What is going to be my problem – the problem of all of us thinking of joining in the new GMC – is to forge a new identity. But, we’re all Wesleyans, aren’t we? Well . . . are we, now?
Those groaning under progressive leadership and doctrinal pluralism have been stuck in survival mode for some time now. We are not used to being able to trust our leaders – a significant problem in itself. But not only that, in our separate fox holes (or maybe, catacombs) which we entered in order to survive, we have adopted all kinds of different doctrinal attachments. The result is that for all the many people crying, “But, Wesley!” there an awful lot of good traditionalist United Methodists who probably don’t have a really clear idea of what Wesley himself contemplated for his movement. Whatever I like, wherever I picked it up, I attribute to Wesley and think I’m in the center of the movement.
If we ask, “what is distinctive about Wesleyan Methodism?” we may be surprised at what we find. Methodists talk a lot about prevenient grace, but we got that idea from Jakob Arminius. We talk a lot about the new birth, but so has every renewal movement in the history of the Church. We remember that Wesley called the doctrine of entire sanctification the Grand Depositum of the movement, the great gift that God had particularly entrusted to us – but Clement of Alexandria was talking about it around the end of the 2nd Century, and the eastern monks developed it as theosis while the western monks called it “counsels of perfection”; indeed, Methodism itself has been called “monasticism for the masses.” Wesley is renowned for inventing the Class Meeting, except he got the idea from the Bohemian Brethren, who picked it up from medieval sources. Then, there is our tradition of conferencing – which is paralleled in many religious societies going back centuries. No doubt the way all these things are brought together in Wesleyan Methodism is unique, but none of these by iself is distinctively Methodist. What is distinctive about (American) Methodism, believe it or not, is our bishops – whose powers are derived from John Wesley’s mode of operations, not out of some medieval conception of succession from the apostles.
Meanwhile, we inherited all our basic dogma and structure from the Church of England, which Wesley hoped we would renew by our participation in it. Our adherence to the Creeds, our Articles of Religion, our ecclesiology (including ordination) and our sacramental theology (baptism and eucharist) are all basically Anglican. In effect, Methodism is an evangelical form of Anglicanism. But then, you can make the argument that Anglicanism is simply a reformed version of Catholicism. And the Catholicism the Church of England wanted to go back to was not that of the High Middle Ages, but that of the pre-Norman Conquest, the English Church whose identity was formed in the Seventh Century.
“Oh, but the Scriptures,” you say. “Surely, we must build upon the Scriptures!” Of course, we are ultimately dependent upon the Scriptures as the primary witness to the Faith. But how are we to read those Scriptures? I would say that if we make the mistake of reading them as the 19th Century did – or the 18th Century, or the 16th Century, or the 12th Century – we will be stopping short. The English Church Tradition from which we come begins with how the Scriptures were read in the Seventh Century. Wesley, of course, was very well read in the Early Church Fathers, as we should be, too. Our overall goal should be to read the Scriptures through the lenses off all times and places simultaneously, in order to filter out mere culture-stuff and see what is timelessly true; that said, we have little continuity with the church of the Roman Empire, but our culture of today (at least, in America) is directly descended from the Old English church. So it is when we reach the Seventh Century that we find the basic church we feel “at home” in. There is a central thread from that time through the centuries and upheavals since to Wesley, and to us. That’s who we are and who we should try to be.