Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Daniel Bruno: An Anti-ecumenical Methodism?

Today’s post is by Rev. Daniel A. Bruno of The Argentine Methodist Church. It was originally written as a Facebook post for CMEW (El Centro Metodista de Estudios Wesleyanos – The Methodist Center for Wesleyan Studies of The Argentine Methodist Church, in English translation). It is translated by David W. Scott with assistance from Facebook Translate and republished here with permission.

"A phantom travels Latin America, the ghost of anti-Ecumenism." This paraphrase of that old manifesto may help synthesize the worrying situation which is traversing the evangelical world in Latin America and unfortunately a good part of Methodism too.

Large and historic Methodist churches on our continent are descending from a pioneering path of ecumenical leadership to lock themselves in an atmosphere of intolerant self-pleasure against the different.

No doubt, this phantom doesn't come alone. It is part of "a climate of the time," a conservative, intolerant wave that affects all walks of social, cultural, economic and of course also religious life of our region.

The strange thing for Methodism is that, having a rich history that points from its origins to a path of opening of eyes and of mind, today it intends to twist the obvious with conservative and orthodox stances with which Wesley would never agree.

We will shortly point out some of those characteristics of Wesleyan thought that made it different amidst an atmosphere of intolerance that persisted from the previous century and against which Wesley wanted to fight.

In a wide array of sermons and treaties, Wesley refers to “thinking and letting thinking,” applied to various aspects of Christian life. We’ll briefly stop on Sermon 39, “The Catholic Spirit,” which could well be translated as “The Ecumenical Spirit.”

Wesley takes as his base the text of 2 Kings 10:15 where Jehu meets Jehonadab son of Rekab and instead of reprimanding him for certain worship practices not shared by Jehu (see Jeremiah 35), he only asks him, “Is your heart as mine?” “Then give me your hand.”

Wesley also had his "climate of the time," but he managed to avoid it. The 17th century was the scene of fierce wars and bloodbaths for religious matters. Religious wars had divided and separated theologically and ecclesiastically a myriad of Christian expressions. In Wesley’s time, that remorse of the past had led to building great walls of containment both in doctrinal and ecclesiastical practices and regulations to keep churches and estranged groups separate and “conflict free” within the same church or between different denominations.

In this context, in 1750, Wesley published Sermon 39, after he and his preachers had experienced misunderstanding and persecution by the leaders of the Anglican Church. Wesley emphasized that persecution arose from lack of tolerance, and one of the reasons was the absence of freedom of thought in the Church. Wesley says:

“Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’”

Wesley is clearly not making a call to single thought (orthodox), but neither, on the other extreme, to doctrinal laissez faire, laissez passer. The oneness he seeks is not at the level of doctrines or customs, where, he admits, everyone can hold that which he finds most true. The oneness he seeks is found on the human level of love and tolerance.

This attitude entails a double challenge, on the one hand, that holding one's own ideas demands a constant attitude of self-criticism, because “although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true; yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true. Nay, every thinking man is assured they are not, seeing humanum est errare et nescire: "To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity." This, therefore, he is sensible, is his own case. He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” And on the other hand, this attitude demands respect for the other, although they are considered mistaken. This would prevent what Wesley would call the “inquisition,” that sectarian and condemnatory attitude that was the origin of the bloodiest and most embarrassing passages in church history.

“We may, secondly, observe,” Wesley claims, “that here is no inquiry made concerning Jehonadab’s mode of worship; although it is highly probable there was, in this respect also, a very wide difference between them.... Nor has any creature power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren; but every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.”

All of this invites us to think about the habits and attitudes that we, as individuals and as the church, adopt in the face of differences. We must recognize that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, almost all Latin American Methodisms did not have this sermon in mind at all when they made the controversy against Catholicism a battle for ideas, for membership, and territory.

Neither do certain Methodisms that abandon ecumenism and deny both “thinking”, in both free action and criticism of reason, and “letting think”, as an action of tolerance in the face of difference, have this sermon in mind today.

Without a doubt, Wesley's tremendous phrase: " God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren," should be a guide to help revise our affirmations, our judgments and prejudices.

It's a call to the churches to return to preaching a gospel of grace that frees. It is also a call to people to defend their right to a free conscience, freedom of conscience that should not be feared as a threat to the church, but on the contrary, value it as a loving gift from God.

When the subjectivities of peoples are increasingly manipulated by powerful media corporations creating false realities, this Wesleyan assertion is good news to be preached and an inalienable human right to be defended.

In this sense, the "catholic spirit" is not exhausted in good relations with brothers and sisters in faith who think differently, but advances through territories of global ecumenical values, both in the religious field, as well as scientific, ethical, and politic fields.

In times of the resurgence of conservative fanaticism, yesterday and today, Wesley, in his Sermon 37 “The Nature of Enthusiasm” advises us not to act like the "enthusiasts" who are persecuting others:

“God did not call us to destroy other people's lives but to save them. Don’t you ever think of forcing others to get into the ways of God. Neither, others should be forced to think like you. ... “Think and let think.” Do not force anyone on matters of religion, nor forces to enter by means other than reason, truth and love.”

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