Wednesday, 17 October 2012


In his earlier years, Wesley held the strange doctrine that conversion often meant, not only the forgiveness of sins, but the instantaneous change of a sinner into a saint. It meant “entire deliverance from every evil work, sinful thought, passion, desire, temper, from all inbred corruption, and all the remains of the carnal mind.” (Sermon 83.) From 1759 till 1762, many of his followers claimed this experience, and the number of “saints” multiplied exceedingly. Those who claimed this “entire sanctification” were grouped into special “Select Societies.” But Wesley was soon disillusioned by their hypocrisy, jealously, envy, and discord. The “Select Societies” were soon abolished, and Wesley came back to Catholic sanity with his teaching of an obligation to tend to perfection by progressive growth in virtue. Conversion is but the starting-point from which one must press on towards holiness. Inevitably Wesley had to face the question of the fate of those who died before having attained to perfect holiness. For he himself held that every soul must be entirely holy before it could be admitted to Heaven, and the Divine Presence. Having no idea of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, he thought that the act itself of dying must cleanse the soul of all residual defects. On this matter, the words of a modern Methodist are significant. In his book, Christian Foundations, a manual of doctrine for Wesleyan Methodists, p. 215, Dr. H. Maldwyn Hughes writes, “Unless it be supposed that the physical process of death produces an inevitable moral change (and in that case the change could not strictly be described as MORAL), not all Christians can be held to be ready for the Blessed Life. When we add the further considerations of those who die in infancy, and of those who have had no spiritual opportunity, it seems as though the implicates of Christian teaching compel us to assume, for some, at any rate, an Intermediate State between death and judgement.” And he then invites his readers at least to consider the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. But why not consider the whole body of Catholic teaching, instead of timidly and wistfully looking in the direction of this or that element of it which was too hastily repudiated by the Protestant reformers?
The ever-growing number of converts from his preaching of FREE, PRESENT and FULL SALVATION looked to Wesley as their spiritual leader; and he had no choice but to organize them in some way. But he had no thought of founding any new denomination or sect. He thought only of new life within the Church of which he was an ordained clergyman, the Church of England. “What may we reasonably believe,” he wrote, to be God’s design in raising up the preachers called Methodists? Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” (G. H. Curteis, Dissent in Its Relation to the Church of England, p. 346.) But 18th century Anglicanism did not want to be reformed. It frowned on enthusiasm of any kind, calling it “fanaticism.” Anglican rectors refused the use of their churches to the revivalist preachers, and refused Communion to Methodists. Bishop Butler said to Wesley, “This pretending to extraordinary revelation and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” John Wesley, therefore, ignored the authority of Anglican Bishops, and all diocesan and parochial limits. He sent his preachers where he would, and continued building up his Methodist Societies, which had no constitutional link with the Church of England, and no status or privileges within that Church. How did he justify himself in this? He fell back upon a vague theory of the “Church Invisible.” He viewed the Anglican Church as a visible legal and human organization only. For him, the Church of England was a legal establishment, so that, in disobeying the Bishops, he was violating legal authority only, and not spiritual authority. The latter authority he persuaded himself to have from the “Invisible Church,” a mission from the invisible Head of the Church, Christ Himself, with whom he and his Methodists were united by invisible bonds of grace. And he persuaded himself that thus his independent “Society” was in no way a separation from the Church of England. By 1744, the Wesleyan Methodist Society was effectively organized. In that same year, the first Wesleyan Conference resolved that they did not want a schism from the Church of England, and expressed the hope that they would be recognized as an auxiliary organization. “We agree,” they declared, “to obey the Bishops as far as conscience allows. We do not desire a schism. But we must not neglect to save souls for fear of any consequences.” John Wesley saw the threat in those last words. He recognized the drift towards separation, lamented it, and struggled against it. In 1789, two years before his death, he said. “In God’s name, stop! You all yourselves were first called to the Church of England; and although you all will have a thousand temptations to leave it and set up for yourselves, regard them not. Be Church of England men still. Do not cast away that peculiar glory which God has put upon you, and frustrate the design of Providence, the very end for which God raised you up.” Again, in 1790, shortly before his death, Wesley said, “I declare I live and die a member of the Church of England; and none who regard my opinion or advice will ever separate from it:” But his own appeal to the “Invisible Church” against the authority of the Bishops of the visible Anglican Church, and his own practices, led inevitably to the separation he dreaded; even though, in deference to him, the separation which was bound to come was postponed till after his death.
