A testimony from a member of the House of Lords about the parish churches in the Church of England. Toward the end, I found myself wondering if part of our legacy as United Methodists comes from the fact that we still imagine ourselves to be America’s establishment church.
When I first started going to a Church of England church, I likewise assumed that its members did not believe things very strongly. I then realised that they actually do—just not in the same things. That is actually really important; it is an aspect of the Church of England that tells us quite a lot about its history.
Read the rest of Baroness Sherlock’s thoughts on this state of affairs here.
In his 85th year, John Wesley reflected on his grief over the split between the Methodists and the Church of England. It was a common problem that Methodists would refuse to go to their parish church when the ministers there preached against the Methodists. Wesley exhorted Methodists to always attend Sunday services and take communion frequently, but the often would not listen to him.
In his journal, Wesley recounts his observations after attending a lightly attended Sunday service in his hometown of Epworth.
I fain would prevent the members here from leaving the church; but I cannot do it. As Mr. G. is not a pious man, but rather an enemy to piety, who frequently preaches against the truth, and those that hold and love it, I cannot with all my influence persuade them either to hear him, or to attend the sacrament administered by him. If I cannot carry this point even while I live, who then can do it when I die? And the case of Epworth is the case of every church, where the Minister neither loves nor preaches the Gospel. The Methodists will not attend his ministrations. What then is to be done?
One of the purposes of doctrine is to divide — and there was nothing for the Church of England to divide itself from. England was insulated from the factors which made doctrine so significant a matter on the mainland of Europe in the Reformation and immediate post-Reformation periods.
This quote from Alister McGrath‘s highly readable and interesting book Reformation Thought: An Introduction offers his explanation for why doctrine and doctrinal disputes were never as important to the English Reformation as they were on the continent, where Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Reformed theologians found themselves locked in continuous doctrinal debate.
It may be part of the reason why we United Methodists find doctrine such a delicate subject. We spring from Anglican roots. Even the Lutheranism that has been grafted into us is a non-doctrinal Pietism. We did not arise as a movement seeking to change the church’s doctrine and theology. We do not relish tales of university professors hammering theological treatises to church doors. We do not celebrate the publication of massive tomes of systematic theology. We sing hymns and speak of heart warming experiences.
And this may be part of our challenge today.
We are not living in the sheltered world of Elizabethan England, where the crown eliminates the need for doctrinal clarity by forbidding rival religions and shunning public atheism. We are not on the frontier of America where doctrine does not matter as much as a good horse. We are not in mainline America where everyone is a Christian and the liquor stores all close on Sunday morning.
Is it possible that Methodism is by its nature a sheltered bird that struggles in the buffet and tumult of doctrinal storms?