Friday, October 26, 2007

Wesley's Dual Ecclesiologies and Contemporary Conflict

Albert Outler is famously quoted as saying, “To the question, Is there a Wesleyan ecclesiology? The answer ‘yes’ is too much, the answer ‘no’ too little.”[1] As a revival movement turned church, Methodism has struggled to define its ecclesial identity vacillating between notions of “church” and “sect,” neither of which are satisfactory.[2] It can be said that this struggle for ecclesial identity stems from Wesley’s own ambiguous articulation of the ecclesiology of the people called Methodist.

As a practical theologian more concerned with the pragmatics of ecclesial life than the articulation of systematic doctrine, Wesley’s ecclesiology is at best a mélange of insights and influences from the religious landscape in which he lived.[3] Over the years scholars have attempted to organize Wesley’s ecclesiology by untangling the various strands of his ministry to illustrate the complexity of his ecclesiological practice.[4]

In the aforementioned essay, Albert Outler claims that rather than a doctrine of the church, the Methodist Church inherited a “interesting amalgam” of ecclesiological features that when strung together give a practical, yet not systematic vision of the form and nature of the Church. Outler understands that for Wesley the Church was best understood as an “act,” as part of the larger mission of “spreading scriptural holiness” and as such did not necessitate a systematic theological articulation. After all, the Methodist movement was part of the larger Church of England whose ecclesiology was clearly stated in Article XIX of the Anglican Articles of Religion. Although Wesley’s ecclesiology begins rooted in the ecclesiological tradition of the Established Church, his ecclesial practices reveal various other ecclesiological strands and influences. Outler notes that layered upon his Anglican foundation Wesley added practical innovations drawn from the liturgical and devotional influences of the Catholic Non-Jurors and Puritans, Latitudinarian insights on ecclesial administration, and a vision of reformed religious societies from Continental Pietists (including both Lutherans and Moravians) and English High Churchman.[5] Outler claims these various strands were woven together not as a systematic reformation of traditional Anglican ecclesiology, but rather as necessary means of adaptation to the evolving Methodist movement.[6]

This kaleidoscopic ecclesiology described by Outler was later further organized by Collin Williams into three distinct lines of influence – the Free Church, Classic Protestant and Catholic traditions. [7] In more recent years the varying strands of influence within Wesley’s ecclesiology have been refined into a general two-fold relationship between Wesley’s Anglican heritage and his pragmatic appropriation of Free Church ecclesiologies. Scholars such as David Lowes Watson, Howard Snyder, Ernest Stoeffler and Frank Baker have successfully argued for this vision of a dual ecclesiology in Wesley.[10] On the one hand, Church was for Wesley as the Anglican community envisioned, the historical institution maintained by a clerical order responsible for duly preaching the Word of God and administering the sacraments to all those made members by baptism. While on the other hand, Church was also a fellowship of believers who shared the apostolic experience of God's living presence and a desire to bring others into this same personal experience practiced by those in the Free Church movement.[11]

Wesley’s ecclesiology is best understood as a careful balance of the tension between the Anglican concept of the integrity and authority of the visible and universal church and the radical Protestant notion of the gathered church. Wesley joined together the idea of a gathered church, purposively elected by God for the renewal of the institutional church, with the concept of a wider, inclusive body of the universal church marked by a “catholic spirit.” The holiness of the Church depended on both the objective presence of Christ in the Word and sacraments and the subjective holiness embodied in a living response of believers. The Church was not complete unless the objective holiness evoked in the life of the community of faith a subjective response embodied in concrete acts of holiness.[1]

While the gathered church emphasis of these communities of renewal (manifest in his system of societies, classes and bands) was important, Wesley could not conceive of these smaller ecclesiolae outside of the larger church universal. He balanced these two distinct ecclesiologies by structuring a system in which individuals had the opportunity to attend voluntary small groups in which spiritual discipline was taken seriously. These groups were drawn from the wider membership formed on the basis of baptism and profession of faith. For Wesley both were necessary in order to balance the unity and continuity of the Church with its mission to spread scriptural holiness. Colin Williams notes, “These emphases only become wrong when one is separated from the others.”[2]

This balance between these dual ecclesiological visions provides a helpful framework for assessing Wesley’s own ecclesiological commitments embedded in his ecclesial practices. Any analysis of Methodist ecclesial practices must keep in mind the delicate balance Wesley sought to maintain between a vision of the church as an historic institution whose membership is constituted through baptism and a vision of the church as a gathered community of believers seeking to manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit working in their lives through worship, evangelism and holy living. Without such a framework it would be easy to place undue emphasis on particular aspects of his ministry and ecclesiology giving a biased and inaccurate view of Wesley’s core ecclesiological commitments.

