need to know where we've come from if we're to understand who we are and thus what we should be and what we might become. Nations need to know where they've come from and so do organizations, including religious bodies.
If I were to become quite pious, then I could say of religious bodies that it all begins with God. But I can't be satisfied with that answer because I don't think God is. Because God has created us as free moral agents, we always need to know the human element in our happenings, in the hope that perhaps we can live better with what we inherit and also do better the next time around.
For Methodists, it's a particularly complex situation because the Methodist story is difficult to categorize. Anglicans, like it or not, can locate their origins to a political power struggle between King Henry VIII and the Catholic Church. Lutherans date their origins by a climactic doctrinal issue, as do Anabaptists and the peace bodies that were part of the original Anabaptist movement. Unitarians broke away on a doctrinal issue, as did people who shaped the Pentecostal bodies. So many of these bodies and movements felt compelled to break from whatever constituted their mother church.
The Methodists, however, had no such story. There was certainly no political involvement in Methodism's birth, though we've been involved politically since then in America, England, and a variety of the new nations in other parts of the world. The people called Methodists had no desire to break from the church in which they were born, the Anglican (or Episcopal) Church, or even to reform it. Revitalize it, yes, but nothing as revolutionary as reformation. In fact, the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, remained in the Anglican Church even while some of their professional associates wished them gone. John insisted that the meeting times of the Methodist services should not compete with the times of the Anglican church services, and he rejoiced that his converts were faithful in receiving communion in their local churches. Perhaps it is no wonder that there is, in Westminster Abbey, a memorial honoring the Wesley brothers as a revered part of the Anglican story. John Wesley gladly declared that the Articles of Religion of the Church of England were hard to improve upon and passed them along to the American Methodists, in a form only slightly revised, to serve as the essence of their theological identity. The founders of Methodism didn't hate their ecclesiastical origins; they were proud of them.
There's still more to the story of Methodism's origins. Consider the night that loyal Methodists hold in particular regard as shaping their character. The Methodist movement had been in a fairly long and uncertain gestation period before this night, but the crisis came for John Wesley on May 24, 1738, when he felt his heart "strangely warmed" during a Moravian study and prayer service on Aldersgate Street in London—a place still identified by a historical marker as the birthplace of Methodism.
Now hear the story this way: the Methodist movement was born when an Anglican priest was listening to the reading of a Lutheran document while attending a Moravian gathering. No wonder, then, that Methodists are involved in almost every ecumenical, interfaith activity, and no wonder that the hymns of Charles Wesley, Methodism's cofounder, are sung in virtually every Christian body, Catholic or Protestant. Such warmhearted ecumenicity is part of Methodism's genetic code. We were born this way.
The Wesley brothers had a heart for their own Anglican Church and for the vigor of faith they found with their Moravian friends and the understanding of grace that was in Martin Luther; however, their ties went back still further. Roman Catholics were a decided minority in eighteenth-century England, often barely tolerated and certainly politically disadvantaged. But John Wesley somehow came to look beyond the usual judgments and prejudices of his time, to recognize the truths within Catholicism that belonged to all of Christendom, and to listen with love and sensitivity to the Catholics he came to know. One of Wesley's critics accused him of being "half a Papist," a derogatory term common at the time in referring to Catholics.
Wesley answered, "What if he had proved that I was a whole Papist?" then observed, "Is Thomas à Kempis, Mr. De Renty, Gregory Lopez gone to hell? Believe it who can." And when Charles Wesley's youngest son—much against his father's wishes—became a Roman Catholic, John wrote to his young nephew, "I care not who is Head of the Church, provided you be a good Christian."
It isn't surprising, then, that so many Catholics have come to feel kinship with the Wesleys—especially John. In her delightful book, Saint-Watching, the Pulitzer prizewinning poet Phyllis McGinley (a devout Catholic) spent a number of pages on John Wesley as among those "saints" she found outside the Catholic Church. "I admit I am prejudiced. I love John Wesley as I love Augustine and Ignatius and Thomas Aquinas and Teresa," she writes. One of my favorite biographies of John Wesley comes from John M. Todd, a Catholic layman in England. He concludes his biography, "[I] have prayed to God through him—not publicly as the Church prays through those declared to be saints—but privately as I pray for and to those who have been close to me."
The point is not that the Wesley brothers were Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox, as some students seek to align them) but that they found their roots in what John called "the religion of the primitive church, of the whole church in the purest ages"—the church Wesley identified by a list of such persons as Ignatius, Polycarp, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Ephrem Syrus. From its birth, Methodism has known that it belongs to something bigger than itself and something older than its own birthday. This strikes me as a very wholesome, very realistic, and very Christian point of view.
