As the United Methodist Church tries to find its way forward in the 21st century, what should be distinctive about the church and the movement John Wesley began in the 18th century? The answer to that question depends on whether you are looking at Methodism as a movement or at the United Methodist Church as a church.
Our constitution begins by saying that we are part of Christ’s universal church. I would put it this way: the United Methodist Church is a particular institutional expression of the one holy, catholic an apostolic church of Jesus Christ.
A sociologist looking at us would certainly discover some things distinctively characteristic of United Methodist churches and institutions, but “what is” is not necessarily “what should be.”
The Book of Discipline gives us our distinctive structure and outlines our particular understanding of the faith, both of which have historical roots in Methodism as a movement. Do we maintain these out of allegiance to Wesley and our history? Or do they represent our best understanding of how to live as a church built on “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”?
Mr. Wesley’s sermons and notes are “standards of doctrine,” but it’s not as if we should look upon them as scripture upon which to perform exegesis. Neither are they concise doctrinal summaries like those we find in the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith. Our constitution requires us to listen to Mr. Wesley, as we should. As the Church of Jesus Christ, however, we should also be listening to the early church fathers, to Augustine and Aquinas, to Luther and Calvin and the radical reformers, to pietists and scholastics, to Baptists and Pentecostals, to mega-churches and emerging churches. Well, you get the point.
Should the objection, “That’s not Wesleyan” stop all discussion (even if it is accurate)? No, not if we’re the church of Jesus Christ. Methodism is historically Arminian in theology. Can members of the United Methodist Church not also listen to Calvinists as we try to discern the meaning of God’s word? As the universal church of Jesus Christ, we should do our best to listen to the text itself regardless of who might point us in the right direction. We need not see everything exclusively through Wesleyan filters. I’ve had people say to me, “What you’re proposing doesn’t fit with Wesley’s understanding” of whatever the topic might be. “It’s more Lutheran.” My internal response is, “So, what’s your point?”
Once Methodism made the transition from being a movement to being a church, Mr. Wesley gave up ownership of it. The church belongs to Jesus, not to Mr. Wesley.
Now, we could go back to being a movement. Following the Catholic model, we could become the Order of John Wesley or the Methodist Society within a larger church. This is the way Methodism functioned in England during the first years of its existence. We could even be a parachurch movement whose members belonged to any number of churches. We would simply be a group of Christians who have covenanted to live with John Wesley’s rule and vision for the Christian life. If that’s what we want to do, then let’s sell our buildings and stop meeting as a group on Sunday mornings. On Sunday mornings we need be gathered around God’s word and sacraments as the church of Jesus Christ.
Do we want to be a church or a movement? A movement can look to the teachings and practices of its founders, but the church of Jesus Christ must see itself in relationship to God’s mighty acts in creation and redemption. As for me, I choose to be a member of a church.
What should – with an emphasis on the word “should” – what should be distinctively Wesleyan about the United Methodist Church as we move into the future? What Wesleyan ideas and practices must remain normative forever? We have a few unalterable principles in our constitution. Every group has both the right and the responsibility to order its life as it sees best. Mr. Wesley and our Methodist history will always be “where we are coming from.” The vision that drives us forward, however, should be the great Biblical story of creation and redemption in Jesus Christ, not the thoughts and practices of an 18th century Anglican priest.