Ode to the parish church

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.

Where the gospel is neither loved nor preached

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?


Is Methodism a sheltered bird?

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?

A true Church-of-England man

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.

Wesley replies:

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?

Merton on American and English religion

I spend a lot of time inside the hermetic seal of Methodism, which can be good and bad.

In part to break up the bad parts of that, I picked up a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain this week and started reading it. The other part of my reason for picking it up is that I have heard so many people speak and write so highly of Merton that I thought it would be good to see what they saw.

I’m only through the first two chapters so far. Merton is about to enter Oakham school in England in a chapter enticingly titled “The Harrowing of Hell.” Sounds like high school as I remember it.

Reading the book as a Protestant, my ears are tuned to comments he makes about non-Catholics.

Here is his take on his grandparents’ religion:

My grandparents were like most other Americans. They were Protestants, but you could never find out precisely what kind of Protestants they were. I, their own grandson, was never able to ascertain. They put money in the little envelopes that came to them from Zion church, but they never went near the place itself. And they also contributed to the Salvation Army and a lot of other things: so you could not tell what they were by the places which they helped support. Of course, they had sent my uncle in his boyhood to the choir school of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the rock above Harlem, which was then a peaceful bourgeois neighborhood. And they sent John Paul there too, in due course. Indeed, there was even some talk of sending me there. Yet that did not make them Episcopalians. It was not the religion that they patronized, but the school and the atmosphere. In practice, Bonnemaman [Merton’s grandmother] used to read the little black books of Mary Baker Eddy, and I suppose that was the closest she got to religion.

On the whole, the general attitude around that house was the more or less inarticulate assumption that all religions were more or less praiseworthy on purely natural or social grounds. In any decent suburb of a big city you would expect to run across some kind of a church, once in a while. It was part of the scenery, like the High School and the Y.M.C.A. and the big whale-back roof and water-tank of the movie theater.

And here is his description of the Church of England:

Prayer is attractive enough when it is considered in a context of good food, and sunny joyous country churches, and the green English countryside. And, as a matter of fact, the Church of England means all this. It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of a whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation. That is the principal basis for its rather strong coherence up to now. There is certainly not much doctrinal unity, much less a mystical bond between people many of whom have even ceased to believe in the grace of the Sacraments. The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake. The Church of England depends for its existence almost entirely on the solidarity and conservatism of the English ruling class. Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their church the way they cling to their King and to their old schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions regarding the English countryside, old castles and cottages, games of cricket in the long summer afternoons, tea-parties on the Thames, croquet, roast-beef, pipe-smoking, the Christmas panto, Punch and the London Times and all those other things the mere thought of which produces a kind of a warm and inexpressible ache in the English heart.

World really was his parish

One of the many John Wesley factoids that gets thrown around is that he openly defied the Church of England’s parish system by preaching in parishes where he was not invited by the local parish priest.

Those who like to endorse or defend a relaxed attitude toward our own rules often bring up this case.

I’ve read that argument, but never really looked into it. Here’s what James Pedlar says about it:

Wesley’s itinerant ministry was challenged by some, because it meant that he crossed into the parishes of other priests of the Church of England, sometimes preaching in their territory without their permission. Wesley’s quote about the world being his parish is usually seen as his missional justification for preaching the gospel wherever he was. But he also knew that he was exempt from the parish boundary rules as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He had no parish of his own, and was free to preach where he liked. He used this to his advantage.