So, if the Methodist movement didn't begin as reformation or as a breakaway from some mother body, what was its impetus? In a pragmatic sense, religious movements are like a commercial product: there must be a market if they are to survive. So what was Methodism's market? Clearly it was not some passing fad, a product conjured in a gathering of bright, young religious entrepreneurs as just right for this time. It's no fad when it is still present nearly three hundred years later. In America, Methodism is a force to be reckoned with for its institutions, its incomparable geographical coverage, and the way it has permeated the nation's culture and thinking. In the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, it is growing numerically in sometimes spectacular fashion. True, three hundred years is not a millennium, but it is evidence that Methodism is no passing fancy. So how did it begin? What can we learn from Methodism's origins?
There was a need in England when Methodism came to birth, no doubt about that. Probably the need was no greater than in other parts of Europe and Asia, but that's another story. Methodism came to birth at a time and in a place where poverty was the norm and where most people had little reason to think it could ever be otherwise. The industrial revolution was gaining strength and villagers were changing small cities into industrial complexes. Halford Luccock and Paul Hutchinson once imagined themselves in a crowd listening to early Methodist preachers, and described it this way:
We were not an attractive crowd. Our social lords might employ French hairdressers and wear elaborate wigs, but our hair was likely to be matted, our scalps scrofulous, and one had only to come near us to know how seldom did we bathe. We were dirty, brutish. Most of our faces were pock-marked, for smallpox was an almost universal experience. Our clothes were ragged, made of cheap cloth and anything but in order. The pinch of underfeeding showed on many of our faces, and a sniff of the surrounding atmosphere was enough to prove that many of us were trying to make cheap gin do the work that should have been done by expensive food. And why not? Every sixth house in our city was a licensed grog-shop.
Speaking of grog-shops, there was a kind of bitter humor in a sign that appeared in some of those drinking houses: "Drunk for a pence, dead-drunk for tuppence, straw free." The offer was not a sociable drink but an escape—drunkenness that seemed better than the reality of daily life that so much of the populace knew. And when one had drunk himself into oblivion, there was straw in a corner where the body could lie until some measure of pained sobriety returned.
In such a time of human need, some of us would say that the church is the hope. Well, it should be. But in eighteenth-century England, the church seems often to have been more a part of the problem than of any solution. Certainly it was doing little or nothing for the kind of people Luccock and Hutchinson described. John Wesley put it with a directness that makes him sound like Martin Luther: "Nine tenths of the men in England have no more religion than horses, and perish through total contempt of it."
It's the contempt factor that was the worst. There's hope in the midst of a plague if people respect the physicians, and possibilities in times of war or social upheaval if the citizens have reason to trust their political leaders, and hope for the spiritual recovery of a nation if there are saints and prophets in the land. But England was a nation with a state church, and when church and state are one, both are in danger. Samuel Johnson put it sharply: "No man can now be a bishop for his learning and piety. His only chance of promotion is his being connected with someone who has parliamentary interest." Because bishops gained their office by way of king and parliament, they tended to be men who knew on which side their bread was buttered and who, therefore, worried more about keeping the favor of those in power than in meeting the spiritual and daily needs of those in their care.
Bishops of such a character were likely, in turn, to appoint persons like themselves who looked only for advancement. Perhaps the worst crime in this regard was the rather common practice of appointing clergy to several parishes with comfortable income, with these clergy then hiring curates—at a very low salary, often less than a footman earned—who did the actual work of the parish while the appointed clergy appeared rarely, if at all. Nevertheless, a hunger for God remained. One marvels that, even in the worst of times, the sheep look up, hoping to be fed, because they know instinctively that their hunger ought to be met. Thus, in the hundreds of country parsonages, there was a constant demand for devotional literature. Many good, even if ill-trained, clergy served these churches with commendable earnestness.
One should not conclude that all of the bishops and archbishops were as bad as popular history portrays them. Mind you, the system was conducive to abuse and most of us humans are susceptible to such attractions—and all the more so when power comes with it because power is the ultimate intoxicant. Nevertheless, there was enough goodness left in the Anglican Church of the eighteenth century that it could produce John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield and John Newton, William Wilberforce, and a host of less memorable souls. There was enough common sense in the Anglican Church that its leaders did not expel the Wesley brothers, even though it must have been clear that their Methodist Societies were, in so many ways, in direct competition to the Anglican establishment. I can hardly imagine contemporary United Methodism allowing any of its ordained clergy to build independent meeting houses in communities where a United Methodist Church already exists, as John and Charles Wesley and their followers did. In this respect, perhaps the state church system was a blessing. Because the church didn't depend on its members for financial security, its leaders weren't as troubled about the competition the Methodist movement provided. Otherwise they might have dealt more directly with John and Charles, and the Methodist movement might never have come to pass.