A further difficulty arose for John Wesley as regards a supply of clergy for his rapidly growing Society. To solve this, he developed his own distinctive view about Holy Orders. He believed implicitly in the necessity of an Apostolic succession of Holy Orders, but persuaded himself that there was no real difference between bishops and priests, and that the latter had as much power to ordain others as the bishops themselves. He therefore proceeded to lay hands on his own preachers, believing he was giving valid ordination. In 1784, he went so far as to “consecrate” Thomas Coke as “Superintendent” over the Methodists in America. Coke was already an ordained Anglican clergyman, every bit as much as Wesley himself. Wesley had nothing that Coke himself did not already have. In any case, if bishop and priest are one and the same thing, Coke could not have further been consecrated a bishop! There is another mystery here in Wesley’s action which seems beyond solution. But one thing is certain. He did believe that ordained preachers received a power and jurisdiction not possessed by the unordained laity; and, to the end, he fought for a clergy-controlled Society. It was a losing battle. In 1790, the year before his death, Wesley wrote, “As long as I live, the people shall have no share in choosing either stewards or leaders. We have not, and never have had, such a custom.” In 1797, six years after Wesley’s death, Alexander Kilham was expelled by the Wesleyan Methodists for maintaining that there is no real difference between clergy and laity, and for demanding that the laity should share with the clergy in control. Kilham thereupon founded the “Methodist New Connection.” In 1810, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, Methodists who had never been ordained at all, founded the “Primitive Methodists,” to consist of “converted people” apart from all standards of faith and order. For long, the Wesleyan Methodists stood their ground, reserving to the ordained ministry at least the right of officiating at the Lord’s Supper. But they have yielded finally even on that point, allowing unordained laymen to officiate in the absence of a minister. Today, people who call themselves Methodists stand for a “priesthood of all believers.” The Methodist Professor A. V. Murray writes, “Ministers hold no priesthood differing in kind from that which is common to the Lord’s people.” They are set apart, he says, “for the sake of Church order, and not because of any priestly virtue inherent in their office.” (Towards Reunion, p. 91.) For the modern Methodist, therefore, there is no Apostolic succession of Holy Orders. Whilst the rite of imposition of hands has been retained in the ordination service, it is regarded as a symbolical ceremony only, of no great importance, and not implying any doctrine of presbyteral succession. Ministers are inwardly called by the Spirit, and appointed by the people to act on their behalf. Their authorization is “from below,” not “from above”; from their fellow-men, not from God. Such was not the mind of John Wesley; but, again, his own practice undoubtedly paved the way for these later developments.
John Wesley, as we have seen, never wanted his Methodist Society to abandon the Church of England. To the very end, he fought against secession. But, for fifty years, he had been steadily preparing the way, in spite of himself, for ultimate separation. He taught doctrines unknown in the Church of England, ignored its authority in favour of his own, introduced services foreign to the Prayer Book, and created a new ministry at his own hands neither valid nor regular according to Anglican principles. Long before his death the “Society of people called Methodists” was really a distinct non-conformist sect, however he might try to disguise the fact from himself. But the pretence of conformity was kept up until his death in 1791. Even two years afterwards, the Methodist Conference of 1793 could still affirm its determination to remain in the Church of England. But a final and irreparable break came in 1795 when the Manchester Conference of Wesleyan Methodists adopted its “Plan of Pacification” to conciliate the Methodist laity, authorizing unordained members of the Society to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and administer the Communion. Even so, not until 1892 did Wesleyans venture to describe their Society as a “Church.” And from then on, the “Methodist Church” was indeed one more rival organization added to the ever-growing number of Protestant Churches, altogether distinct and separate from the Anglican Communion. The Church of England, of course, could scarcely complain of this rebellion of Methodists against the authority of the Church they had hitherto accepted; for the Church of England itself had done the same, setting the example by its own rebellion against the great Mother-Church of Rome.
