A Methodist, but not the praying type

by Philip Turner.

As a chaplain in an acute hospital, I encounter a wide variety of people who are facing trauma. I never cease to be amazed by the resilience, honesty and complexity of each patient I meet.  One recent encounter with a patient has stayed with me.  She had not asked to see a chaplain but, on arriving on the ward, I noticed her smile and introduced myself.  During our conversation she revealed that she was a Methodist.  My heart cheered and I admitted that, I too, was a Methodist.  She then quickly but resolutely added, ‘yes, but not the praying type.’  I took this as a hint that she was curtailing that part of the conversation, but wondered later how the conversation might have gone further.

20 years ago I know what I might have said.  Straight from theological college, I would have been frustrated by, what I would have seen as the bizarre juxtaposition of the words ‘Methodist’ ‘but not the praying type’.  I suspect I would have offered an apologetic for prayer, perhaps even highlighting how John Wesley saw prayer as Jesus’ ‘express direction’ and the first ‘Means of Grace’.[i]  And there is much to be done – and much benefit to be gained – by Methodists digging deeper into their doctrinal standards.  However, I suspect that this would have neither changed her conviction nor enabled the pastoral relationship to develop.  I say this because of my journey over these last 10 years exploring holiness.

Particular among Christian denominations, British Methodism thinks it has a vocation ‘to spread scriptural holiness through the land’.[ii]  Yet in my research I discovered that, while many Methodists knew about holiness, very few wanted to be associated with holiness, let alone to share it with others.  The reasons included a generalised sense of not wanting to be seen as ‘holier than thou’ or in having a particular stance on human sexuality but, more poignantly, there were many who had direct experiences of hurt that the word ‘holiness’ triggered.  One woman spoke of an exclusive sect that she grew up in and then left, leading her to associate holiness with fanaticism.  Another spoke of her daughters who lost their Christian faith after encountering their university Christian Union. Others spoke of the complexity of their relationships, whether with the church, or with specific people.[iii]  It did not matter that their response to ‘holiness’ seemed to be, on the surface at least, in opposition to the vocation of their Methodist Church, or even that it was contrary to the Biblical theme, ‘be holy’.[iv]  This is because, I learnt, the theology a person holds – however informal or an at an angle to authorised church teaching – is likely to be influenced far more by their life experience. ‘Spiritual formation does not take place primarily in small groups’, James Wilhoit argues, ‘instead it mostly takes place in… everyday events of life.’[v]  This does not diminish the importance of theological colleges, preaching and Connexional initiatives.  Yet any programme which seeks to align people with formal doctrine, without acknowledging that people already have a powerfully embodied theology, and without drawing alongside people in their ongoing theological journey, is unlikely to bear much fruit.

So, could I have taken the conversation further with the patient who was ‘Methodist’, but ‘not the praying type’?  And if so, how?  Assuming that she was physically able to continue to the conversation, and that our relationship was developing so that she might risk trusting me, I might have asked her to tell me what it was like for her to be a Methodist.  I would have listened to her story, attending particularly to her experience of prayer.  In my listening I would want to embody God’s unconditional love for person she is today.  I might use the metaphor of family, that Wesley used, to portray prayer as a daughter listening and speaking to a parent who loves her completely.  At the outset, I could not assume that we would arrive at this point.  However, as we go on caring and growing in God’s grace, and journeying with people who, like us, carry their own experiences and pain, we might embody more fully Christ’s presence in the world.


[i] ‘The Means of Grace’ in The Works of John Wesley, volume 1, ed. by Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), p.384.

[ii] ‘Deed of Union, Section 2 Purposes and Doctrine’ in Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, p.213.

[iii] For greater details of the conversations I had, see forthcoming issue of Holiness: An International Journal of Wesleyan Theology.

[iv] See Leviticus 19.2; 20.26; 21.8 and 1 Peter 1.15.  See also Matthew 5.48.

[v] James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p.38.

9 thoughts on “A Methodist, but not the praying type”

  1. Thank you, Philip. This seems to link to Ordinary Theology pioneered by Jeff Astley and others seeking to understand the embodied theology people live by through listening. I wonder where the place of of dialogue is located and what role the church has in this creative exchange?

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  2. Thank you Philip. I was a Methodist working as a pharmacist in acute hospitals for over 30 years. I have travelled a similar road in that the way I shared my faith evolved over time. For the first 10 years of my career I was busy exploring what my vocation was, before I realised that it was to do my job in the department and on the ward. Offering a smile, advice, help and experience when needed, and occasionally a prayer. I have worked from home for the past 5 years, and as I consider retirement from one career I am pondering where my service and my local preaching will take me. At the moment that includes exploring the Methodist Way of Life. I am sure that active listening and Ordinary Theology have a lot to teach me as I seek guidance about my next steps.

