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.