Of Evangelists and Pastors

Seven years ago, Teddy Ray published a series of articles that still has me thinking.

Ray’s thought draws heavily from Wesley’s sermon, The Ministerial Office.

If I can summarize Ray’s argument, it goes something like this. Wesley appointed preachers, not pastors.

The preachers were traveling evangelists who proclaimed salvation in Christ, invited people to repent and believe, organized Methodist societies where there were none and checked on the health of existing societies as they traveled.

Wesley’s preachers were like the extraordinary prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New. The Church of England clergy were more like the Old Testament priesthood. Both were important. Methodists received the sacraments and the other priestly ministry of the church from the regularly constituted clergy of the Church of England. Pastors (bishops, elders and deacons) cared for their the people of their parishes and dioceses.

When Wesley ordained clergy for America, he broke from this model. American Methodism now had churches. Nevertheless, the preachers in America basically followed a pattern similar to the one laid down in England. The traveling preachers had sacramental authority, but they were not really pastors of the churches they visited. They still functioned in an apostolic role, evangelizing, planting churches and guiding the churches in their charge.

Since the itinerant preachers were rarely present in for any length of time in any one place, the everyday job of pastoral care and discipling fell to local leadership, including former circuit riders who had “located”.

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Connected to Pursue Holiness

The entire Wesleyan connection was built so that Methodists could strive together toward that holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.” When Wesley said that there is “no holiness but social holiness” he meant that we make this journey toward holiness with other Christians. “You can believe and practice whatever you want as long as you do it by yourself ” is just not a Methodist way of being the church. Our structures exist so that we can help each other live the holy lives to which we have been called.

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Unbound by Geography

In John Wesley’s England, a parish was not just a congregation. It was a piece of land and the people who lived there. Each parish had defined geographical boundaries. Two parishes did not compete for the same parishioners. Likewise, each episcopal diocese was geographically defined. One bishop did not plant churches in another bishop’s episcopal area.

It was in this context that John Wesley wrote his famous declaration, “I look upon all the world as my parish“. Wesley denied that any priest or bishop held exclusive ecclesiastical authority within the geographical bounds of a parish or diocese. God’s call and authority superseded any human boundaries. No one had the right to exclude Wesley or his movement from any territory.

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The Many Streams of United Methodism

There are many streams of United Methodism in the in the United States, each with its own language, customs and culture. Each stream reaches deep into Methodist history and thus expresses some of element of who we are (or at least who we have been).

In practice, the streams overlap and interact with each other. Most Methodist-related congregations and institutions combine several streams in varying proportions in their practice of Christianity.

Infinite permutations and combinations exist. And just as chemical elements, when combined in different proportions, can produce materials with vastly different properties, so the multiple streams of Methodism can combine to produces vastly different versions of “church”. When you change the mix, you change the product.

And finally, each stream also draws from wider movements in church and society, creating natural partnerships and affinities with groups outside Methodism which share its interests.

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Wesley’s Calendar Had no Lent

Back in 2014, Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote an interesting article about John Wesley’s rejection of the season of Lent. In the prayer book Wesley adapted from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for use among American Methodists, he changed the names of the Sundays in Lent to Sundays after Christmas. Palm Sunday became “the Sunday next before Easter.” Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were completely omitted. The only thing Wesley had to say by way of explanation was this:

Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end.

Burton-Edwards conjectures, and this makes sense to me, that the disciplined Wesleyan way already contained elements of Lent as permanent practices. The General Rules required fasting and deeds of mercy. The bands practiced confession, forgiveness and prayer. Love feasts featured testimonies of lives changed through Christ. Watch nights and covenant renewal services focused on honest self-examination and renewed commitment. He summarizes his point with this:

In short, nearly everything that Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought to do or promote was in fact being accomplished by other means by Methodists on a much more regular and frequent basis, not as a bracketed off ‘special time’ of 40 or so days in the year, but deeply woven into the fabric of their lives throughout the whole year.

These practices are largely absent in the United Methodist Church. If they exist by name, they are vastly different than practiced in 18th century Methodism.

At present, then, we live in a United Methodist context generally devoid of the complementary practices that accomplished everything Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were created for.

Left unsaid is the implication that our church is no longer producing in its members the intended effects of either Lent or Wesleyan Methodism.

Burton-Edwards thinks Wesley may have underestimated the importance of Lent, even for early Methodists. He points out that the General Rules also required society members to attend worship. In England in 1784 that generally meant Anglican worship.

So perhaps John Wesley over-estimated the value and staying power of the Methodist practices apart from the mutual reinforcement they may have received because most early Methodists were also keeping Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday with their fellow Anglicans.

He closes with this observation:

So at present, perhaps we United Methodists may find ourselves actually needing Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday again so the valuable ends they were created for have some way of taking root in our lives. And perhaps, at present, we may also become more diligent about developing such complementary practices, as did our early Methodist forebears, that, if not making Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday answer “no valuable end,” will at least similarly and more richly extend the valuable ends of these days and seasons into daily discipleship and growth in holiness of heart and life.