The very principles that led to the separation of the Methodist Society from the Church of England, led in turn to dissension amongst Methodists themselves. John Wesley himself insisted that, to be a Methodist, it was necessary to be “Wesleyan.” All secessions from HIS movement were branches cut off from the original living tree. But controversies arose, often manifesting themselves with an extreme bitterness of feeling which earned the derision of the ungodly. As early as 1741, in almost the first days of the Society, George Whitefield abandoned it to found the “Calvinistic Methodists.” :-) Wesley had never been able to bear the Calvinistic doctrine of the election and predestination of some to the exclusion of others;  and his differences with Whitefield over this issue led to the latter’s separation from him, and the establishing of a new society of Methodists under the patronage of Lady Huntingdon. Hence the name often given to the Calvinistic Methodists, “Lady Huntingdon’s Connection.” After Wesley’s death, the burning issue was the question of the status of the clergy as opposed to that of the laity. The subsequent history of Methodism is a record of the struggle for survival of a privileged clerical order superior to and distinct from unordained members of the Society. Until his death in 1791, Wesley had insisted on the distinction. In 1797, Alexander Kilham was expelled from the Wesleyan Methodists for demanding lay-representation at the Annual Conference. He, and his followers, thereupon founded the “Methodist New Connection.” In 1810, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, two unordained Wesleyans, commenced a series of open-air revival meetings. Forbidden by Conference to continue them, they seceded, and started a new sect called “The Primitive Methodists.” In 1815, another Wesleyan, William O’Bryan, began the “Bible Christians” in Cornwall. In 1907, Kilham’s “Methodist New Connection,” and O’Bryan’s “Bible Christians” merged into a “United Methodist Church,” in which the laity were granted all the rights the Wesleyan Methodists were unwilling to concede. In 1932, the Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, and United Methodists met in Conference, and proclaimed themselves one in a kind of external unity as the “Methodist Church in Great Britain:” The Wesleyan Methodists were the ones who had to capitulate, acknowledging no inherent power in the ministry not possessed by every member of the laity. John Wesley’s own teachings were again abrogated.
We have seen how John Wesley went to America in 1735 as an Anglican chaplain to the colonists of Georgia; and how, on his return in 1738, he was “converted” at a Moravian meeting to the ideas which led to his Methodist apostolate. That Methodist apostolate went to America in 1776 with the advent there of Philip Embury, one of Wesley’s laypreachers. By him Methodist principles were preached for the first time in the colonies, as they were then. Three years later, John Wesley officially sent two of his ordained preachers, Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman, who organized the first Methodist Society in America. In 1784, the increasing numbers of Methodists in what had by then become the independent United States of America suggested to Wesley the need of a “Superintendent” who would occupy much the same place there as he himself occupied in England. He therefore set apart by imposition of hands a Dr. Thomas Coke who, after his arrival in the States, was accorded the title of “Bishop,” and claimed episcopal authority both to rule the Church, and ordain future ministers. Wesley himself had not granted the title of “Bishop,” but that of “Superintendent”; and he resented the usurpation. However, in that same year, American Methodists met in a special Convention at Baltimore, and organized themselves into the “Methodist Episcopal Church.” That Dr. Coke was not satisfied that he had really received valid episcopal consecration is evident from the fact that, in 1791, he applied to the Pennsylvanian Bishop White, of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (as the Church of England in America had become after the Declaration of Independence) for the re-consecration of himself as “Bishop.” From the Catholic point of view, of course, since it regards Anglican Orders themselves as invalid, things were not bettered by the additional ceremony. Nor do modern Methodists regard the ceremony as having made any real difference. For the vast majority of them still regard the “Methodist Episcopate” as an “Office,” not as an “Order.” As in England, so in America, division after division has occurred amongst the Methodists. African American converts, attracted by the unrestrained emotionalism at revival meetings, became so numerous that the racial factor soon began to assert itself more than uncomfortably; and, in 1816, the independent African Methodist Episcopal Church was established, both whites and african americans agreeing that it was better to have separate Churches. In 1830, the rejection of episcopacy in favour of congregational principles resulted in a new “Methodist Protestant Church.” In 1842, a further “Wesleyan Methodist Connection” or “Church of America” was commenced at Utica, New York State. In 1845, the “Methodist Episcopal Church South” separated from the “Methodist Episcopal Church North” over the slavery issue. And so the divisions have gone on until today, in the United States alone, there are nineteen different Church denominations, all claiming to be “Methodists,” despite their many variations.
