As we prayerfully seek where God is leading us, the people called Methodist, in a new era it’s important to become fluent in how we have historically articulated who we are. In exploring our past we can come to understand our present and then, and only then, discern a path for the future.
In his book, Doctrine in Experience, Russ Richey argues that Methodists “spoke to the nation with not one but four voices, four languages” (p.4). He names these historical voices as follows:
3)Episcopal or Anglican
It is my argument that while these are our historical voices, we should separate the “popular” language of our day from the “evangelical” language, thereby creating 5 voices by which we understand who we are as Methodists.
Richey argues that the evangelical language, the language of the sermon, love feast, prayer and camp meeting, were the popular languages of the early days of Methodism in America. The country was in its infant stages and we were looking for both a spiritual foundation to ground us, as well as an emotional fervor to reflect and propel the frontier spirit we longed to embody. Methodism offered just such a foundation and spark, found in the dual emphasis on conversion in campmeeting and revival worship as well as discipleship in class meetings. This evangelical language charted the course of Christian life because it employed words that all could understand resonate with.
While this was the everyday language of the 18th and early 19th Century, one could argue that such evangelical language now comes with the baggage of suspicion. Over the years too many of us have seen such language employed to judge other unfairly, to uphold persecution and oppression, and to demonize that which “good religious folk” don’t understand or agree with. But nonetheless, we as Methodists still understand ourselves with evangelical language–albeit more tame and cloaked in expression. We still preach and teach on concepts like conversion and sanctification through the Holy Spirit. Now there’s also a pretty good argument that we could find ways to employ this type of language in more productive and non-judgmental ways. But that’s a frontier yet to be conquered.
While evangelical, religious language was the popular language of the days of early Methodism, we now have alternative language to employ. Over the 20th Century religious organizations collectively sought to use the language of the wider society in an effort to convey its relevance in a world changing faster than anyone could imagine. The language of psychology and medicine has become popular language in religious circles. For example, whereas sin was spoken of in evangelical terms of a need for conversion in the early days, it’s now more widely spoken of in terms of an “illness” or “condition” from which we all suffer. Conversion, then, could be viewed as a remedy for this illness, a prescription if you will. But there’s also the belief that conditions are better thought of as that we “manage” and not what we overcome. The burden of sin is viewed with many more complexities than it was in the early days of the Methodist movement.
Another popular language employed by religious organizations came about in the later part of the 20th Century–namely, the language of business. The fact that I so easily refer to denominations or churches as “organizations” speaks to the way the language of business has become so prevalent in our religious conversations. As buildings grew we had more of a need to accumulate sources of revenue (i.e. new members). Families can be referred to as “giving units” when we talk about the overall health of our churches. Efficiency has quickly become one of the highest ideals of the ministry of the church. And the Methodist church has seen a sharp rise in our drive to create so-called “mega churches” (FYI: “Mega Church” is the only church descriptor that speaks solely of membership size which is yet another sign of how easy it’s become to use business language). All of this (plus more) speaks to the Methodist affinity in employing the popular language of business in religious/organizational understanding.
In the early days of the Methodist movement we sought to employ distinct Wesleyan language in forming our doctrine. In 1798 John Dickens saw to it that American Methodists had a Pocket Hymn Book, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and his Sermons. Dickens also saw that Wesley’s Large Minutes, the forerunner to our Book of Discipline, was published and made available to American Methodists. All of these served to instill a distinctively Wesleyan voice in how we articulated our theology and ministry. It should be noted that Wesley himself never intended that these works create a self-sufficient religious identity. Instead they were to be used in conjunction with the biblical text and Book of Common Prayer.
It could be argued that as we grew as an institution, our distinct Wesleyan language became more focussed on organizational needs and less on our theological self-understanding. In a later piece I want to argue that our organizational structure is, in fact, an expression of our distinct theological identity that too often gets overlooked. Nonetheless we have to remember that when we discuss conflicts on issues such as equality, sacramental order and authority, and yes, even organizational make-up we have a distinct Wesleyan voice on these matters. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much as we might just need to re-examine how the wheel was constructed in the first place.
As step-children of the Anglican Church it should come as no surprise that we employ a good bit of Anglican language in our understanding of how we organize the church. The titles of bishop, elder, and deacon are distinctly Episcopal in their heritage. And yet we use them to understand the roles of governance in the church. We speak with a particular Anglican tongue when we articulate the way we celebrate sacraments, identify core doctrines, order our governance, and even ordain our ministers.
republican (Note: “r” and NOT R)
As a product/shaper of early American life, the Methodist church employs a distinct republican language. If you don’t believe me, just look at how much of our structure is based off of an democratic model. We have 3 branches of authority: Judicial Council (judicial branch), General Conference (legislative branch), and Council of Bishops (executive branch). The American expansion across the continent led Methodists to rally around the first mission statement to “spread scriptural holiness across the continent.” It was the joining of national and religious language that strengthened the two All of this offered Methodism a powerful narrative through which is understood itself in the context of a growing young nation.
Today we see this understanding lived out in the presence of the Methodist voice on various social issues. Many argue that Wesley’s quote of “no holiness but social holiness” stands as the Methodist justification for political/social justice efforts. Often one will hear Methodist ministers encourage members from the pulpit to vote while not swaying into partisan politics (some do better than others, mind you). The Methodist emphasis on “holiness of heart and life” continues to find its expression in a life actively engaged both in the church and in the political world.
These are 5 of the major languages of Methodist self-understanding. It may seem like a trite exercise but I think it’s vitally important to become fluent in a language, or languages, in order to employ them to shape a culture. We can’t influence change in the church unless we know the language of the culture. These 5 languages serve to shape who we’ve and who we are today. There are good points and shortcomings to the use of each of these. So maybe the key is to discern how they can affect who we are to be as a 21st Century church. One could only hope…
Which language(s) informs your understanding of Methodist theology? Which one(s) are most in need of correction?