Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #6

A Movement of the Holy Spirit

Professor David Hempton opens his marvelous history of the Methodist movement (Methodism: Empire of the Spirit) with the recounting of an incident which took place at Oxford University in the early 1880s.  Hugh Price Hughes, the leading Methodist scholar of his day, challenged Professor Mark Pattison, the distinguished scholar and Rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford University, who was chairing the meeting, as to why there was no mention of John Wesley in Pattison’s lengthy essay “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688 – 1750.”  Furthermore, Pattison had relegated Methodism to “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).

Hugh Price Hughes, the great Methodist scholar, suggested that John Wesley was “one of the ‘greatest sons’ of the university.”  Irritated Pattison dismissed Methodism & Wesley as not worth consideration as a “reasonable religion.”

In truth Methodism as promulgated by John Wesley was always a head and heart religious understanding of the Christian faith.  Wesley believed deeply in the active providence of God in human life.  There were clear elements of what we might call charismatic.  Again Hempton’s reflections are insightful:  “Generally speaking Wesley accepted the epithet ‘enthusiast’ if it was meant as a rough synonym for a vigorous and earnest faith, but strenuously repudiated it if it was intended as a synonym for false claims to divine inspiration. . . . The rub of the matter was that Wesley accepted as a general proposition that God regularly and strikingly intervened in the created order to advance his purposes and protect his servants, whereas most of his critics did not in the same way”  (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 35). Not without reason Henry Rack, well on a century after Pattison and Hughes contentious interchange, would label John Wesley a “reasonable enthusiast.”

As Methodism in America grew in size and social respectability the “enthusiastic” side of the faith was gradually pushed to the edges.  This week I dipped my toe in the water of an important but often ignored segment of Methodism, namely our charismatic or renewal elements.  I stepped beyond my comfort zone to attend an Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM) gathering in Lexington, Kentucky.  ARM initially grew out of the Board of Discipleship and eventually spun off as a para-church organization loosely attached to The United Methodist Church.  While I did not witness any speaking in tongues, I did encounter a deep sense of the active movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  People were “slain in the Spirit.”  Prayer, praise and worship were ecstatic and moving with dancing and banners accompanying healing and testimony of healing miracles.

Many know that my own conversion came out of the Quakers.  My greater comfort zone is sitting in silence and praying in quiet.  I have been a part of a group at Taize where I was deeply moved by the worship and felt a deep sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Similarly I have twice been to Iona (most recently in May) where the liturgy conveys the greatness and presence of God.  Charismatic worship, however much it moves us beyond our comfort zone, must be added to the list.  I do not pretend to understand all of this, but I do believe the Holy Spirit moving in each.  (Please note, there is a danger in each form.  One of the speeches at Aldersgate contained strong elements of prosperity gospel which must be rejected as a heretical version of the gospel.). The faithful church of Jesus Christ needs all three of these different forms as well as others.

I noted some key elements to the ARM gathering that particularly impressed me.

1.  They are sold out on a Trinitarian theology and especially lift up Christ as King.
2.   They take sin and the Devil with great seriousness.
3.   Holiness as an active pursuit and ministry of Methodists is real. (The rest of the UMC could learn much from them here.  There is a strong sense of personal and social justice going together!)
4.   God acts supernaturally — that is beyond nature. (I attended a number of excellent workshops that challenged the vapid and tired Unitarian version of Methodism that infects too many of our churches.)
5.   They believe in personal, Holy Spirit inspired transformation and in the renewal of the church.
6.   They pray without ceasing; deep earnest prayer!
7.   They praise with passion – ardent heartfelt enthusiasm.

We have much to learn and relearn from this branch of the Methodist family.  It is well past time to lay down exaggerated fears (while still appropriately policing the abuses) and be more open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at work in our midst.  This too is a part of our recovering and reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way.

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