The publication of the initial version of a document on UMC Ecclesiology is to be welcomed, as is the call for responses to it. This is particularly given the present stress that the UMC is undergoing. If the church is to find a way forward as a substantially united body this must be undergirded by well thought out self understanding of its identity as an manifestation of the one body of Christ. The document contains much that is to be affirmed; while I will mention some of this in what I write, I will focus my discussion on areas that appear to me to require critical engagement or are deficient.
A significant feature of Wonder, Love, and Praise (WLP) is that it locates itself within the context of the ecumenical discussion on the identity of the Church by engaging in a dialogue with the WCC document The Church: Towards a Common Vision. This ecumenical engagement is to be affirmed, but a more fruitful approach would have been to adopt Pope John Paul II’s concept of ecumenicism as an exchange gifts. The diverse churches bring their heritages to the ecumenical table to be shared with others. Such an approach recognizes that through the particularities of a church’s history it has come to actualize distinctive facets of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. These particularities are crucial not only for the self identity of the church but also for the ecumenical church.
Hence, I would propose that a document on UMC ecclesiology needs to locate its discussion in the particularities of its heritage and then to bring these into a dialogue with the ecumenical community. So then the question becomes what are the defining characteristics of a UMC understanding of the church that it can bring to the ecumenical table. From my perspective, there are three distinctives that should shape a UMC understanding of the church. They are its Wesleyan theological heritage, its particular history and its international connectional character. All three of these are present to some degree in WLP but do not shape the document in such a way as to articulate the particular gift that the UMC offers to other churches.
In this first blog I will focus on the Wesleyan heritage. WLP clearly does not ignore the Wesleyan heritage. The three “distinctive convictions” – “the saving love of God is meant for all people,” the saving love of God is transformative,” and the saving love of God creates community” are deeply rooted in the Wesleyan tradition. It includes a number of lengthy quotes from Wesley with regard to prevenient grace and disagreements in the church. However, what is missing is the location of these convictions and quotations in the context of Wesley’s understanding of the church and of God’s mission in the world. There is no interaction with Wesley’s sermons “On the Church” and “On Schism,” with his Notes upon the New Testament, nor with his various discussions of the Church of England Article on the Church. The latter is particularly problematic given the discussion of this article in WLP in its UMC form. In what follows I will briefly outline aspects of Wesley’s ecclesiology and note how they are a corrective and enrichment of WLP.
The roots of Wesley’s ecclesiology lie in his understanding of God “whose nature and name is love.” God loves all human beings, who were created to image God’s character by loving God and loving their fellow human beings. Despite human sin, God continues to love all human beings and desires to transform them by love, renewing the divine image within them so that their characters are dominated by love for God and our fellow human beings. God is now active in the world to overcome sin and evil and to transform human beings and human societies so that love reigns throughout the earth. The center of God’s mission work is the transformation of human persons, who then transform the societies in which they live. God unites these transformed persons into the church which is to be the embodiment of the divine love, both in its own life and in its mission in the world. The universal church manifests itself as concrete communities of love in the real world. This participation in, embodiment of and reflection of the divine love distinguishes the church from the broader society, constituting it as a counter cultural community and as a sign and anticipation of God’s final redemption of all things. To participate in this embodiment of God’s love is to “anticipate heaven below.” The three “distinctive convictions” fit within this broader understanding of God’s mission in the world.
That the saving love of God is transformative lies at the center of Wesley’s ecclesiology. The goal of this transformation is creation of a people characterized by a love for God and neighbor. This love for one’s neighbor is expressed in a radical, self-sacrificial commitment to the well-being of friends, strangers, enemies and even those one considers to be the enemies of God. In a particular way, Christians are to delight in their siblings in Christ. The emphasis that God’s love is transformative is only genuinely Wesleyan when it is complemented by the emphasis that this transformation enables and requires a human response. This response is expressed in participating in the full range of the means of grace, a concept which is not to be reduced to the sacraments and is strikingly absent in WLP. Important aspects of the means of grace are “works of piety” and “works of mercy”.
