Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner. Dr. Warner is Royce and Jane Reynolds Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies; Associate Dean for Wesleyan Engagement at Duke Divinity School. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption.
Methodist ecclesiology can seem elusive. United Methodist ecclesiology exhibits tensions between a mixed heritage from Catholic and Pietist roots. The document, “Sent in Love,” draws on United Methodism’s roots in the Wesleyan renewal movement within the eighteenth-century Church of England, contemporary doctrinal materials, and Scripture to frame an ecclesiology. “Sent in Love” responds to a long and intentional conversation regarding United Methodist ecclesiology.
Albert Outler provocatively asked the potentially unanswerable question, “Do Methodists have a doctrine of the Church [or ecclesiology]?” In Outler’s essay of that name, he argued for Methodism’s character as an “evangelical order” pursuing renewal in a larger catholic context, finding itself “detraditioned” as a movement turned church (Outler 1991: 211-26).
Despite United Methodism’s lack of ecclesiology per se, it does not lack an awareness of the primary means through which Christians make sense of faith and discipleship, namely by holy living into God’s reign and gift of salvation. According to Albert Outler, “Every denomination in a divided and broken Christendom is an ecclesiola in via [church in pilgrimage], but Methodists have a peculiar heritage that might make the transitive character of our ecclesiastical existence not only tolerable but positively proleptic” (Wainwright 1983: 220-21).
Outler, in his concluding statement went on to claim, “what we really have to contribute to any emergent Christian community is not our apparatus but our mission.” Outler, highlighting Methodism’s missional purpose and vocation as the primary characteristic of its identity, emphasizes, “this business of ‘being a church’ is really our chief business!” (Outler 1991: 226).
The church is the primary location in which one lives out one’s faith as a participant in a community of faith and member of the body of Christ. Richard Heitzenrater responds to Outler’s question by describing the church in Wesleyan and Methodist tradition as a means of grace in an effort to align the being of the church, or what it “is,” and the practices of the church, or what it “does” (Heitzenrater, 2007: 119-28). The church is the place where through worship, prayer and the sacraments—all considered means of grace by John Wesley—one’s understanding of Christian doctrine and its embodiment is formed and challenged (Jones 2003: 151). The church at its best functions as a, though not the only, means of God’s grace (Jones 2003: 151).
The United Methodist Church’s character as a means of grace includes much, if not all, of its organization and polity alongside worship, sacraments, and ordination. For example, the structure of annual conferences, the episcopacy, and the itineracy may be understood as prudential means of grace (Jones 2002: 255). While these may falter in specific circumstances, throughout its history the formation of the movement’s structure has kept its missional purpose at the center.
The document “Sent in Love,” maps the ecclesiological heritage of Wesleyan, Methodists, and Evangelical United Brethren including a shared missional imperative. The Wesleyan and Methodist tradition emerged from a missional imperative (Logan 1994: 16). This is distinctive, since other denominational traditions often trace their roots to disagreements regarding confessional or doctrinal matters. John Wesley summarized his understanding of Methodism’s purpose: “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? A. To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Davies 1984 v 10: 845).
This means Methodism, and the Wesleyan tradition more broadly, affirms basic traditional Christian commitments proceeding from the Church of England of Wesley’s day, rather than pursuing a doctrinal distinctiveness from other Christian traditions. In addition to the importance of basic Christian doctrine, this commitment to foundational Christian beliefs deeply informed the practices of the early Methodist movement leading to its impact of renewal.
For United Methodists, there are a number of doctrinal materials that lend texture and depth to our understanding of the United Methodist Church. Among the United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards are two historic documents in which the nature of the church is described—“The Articles of Religion” and “The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren”. These documents are among United Methodism’s constitutionally protected doctrinal standards. Drawing from these materials, Scripture, and a shared understanding of the Triune God, readers receive a deep and textured understanding of The United Methodist Church’s mission to participate in God’s reign and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
“Sent in Love” provides a map from which to navigate, explore, and embody our ecclesiological heritage in the midst of the ecumenical relationships and the world. One of the most important and helpful strengths of the document is its grounding in the New Testament and Nicene Creed marks of the church—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—which also appear in “The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren” mentioned above. The document unpacks each of these marks in relationship to Scriptural themes and the nature of God centering our identity as church.
Another important theme for our contemporary understanding and practices of church featured in “Sent in Love” is the role of the Holy Spirit. In the midst of the conflict and ambiguity within and beyond the United Methodist Church at this time, “Sent in Love” offers a frame for ecclesiological understanding and ecclesial practices drawn from our shared Christian and Wesleyan heritage. It is my hope that a prayerful and critically constructive reflection from these materials can facilitate United Methodism’s response to the Holy Spirit as we are sent in ministry by God with Jesus Christ to the world.