Tuesday, 20 November 2007

High Methodists

In the local church I attend what is called the Bishop's Course. It is an adult education style course in the Diocese of Lincoln, that can be taken to whatever level the students (if that is what we are) want. The second year of this has started with looking at different denominations, about which I have some experience.

The most recent session was about the Methodists, and used some rather limited and dubious material from A Lion Handbook (1990), The History of Christianity, 453-456. I have to say I regard Lion material as somewhat biased to say the least, and the facilitator of this group rather had the same view. I would not touch Lion material about different religions, for example. At best Lion material is shoddy - actually, it shares many of the slapdash summaries that are found in school Religious Education books, where a sweeping statement will do at this level.

Our facilitator criticised the Lion source for saying Methodism was evangelical. As far as he was concerned, and following on from the position of a Methodist acquaintance, it was in origins a High Church movement. So our facilitator brought in some extra material of Charles Wesley hymns. His argument was as follows. If Charles Wesley taught theology through hymns, then these verses (from three different hymns) taught a high view of the sacrament:

We need not now go up to heaven,
To bring the long sought saviour down;
Though art to all already given,
Thou dost ev,n now thy banquet crown;
To every faithful soul appear,
And show thy real presence here!

Come, Holy Ghost, thine influence shed,
And realise the sign;
Thy life infuse into the bread,
Thy power into the wine.

Effectual let the tokens prove,
And made, by heavenly art,
Fit channels to convey thy love
To every faithful heart.

His presence makes the feast;
And now our spirits feel
The glory not to be expressed,
The joy unspeakable.

He bids us drink and eat
Imperishable food;
He gives his flesh to be our meat,
And bids us drink his blood.

That last verse is a bit heavy, and whilst I don't think these are transubstantiation, the point that they are not memorialist is well made. The argument is made in that, at the time, Church of England practice for the eucharist was occasional and rather lazy. In that the Methodists had disciplined, regular eucharists, then the argument that it was a High Church movement is well put.

Yet later on I wasn't happy about this assessment. The reason is this. Just as Methodism was too early to be part of a general evangelical revival, so it was too early to be regarded as a High Church movement. Not only this, but High Church involves a whole range of supporting ritualistic acts.

That Methodism became, in general, fairly memorialist, shows that it was not a High Church movement in origins, but that it was simply more self-disciplined across the board. It was later touched by the High Church movement in similar ways to other non-conformists. They then found the Wesleys to be sacramentalist, but it is to make the mistake of applying a later outlook on to an earlier movement.

Methodism was a rounded corrective movement to the Church of England, and it was for the Church of England. It set out to improve preaching, oversight and, indeed, spiritual practices such as the communion. Theologically the argument is made in roughly affirming what we now might now call transignification, with a bit of imagery added on top, but not as High Church.

In the High Church movement the supporting ritualistic acts helped maintain stronger views of the eucharist.

Excepting George Whitfield, the Wesleys presented a slightly altered Arminian based eventual universalist movement, where the attenders where in on their salvation, but must not backslide, and the outside others were unsaved, but could be brought in. The attenders had delivered to them a rounded, activist Christianity.

Wesley took the path of necessity and, as a priest, consecrated Thomas Coke to be an American bishop. Later the movement was effectively ejected out of the Church of England, and became another urban largely middle class denomination, with working class outreach and some pockets of respectable working class life (with a presence in primary industry areas). The denomination in England and Wales is one with missing bishops rather than having any principle against them as a third layer (like Presbyterians do).

Methodism locally is something of a failing institution, as it is elsewhere. The going rate is something like 2050 when, other things not changing, it begins to collapse in on itself (along with some other denominations). The reason now for Methodism is pretty much over - it is just a style of operating. The hard nosed fact of structural ecumenism is that it happens due to decline, and the Church of England might generously consider how to include Methodism's methods within a bigger tent, in taking it back. That is if the Church of England does not tear up its own tent in the meantime, offering several versions of itself that would (actually more easily) absorb the tendencies also dividing on similar lines (liberal, evangelical, some weakened traditionalist) in contemporary Methodism.


Anonymous said...

In the early C17 English sense of 'High Church' - anti Calvinist in theology, with a high opinion of the Church of England, having a concern for 'decency' and order in worship, sacramental in emphasis, influenced by Arminius, it seems to me that it is not unreasonable to think of the Wesleys as "High churchmen" somewhat in the Laudian mode.

Thanks for the Wesley quotations. By some fortuitous serendipity I had just been discussing Arminius and the Wesleys with my husband who has a particular interest in hymnology. The poor man is for the time being incarcerated in a care home where he keeps the brain brain alive by mulling over these kind of questions. I shall copy your post and send it to him. Naomi

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, it's definitely an argument: they were called sacramentalists by some too.

Jean Russell said...

The Methodist movement (church arose in the UK a generation later) was at the centre of the Evangelical Revival which was sparked by the preaching of John Wesley. That is what the Evangelical Revival means. Methodism arose from the Evangelical Revival not Evangelicalism. If you are in any doubt how about getting this book

There have been revivals since and evangelicalism seems a more recent creature. However the later revivals have other names e.g. the Welsh Revival. The connection between evangelicalism and the evangelical revival goes through "revivalism" (the belief God sends in different ages leaders who act as leaders of revivals). It also from Methodism gains the idea of preaching for conversion. A foreign idea amongst earlier dissenter who saw themselves as covenanted communities and often were predestinarian theologically and saw themselves there for as a covenanted community of the elect.