In 1745 and thereafter, John Wesley exchanged a series of letters with a Mr. John Smith, who the editor of my copy of the works of Wesley notes is generally presumed to have been the Bishop of Oxford writing anonymously.
In one of the letters, the bishop accuses Wesley of deviating from the teachings of the Church of England. Smith criticizes Wesley for always appealing to the official doctrinal standards of the church in defending himself from such charges. The Articles of Religion of the Church of England and the Homilies were adopted in the 16th century. Smith writes that he is accusing Wesley not of deviating from those, but of deviating from the doctrines as actually preached in the 18th century Church of England, which presumably did not reflect the official doctrinal standards.
Well, how blind was I! I always supposed, till the very hour I read these words, that when I was charged with differing from the Church, I was charged with differing from the Articles and Homilies. And for the compilers of these, I can sincerely profess great deference and veneration. But I cannot honestly profess any veneration at all for those Pastors of the present age, who solemnly subscribe to those Articles and Homilies which they do not believe in their hearts. Nay, I think, unless I differ from these men (be they Bishops, Priests, or Deacons) just as widely as they do from the Articles and Homilies, I am no true Church-of-England man.
This exchange struck me as quite similar to our situation in the United Methodist Church. We have our doctrinal standards that were established a 200 years ago. By every official word, they are the standard of teaching in our churches. But they bear little actual influence throughout a great number of our churches.
To be a true United Methodist, then, should we reflect the preaching and teaching of our day or — if it differs — the doctrinal standards set out in our Book of Discipline?