Whither the Ecumenical Pilgrimage?

by Ian Howarth.

Reading Israel Selvanayagam’s recent history of the Church of South India, ‘The Greatest Act of Faith,’[1] with his passionate advocacy of the importance of organic union if the church is to have any credibility in a secular world, I am led to reflect on the ecumenical journey as I have seen it over my lifetime.

Dr Selvanayagam finishes his book with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,  ‘who at the heart of his struggle with the nexus of evil forces, declared: “We, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and the Protestants, either come together as brothers and sisters or die as fools”,’[2] and I am left almost with a feeling of guilt that I cannot generate the enthusiasm for pursuing the goal of organic union between God’s people that I had in the early days of my Christian faith. Dr Selvanayagam is adamant that coming together ultimately must mean organic union, but his book also outlines the danger of dominant partners using organic union as a means to assimilate smaller units into the larger, for which he cites the assimilation of the CSI into a province of the Anglican Communion, without discussion with the other partners as an example.

When I was confirmed in 1969, it was at one of the first joint Anglican/Methodist confirmation services, even if the school where it happened did have to import a retired bishop of a diocese in the Middle East, and we were actually confirmed in two queues one going to the bishop and the other to the Methodist school chaplain, who was standing in for the President of Conference whose train had been cancelled! It was the comments that it was a good job it was the President’s train that had been cancelled and not the bishop’s, that gave me one of my first insights into a key difference in our ecclesiology!

I began my presbyteral training at the ecumenical Queen’s College, in 1982, and our first guest lecture was from David Edwards, the Anglican lead for the proposed English Covenant, which despite support from the Methodist Church and URC, had recently been voted down in the house of clergy of the Church of England, thus effectively bringing to an end the processes that might lead to an organic union between the churches. There was much wringing of hands and a sense that a dream had died.

Throughout my ministry the quest for organic union has gradually slipped off the table, and the Covenant with the Church of England was seen by many as an end of the process. On the ground ecumenical co-operation has been patchy. Some flexibility in Anglican Ecumenical Canons has allowed joint work and worship in LEPs and across particular areas. Yet, I have become acutely conscious that ecumenical working at a local level relies far too much on the personalities and outlook of local church leaders – usually the ordained ones!

As I approach the end of my ministry, I have to say that I react to the current proposals of ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ with a deep sense of tiredness. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think this is at the top of the list of our priorities. The sense of banging a head on a brick wall is too strong.

As I look back over the story I have told above, I am conscious of how church based it all is. For all the talk of mission the discussions have become increasingly institutional, and the issues seem to resemble arguing about the number of angels you can get on a pin head. The things I thought important and exciting forty years ago, now seem echoes of a past age. They also speak of a world where the church was a much more powerful influence in society and the thought of coming together organically could have made a significant difference to the Christian voice.

So what do we do with that statement of Martin Luther King? And perhaps more important, what do we make of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that ‘they may be one as you, Father and I are one, and they may be one in us?’

We can argue that that does not mean organic union but another sense of oneness, but meanwhile the church becomes more divided. The issues around sexuality threaten our oneness in a very different way from questions of episcopacy and church governance. The rise of independent churches with a congregationalist form of governance has in many ways sidelined the smaller denominations like Methodism.

The question of whether we can be in unity with those with whom we profoundly disagree with theologically is a pressing one, that Methodism is currently struggling with on its own, let alone across denominations.

If I am honest, I think that organic unity will probably have to wait for the eschaton. However, I believe we have to find a new way of demonstrating our oneness across our divisions, and that can be a key witness to a divided nation.

That starts within Methodism. If we can show we truly can express what it is to be one in Christ with contradictory convictions around marriage, then we can have something to say to our fellow Christians in other traditions facing similar challenges, but above all, we can offer a witness to a world that sees disagreement as inherently leading to division, and we can truly preach a Christ, in whom there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’[3]

 

 

[1]  The Greatest Act of Faith: The First Organic Union of the Church of South India, by Rev Dr Israel Selvanayagam, Christian World Imprints

[2] Ibid p 246

[3] Galatians 3: 28

‘Messiah’ has come (again)

by Clive Marsh.