Perhaps we should put the matter quite simply and baldly and say that there was a need and that Methodism somehow met it. The need was deep and profound. There was financial poverty and social inequity, but these had always existed. The industrial revolution was intensifying these issues, however, and perhaps robbing people of some of the beauty and tranquility of nature that had previously made the poverty and social disorder easier to endure. There was a kind of endemic hopelessness; one could run from it by way of the grog shop and a stupefaction of sensibility, but always there came a time of waking up again, with the hopelessness still there.
Into that world a preacher came, John Wesley, as logical as a college debater, as earnest as a primary teacher, and as impassioned as a salesman who thinks this is his last prospect. And with him, music came: words by his brother Charles and tunes wherever they might be found but with a message that insisted there was God, there was going to be a tomorrow, and that one must live in a way that deserved tomorrow and intended to do something about it.
Perhaps, in the purposes of God and in the sometimes strange configuring of events that we call history, it was time. Is it possible that circumstances have to reach a certain degree of hopelessness before hope can flex its holy muscles? The classic biblical incident tells of a time when "humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil"; so much so that God regretted that he had made human beings on the earth (Genesis 6:5-6, CEB). And then there was Noah: "the LORD approved of him." He was "a moral and exemplary man; he walked with God" (Genesis 6:8-9, CEB). How comes a Noah, when everyone else is "thoroughly evil"? And how comes a revival within a church that is corrupted by its system and stagnant in most of its pulpits?
We need to know because our times have a peculiar crisis quality. We have lost our moral moorings because our generation is no longer sure that there is a moral compass. Something in our economics is slowly killing the American dream so that opportunity for all is steadily becoming increasing privilege for an ever-smaller number. Our culture has become like our eating habits—a drive-by, eat-on-the-run, get the quickest kick we can from our music, our dance, our sports, our books (what are books?), our communication.
As for religion, our yearning is still there. We still look up, hoping to be fed. But we look for spirituality, which remains comfortably undefined, and hear little of daily responsibility. We're hell-bent in a search for something new, appealing, clever, culturally competitive; who cares if it is only two inches deep and a mile wide? We know we need some saints, but we're not sure we'd recognize them if such should appear.
Is it possible that the movement called Methodism could once again rise to the need, as it did in eighteenth-century England and nineteenth-century America? Is there any place in twenty-first-century Methodism for the kind of renewal that came in eighteenth-century Anglicanism?
Perhaps the past can tell us what to do in the present so that we can walk with God into a redeemed and redeeming future. It's worth a try.CHAPTER 2
A VILLAGE THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE
Even with England's admirable system of public transportation, it isn't easy to get to Epworth, in Lincolnshire. Epworth is a modest village with a population just under 3,500. Yet thousands of people from every part of the world make their own kind of pilgrimage there every year. Except for some biblical towns, probably no community of similar size has given its name to a greater variety of organizations, spread over a wider geography than has Epworth. In the United States, there are children's homes and retirement communities, retreat centers and summer camps, and hundreds of churches that have taken the name. For some forty years at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, it was the name of the most vigorous youth movement in the United States and Canada, the Epworth League.
When Samuel Wesley came to Epworth in 1695 to become rector of its little Anglican church, he was a person of grand imaginings; he came eventually to see himself as the Poet of the Isle of Axholme, but he could never have imagined that people would be discussing him and his family more than three centuries later and that they would come to the village and stand thoughtfully by his burial place. I doubt that he intended to stay there for nearly forty years, as he did. Samuel loved to write, which he did reasonably well, and hoped to establish himself and augment his income by writing. But his greatest achievement, as it turned out, was in the family he and his wife Susanna raised, particularly their sons John and Charles, two of the nineteen children born to their marriage during its first twenty-one years.
Excerpted from Being United Methodist by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. How It All Began,
2. A Village That Made a Difference,
3. How to Be Exclusively Inclusive,
4. A People of Head and Heart,
5. What Methodists Believe,
6. A People Moving to Perfection,
7. The Redeemed Person in an Unredeemed Society,
8. Singing Like a Methodist,
9. How Methodism Became America's Church,
10. Methodism and Her Several Children,
11. Methodism Today,
12. What Is the Future of Methodism?,