David McAllister-Wilson sees the distinctive spiritual heritage of Methodism as something uniquely suited to our times — a legacy that cannot be sacrificed as the denomination considers whether staying together is the way forward.
Our Genetic Legacy
Living things thrive over time if they adapt and yet stay true to a basic identity. Why can’t humans fly? It’s because the human gene pool just doesn’t have the necessary set of conditions to morph in this direction. So we are left to adapt within the limits of humankind. The scientific phrase is evolutionary constraints.
We should think about our evolutionary constraints as United Methodists, because so many pastors and congregations feel like they are being asked to sprout wings and fly to the moon. Instead, they should strive to be their best selves. When large churches have successful church plants, they speak of transmitting the mother church’s DNA. We should be guided by our instinctive theological wisdom even as we adapt in order to stay true to our best selves.
So what is the genetic legacy of Methodism? Some say it’s biblical authority. We take the Bible normatively, but John Wesley’s own approach to scripture is instructive. He applied an overarching interpretive framework, which he called the “analogy of faith.” He saw a deep pattern to everything in scripture that corresponded to his understanding of the process of salvation. As Randy Maddox points out, Wesley “required that all passages be read in light of these truths” (Responsible Grace, 38). Wesley thought this was the correct way to understand scriptural texts and believed his analogy of faith conformed to the historic creeds of the church. Yet it’s a method of filtering, sorting, and prioritizing scripture. Biblical authority was, for early Methodists, integrated in a larger theological project.
Others see the essential principle of Methodism in John Wesley’s tolerance of theological difference, his “catholic spirit.” An example of that is found early in the history of the movement when he said: “But as to all opinions which don’t strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think. So that whatsoever they are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist” (“The Character of a Methodist”). The problem with these approaches is the same problem with The United Methodist advertising slogan, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Just to say we are open doesn’t say why people would care to come in.
Experiment in Grace
I suggest the essence of Methodism is found in what John Wesley calls our “doctrine and discipline.” The meaning of those words takes some interpretation because, at first, it seems like a stern and inflexible charge. Of course, when he says discipline, he doesn’t mean the Book of Discipline, and his use of the word doctrine doesn’t mean we are to be doctrinaire. I believe what Wesley meant by those terms is, in fact, our distinctive inheritance. But in place of “doctrine and discipline,” think “method.” We are convinced that God is active in our lives, even beyond our knowledge of it and regardless of merit. This is grace. And John Wesley hoped we would evidence the power of grace rather than the mere form of religion. That power, to use the language every Methodist seminarian learns, functions as “prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.” I find it helpful to think of those movements as the “pervasive, transformative, and progressive” effects of the Holy Spirit.
You could say, to borrow a phrase from the Gettysburg Address, we are “dedicated to the proposition” of grace. But it’s more helpful to say we are testing a theory. In the early part of our movement, the proposition of grace had a status like that of a scientific hypothesis, constantly being tested and verified. John Wesley was part of the dawn of modern science, fascinated by all the new discoveries about the way the physical world works.
Just as John Wesley’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin made the connection between the power of lightning from the heavens and electrical phenomenon on earth, Wesley and the members of the Holy Club were conducting experiments on the other power emanating from heaven — the grace of God — and how that power can be experienced. Methodists, and all our aunts and uncles and cousins, are a longitudinal study in the experience of God’s power to transform lives individually and in community. Methodism, at its heart, is an experiment in grace. It’s a method for spiritual development that became an extensive and massive institution. Though we have become highly solidified in our form, we are experimental and adaptive in our nature and function.
Christianity is a spirituality that emanates from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. It’s a compass that reads true in all circumstances. Methodism is at heart a discipline to check that compass often — a spiritual discipline particularly suited for personal, social, and intellectual delta regions of existential confusion and crisis. To put it plainly, Methodism is a lived religion only if those who have little or no faith, including those who are done with religion, are experiencing the Holy Spirit and lack only the way to know it for what it is.
This article is adapted from David McAllister-Wilson’s book A New Church and A New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution (Abingdon Press, 2018). Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.