I was about ten when I first witnessed it. My family dragged me along to a performance at the local Methodist Church – well-known choir, bought-in soloists. I can’t honestly remember how willingly or unwillingly I went, but it was a ‘family night out’ near Christmas, so was presumably a bit of a thrill at the time. Some of it was boring, but I do remember being impressed (moved, even?) by some of it. Years later, I recall thinking that if it had kept a ten-year old interested enough to keep listening, then it must be pretty good. Either side of Christmas, Handel’s Messiah will be performed across the world in many different settings by choirs and soloists amateur and professional. There will be ‘sing-along’ Messiahs, performances sung for applause, other performances without applause, extracts used in worship. The Hallelujah chorus will be over-used, and yet still somehow manage to send shivers down spines everywhere.

What is to be made of this? An example of classical Western music, of a particular genre (an oratorio), written simultaneously to entertain, inform and spiritually affect whoever heard it, and which has been performed somewhere in the world every single year since its first performance in 1742, raises simple but searching questions about both how God speaks, and how art works. Let’s be clear: Handel’s Messiah won’t work for everyone. Even if it has gained ‘popular classic’ status so that those who usually say they don’t like classical music will give it a listen, its musical style won’t connect with all listeners. All music comes from and speaks to particular contexts even though it always has the potential to speak beyond the context from which it comes. It is no surprise that the word ‘transcendent’ gets used about music of all genres when pieces seem to rise above their contexts and tap into something universal. The only real difficulty is when lots of different people, from different backgrounds, contexts, belief-systems and worldviews then claim to be able to define quite precisely what the meaning is of the transcendence which is tapped into. God can still look different from different perspectives.

Music, though, functions more than as mere illustration of what theology is wrestling with all the time: saying particular things, out of particular contexts, in a particular tradition, whilst at the same time believing it possible to be making universal claims. Music’s particular ways of working (be it as rap, folk, jazz, pop, rock, classical) may not always be intended to evoke transcendent moments. They clearly often aren’t. It is no more possible to generalize about music than it is about newspapers, books, visual art, films or TV. Different examples all have different purposes. But within the mix of the multiple purposes music can move. It can, at times, put our daily chores to one side and open up a moment of indescribable depth, of untold exhilaration, or shimmering emotion. We can’t then easily put our finger on exactly what is happening. But the space created invites us to do something with it, even if it is only to ask: what happened there? And at that point we need broader resources, including the traditions of religion, myth, folklore, philosophy, family and community stories, to try and make sense of things.

In the case of Messiah, Charles Jennens – who wrote the words, and Handel – who wrote the music, have together produced a work that creates musical moments and an affective experience which provides its own commentary. A listener is taken on an emotional journey by the music but also given an explanation of what is intended by the music. It could, of course, be claimed that because Handel set Jennens’ (biblical) words to music, things should be viewed the other way round: it is the words that really matter. But I’m not so sure. It could still be true that ‘Messiah… is sufficiently rich and complex to speak to a range of human needs and emotions, irrespective of its immediate Judaeo-Christian framework.[1] Perhaps this is true precisely because of the way music works. Words and music belong together. It could, then, so easily be that a great many pieces and types of music leave the listener moved, and asking ‘what happened there?’ The words which then follow are crucial, admittedly. Not only Christian words will be offered as ways of understanding what music does, and what is being indicated about human experience. This is, though, exactly the task also of Christian theology in a missiological key: noting what is happening in the world, asking what God is up to and wanting to do, working out how to articulate all of this, and energising people to become involved. Messiah and lots of other music can contribute to the theological task when understood in this way.

 

 

[1] Donald Burrows, Handel: Messiah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991), viii.

Choosing the Wilderness

by Jill Baker.

The wilderness has been much on my mind recently, following a ‘Disciple’ Bible study meeting in our home where we looked afresh at the Exodus story.  As we smiled ruefully at the tendency of the Israelites to complain and moan, especially at their leaders, it dawned on us that much of this behaviour was triggered by fear.  Fear often leads to anger; perhaps we all have experienced the apparently unwarranted sharp comment from an elderly relative or the inexplicably aggressive behaviour of a teenager which, when explored more deeply, can be discovered to originate in fear of some kind.

