Why Methodism?

by Richard on December 18, 2008

Having told us why he is glad to be a Methodist, Dave Warnock owns up to some stuff that worries him about the Methodist Church. His post, and the subsequent conversation, is very helpful. Meanwhile, Kim’s comments here contribute a critical friend’s reflection on whether there is any continued need for a seperate Methodist denomination. Dave’s first worry dovetails neatly with Kim’s thoughts. Here’s Dave first

I worry that the Methodist Church will not exist within in a relatively short period of time. Obviously I am not alone, anyone who can read basic numbers and look at an age profile would have significant concerns. Yet there is also plenty of encourage reports on change and response to change. The church will certainly need to look a lot different in 5 or 10 years which could be a fantastic new start for us or a very rapid disappearance.

And Kim

Methodism began as an evangelistic and social action movement within Anglicanism, i.e. it was a supplement. John Wesley himself was never kicked out of the Church of England, and he always insisted that Methodists were ancillaries to the C of E and should never leave it. “Methodism,” observes Martyn Percy, “is rather like Wales - you can see the point of it, granted. But it is a distinctive principality rather than a full-blown country.” …
Methodism is too tied to the theology of one man, viz. John Wesley himself. Or at least it was until Wesley’s theology seems to have become adiaphora in UK Methodist training colleges themselves! Okay, there is also Charles, the second greatest hymn writer. Two men then. Furthermore, name me a really great Methodist theologian…
On the subject of theology, there are no really distinctive doctrines in Methodism that cannot be found in other confessions, with the exception of Wesley’s doctrine of perfection, which, granted that it is usually misunderstood…

I understand Dave’s worry. People have been predicting the demise of the Methodist Church for a long time. Sooner or later, those predictions are going to come true — I can say with confidence that the Methodist Church is dying because I know for certain that the Methodist Church is not eternal. One day, just like every reader of this blog and every organisation that they might belong to, the Methodist Church will be no more.

It doesn’t matter that we’re dying. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Death isn’t failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. What matters is what we do with the knowledge of our mortality. That’s as true for an institutional church as it is for an individual. In any case, death and resurrection are central to the Christian gospel. To quote Will Willimon, “We serve a God who lives to raise the dead–even us. Therefore, we work with hope–not hope in ourselves and our efforts, but with hope in Christ.”

Which brings me to Kim’s contribution, most of which I accept completely. (The quote above is an extract, you should really read the whole thing) If we were atarting from scratch, you wouldn’t invent the Methodist Church. It arose, humanly speaking, by accident. John Wesley had no intention of starting a new denomination. But it was John Wesley’s own actions that made seperation from the Church of England inevitable. He put pastoral considerations ahead of Church order: by consecrating Thomas Coke as a Superintendent for the work in North America, Wesley opened a can of worms which led to the creation of the Methodist Church. It might not have been Wesley’s intention, but ‘blame’ for the Methodist Church most definitely belongs to him.

It’s that pragmatism that continues to attract me to the Methodist Church. The truth is, the people called Methodist are apt to act first and do the theological thinking afterward. The way I read it, every significant development in the life of the church has been driven by practicalities rather than the outcome of a theology. One example will have to suffice. The Methodist Church in Britain has a body of lay preachers who are the envy of other denominations. On any given Sunday of the year, most Methodist pulpits in Britain will be occupied by the Local Preachers, trained, tested and authorized by the church for the conduct of worship and the preaching of the gospel. But the office of the Local Preacher was not dreamt up as a response to thinking through the implications of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. It came about because there simply weren’t enough ordained preachers to serve the growing number of Methodist societies. Pragmatism, not theology, called the shots. Since that time we have developed a robust theology of lay preaching and I would argue that our Local Preachers are a model to which the wider church should pay particular attention.

I’m not very disturbed that Kim can’t think of any great Methodist theologians. Truly great thinkers are not thick on the ground in any discipline. But quality thinkers? I’m confident I could name more than a few if pressed. Much more importantly, the Methodist Church remains for many a place where God’s love is found and shared. That’s what excites me about the church, what keeps me within it despite its many shortcomings.

