John Wesley and the Anglicans: The Question of Methodism Part 3

Continuing my posting of my comprehensive exam answers. What follows is the second part of the second question from my comp exam on Church history. You can see part 1 here. And part 2 here

Because of his wide influences and his ability to focus on pragmatic concerns, Wesley found continued connection to the Church of England, which it might be said, expressed elements of Wesley’s concerns in many ways. The big distinction was, as it was before, about issues of authority, influence and power. Wesley’s willingness to engage in field preaching, in preaching in the parishes of others, in ordaining his own preachers to a unique ministry, caused significant strains. Wesley was, in many ways, a nonconformist, though never a separatist. It was only after his death, and away from his potent force of will, that Methodism finally split from the Church of England.

Was Methodism, and thus Wesley, a unique force in the era of his time? It seems that a fair assessment would suggest that he was not. There is very little in Wesley’s theology or in his approaches that were wholly unique. He can be understood as being very much in line with the trajectory of his family, combining all the various thoughtful and reforming instincts in a way consistent with his era, in a way that both challenged his interactions with the world and his interactions with God. In this way, it probably could be suggested that Wesley magnified the teachings and priorities of his era, putting into organizational shape a driving concern of many of his time.

Methodism was an expression of the era, as much as it shaped the era, an era in which the culture was both well within the confines of traditional patterns of life but awakening, as it were, to a new sense of potential and possibility. The English of his time could simultaneously embrace tradition and resist it, eager to explore the possibilities of the new era even as they sought the comfort of what was familiar. Wesley, and Methodism, gave this reforming and active instinct a religious expression, encouraging and empowering people to go beyond the restrictions that a narrow ecclesiality allowed, and encouraged people to take the basic teachings of their church and apply it to their whole lives, throughout the week, in ways that went beyond liturgical or rhetorical.

This empowering priority found resonance in his own country and even more in the fertile fields of America, where men and women were even farther from the constraining bounds of tradition and had already experienced the possibilities of freedom that had been given more space to expand. In this way, through his emphasis on what might be seen as a bottom up renewal of the church, Wesley carried forward the ideal of a community of people who expressed the fullness of God in their personal and public lives. Unfortunately, the persistent issues of power and control continued to interfere with a more visible unity, as people who sought freedom to express their understanding of reform felt bound by traditions and those who were in the role of passing on the truth of the traditions saw the new expressions as breaking down the established structures.

In Wesley, and in Methodism in general, we see the core elements of the Puritan ideal carried on into the 18th century and beyond. While there were those who sought a clear separation, there were also those whose nonconformity was not about rejecting the establishment but more about seeking its continued reformation in light of the holistic call of Christ. In every side there were those who were attempting to be faithful, and those who were using the faith for their own ends. Indeed, it might even be argued that through Wesley, this child of Dissent, the Puritan movement was carried well past its ‘ own terminology, finding expression in the various renewal movements, like the holiness movements and Pentecostalism, that were themselves attempts at reform within a perceived liberal Methodism.

Indeed, even still these movements and movements which are more directly related to renewing the Church of England, continue to serve as calls for reform and holiness throughout the whole world. It might be dramatic, but it would not be entirely wrong, to suggest that reforming the Church of England throughout the last four hundred plus years, seeking more purity in its midst, has radically shaped the entire global church and continues to shape the church as such reformers resonate into future eras.

And with that, I came to the end of my first comprehensive exam. I think I wrote about 3 hours and 40 minutes, writing whatever came to mind as it related to the questions. It was worth it. I passed.

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