Before I start I will state that while I am a Methodist Minister ( Presbyter) the views in this blog post are my own views and while I hope that they will in some way reflect the views and mission of the Methodist Church, they remain simply my views.
I am responding to Quentin Lett's Radio 4's Programme "What's the point of...?" broadcast this morning at 9am, and to be broadcast again this evening at 9:30pm. Today he was asking "What's the point of Methodism?"
I am not going to enter into a long critique of the programme which raised some interesting points about our history and origins, and spoke of both scriptural holiness and social justice in a positive way. I am not even going to touch the possible ensuing conversation about whether we should of shouldn't join with the Church of England, but rather I want to speak of what I felt was missing because it is because of what I felt was missing that I find myself in the Methodist Church today often slipping on my "dog-collar" and wondering " how did that happen...!"
I know the answer to my own often voiced rhetorical question, it happened because of the love and grace of God, it happened because I found in Methodism a way to Christ that I had not found elsewhere, and it is the love and grace that I find rooted in the Arminian theology of Prevenient Grace that has set me free to stand in a place where I can begin to say that I am here because Christs love compells me.
Let me say now that I am a "convert," I do not have a history of Sunday School or a good solid Methodist upbringing or a good solid anything upbringing for that matter, I came to faith by discovering the power of prayer at a difficult time in the life of my then young family. Through prayer I discovered a God who was very real and very present, but my journey into faith was not so easy; I struggled with the sense that I was not acceptable and tried to obey all sorts of rules to make myself acceptable. For some reason I could not accept that God loved me for me. The more I tried to make myself acceptable the more I invented God as a monster in my own eyes failing to see the true revelation of his love in the person of Jesus. It was only when I began working for the Methodist Church as an outreach worker and was fortunate enough to begin studying at the same time that another theological window, another way of thinking about God, and thinking about how God might think about me opened up.
What if the God that Jesus revealed really identified with the poor, reached out to the oucast, healed the untouchable, and included the unclean, the foreigner and the sinner; anyone who could that could be labled "other" by those trying to create an exclusive community? What if God loved us first and calls forth love from us? What if God is bigger and more inclusive than I could possibly imagine?
As I began to follow and worship this God, not the angry monster God I found that I could begin to love and accept myself, it was the revelation and the still unfolding revelation of this love that drew me into ministry, that drew me beyond my own small confines and boundaries to love " the other", discovering that they are not other at all but that we share a common humanity.
Some of the most powerful words in the Methodist Worship book ( for me) are written in the Baptism Liturgy, those words; "All this for you" are preceded by the declaration of God's revelation in the person of Jesus, including "for you he lived and showed Gods love".
It is this revelation that set a flame burning within my heart, it is this revelation that stirs my soul, it is here that "God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. ( Romans 8:16). Precious, beloved children of God, made in Gods own image. Surely if I am a precious, beloved child of God then so is my neighbour, and more challengingly the one I call "other" for any reason, in fact the other is who I am particularly called to love, for it was to the other that Jesus came! The truth then is that not only can I be drawn beyond my own boundaries, but to declare that there are none, there can be none! As a friend of mine says " there is nothing secular except for sin", and all sin is is that thing that seperates us from God. So with boundaries and barriers gone we can live out our theology, and all are ( now) welcome at the table!
All of this is hugely challenging for the Methodist Church, because as the Radio show revealed Methodism appears to be built on certain standards and values, traditionally calling people to sobriety and a morally upright way of life, to social action and to have a passion for justice, but what it missed is that the source of these lies in the move of God. John Wesley's own journal contains the telling declaration ;
"I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.."
It was this assurance, this experience that compelled him, this experience, this assurance that compelled many of those who were touched by his preaching and the movement that followed Methodism is primarily born of the Spirit, an experienced encounter with God, and while this is not unique perhaps its expression in concern for the poor and a desire for social justice is a mark of that move and a particular gift. Yes we sing our theology, but there is a reason that the Methodist Hymnody is important, music made the message acessible and memorable and is well known to touch the heart and the spirit in ways that words alone cannot. Yes many Methodists are passionate about Social Justice and politics but these all have their roots in the move of the Spirit that Welsey experienced as his heart was strangley warmed.
Our problem? I want to suggest that it is the phenomena known as " convert and lift"- that is to say that as people took on the moral values and aspirations and possibilities of living differently that we lost our roots, Methodism became middle class and lost the Spirit. Oddly I came from a middle class background and the Spirit found me! That said I know many passionate and committed people called Methodist, people who serve, people who love, people who light up a room with the love of God that flows from them, people who are passionate not only for God but through God for their neighbours both local and global.
Will we die out? Not if we dare to follow the way of Christ and dare to give ourselves away, not if we allow the Spirit to inspire and equip and guide us, not if we fan into flame the gift within us and recognise afresh that we are a movement and not an institution. More than anything we need a fresh fire to fill our hearts and that fire must be of God not of our own striving, and it must be a fire of grace, a desire to include rather than exclude, to accept the other, to include the other, to identify with the outcast, to become as Christ...
I leave you with a story from last night at our Drop in here in Blackpool " The Comfort Zone", one of our community members bounced in full of energy and love carrying a bunch of flowers, her gift to us for no particular reason, and expression of love and joy, she blessed us all. It was another members birthday, touched by his story we bought him a card and a cake, he was really pleased, but when it came to cutting and sharing his cake he refused, he wanted to take it home and to keep it for himself. At the end of the evening we gathered around the table to share in prayer and communion, and neither were excluded, such is the love and grace of God with us, and that should bring us all to our knees! Love is stronger than death....
All this for you!
Maybe what we need is a rebranding exercise, as the programme mentioned we were also once called Enthusiasts! A discipleship movement shaped for mission! Called to life in Christ, living out a calling to love, to justice, to holiness and compassion. Maybe what we need to rediscover is that flame that so set Wesleys' heart ablaze, the Spirit of God calling us to live out our inner experience in Spirit and in truth.
Let us take up the cross
till we the crown obtain,
and gladly reckon all things loss
so we may Jesus gain.
Image: Canvas 1 of Waves of Grace - mine ( a comission for a church in Blackburn)