So when (in Exodus 4:11-12) the Israelites say, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’ or (in Exodus 16:2) ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’ perhaps what they are really saying is, ‘in slavery we had regular meals and knew what we had to do all day and how to live; now we have left those safe structures behind – we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’

The day following this bible study I attended the ‘God for all’ event in Methodist Central Hall Westminster, and as I listened to testimonies, engaged in conversations, reflected on the Evangelism and Growth strategy and prayed for the Methodist Church in Britain, it felt like a kind of déjà vu. Running through so much of what I heard – from the platform and around tables, in both the good news stories and in the anxieties – I picked up the same wavelength of fear and anxiety. As I reflected on the churches I know well and those I have visited over the past few years I could identify similar symptoms, with perhaps the same cause… Is there a sense that many of our congregations, many of our ministers, many of our lay leaders are (at some level) in slavery – to schedules, to the plan, to property challenges, to fund-raising, to keeping the show on the road?  This is not intended to be a criticism – it is simply where many of us are.  For us, as for the Israelites in Egypt, times have changed and in the place where life was once lived freely and joyfully we now find ourselves in bondage and drained of energy.

But what is the alternative?  For the Israelites it was to leave almost everything which was familiar, to grab quickly only those things which they could carry easily, and to run – to run into the night, into the unknown, following Moses in a journey beset with difficulties and dangers.  No wonder they were afraid.

Are we also called to escape and to try our hand in an uncertain wilderness?  Do we need to choose the wilderness?  If so, we need to recognise just how scary that prospect is.  Our lives in church, in circuit, in district, around the connexion have been ordered in a certain way – we may not always think it’s the best way, but it is a familiar way, a predictable way and, like the nourishment in slavery rations, it has kept us alive… just.  If we were to leave all that behind, we too might say, ‘we don’t know where we are going, we don’t know how to find food and be nourished and we are very, very frightened.’

If any of this is in any way an accurate representation of where we are as a Methodist denomination today, then the first thing we need to do is to recognise the fear (as Moses does in Exodus 13:14 when he answers the complaints, ‘Do not be afraid’).  I write this a few days before travelling to Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage; our itinerary will include a short time in the Judean wilderness and I will look with new eyes on the fearful landscape around, and pray for courage to choose wilderness rather than slavery wherever I can.

What does the British Methodist Church have to do with slavery?

by David Clough.

I find it a good rule of thumb to avoid writing in public about things I don’t know very much about. But a recent blog post by my friend and colleague Ben Fulford has reminded me of the question in my title, and I’m keen to pursue it. Ben reports on attending the Sam Sharpe Lecture, which is named after an enslaved Baptist deacon who was executed by British colonial authorities in Jamaica for his part in the Baptist rebellion of 1831–1832. The lecture series is part of a wider project of the Jamaican Baptist Union in partnership with the British Baptist Union and others with the aim of encouraging church engagement with racial justice.

This year’s lecture was given by Professor Verene Shepherd who spoke about the enslaved women who responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to rebellion and the punishments they suffered in response. She also challenged her audience with the case for the payment of reparations to address the continuing consequences of the legacy of enslavement in Caribbean nations. In response Professor Robert Beckford remarked that it’s no surprise that the Church of England fails to attract black and brown people when it fails to apologize or make reparations for its participation in genocide.

The British Baptist Union is not alone in taking steps to engage with its history in relation to the practice of slavery: in the UK Glasgow, Cambridge, and Bristol Universities have begun work to investigate their institutional complicity. Ben notes the uncomfortable challenge to the Church of England. I’m prompted to ask how far the British Methodist Church has examined its legacy in relation to slavery.

There’s some good news to tell here. Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797) was a freed slave who converted to Methodism and was the first political leader of Britain’s black community. He was the author of the influential work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and spoke widely in England on the need for the abolition of the slave trade. Equiano’s story is summarized in Paul Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto Press, 2010), and elsewhere. Fryer also reports the story of Francis Barber, who was born around 1735 in Jamaica, brought to England at the age of 15 or so, was freed and became secretary to Samuel Johnson. Barber’s son Samuel, named after Johnson, became a Primitive Methodist preacher in Staffordshire.

John Wesley met enslaved people for the first time when he visited Georgia in 1736–7. In 1774 he published ‘Thoughts on Slavery’ describing the cruel ways in which slaves were treated and calling for slavery to be abolished. He preached against slavery in Bristol — one of the leading slave ports — at the height of the abolition movement and had to be protected from the disturbance that followed. Decades later, the abolitionist commitment was still evident in the church: in 1860, English Wesleyans protested to their American counterparts against their holding of slaves, after the holding of slaves had led to the split of the American Methodist Church in 1844.

