by Ted A. Campbell
I re-read this book, prompted by several LJ conversations on ecclesiology and such matters. It's a moderately dense work, but rewarding.
The author places Wesley against the background of his age: the Caroline divines whose polemics promoted Anglican polity and practices as best agreeing with the practice of the primitive Church. The whole Church of England was on a historical jag, especially regarding the first few centuries of the Church, which they regarded as the purest in belief and practice, and as normative for the Church in all succeeding ages. This is ultimately also the source of that continuing interest by the English divines in Eastern Orthodox theology which has aroused so much comment in later days.
Wesley started out as a thoroughly convinced Anglican polemicist; in fact, he set out to outdo all others in his revivals of what he thought were ancient Church practices. Over time, the practicalities of leading a large mission effort (largely unforeseen by him) led him to re-evaluate his sources. The works of Edward Stillingfleet and Peter King, however, affected him profoundly. These writers used the ancient tradition to try to compound differences that others saw as incompatible, such as the Dissenter/Presbyterian tradition with the Anglican tradition.
The Methodist movement overseen by Wesley revived many ancient practices, including the love feast, which had fallen into disuse. It put a new spin on several other ancient practices, including effective church discipline. But perhaps no facet of Wesley's antiquarianism had a greater influence on the future course of Methodism than his change in conviction about the role and office of bishop.
Wesley came to agree with Stillingfleet and King (and, indeed, with St. Jerome*) that originally "bishop" had merely been the name of the head "elder" or presbyter of a community. Citing historical examples, Wesley came to argue that not all bishops could demonstrate what is now called "apostolic succession" -- that there had been gaps, even in famous sees. Citing Jerome's letter RE: the ancient Church of Alexandria, Wesley came to argue for the inherent power of the presbyter to ordain, which at a definable point in time had been surrendered to the bishop for the sake of good order -- but which remained an essential part of the order.
When Wesley thus came to the necessity of providing for the leadership of the new American church, he took it upon himself to ordain ministers and superintendents for the new Methodist Episcopal Church. He said that he had long believed that he, as a presbyter of the Church, had always had this inherent power to ordain, but for the sake of his obedience to properly constituted authority had not used it -- until now. He writes,
3. But the cause is widely different between England and North America. Here there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord's supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man's right by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest.
Bishops Coke and Asbury, in writing of the new Church and its polity, were at pains to base their position upon such argumentation (and specifically the evidence of Jerome).
Throughout his life, Wesley continued to show great regard for the early Church, its canons, and its Creeds. As a practical matter, though, he was reluctant to require over-precise theological commitments from people who would use them merely as party slogans. When John Downes attempted to smear the Methodists by writing
All ancient heresies have in a manner concentrated in the Methodists; particularly those of the Simonians, Gnostics, Antinomians, Valentinians, Donatists, and Montanists,Wesley shot back,
While your hand was in, you might as well have added Carpocratians, Eutychians, Nestorians, Sabellians. If you say, 'I never heard of them,' no matter for that; you may find them, as well as the rest, in Bishop Pearson's index.Nevertheless, it is also true that Wesley felt that the Donatists, Montanists, and the Novatianists had something to say for themselves. He saw them as attempts to revive the purity of the ancient Church, squashed by offialdom (which was the same then as now). They may have lost the argument (and perhaps rightly so), but they were many of them better Christians than those who were 100% orthodox by later standards.
Summary judgement: not exactly light reading, but rewarding, whether one agrees with Wesley's conclusions or not; one can at least get a clear sense of where the man was coming from.
*Jerome reference: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001146.htm