A foreword, and an apology: I had not intended to take August and early September off from this blog. But, thanks to several preaching opportunities, the need to prepare for fall classes, a wee bit of vacationing, and some badly timed illnesses (Lyme disease–who knew?), that is what I in fact wound up doing! I apologize for my unplanned and unannounced hiatus–it is certainly my intention to write at least biweekly. Thank you for your patience.
This blog relates to an assignment given to me by friend and colleague in ministry Rev. Liddy Barlow, director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania (CASP), a regional ecumenical agency founded in 1970, which “includes 26 church bodies (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) representing 2,000 local congregations and 1,000,000 Christians.” I serve as the United Methodist representative on the Theology and Education Committee of CASP, and we have been sharing with one another papers outlining the gifts each of our traditions bring to the wider church. So, here goes:
Years ago, when I was in parish ministry in West Virginia, my mother told me of an exchange she had with a Roman Catholic chaplain at the hospital where she was a coronary care nurse. When she told him that her son was also in ministry, as a United Methodist pastor, he teasingly responded, “Oh, those Methodists! They’re wishy-washy!” I thought then, and I still think now, that that flip retort actually comes very close to expressing the genius of Methodism!
Our greatest gift to the greater Church, I believe, is not some Wesleyan distinctive, but rather the opposite: as John Wesley himself declared in his sermon, “The Character of a Methodist,”
If any man say, “Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!” thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity, — the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.
Wesley, one could perhaps say, was an early advocate for what C. S. Lewis would call Mere Christianity, or N. T. Wright Simply Christian—not as some least common denominator of Christian faith (how much may I jettison and still call myself a Christian?), but as an affirmation of essential Christianity, of common faith and mutual affirmation—of what, in his Sermon 39, Wesley calls “a catholic spirit.”
It has not always been so. In his irenic and prophetic book The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), Robert P. Jones uses the Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. as one of the markers of white Protestantism’s decline and fall. Built in 1923 at a cost of $650,000 (“nearly $9 million in 2015 currency,” as Jones  observes), the purpose of this structure, one Methodist bishop then hubristically stated, was to “make our church visible and multiply its power at this world’s center” (Jones, 9). The Methodist Building was begun at the height of the Temperance crusade, a movement whose anti-Catholic biases were undeniable. But the building’s troubles (exacerbated, doubtless, by the advent of the Great Depression) were evident even before the Twenty-First Amendment, “an undisputable confirmation of Protestant leaders’ loss of political power” (Jones, 14) undid Prohibition in 1933. Today, in a marked shift from the overweening, exclusivist days of its construction, Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the UMC Board of Church and Society, declares that the Methodist Building’s current task “is to be an inclusive religious voice for justice” (Jones, 14).
As will be swiftly apparent to anyone following the link above to the full text of Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist,” even John Wesley himself was not always equal to his high rhetoric of “plain, old Christianity”! He could be abusive toward Roman Catholic and Calvinist Christians. But at his best, as in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit,” Wesley’s generosity of spirit was apparent. Early in this sermon, Wesley avers:
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.
In this sermon, Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15, which reads in the King James Version “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ And Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ ‘If it be, give me thine hand.’ And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.” Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”
I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”
By this, Wesley did not mean to call for “speculative latitudinarianism,” or “an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” Indeed, Wesley held that every Christian must hold her or his convictions firmly: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. . . . he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any.” That said, however, Wesley was also fully aware that “humanum est errare et nescire: ‘To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity’” (a quote from the Duke of Buckingham’s epitaph)—that is, “He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” This realization necessitates, in any reasonable person, a generosity of spirit:
Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart”?
I would venture, then, to propose that this catholic spirit could be Methodism’s greatest gift to the greater church. Ironically, it is a gift that we now stand sorely in need of exercising internally, as many in the United Methodist Church today would deny that generosity of spirit toward one another, either in favor of an empty, relativistic “speculative latitudinarianism,” or in the vain quest for some imaginary Wesleyan orthodoxy, wherein we may insist that love be shown only to those who think and act as we do, in bland homogeneity. It is yet to be seen whether my own movement will rediscover in itself Wesley’s catholic spirit, or whether we United Methodists will become what more than one wag has called “Untied Methodists.”