When John Wesley first commenced his preaching crusade, he gathered his converts into a “Society,” and spoke of them as “the people who are called Methodists:” He organized them into “classes,” an idea he adopted from the Moravians. Members were to meet regularly for study, prayer, and Christian fellowship, under the direction of “classleaders.” From these “classes” there developed “local societies,” or groups of classes, equivalent to what we now call local churches. Today, members of a local church are enrolled in a class which is expected to meet weekly for the above purposes, each member paying “class-money,” which is the main contribution towards support of the Methodist Church. “Membership,” writes Prof. A. V. Murray, “is open to all persons who sincerely desire to be saved from their sins through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and evidence the same in life and conduct, and who seek to take up the duties and privileges of the Methodist Church.” (Towards Reunion, p. 91.) Local societies or churches are grouped together to form a “Circuit.” The old Methodist name for an ordained minister was “travelling preacher,” instead of “local preacher,” who was mostly an unordained layman. The minister moved on circuit from local congregation to local congregation. Today “Circuits” may have one or more ministers, with several churches. Representatives of all the churches in each Circuit meet in Quarterly Conferences. The Circuits, in turn, are grouped into Districts; and representatives of each District meet twice yearly in “Synods.” Representatives of the whole Church meet at an Annual Conference, which is the Supreme Court with an annuallyelected President. Since 1881, Methodists throughout the world send delegates to an Ecumenical Conference, which meets every ten years. It is not claimed that this organization is of apostolic derivation, nor that it has any Divine sanction. It is a structure of human origin only, which is based solely on considerations of expediency and utility. The only “continuity” with early Christianity required by Methodists is not that of an ordained clergy, or of constitutional organization, but of the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And that leads us to Methodist forms of worship.
When, in 1726, John Wesley formed his “Holy Club” at Oxford, one of his strict rules had been that of regular weekly Communion according to Anglican rites. This rule earned for him and his companions the nickname of “Sacramentarians”. His own sister wrote to him, blaming him for “Communion every Sunday,” on the ground that it would lessen his reverence for the “sacred ordinance.” After his Moravian conversion in 1738, however, he took to open-air preaching; and of necessity his revival meetings had to be “non-sacramental.” Fervent sermons, ex-tempore prayer, and stirring hymns, of which the majority were composed by his brother Charles, were the order of the day. But Wesley never regarded his open-air services as providing all the needs of public worship. He protested that such services, if they stood alone, would be greatly deficient in essential things. He assumed that his converts would also attend Sunday worship in Anglican parish churches; and he urged them, above all, to receive Holy Communion, the “supreme expression of Christian fellowship.” One of his Sermons is, “On the Duty of Constant Communion” as often as possible. But his “Methodists” were not welcomed to Communion by the orthodox Anglican clergy. Moreover, they regarded their revival meetings and study-class devotions as quite sufficient in themselves. The Hymn Book of the Society became their chief book of devotion, and they became a “singing and praying” people, with less and less attraction for ritual and liturgy. Once again, Wesley had set forces into operation which he could not control, and which developed in ways he did not wish, and which he believed to be contrary to the Will of God. Sacraments, accordingly, assumed less and less importance in the eyes of Methodists. We have already seen, when dealing with the “New Birth” (See Section 3c ‘Salvation’), how the Sacrament of Baptism gradually lost significance and became but a symbolical ceremony, effecting nothing. The Sacrament of Holy Communion also fell into neglect, and was treated with scant respect. Wesley himself ever retained the Anglican Liturgy in accordance with his duty as an Anglican clergyman, and insisted upon its retention. Dr. Adam Clarke, one of the fathers of Methodism, complained that Methodists acted in a way utterly unbecoming the gravity of so sacred a rite. In Lives of the Preachers, Vol. IV, pp. 