Tuesday, March 24, 2015

David Field: Methodist Identity and Ecumenical Commitment - Reflections from a European Context

Today's post is by regular contributor Dr. David N. Field.  Dr. Field is the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.

European Methodists face particular opportunities and challenges; they are minority churches, often small minorities, within contexts dominated by other confessional traditions. The interaction between Methodist Churches and these traditions varies from country to country but the asymmetric relationship raises fundamental issues about Methodist identity and mission. These are intensified in the broader society where Methodism is not only not known but placed in the amorphous category “free churches,” which are perceived be to be fundamentalist and sect like.

In this context Methodists must ask: What does it mean to be a Methodist? Why is it important to be a Methodist? Does Methodism have particular mission in the contemporary world? The answer to these questions can contribute to international discussions about Methodist identity.

A further challenging dimension of this context is the pervasive secularization that is characteristic of the majority European countries. Church membership is rapidly declining, the influence of Christianity on culture and society is rapidly shrinking, and for increasing numbers of people Christianity is irrelevant to their daily life. It can no longer be presupposed that people have a working knowledge of the Christian faith and what is known is often regarded as an irrelevant relic of only historical interest. People live contentedly without God and have no sense of this being a loss. The danger of this situation is that churches fall into the trap of preoccupation with self-preservation rather than taking up the challenge of articulating the gospel in word and life in a way that addresses secularized people.   

Methodism’s minority status pressurizes Methodists to justify their existence in relation to major churches, yet in the face of pervasive secularism such concerns seem irrelevant to the larger task of articulating the relevance of Christianity. Is an emphasis on fostering a Methodist identity a waste of time and resources that could be better spent on ecumenical co-operation in mission? Does the particular identity of the Methodist tradition have any continuing relevance? Is an emphasis on Methodist identity an exercise in self-preservation that is bound to fail in the long run?

These questions demand responses not the least from those who are preparing people for the ordination. A creative response to this challenge needs to re-frame the question of the Methodist identity from a different perspective. The starting point is not our differences from, nor our commonalities with, other churches. The starting point must be the challenge of mission in the context of pervasive secularization. Hence the question becomes: “What are the particular gifts that Methodists bring form our heritage that contribute to equipping all Christians to articulate the gospel in this context?” The question of identity thus becomes a significant contribution to ecumenical commitment and mission.

Historically a central dimension of Methodist self-understanding has been the calling to practice and proclaim “holiness”. However, in a pervasively secular context “holiness” not only lacks resonance but appears bizarre, esoteric and alienating. In the ecumenical context locating holiness as “our” distinguishing characteristic appears arrogant. Yet paradoxically, I propose that it is precisely a recovery and reconceptualization of holiness as central to Methodist identity that offers a potential way forward. This is not the mere reiteration of historical theological affirmations about sanctification as doctrinal distinctive; rather, it is a critical retrieval of the concept from the Wesleyan heritage in order to creatively reconceive and rearticulate it for the present.

Borrowing ideas from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is it possible to develop a “non-religious” interpretation of holiness for a “world come of age” that is a pervasively secular society? For Bonhoeffer, a central aspect of a “non religious” interpretation of theological concepts is that the gospel embodied in praxis has priority over theological formulation. This resonates with the emphasis in Wesley’s writing on Methodist identity that the distinguishing mark of Methodism is not a doctrine, not even a doctrine of holiness, but transformed character and lifestyle.

In Wesley’s understanding persons are transformed by encountering the love of God in Christ that liberates and empowers them to love God and their fellow humans. This transformation affects both inner attitudes and motivations and outward behavior. There is a dynamic relationship between outward behavior and inner attitudes – inner transformation leads to outward transformation and active engagement on behalf of others leads to inner transformation. This dynamic relationship suggests that holiness can be conceptualized as love embodied in praxis.

Wesley often described the outward dimension by the triad of justice, mercy and truth. This triad was particularly interpreted in terms of the relationships with those he described as “the outcasts of men”. Hence in a “non-religious” interpretation, outward holiness is the embodied practice of justice, compassion and integrity on behalf of and in solidarity with the marginalized, the victims and the vulnerable. This embodied practice arises out of and leads to inner transformation by the Spirit of God.

It is this which should be the key identity marker of Methodism. Our particular theological formulations only have significance to the extent that they undergird and interpret this embodied practice. They have no value independent of this.

The understanding of holiness as love embodied in praxis also opens a new approach to ecumenical (and inner Methodist) relationships. In Wesley’s thought, holiness is only possible in the context of interpersonal interaction; as embodied love it only exists as it is concretely expressed in the diversity, conflicts, and complexity of human relationships. It is through this expression that inner attitudes are transformed.

Analogously Methodist churches only embody holiness in dynamic relationships with other churches, not because we agree with each other or we share common practices, but because we disagree from each other and have contradictory practices. It is only as we live with each other and engage in mission together in our diversity and disagreements that we embody love for each other. Holiness as Methodism’s gift to ecumenical relationships is not primarily a theological affirmation but the embodied praxis of love. In this way we manifest our particular identity.

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