In just a few days, I fly to England and begin a two-week journey of conferences and “touristing.” One of my colleagues at the Seminary recently told me that he’d rather be at the beach on a Caribbean island during his summer break. I’m the opposite. Give me England.
The reason that I’m going, however, is to attend the Charles Wesley Society meeting in Bristol and the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies at Oxford. The CWS will be meeting in the New Room, the oldest Methodist building in the world and a “must-see” for anyone connected to the Wesleyan tradition. The Oxford Institute will be held at Pembroke College, Oxford, the same college where George Whitefield was a student during the early days of Oxford Methodism and the “Holy Club.”
The Oxford Institute is an invitational gathering of Wesleyan scholars of varied disciplines that meets every five years in Oxford. The last Institute that I attended was in 2007 when it was held at Christ Church, the college of John and Charles Wesley. There are gatherings of the whole group for worship and for keynote lectures, but the main portion of our time will be given to working groups. I’m in the Wesley Studies group with around 20 or so others from around the globe.
It is in this Wesley Studies group that I’m giving a potentially controversial presentation entitled, “Benevolent Opposition: Early Methodism as a Laicized Challenge to the Church of England.” I won’t post the entire 6400 word presentation, but here is the argument in summary:
When the Act of Toleration was passed by Parliament in 1689, its passage sent shockwaves through an already precarious religious establishment. Amongst dissenters, the Act created legal status and privileges. Amongst Anglicans, the Act undermined Church discipline and created detachment from the institutional Church. This detachment would create a cultural religious fluidity amongst a portion of the population removed from the rhythms of parish life and liturgy. While culturally Anglican, it is from this segment of the population that early Methodism would take root. However, in taking root amongst the Church’s periphery, early Methodism would take energy from the institutional Church. Early Methodism then did not revive the institutional Church. Rather, it became a form of benevolent opposition by organizing a portion of fluid cultural Anglicanism. It would also hinder other reform efforts – such as those by the evangelical Anglicans – by bringing the loyalty of reform efforts into question and by creating a second eighteenth-century schism.
The idea came to me as I began work to discover the benefits of Methodism to the institutional Church of England. Wesley had said that the Wesleyan revival was about the Church and so I wanted to see what kind of impact that it actually made. I don’t doubt that it made positive contributions to the life of English Christianity and in some places in England (Shropshire for example) made a positive impact on the Church of England itself. But as I continued to dig into the topic it struck me that, perhaps, Methodism wasn’t always beneficial. Perhaps, it organized people who would have otherwise become more engaged with the Church of England through the evangelical clergy who stayed within the Church or with later renewal movements (including the Anglo-Catholics) who targeted this same fluid Anglican culture.
It’s not easy for a Methodist to admit that Methodism might not always be beneficial. We’re all aware that the movement is made up of fallible human beings, but it’s rare to approach one’s own ecclesiastical community with any sort of critical lens. Scholars are supposed to do this, but even then it’s a bit different when the scholar himself is a Methodist. But I’ve decided that Methodism as a topic is worth exploring, warts and all.
Is it true that Wesley’s movement to revive the Church actually hindered the Church of England’s? Perhaps. I can see the great work of the Wesleys very clearly. God used them in an amazing way and the movement that they founded is still proclaiming the Gospel of transforming grace around the globe. But not every repercussion of their work was positive.
Good history that sees the human narrative for what it actually was is a gift to the present. It teaches us that even our heroes were human, but it also reminds us that we are too. And if we’re paying attention, it might help us to avoid the errors of the past, even as we celebrate the great accomplishments that went along with them.
Being able to see both the good and the bad of history – especially in our own communities – is a gift that is often lacking in today’s discourse. So many seem to claim that something is either entirely good or entirely not. There’s no gray area, no room for context or understanding. But human beings are more complex than that. And so is the narrative of their history. Offering the past the same benefit of complexity that we offer ourselves only seems right.
Regardless, I’m looking forward to hearing what my colleagues at the Institute think of my work. One of the great benefits of the Wesley Studies guild is that it is composed of passionate men and women committed to their study, the Church, and to collegiality. That combination – and maybe a few pints at the pub – will prove very helpful.
Ryan N. Danker