Beyond these snapshots, I’m aware that I’m not well-informed about how the Methodist Church in Great Britain engaged with slavery. Perhaps there is more to celebrate; perhaps there are more complex and compromised parts of the story. Whether one or both of these is the case, I’m convinced that getting better acquainted with our history in this area is an important part of what is necessary for the church to work to resist the racism that unhappily is still a feature of our church life. If you’re aware of places where this conversation is happening, or resources to inform the conversation, please respond in the comments. It seems to me that there’s work to do here.

Labyrinth

by Josie Smith.

There was an opportunity to walk a labyrinth in a local church building recently.  I have done this many times before, but this time I embarked on the journey with no idea what I was going to do inside my head as my unshod feet moved softly forward, in a big room empty except for one other silent pilgrim.  I am deaf, so wasn’t even aware of the gentle background music until I was half way round.  We were invited to pick up a pebble at the start, carry it with us, and add it to the cairn when we reached the middle of the labyrinth.  There were suggestions for using the time in the labyrinth, but what happened to me wasn’t triggered by any of them.

Entirely unasked, what came into my mind and heart, and what I found myself doing, was retracing my entire life during the next forty minutes.  I found myself at the start in the church in which I was baptised, surrounded by the happy shadows of the people (saints, if you like) who had surrounded me then.  My immediate family (long dead) materialised in my mind, and then – as the child I was at the time began to develop and become more aware – my wider family, people at church and in Sunday school.  I found myself again remembering Jean Fisher at my first primary school – a pretty little thing with blue eyes and golden curls, all the things I wasn’t and would have liked to be.  Another step, a corner turned – and there were the neighbours around my first home.  I could see them all, and name them all, and commend them all to God, wherever they are now.  All dead.   Step followed step, and memory followed memory, except that I didn’t experience it as memory because in some strange way I had become that little girl who was relating to life as it was then.

Another corner of the labyrinth turned – another home, a new school, other friends, other influences, other pleasures, but also painful and sometimes tragic experiences.   At each stage I recalled individual people and groups who had been important to me, and held them for a moment before God.  Many of them will be dead too, but I am still in touch with a few people from those far-off days.   Teachers I knew, ministers I recall (though no detail of what they said, except for one whose children’s addresses were all built round a little boy called Bob), places I loved and people who shared them with me – all these things unwound in silent procession through my mind as I moved slowly forward with the help of my stick.

At each corner there was a little candle (electric, for safety) and as I turned to face in a new direction, a new scene revealed itself.  I lost count of how many people had been involved in the making of me, and reflected that perhaps I had been involved in the making of them in ways that I could not be aware of.  I do know that the longer I live the more aware I am of the oneness of all God’s creation.

Then growing up, marriage – God-given, beautiful, and enabling us to use our home once or twice a week for the local teenagers (it wouldn’t be allowed now, but Safeguarding hadn’t been invented then!) while bringing up our own children in love and safety.  I’m still in touch with some of those youngsters, now grandparents.   More moves, more friends, new opportunities and challenges.

Then more people came to mind – I recalled all the jobs I have done and the colleagues I have worked with.  All the ministers I have known, congregations I have worshipped with, groups I’ve belonged to – such riches!    And now, living alone and with the river of my life widening as it approaches the sea, what more?

All this happened without my volition – I went with the flow of my thoughts, and at the end of the journey back into the here and now I felt a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to walk that path into and out of the labyrinth.    There was no Minotaur waiting to consume me in the middle – just God, and the Communion of Saints, and my own inner self.

 

(Thank you, Judith, for that hour.)

On not always being euphoric

by Clive Marsh.

I made a short contribution to a major, regional Christian event recently at which I suggested that one of the challenges to those gathered together was how to ‘come down’ from the euphoria of the event, and re-enter the humdrum world of the local. Whilst it is nice, from time to time, to get a real ‘high’ from a celebratory event at which there is much singing, considerable joy, a bit of mind-stretching perhaps, but almost always much spirit-uplifting, there is the mundane to be returned to. Christian faith and practice cannot solely comprise a catalogue of peak moments. I was challenged immediately afterwards very directly and bluntly by a man who had heard my contribution. He was indignant that I had been so presumptive about the euphoria that people would experience. He was, of course, right that I could not guarantee that all would feel joyful as a result of their participation. It had, though, I felt, been a fair assumption that at a ‘celebration weekend’ people might, on the whole, be more positive than negative and that there would be an issue about ‘coming back to earth’.