This type of bias is evident in contemporary debates and discussions regarding the nature of the Church. The recent controversy over membership outlined in previous chapters reveals the dangers of emphasizing one ecclesial vision over the other. In the case of Judicial Council Decision 1032, these dual ecclesiologies were pitted against one another by the differing poles of the Church. As manifested in the written position papers during the 2007 consultation on ecclesiology, those who supported Decision 1032 based their interpretations on an ecclesiology formed primarily by the gathered church model of a distinctive community called to witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and marked by a uniform adherence to a particular moral disciplinary code. On the other hand, those who voiced dissent with Decision 1032 formed their arguments based on an essentially Anglican view of the Church as a historic institution into which persons are admitted, not based on a set of particular behaviors, but rather by God’s grace as poured out and recognized in the ritual of baptism. Just as in Wesley, the ecclesial practices of the contemporary United Methodist Church must achieve a delicate balance between the dual ecclesiologies of the Anglican and Radical Protestant traditions if they are to remain both effective and faithful to their Wesleyan heritage. Historically as the Methodist tradition moved from a society to an institutional church, it struggled to reconcile the disciplines of the societies with the life of the larger, “great congregation” of life in the universal church.[3]

[1] Williams, p. 149.

[2] Williams, p. 153.

[3] Williams, p. 153.

[1] Outler, Albert, “Do Methodists Have a Doctrine of the Church?” In Doctrine of the Church, Dow Kirkpartick, ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 1964, p. 11

[2] Abraham, William. “Judicial Council Decision 1032 and Ecclesiology,” p. 3.

[3] Carter, David, Love Bade Me Welcome: A British Methodist Perspective on the Church, London: Epworth Press, 2002, p. 6.

[4] While this chapter will explore those scholars who note multiple ecclesiological influences in Wesley’s understanding of the Church, there are others who focus on particular strands, pulling one out above the others. Kenneth Rowe, in his edited volume, The Place of John Wesley in the Christian Tradition (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1976, p. 3) outlines work by scholars that trace ecclesiological influences in Wesley to various religious traditions including George Croft Cell and Franz Hildebrandt who trace Wesley to the Continental Reformers; Martin Schmidt and Clifford W. Towlson who link Wesley to Continental Pietiem; Jean Orcibal t the Western mystical tradition; Maximin Piette and John Todd to Roman Catholicism; Horton Davies, Robert Monk and John Newton to English Puritanism; Arthur M. Allchin and Marcus Ward to Eastern Orthodoxy; and Ole Borgen, Garth Lean, Lawrence McIntosh, and J. Earnest Rattenbury who all label Wesley as essentially Anglican.

[5] Outler, pp. 14-15.

[6] Ibid, p. 27.

[7] Williams, Collin W., John Wesley’s Theology Today, New York: Abingdon Press, 1960, pp. 141-166.

[8] Wesley, John, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Par. 78

[9] To this three-fold formula, H. Ray Dunning adds a fourth mark of discipline, which like the mark of living faith comes from Wesley’s contact with the Free Church movements. (See his article, “Toward a Wesleyan Ecclesiology )

[10] Watson, David Lowes , The Early Methodist Class Meeting, Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1987; Snyder, Howard, The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal, Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980; Stoeffler, Ernest, “Tradition and Renewal in the Ecclesiology of John Wesley” in Traditio-Krisis-Renovatio aus Theologischer Sicht, edited by Berndt Jasper and Rudolf Mohr, Marburg: Elwer, 1976; Towlson, Clifford W. Moravian and Methodist: Relationships and Influences in the Eighteenth Century, London: Epworth Press, 1954.

[11] Baker, p. 137.

[12] Baker, p. 137.

[13] For example, Howard Snyder argues that Wesley’s ecclesiology was fundamentally shaped by his interaction with and appropriation of Moravian radical Protestantism. In the contemporary debates over homosexuality and membership, one can see the way in which the two opposing poles highlight either Wesley’s Anglican or Free Church ecclesial practices to support their differing claims on membership and ecclesial identity. See Chapter 3.

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