302-3, James Rogers relates the story of how a Mr. Fletcher, of Madeley, went into the yard to meet three Methodist preachers who had come to see him. He took with him a bottle of red wine and some bread; and, after some prayers, handed around the bread and wine to the three others with the words, “The Body of the Lord which was broken for you . . . the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” So they had their fellowship meal. And all were edified. John Wesley would have been horrified. He would have pronounced the whole procedure a dreadful desecration. Methodists today regard as a sufficient form of worship the usual non-conformist service consisting of the reading of Scripture, the singing of hymns, a sermon, and extempore prayer. Holy Communion is celebrated once or twice a month, following morning or evening worship. A table is covered with a linen cloth, bread is placed upon it, together with little glasses of wine like trays of inkwells, the glasses replacing the traditional chalice for hygienic reasons. The wine is, as a rule, unfermented, in deference to temperance sentiment. At times the Anglican Communion service is followed, though usually much abbreviated. But strong and antiliturgical feeling in many Methodist Churches makes it impossible to impose any one form, and there are many alternative practices in use, each minister having full liberty to introduce hymns and extempore prayer as he thinks fit. For most Methodists, the “Lord’s Supper” is a sacred meal meant to intensify the bonds of friendliness and fellowship between all who participate in it.
It would be impossible to have read all that has been set out so far in this booklet, and not to realize that modern Methodism is certainly not the Methodism of John Wesley. It has drifted very far from the convictions of its founder. For Wesley had ever professed belief in the Anglican Church, and in the teachings of the Book of Common Prayer. He so wanted all to be Anglicans that he demanded, in Sermon 115, that dissenting converts should be weaned from their Chapels and restored to the Church of England. He dreaded lest his “Methodist Society” should ever become a “Church” separated from that of which he was an ordained clergyman. Yet the Methodists of today form “Churches” not connected with Anglicanism. Methodist Conferences have put on record their denunciations of the Book of Common Prayer as “heretical and Romanizing.” :-) And the fear of schism, so conspicuous in John Wesley, has almost entirely disappeared from amongst Methodists. They have divided from one another, and sub-divided, on well-nigh any pretext. It is true that, obsessed by the idea of “personal conversion,” Wesley omitted to instruct his followers with sufficient care in other matters he thought essential; but modern Methodists do not stress today even the experience of conversion as Wesley did. For them, the idea of “fellowship” has become the all-important consideration. Methodist Churches, too, have become not only non-liturgical, but anti-liturgical. John Wesley’s own “ritualism” would have been intolerable in their eyes. Their theory of ordination is radically different from his. Again, so long as he lived he insisted on the practice of weekly Communion. Since his death, Methodists have profoundly modified their behaviour, and many admit that Holy Communion means little or nothing to them. Neither would Wesley’s ascetical rules have any appeal to the modern Methodist. In Sermon 116, he warns the lax that “the man who never fasts is not more in the way of salvation than the man who never prays.” But how many Methodists observe even the Quarterly Fasts prescribed by the Wesleyan Church Calendars? Both in theory and practice, all along the line, modern Methodism has moved farther and farther away from the religion of John Wesley. If his ways and teachings were of God, the later developments cannot be; if later developments are of God, then Wesley himself fell into error. Or must we suspect both earlier and later phases of Methodism to have been equally the result of sincere but mistaken zeal? To the Christian, later developments certainly have all the signs of progressive departure from the truth. Methodist theology has tended more and more towards liberal and rationalistic views incompatible with the teachings of the New Testament at all. Individualism, subjectivism, and emotionalism have led to a diversity and chaos which render the profession of the one name “Methodist” almost meaningless. And that multitudes of Methodists should fail to see this is the enigma which every thinking man must find baffling in the extreme.