Of course, God’s love is to be found in many other places too. But the people called Methodist are my spiritual family. That’s not a bond I’d give up lightly.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }


Olive Morgan 12.19.08 at 8:36 am

It is my spiritual home too. Theologians, Kim? Theologians talk ABOUT God! I am thankful for the many, ordained and lay, who have intimately KNOWN and LOVED God and helped me through the years to know and love and serve God myself. Long may that continue!


Kim 12.19.08 at 10:22 am

Richard, what you say about “family” - I couldn’t agree more.

Olive, what you say about theologians - I couldn’t agree less. You have a strange idea about theologians. Theologians can speak about God only as they speak to God. Prayer is the precondition of theology. The fourth century desert father Evagrius said, famously: “If you are a theologian, you truly pray. If you truly pray, you are a theologian.” Moreover the goal of theology is the practice of love. Finally (if I may quote from my book!): “Strictly speaking, all believers are theologians, because all believers, willy-nilly, think about God. The only question is whether we think well or poorly. It is not the theologian’s job to think about God for us, it is the theologian’s job to help us think about God better, so that we may believe, pray, serve, live, and die better.” It is always disastrous for the church when theory and practice are severed, when the former does not issue in the latter - but also when the latter is not grounded in the former. And there is no way that John Wesley himself would not agree. Which, of course, is not to deny that theologians are a rather hapless, if not hopeless, lot who must not take themselves too seriously!


DaveW 12.19.08 at 12:46 pm


You seem to be jumping between two different views of theologians. One I disagree with and one I agree with.

I disagree that a denomination requires great theologians to exist. It seems to me that as a holiness movement Methodism was more focused on the discipleship of it’s people. Anyway have you read anything by Clive Marsh as one example of a good Methodist Theologian?

Now as for the other I totally agree on the need for local theologians - ordinary people (like Olive) who live, pray and think theology.

I have a couple of groups of these that I serve and they are exciting and challenging. They are also a part of Methodist heritage that for a while we lost but in many places seem to re-discovering.


Kim 12.19.08 at 1:41 pm

Hi Dave,

I never said “that a denomination requires great theolgians to exist”, or even to be a great denomination (whatever that might mean). My main point was that Methodism is too tied to the theology of one man. My minor point was that, all things being equal, it’s better for a denomination to have great theologians than not to have great theologians. Also the preface to my comment was autobiographical. When I became a Christian and had to decide “Which church?”, I concluded that there were richer theological resources to be found in the Reformed tradition than in the Methodist tradition. Was I wrong? There is also the ecumenical dimenison intrinsic to the URC (though, of course, one of the excellent things about Wesley was his own ecumenism, and the way his own theology and spirituality were funded not only by Anglicanism but also by Puritanism, German pietism, and Catholic and Orthodox mysticism).

Finally, you mention Clive Marsh. You’re right, he is a good theologian, and there are others around who are even better - e.g. Wainwright, Bonino, Willimon (too bad, though, about Hauerwas jumping ship!) - not to forget the outstanding contributions of New Testament scholars like Barrett and Marshall. But great?

Anyway, our agreement is much more significant than any disagreement.


Richard 12.19.08 at 1:49 pm

>> “Theologians can speak about God only as they speak to God”

No. I agree that all believers are theologians, at least in a manner of speaking. However, the reverse is not necessary. To be a believer means to be doing theology, but doing theology does not necessarily imply believing.


Kim 12.19.08 at 2:08 pm

Okay, Richard, okay. What you say is not false, but I think it may leave a false impression. How about this?

“We can, I think, make a useful and legitimate distinction between needing to believe in God in order to study theology (which I agree is not always necessary), and needing to understand that Christian communities themselves believe that theology comes to birth because of their ongoing encounter with God. The latter point is quite crucial, because without it our picture of theology would be gravely distorted.