Be that as it may, there are two practical theological challenges at issue here. First, how are we to deal with the fact that no human being can be joyful all of the time? Christianity has to be able to handle the negative aspects of life, and accept that despite the hopeful message it carries, not all can be consistently hopeful. Second, how are the positive aspects of Christian theology and practice to be presented in appropriate ways? Whilst Christian faith has not had much of a good press for its jollity, it is not unreasonable to recognise – even if with some irony – that a message of ultimate salvation should be able to be enjoyed and communicated with some verve. Friedrich Nietzsche has not, though, been the only thinker that has suggested that Christian faith might be more attractive if those who espouse it were a bit happier now and again.

The first challenge can perhaps be addressed more easily than the second. Christianity does, of course, address the negative aspects of life. If anything, it is (or has been) more prone to address these than the positives. Sin is real, after all. To deny sin as a basic aspect of the human condition – even if it does need closer definition than the references to it, or to ‘sins’ in daily speech and lazy journalism – is to fail to respect what human life is actually like. Frailties, shortcomings, limitations, deviousness and downright evil all have to be acknowledged and addressed. If the simple message of Christian faith in response to the question ‘but how do we deal with all of this?’ is ‘we can’t!’ (as in ‘we can’t’), then let’s work out how we are to unpack that answer now, in contemporary terms. Whether or not my critic was suggesting my support of joy and euphoria was overlooking this negative stuff I’ve no idea. But he’d be right that gathering a bunch of spiritual ‘highs’ – even weekly via worship – doesn’t necessarily get to grips with grasping how to face, with God, as God is known in and through Christ, the reality of daily life and the human condition. It’s also why sloppy handling of prayers of confession, and declarations of forgiveness, underplays the depth of what worship achieves, both spiritually and psychologically.

Perhaps, though, because of a Christian reputation for sometimes being really down on joy we do need to work harder at spelling out the positives. Faith doesn’t automatically make people happy. Nor should it. There may be very tough things that individuals have to face which aren’t simply ‘dealt with’ in faith, but have to be lived with and through. The companionship of God will surely prove profoundly supportive. But it may not inevitably lead to unqualified joy. That said, Nietzsche’s cheeky observation is well-made. Christians really could, at times, be a bit happier. Whatever our own particular take on salvation – have we been saved already? will we be saved (at the end of time)? are we in the process of being saved?…let’s get Luther, Calvin and Wesley in the room to see what they say on that – if it’s to do with our ultimate standing before God, and we know that God wants the best for all, then what greater joy could we possible want to claim? To answer the question more fully, in a more contemporary way, when life expectancy is greater in many (though not all) parts of the world we do, of course, need more than three White male Europeans round the table. Personally speaking, Grace Jantzen challenged me to think of salvation more in terms of flourishing than on what we are saved from (though I want notions both of what we’re saved ‘from’ and what we’re saved ‘for’ in my understanding of salvation).[1] Latin American Liberationists got me thinking much more urgently about the material dimensions of salvation, lest any sense of joy and euphoria become solely an inward thing (much easier to focus on when you have enough food to eat, a roof over your head, and a stable, largely peaceful, society in which to live).[2] But can salvation and happiness be equated? Perhaps not; perhaps the latter term is just much too weak. Joy, contentment, flourishing, health, well-being, peace are all words we need to try and get to grips with, though, in relation to salvation’s many dimensions.[3] Even if we cannot be euphoric all the time, we can try and articulate in positive ways what living with God actually feels like.

 

 

[1] Grace Jantzen, ‘The gendered politics of flourishing and salvation’ in Vincent Brümmer and Marcel Sarot (eds.), Happiness, Well-being and the Meaning of Life (Kampen: Kok Pharos 1996), pp. 58-75.

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1973/London: SCM Press 1974); Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings (London: SCM Press 2011); Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation: In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1984).

[3] I’ve had a bash at this in A Cultural Theology of Salvation (Oxford University Press 2018), esp.pp.  219-227.

Comparative Divinity

by Andrew Stobart.