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  3. Very interesting article! Particularly struck by reference to James Wilholt’s idea that spiritual formation does not take place primarily in small groups, but in the everyday events of life. This concept of an embodied, secular, experiential, ethical spirituality within which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), seems so obvious to me and yet preachers often appear to believe that spirituality is something that “belongs to Christianity” and only arises in church! As I see it the implication of James’ idea is that the religious and the secular is a duality we can deconstruct and do without.
    Perhaps I am being a bit a bit pedantic, but I do not see this powerfully, embodied theology as ordinary. Extraordinary would be far more appropriate! This demand that we care for each other is “written on our hearts” and it seems wonderful to me that this, often unspoken, ethical spirituality is universal – part of what it is to be human. inherent in all religions, and a vision of God deeply involved in all human relationships. Should add that I have found aspiring to live this ethical spirituality deeply meaningful.
    So what about the role of the church. I will restrain myself from waxing lyrical about the unconditionality of God’s inclusive and non-judgemental love for us, but refer to the demand inherent in this ethical spirituality. A demand that we respond, as a church and individually, by being inclusive and non-judgemental in all our dealings with each other. Faith here is not a confessional faith or belief system that needs endless apologetics to survive, but a response to God who calls us, inspires us and demands that we care for each other.
    I suggest that the “church” has to accept that “God” has “moved out” of churches (If God was ever in there!) and invariably arises in our secular dealings with each other. For the church to survive we need to get rid of the exclusive, judgemental confessional stuff that is emptying our churches. There are those who suggest that preaching in such a church would be empty and meaningless: I would point to Philip’s excellent article which disproves that!

    Questions: What does mission mean for a church living out “ordinary” theology or an ethical spirituality? Does God only arise in the context of our ethical relationships with each other?

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  4. I read this week that a third of all Catholics are thinking of leaving the church because Pope Francis will not give permission for priests to bless gay marriages. From that we can deduce that two thirds might be thinking of leaving if he did give permission. What a wise man he is; no point in making that decision until the church is split 50-50, and at least he’s opened up the conversation again! I admire a church that sticks to its principles, whether I agree with them or not.
    I fully understand ’embodied theology’. I met God in the world before I ever found him in Church, but against all the odds the Methodist Church has converted me (or should I say God converted me, the MC was just the arena for learning and change) into a devout Christian with the utmost respect for the Bible, the Clergy, the creeds and the doctrines.
    The minute my church decides to ditch the Bible and the Cross, I’m out of here!

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    1. Forgive me Yvonne, but who are the ‘we’ who make the deduction about the other two thirds? It seems an equally likely option (there is no evidence to make a deduction) that a significant proportion of the two thirds would like a different response from the Pope but are determined to stay and fight. Actually I strongly suspect very many would not leave under either extreme option, some not seeing the issue as that crucial (be that positive or negative) or prepared to live with the Church not having the stance they have.

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      1. Sorry Tim, it was just a tongue-in-cheek generalisation. The point I am making is that if church leaders have to make a decision which risks alienating some of their church members, they might as well wait until there is an equal split in opinions, then it makes no difference which way they go, because at least half the church will be happy. Of the remaining half, a few will probably leave, some will be prepared to live with it, and the rest will stay and just have a good moan about it!

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      2. Sorry Yvonne, I should have been clear, my initial reaction to your post was based on the logic, but there are very interesting theological points. It may be wise for a leader not to comment until it becomes necessary with a 50:50 split but it may also not be. In any case to act only on a faux democratic basis is probably not leadership (I don’t think that is what you are saying, especially with your comment about principals). Of more interest to me is the theology of those who stay. Do they stay because ‘the fight goes on’; do they stay because although the issue is of vital importance the Church needs to remain in fellowship even if divided in doctrine; do they remain because although important the issue is not as important as obedience (or some other loyalty); do they stay because the issue may be practically ignored?

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  5. I’m glad you asked those questions, Tim, because it made me think long and hard about my answers. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I would stay in a church, regardless of its stance on gay marriages or other serious issues, so long as Jesus remains the linchpin. I am all for unity in diversity, but I could not remain in a church that becomes so ‘woke’ that it cancels Jesus.
    For me, worshipping God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what church is all about. Mission is essential and fellowship desirable, but both are secondary to worship.

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