“One needs, in other words, to entertain the idea (which Christians believe) that Christian theology is an expression of an ongoing transformation of the world in encounter with God; otherwise one will not be studying Christian theology at all but only a boringly lifeless taxidermy of it in which nothing unexpected, gloriously unnecessary, or unbelievable can ever happen or be considered. And it is, Christians believe, precisely these sorts of wonder and astonishment that characterize the authentic impact of God on the world, and so on theology” (Mark A. McIntosh)



Richard 12.19.08 at 3:02 pm



Jonathan Marlowe 12.20.08 at 3:01 am

Kim, Methodism produced and continues to sustain Hauerwas. Methodism produced and continues to sustain the leading center of theological scholarship in the United States (my own alma mater, Duke), and Methodism has a body of doctrine which holds it together (unlike Anglicanism which is falling apart, despite having one of the greatest theologians in the world at its helm). The body of doctrine to which I refer is our Articles of Religion, (which JW edited from the 39 articles), plus his Standard Sermons, which rightly understood function sort of like the Edwardian homilies. You have not mentioned Richard B. Hays, who is not only a NT scholar, but a first-rate theologian, who remains a United Methodist. You rightly mention Geoffrey Wainwright, who along with Leslie Newbegin has been the greatest ecumenical theologian in recent times. I cannot imagine any description of Thomas C. Oden that would not call him a great theologian. Of course, there are Hauerwas’ many Methodist students, including but not limited to D. Stephen Long, L. Gregory Jones, Brent Laytham, Dan Bell, and more recently Jason Byassee, whose scholarship on Augustine is second to none. David Steinmentz is no slouch, and neither is William Abraham, nor Amy Laura Hall. In short, Methodism can hold its own with other denominations in terms of theologians, but you are right - we didn’t get started for primarily theological reasons. But our origins were more theological than a church that gets started because a king has marital problems. Methodism is to the C of E, as Lutheranism is to the RCC. I hope that one day we will all be one, even with you stinking Calvinists :)


Jonathan Marlowe 12.20.08 at 3:29 am

Richard wrote:

The truth is, the people called Methodist are apt to act first and do the theological thinking afterward. The way I read it, every significant development in the life of the church has been driven by practicalities rather than the outcome of a theology.

I disagree with this view of Methodism, Richard. I think you are confusing pragmitism with practical divinity. All the way back in 1746, John Wesley had already read Lord Peter King’s book, which had argued that in the early church the office of elder and bishop were of the same order.

Thus he wrote his letter to “Our Brethren in America” in 1784: “Lord King’s Account of the Primitive Church convinced me many years ago that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain.” Wesley had made up his mind theologically 40 years earlier, before he ordained Coke. The American Revolution (which was a big mistake) precipitated the break, but it is misleading to suggest that Wesley acted first and thought about it theologically later.


Kim 12.20.08 at 8:24 am

Hi Jonathan,

Many thanks for the Who’ Who of Methodism. A few I haven’t heard of (like Byasse and Hall - which may be a UK/USA thing - and may just be me in my ignorance!); a few I know and could equally have mentioned (but I never meant my list to be more than an e.g. - I took three theologians representing three continents) - Long, Jones, and Bell are brilliant; and many thanks for mentioning Hays (I didn’t know he is a Methodist; he is a truly great Pauline scholar and any minister who doesn’t have his The Moral Vision of the New Testament [1996] handy is in dereliction of duty). I guess it all depends on what one means by “great”. There are very few living “systematic” theologians that I would yet call “great”, maybe a dozen - e.g. Jenson, Jüngel, Pannenberg (Lutheran): Moltmann (Reformed); Williams (Anglican); Küng and Lash (RC) - and I still wouldn’t put any Methodists among them - except pehaps the ex-Methodist Hauerwas!


Olive Morgan 12.20.08 at 9:20 am

Kim, please read my earlier post again. I was defending Methodism and giving thanks for the many, many Methodists, both ministerial and lay, who have brought and kept me close to God. These have seldom been learned ‘theologians’ but have had and demonstrated a deep love of God and commitment to Him. Those ministers on my journey who have regarded themwelves as learned theologians have had no impact on me whatsoever. This is not to say that I do not study theology myself. I recently found an MA course on Spirituality at Sarum College (without the written work needed to be awarded an MA ), including the desert fathers, to be very helpful and stimulating.


