Methodism, when it is true to its name, is about a method of daily life that cultivates growing awareness of God’s active grace, sees the possibility of increasing personal holiness within daily life, and is fully committed to Jesus’ teachings and life.
A young John Wesley, his brother Charles, and his university friends gathered regularly for a discipline of prayer, scripture reading (and what we now call ‘lectio divina’), an examination of conscience using a set of 22 Questions, intercessory prayer and the Rosary, and mutual encouragement in good works. Because of this committed methodical life, this group got the nickname ‘Methodists’, in an unsuccessful attempt to shame the young men into acting more like college kids than monks!
The renewal movement begun by John and Charles Wesley within the Church of England gave rise to a global family of denominations including the Methodists, Wesleyans, and Nazarenes. Wesleyan tradition has historically been far more concerned with how the Good News is lived out in the midst of daily life than with enforcing a specific set of beliefs. The core issue for us (formulated by Wesley as two questions asked of each new convert to his societies): 1. Has Jesus the Nazarene become the Christ for you? and 2. Does your daily life reflect that the Christ is at work in you?
Not that Wesley did not care about what people believed; his priority (and he believed that this was the scriptural priority) was how a person’s belief translated to works of charity in their daily lives – what Wesley termed “practical Christianity”. Wesley made a big distinction between opinion, which he called all the many non-essential beliefs that Christians adopt; and faith – which for Wesley was a complete trust that the Christ was at work in one’s life. Wesley, true to his Anglican roots, believed Christians ought to “think and let think”.
In this we see how Wesley and the early Methodists continued to live as faithful members of the Church of England, which found unity at the Communion Table, rather than in dogmatic agreement. But Methodism was to inject some spiritual and theological insight into the stagnant Anglican institution.
Wesley taught that all of Creation is immersed in a sea of God’s grace and love. We can never be apart from this love. God’s love invites and encourages us to see a new way of living, in and with the Christ (Wesley called this “prevenient grace”). God’s love works in us to relieve the weight of our sins, revealing to us the power of forgiveness through the Christ (Wesley called this “justifying grace”). As we begin to live as forgiven people, God’s love works in us to deepen and restore in our lives and souls a holiness/wholeness that the Christ promised (Wesley called this “sanctifying grace”).
Wesley was deeply committed to restoring scriptural Christianity, and the heart of his teaching and thought were consciously rooted in the best thinking of the earliest centuries of the church and the new biblical scholarship of his day. We follow Wesley’s method, by rooting our own lives in the best of today’s biblical and theological scholarship while continuing to study our earliest faith ancestors. From this we find new and renewed ways of expressing what we know and have received, and new and renewed ways to do and be church. Like Wesley, we value the life of learning, but know that unless it finds roots in the heart and a life of service, it is irrelevant.
With Wesley, we find a powerful discipleship in the balance between personal study and prayer, and social witness to the Good News. Wesley advocated celebrating Communion weekly. So do we. Wesley advocated daily Bible study, digging in with our full attention, and taking the words into meditation and prayer. So do we. Wesley believed taking what we learn in prayer, and working towards holiness/wholeness at the center of daily life. So do we.