WLP, in explaining the effect of grace, describes how this transformation involves “holiness of heart” and “holiness of conversation” and argues that, while there is a close relationship between the two, in different contexts Methodist have emphasized one or the other. While this is no doubt an adequate description of Methodist praxis, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Wesley’s theology. Wesley’s emphasis in his well-known discussions of social holiness and social religion is that these are not just closely related to each other but that they are inseparably integrated with each other – this is the revolutionary genius of Wesley’s theology. The transformation of the heart is primary but a transformed heart will manifest itself in a life of love for others expressed in diverse concrete actions that promote their comprehensive well-being. If there is no “holiness of conversation,” there is no “holiness of heart.” In turn, the life of love for others is a means of grace that leads to the growing transformation of the heart. New contexts and new struggles provide new opportunities for us to grow in holiness of heart and life. Hence, in Wesleyan perspective the mission of the church is always the integrated and holistic embodiment of love.
The emphasis on the transformative love of God has as its consequence that for Wesley the visibility of the church is not constituted by its outward structures but by its embodiment of love in the world. An ecclesial structure that does not embody love is not a visible manifestation of the church regardless of its doctrinal affirmations, sacramental celebrations or orders of ministry. (This emphasis is lacking in WLP.) Hence, Wesley down played the significance of the traditional Protestant marks of the church. It was for this reason that Wesley emphasized discipline in the early Methodist societies – they were open to all who desired salvation but continued membership depended upon lives that demonstrated a commitment to loving God and neighbors described in the General Rules. Wesley was quick to exclude from membership those who failed this standard. His poem “Primitive Christianity” expresses it thus:
Ye different sects, who all declare
‘Lo! Here is Christ!’ or ‘Christ is there!’
Your stronger proofs divinely give,
And show me where the Christians live.
Your claim, alas! Ye cannot prove;
Ye want the genuine mark of love:
Thou only, Lord, thine own canst show,
For sure thou hast a church below
That the “saving love of God creates community” is a consequence of the emphasis on love. People transformed by the love of God love each other with a reciprocal love characterized in delight in each other and a mutual concern for the comprehensive well being of each other. WLP rightly roots this community in our common union with God in Christ by the Spirit. This emphasis is not prominent in John Wesley’s writings but is more present in Charles Wesley’s hymns. John Wesley’s practice is a better expression of the community created by God than his theology which has deeply individualistic aspects. WLP points us in an important direction where we need to go beyond Wesley. The network of early Methodist societies with their various small groups gave structural form to a community that embodied the love of God through mutual responsibility and oversight designed to facilitate growth in love.
One of Wesley’s significant contributions was his insistence that the community created by God’s love embodied in mutual reciprocal relationships between Christians is of greater significance than theological differences – it is this which he describes as a catholic love. The challenge then is how churches embody this love in the context of contradictory theological positions within the church and between churches? This is dealt with in WLP but what is important is to insist that the embodiment of a catholic love within a church and the imperative of seeking greater unity between Christians are essential dimensions of a Wesleyan understanding of the church and thus an essential dimension of Methodist identity.
The affirmation that the saving love of God is meant for all people does not do full justice to the universal dynamic of Wesley’s theology. Wesley not only affirmed that God loved all humanity but also emphasized that God in grace is present and at work in all human beings, drawing them to Godself – hence, it would be better to rephrase this as God’s saving love is present in all people. WLP does refer to this in its discussion of God’s work in people outside of the visible church. However, this is a more fundamental affirmation that is the basis both for the mission of the church and its relationship with people of other faiths and no faith. Wesley’s views here are carefully nuanced, recognizing a diversity of situations in which people find themselves, and the affirmation of God’s gracious work in all does not become universalism. It remains the basis for evangelism and mission in the knowledge that this is a participation in God’s mission in the world.
More could be said, but in conclusion let me affirm the core of a Wesleyan ecclesiology is that the church is to be the visible embodiment of God’s love in the world – when it fails to do this it ceases to be a church.