In his sermon ‘On Zeal’, John Wesley notes that very few people know anything at all about ‘comparative divinity’.[i] What Wesley means by that rather obscure expression becomes clear in the subsequent paragraphs, where he sets out ‘a sketch’ of how the ‘parts’ of our discipleship ‘rise one above the other’. Comparative divinity, for Wesley, is best described as nuanced differentiation in practising the Christian life; it sets out for comparison various aspects of ‘religion’ (not a negative word, for Wesley, as it is so often for us) and encourages us to pursue the best rather than just the good; comparative divinity is a topographical map of grace, on which there is a clearly marked centre of divine activity, and a set of contours that rise towards it; in short, comparative divinity is a systematic expression of Wesley’s practical spiritual advice: ‘focus your attention here’, ‘do this’, ‘don’t spend all your energy here’, ‘keep going on to perfection’.

Unconvinced that we in our churches know anything more about ‘comparative divinity’ all these many years later – either theoretically or practically – I suggest that reading Wesley again on this matter is a dose of wisdom. Our egalitarian sensibilities tend to flatten the landscape of ‘religion’, so that all things are seen with equal value. But in practice, such spiritual egalitarianism produces bland Christianity, bored and boring disciples, and heart-less faith. While aware of the lurking dangers of fanatical excess, Wesley wanted to use ‘comparative divinity’ to engender true zeal and fervent love in himself and the early Methodists. Here is an invitation to press on from the lower to the higher slopes; to earnestly focus on what is really pleasing and excellent in God’s sight (Phil 4:8). Here is a way to avoid spiritual stagnation and social apathy and, as Wesley puts it, ‘make…considerable progress in religion’ and ‘do…considerably service to our neighbour’.

And so to Wesley’s ‘sketch’ of concentric circles of increasing value:

  • The outermost circle is the church. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle is ever growing, enlarging its border to embrace more and more of God’s world.
  • But while the church is good, the ‘ordinances of Christ’, in the next circle, are better. These are what Wesley refers to elsewhere as ‘works of piety’, instituted means of grace such as the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting and searching the Scriptures.
  • Works of piety are good, but ‘works of mercy’ are better. These are, says Wesley, ‘real means of grace’. Works of mercy are not just kind charitable acts that express our faith, but are rather means through which we – and others – encounter God.
  • The next concentric circle (moving inwards and upwards) is what Wesley calls ‘holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance’. Whatever is part of the ‘mind that was in Christ Jesus’, that we should love and earnestly desire to imitate, praying constantly for ‘these proofs and fruits of living faith’.
  • And finally, at the heart of all, is love: ‘love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.’

A couple of observations about Wesley’s comparative divinity. First, these concentric circles do not, for Wesley, describe a retreat from the physical world to a mountain-top spiritual experience. The love which is at the centre of Wesley’s map is not a disembodied, mystical experience: it is love of God and humanity, God and neighbour. We cannot, therefore, draw the conclusion that Wesley wanted his followers to become more and more ‘spiritual’, if by spiritual we mean less ‘earthy’; rather, he wanted them to become more and more loving, full of love and ruled by love.

That helps to explain, secondly, the fascinating placement of ‘works of mercy’ nearer the centre of the circle than ‘works of piety’. Of course, there is Scriptural warrant for this: for instance Hosea 6:6, where God desires mercy not sacrifice. Even the methodical practising of prayer, Scripture reading and church attendance, so important to Wesley’s movement, ‘are to be omitted, or to be postponed…when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.’

Furthermore, thirdly, the placement of church at the outer edge of Wesley’s comparative divinity is instructive. On the one hand, in Wesley’s scheme the church is furthest away from the centre of love. In challenging times for the institution of the church, we can be tempted to think that if only we could ‘get church right’ or ‘make it better’ then all would be well. But the gathering of the church is only, for Wesley, the outer edge of love. We would do better to bemoan the loss of love (for God and neighbour) in our world, than the weakness of the church. Having said that, the church is the outer edge of comparative divinity, the circumference of which should be continually expanding, in order to bring more and more to journey inwards through piety and mercy and holy tempers to perfect love. The church is neither to be obsessed over nor to be dismissed; rather, it is simply a porous boundary of grace, which is never more itself than when it is embracing the unembraced and calling to be God’s people those who thought they were not.

‘Proportion your zeal to the value of its object’, instructs Wesley. Please God, give us this differentiated discipleship, this practical wisdom, this comparative divinity – that we might love what is good, and love better what is best, and in so loving, be renewed at our centre and broadened at our circumference, and so find ourselves full of love for God and all. Amen.

 

[i] Quotations are from Sermon 92: ‘On Zeal’, pp308-321 in The Works of John Wesley Volume 3, edited by Albert Outler (Abingdon Press, 1986)