Kim 12.20.08 at 11:12 am

Olive, I have read your post again; it confirms my first reading. From your opening “Theologians, Kim?” you go on quite clearly to set up a contrast between theologians who “talk ABOUT God” and people “who have intimately KNOWN and LOVED God”, which, in my view, is an invidious, and even disrespectful, thing to do.

You say that “learned” theologians have had little impact on your own pilgrimage.” That’s fine - impressive academic CV’s will cut no ice on Judgement Day - and you undoubtedly speak for most. But for others, including myself, both learned and unlearned Christians (and non-Christians) have had a profound impact on their pilgrimage. Isn’t that fine too?

I once attended a meeting in Swansea of evangelical church leaders at which Rowan Williams spoke. He was introduced as a great theologian who “nevertheless loves the Lord.” That “nevertheless” - Jesus wept!

PS: Glad to hear you like the desert fathers!


Olive Morgan 12.21.08 at 8:46 am

Kim, You still have not got my point! The greatness of Meyjodism comes not from her learned, and often self-styled superior, folk but MAINY from those who know, love and serve, Jesus - however much or little they have studied ‘theology’. ‘Religion is caught, not taught.’


tortoise 12.21.08 at 9:30 am

‘Religion is caught, not taught.’

Nah. Religion is taught. Faith is caught.

In fact, faith isn’t even caught. It’s gifted.


Kim 12.21.08 at 10:03 am

The early fathers of the church, the Reformers, and I dare say Wesley himself, would find the disjunction between “caught” and “taught” baffling (it is a thoroughly modern heresy). They knew that the development of Christian character and discipleship will not happen without knowledge, i.e. without teaching; indeed they understood teaching itself - e.g. about the Trinity, or justification - to be transformative.

That faith is “gift” - Amen!


Olive Morgan 12.21.08 at 1:30 pm

Kim, pre christmas is NOT the time for me to be entering into this sort of debate, with you ready to punce on any hasty comment of mine. Of course I don’t preclude teaching! I have availed myself of every opportunity to benefit from teaching all through my long life, as my current participation in the 34 week Disciple 4 Course demonstrates. The lives of saintly men and women, with or without the teaching, inspire others to follow Jesus. Of course faith is a gift.

That’s all I can contribute because I have more than enough to do to be ready to go away for Christmas tomorrow morning. Happy Christmas, everyone!


Kim 12.21.08 at 2:48 pm

Sorry I got on your nerves, Olive. Have a cool Yule! :)


Beth 12.24.08 at 8:49 pm

Yeah, Kim - no more puncing!

I’m with you, though, on the question of caught vs. taught. Faith that comes from exposure to others’ beliefs and examples is only rooted in the external and the superficial. It is easily torn up because it has no basis in the individual’s own personality or understanding. In order to gain a deep and strong faith, it is necessary to have some sense of the detail and complexity of the theology behind it. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading difficult books, but it does mean thinking about the issues of doctrine and law which lie especially behind the really difficult and counter-intuitive things we have to do.

It’s only once we come to our own proper understanding of our faith that the actions of “saintly” men and women make sense; it is only when we understand and commit fully to faith that we realise that we could and would do the same. Without this “theological” understanding, the saints are just special people, a species apart whom we could never hope to emulate.


David E. Holt 12.27.08 at 9:29 pm

Good grief, Charlie Brown! There’s a lot to say good about being a Methodist - especially a lay minister! Congratulations, not on having too few ordained ministers, but on having lay men and, presumably?, women taking up the slack! Of course, they need some help with their of on-the-job training. And whoopee! I’ve written just the kind of book that will give them a great leap forward. It’s called ABCs Of Ministry: Choosing It, Learning It, Doing It, After It. If you’re interested in taking a look, click on either of the following: http:www/strategicbookpublishing.com/ABCsOfMinistry.html or http:www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzA-XHtyRS4 You may contact me by fsdeh@embarqmail.com My book is under review in England as well as this country - get in on the ground floor!
David E. Holt

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