Wednesday 16 July 2008

For Methodists is 'Emergent Church' simply social holiness rediscovered?

Wesley-PreachingThe Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness 

John Wesley

In 2002 the Irish Methodist theologian Johnston McMaster wrote a paper on Wesley and social holiness as part of the  Scriptural Holiness Project of the European Methodist Theological Consortium.  The essence of what Johnston says is worth quoting here:

The purpose of the Methodist movement was to ‘spread scriptural holiness throughout the land’

It is within Christian community that holiness of life is to be realized. ... It is within the socio-economic and political community that holiness of life is to be realized 

If holiness of life was described in terms of perfect love, then holiness involved social relations including environmental relations. For Wesley the spreading of scriptural holiness entailed ‘the transformation of the economic and political order, the establishment of Pentecostal commun(al)ism and the abolition of war’. Holiness was nothing less than a new creation.

The failure of the Methodist holiness project was ultimately the failure of the Methodists to stand in radical solidarity with the poor. Yet Wesley had repeatedly called on the Methodists to go to the poor and not simply to wait until the poor came to them. To one ‘gentlewoman’ member of a society he wrote;

"Do not confine your conversation to gentle and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do. But I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord, or any of his Apostles. My dear friend, let you and I walk as he walked … I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward on their way to heaven. And they have (many of them) faith, and the love of God in a larger measure than any persons I know. Creep in among these, in spite of dirt, and a hundred disgusting circumstances; and thus put off the gentlewoman."(Letter to ‘A Member of the Society, February 7, 1776, Works 12: 301)

Yet Wesley did believe that the church had fallen when it entered the Constantinian era in 313 C.E. For Wesley the greatest wound Christianity received "Was struck in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power, upon the Christians; more especially on the Clergy … Then, not the golden but the iron age of the church commenced." (Works VI: 261-62).

The task for contemporary Methodists is still to develop the great social ethic of scriptural holiness. This will mean going beyond Wesley, not least because we live in a very different world, especially where globalization is dominant. It will mean in practical terms ‘getting rid of our preferential option for the affluent’ and developing a socio-political hermeneutic of scripture. This will mean a more contextual reading of the text in our 21st century context. It will mean engaging with the principalities and powers of racism, poverty, nationalism, ethnocentrism and the systemic violence which they express with such devastation and destruction of human and environmental community. This also includes the violence of sexism and the personal and structural domination of women.

Scriptural holiness may still be a worthy Methodist project in an ecumenical context but only if we take social, economic and political structures seriously and learn to read scripture and theology from a new socio-political perspective.

Johnston's words may well prove to have been prophetic. Beyond Methodism the rise of the Emergent / Emerging movement is rooted in what Wesley called 'social holiness'; namely a rediscovery of authentic Christian discipleship as understood and lived out in the Kingdom of God orthopraxis of Jesus. Let me grossly oversimplify a complex issue - and I apologise to historians in advance: if what Wesley longed for was a radical 'sermon on the mount' movement of passionate 24/7 disciples, what he actually got was much more a 'sermon on the back pew' church. The social and political activism which characterised the Methodist movement was in large measure dissipated by the energy-sink of becoming an institutional church centred on Sunday worship. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

Hal Knight's article on John Wesley and the Emerging Church is well worth a read. Like Johnston McMaster, he seems to connect with all the 'out-there' orthopraxis energy and passion that I see in John Wesley, as portrayed in the picture of Wesley preaching in the marketplace. Ryan Bolger's brief snapshot of Emerging Church should surely resonate strongly with Methodists. And what of Moot, an ongoing experiment in community thinking, when they struggle with what it means to be human in the city and ask the sharp question Whatever happened to kindness and generosity? Methodist ears should tune in and take note, because so much of this is in our ecclesiological DNA. So why does all or any of this matter?

Alan Finlayson's and Jeremy Seabrook's thoughtful articles in the Guardian  Big Brother's message: we are a selfish society and Slash-and-burn economics caused the blade crimewave, push my social holiness buttons probably just as much as the state of eighteenth century English society pushed Wesley's. Here in Lincolnshire, the birthplace of world Methodism, we take social holiness seriously. At the Methodist Conference in Scarborough our Lincoln and Grimsby District brought a Notice of Motion in response to the global food crisis. It arose from the passion of Alan Robson, our Agricultural Chaplain, and the social holiness driven concern of the the Alford,  Skegness and Wainfleet Circuit. As Methodists we must not stand by in our chapels and sing our hymns and worship songs as the world weeps. We were raised up to be authentic disciples. The Emergent movement shows us what we are at our best. I for one am up for the challenge.

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