Friday, May 16, 2014

A Historical and Ecumenical Look at Methodist Identity - Glen Messer on Grace Upon Grace: "A Life Changed By Grace"

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by
Dr. Glen Alton Messer, II, the Associate Ecumenical Staff Officer of the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. Dr. Messer also teaches Christian History and Methodist Studies and is currently an Adjunct Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Messer is commenting on the eighth section of the document, "A Life Changed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

The section of Grace Upon Grace entitled, “A Life Changed by Grace,” (Paras. 42-46) focuses upon reformation of our lives by God’s grace experienced in both justification and sanctification. Reclaiming these dual Wesleyan doctrinal emphases the document points to the importance of Methodist identity as a carrier of theological content for mission. It states, “God is calling us to reclaim the roots of our heritage and produce new fruit in our time.” (Para. 44) Indeed, these paragraphs make the claim that it is the goal of our Christian existence to perfect our love and actions through conforming lives to the example of Christ (Para. 46) — hinting at, but never naming, the doctrine of Christian perfection.

These paragraphs make a number of useful statements that demonstrate the United Methodist commitment to action as well as sentiment. Salvation and growth in discipleship (Para. 43) are living witness that drives mission. To be saved in Christ Jesus is to be inspired to respond to God by learning to love as God loves — reaching out to others as God ceaselessly reaches out to us (“prevenient grace,” as we now term Wesley’s “preventing grace”). As God in Christ pursues us, so we are inspired by love to pursue others, to give aid, to seek the salvation and reformation of God’s Creation and all who inhabit it. There could be nothing more Methodist than this.

The text contains a couple of key challenges for those of us looking to it for reflection upon our understanding of mission, though. Namely, it gropes — without finding a firm hold — to be able to articulate the place of United Methodists in terms of identity and it is a bit soft in owning up to the peculiarity of our historic (and present day?) doctrinal emphases upon justification and sanctification.

As has already been noted in a previous post by Doug Tzan, this 1988 document proceeds from an understanding of Methodism that has its origins in England. This is not a mere historiographic claim. It has ecclesiological and theological implications that strongly shape the logically consequent understanding of mission.

Grace Upon Grace came into being only two decades following the creation of The United Methodist Church by the union of 1968. It also followed shortly after the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church (the first Methodist denomination to exist openly outside of the frame of a European Established — government sponsored — Church). At that time it was understood that Methodism carried within it “DNA strands” drawn from the Evangelical and Pietistic Movements active on the European Continent and in England; but further reflection raises good questions about what is more important to Methodist DNA — the Evangelical and Pietistic elements brought together or the Anglican container in which they were cultured and transformed into Wesleyan Methodism. British Historian, W. R. Ward, contributed important works during the 1990s relating to Methodism’s connections to these traditions that should give us pause to reconsider the roles of the Wesleys and the place of the religious tradition(s) they are credited with having launched.

My own work as ecumenical staff to the Moravian Church (Northern & Southern Provinces) - United Methodist Church Dialogue aimed at entering into a full communion relationship has further underscored for me how closely knit Methodism is into the fabric of the Pietistic Movement of the 18th century and following. It has helped sharpen my own sense that the history (and the identity) of Methodism has deep roots (not mere passing associations) with both Continental and English Pietism. Likewise, Methodism’s origins as one of the many expressions of the Evangelical Movement compel us to refocus our understanding of when we begin to talk about “ecumenism” in relationship to United Methodists and their predecessor denominations.

If we step back from the inherited stories about Methodists as a distinct religious group and instead begin to look at it as one of the expressions of religious communities formed in the contexts of the Pietistic and Evangelical Movements of the 18th century and forward we can also see that Methodism was born as a mission-driven “connexion” (sharing in the zeal found in both of the movements named) and that, at least at the grass roots level, Methodists have been in mission from everywhere to everywhere for all of their history. Institutional policies and historiographic understandings may not have recognized this fact — but this does not mean it has not been real.

As a test of this idea, let us observe that Methodisms in many parts of the world are mutually recognizable — and yet almost always contextually distinct. There has been colonial-style mission among Methodists. But the tradition(s) have been robust in their natural ability to become contextualized. This in defiance of the claims that Methodism is an “English” or an “American” phenomenon.

A common feature of Methodism the world over is that dual doctrinal emphasis discussed at the beginning of this post. And here is the proof of the identity and the purpose to be reclaimed: The emphasis upon justification was the driving force behind the Evangelical Movement. The emphasis upon the Christian life was the driving force behind Pietism. Methodism mixed the two like rocket fuel and oxygen — the spiritual power of love Divine all loves excelling.

There is much promise in rediscovering our identity — and perhaps understanding it better than we ever have before. We are diverse in our United Methodist tradition(s). This is true in the accounting of the churches that have come together in ecumenical union to form our denomination. It is also true in the long history of Methodism as a tradition from everywhere to everywhere — from England, America, Brazil, Korea, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, etc, and back. We are a Christian people born of mission and born to mission.

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