Ezra, Nehemiah and the Band-Room Methodists

by Roger Walton.

I have never been too enthusiastic about the tone of the books of post exile rebuilding.[1]  There is, of course, much to admire in them: passion and hard work, moving moments of prayer and rededication, but the emphasis on religious and ethnic purity, wherein men have to give up their ‘foreign wives’ and commit to not allowing their daughters or sons to marry outside faith, rankles.  This seems especially difficult to embrace in our age, where we struggle to affirm diversity and resist racism.  These are not the books of the Bible we bring out to support our inclusive approach to church or society.  We much prefer to highlight the Book of Ruth, with its revelation that Ruth the Moabite was David’s grandmother; a point seemingly aimed at piercing the self-righteous bubble of zealous separatism.

What role, if any, should separation play in discipleship formation and mission?

John Bowmer’s account of Methodism in the period after John Wesley’s death contains the little known story of the Band-Room Methodists.[2]  This was a small secession from Wesleyan Methodism, which began when John Broadhurst started a meeting under this name at North Street Chapel, Manchester.  It was, as Bowmer points out, a harmless gathering but it had not been authorised nor did it come under the authority of the Circuit Leaders’ meeting.  When later the Circuit decided to have a united Covenant service for the town and close North Street for the day, an independent service was held at North Street in defiance of the plan and, more seriously, it admitted non-members.[3]  Covenant Services at that this time were not open worship events but restricted to those who held a Society ticket of membership. To hold a Covenant service open to anyone was a deliberate departure from the Wesleyan rule. The Band-Room Methodists also allowed non-members to attend band meetings. This led to a spirited defence of the closed meeting by the Wesleyan Methodists. A schism followed.

The breakaway of the Band-room Methodists was small and short-lived but the issue of when Methodism should be a society for members only and when it should be a church open to all remains a tension.

Methodist membership is now not connected to closed, confidential bands or classes and special ‘members only’ services but primarily to office holding and participation in the decision-making bodies of the church. I wonder whether we should rethink this.

For the last couple of years, I have been working on something called the Methodist Way of Life. This is a rule of life linked to Our Calling that sets out in practices and commitments how we might embody our Methodist spirituality in everyday life. It assumes, and provides questions for, accountability with a soul friend or in a small group.  Without a confidential, safe place for such accountability, it will not work.  It requires others who are equally committed to the accountable discipleship that the Way of Life provides.  The shared commitment generates the context for mutual support and critical friendship in the Christian journey, which in turn allows us to hear God’s call more clearly and shape our response.  In other words, it requires some kind of separation. Clearly, this may not be the same as that demanded of the returned exiles or of the early Methodist but without a closed and confidential space, it is unlikely to be effective.

Readers of the post-exilic narrative set out by the Chronicler, particularly in Ezra and Nehemiah, tend to justify the separatist stance as needed to recover and reform the character and identity of the people of Israel after the enormity of their religious and political catastrophe.  How could they be the people God called them to be, if they did not have a single minded and rigorous pattern of faith practice?   Only in this way could they be a ‘light to nations’ and provide the context for the Incarnation.

I see this, despite my unease as I read the books.  I recognise that there is a tension between the requirements of deeper discipleship for those who have started the journey and an open, hospitable house that declares God’s love for all. We may need to work more on when each is needed and how to make the tension between them creative and empowering.

[1] Ezra; Nehemiah; and 1 and 2 Chronicles.

[2] Bowmer, John C.,  Pastor and People, Epworth 1975 p71-74

2 thoughts on “Ezra, Nehemiah and the Band-Room Methodists”

  1. Creative tensions are always with us – Theology Everywhere itself is an exemplar, with academic theologians and groundlings like me happily coexisting and able to learn from (and ignite) each other. I guess I have both sorts as ‘soul friends’ from time to time though I’ve never had a formal arrangement with any one of them. Thank you, Roger, for starting this particular hare, and for T.E. itself. It’s the first thing I turn to on Monday morning.

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  2. Thank you, Roger. Like you, I’ve always been uneasy about Ezra and Nehemiah; they often remind me of the mass rallies addressed by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution. But I’ve also been unsure about the Methodist boast that it always has an ‘open table’, knowing that this wasn’t the case at the beginning. We often seem caught between Niebuhr’s concepts of church and sect. I wonder if one way of resolving the tension you describe comes in religious communities like Benedictines. I’ll be staying in one at the end of this month. Membership of the community is obviously restricted and involves intense commitment and accountability, but this is accompanied by a radical hospitality (including and open Eucharistic table).

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