What is a Methodist?
A strange question? But there are so many Methodists who are only capable of scratching their heads when asked what distinguishes this species of the Christian Church from others. And outsiders seem to know only that a Methodist is some kind of Christian and that Methodists don't drink (alcohol). About the first point they are right, if very vague; about the second they are a good century behind the times.
First a word of optimism. The population numbers are healthy even if individual congregations are often quite small. Methodists belong to a Church with more than 20,000,000 members - 14,000,000 of them in North America. It is a worldwide Church, strongly represented on every continent - except Antarctica.
John Wesley himself declared,
The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion; but they think and let think. Neither do they impose any particular mode of worship; but you may continue to worship in your former manner, be it what it may. Now I do not know of any other religious society, either ancient or modern, wherein such liberty of conscience is now allowed or has been allowed, since the age of the Apostles. Here is our glorying; and a glorying peculiar to us. What society shares it with us?Actually, modern Methodists use a number of creeds that suit their style - modern as well as ancient, and drawn from many traditions - but never one exclusively, or as a rule of membership. The Lord's Prayer, repeated Sunday by Sunday along with millions of other Christians of every tradition, is probably as near as they get to a common creedal statement. In New Zealand, the mission statement of the national Methodist Church is a good summary of where New Zealand Methodists are and what they stand for, and, together with the pamphlet Introducing Dunedin Methodist Parish, the Dunedin parish statement which follows it closely, offers an excellent summary of a liberal Methodist position.
Like the rest of their generation, the Wesleys believed in the literal, eternal truth and divine inspiration of every word in the Bible. Contemporary Methodists are less awe-struck, much more sceptical about such claims for any book (or collection of writings). We have learned that the Bible's writers are as contradictory, fallible, rooted in their own cultures, and individual as any other human authors. Yet Methodists acknowledge that as a whole the Scriptures are an irreplaceable part of their faith heritage, and that at their best they offer deep wisdom and precious principles and insights that are as applicable and necessary now as they were centuries ago. Above all, the biblical documents are valuable because they contain virtually the only near-contemporary set of documents recording the life and teachings of Jesus. Methodists will continue to interpret and study the Bible texts as energetically as they have always done, but for them the Bible is not the only place where they can hear the Words of God, and Methodists get plain bolshy when biblical texts are used as some kind of magic weapon to attack and oppress others.
Then what do Methodists believe? They believe that there is a God of love at the heart of the universe; they believe that there are three aspects of the nature of God made known to us in many ways - God as supreme being; the man Jesus Christ as the most perfect declaration of the character of God; and the Spirit, which is the energy and loving purpose of God at work in the world. That among the many communities we know collectively as the Christian Church - fallible, discordant, and sometimes as disgraceful as they are - there is still enough sense of the religious dimension of life and the presence of God, still enough treasures and achievements of faith, and still enough willingness to work for God's good purposes to deserve loyalty and commitment.
Most Methodists can no longer give credence to a sin-hungry God who damns us from our birth and waits to punish us at some terrible Last Judgement. Though they can readily believe that humans like themselves cruelly murdered the simple goodness and unfailing love of Jesus Christ, they cannot subscribe to Virgin Births, or any theory which suggests that God somehow wiped the slate clean of the sum of human evil and sin by arranging for his own Son to be tortured to death.
Methodists subscribe to the belief that the whole of the universe we inhabit is of worth and merit in the sight of God; that God delights in our thoughtfulness, respect and care both for each other and for creation. Most, if not all Methodists, embrace the Wesleyan idea of the priesthood of all believers: which makes a nonsense of silly and bitter controversies in the Church over gender, sexual orientation, theological difference, and lay/ordained distinctions. Methodists have been in the forefront of efforts to give children, lay-folk, women and gay people proper dignity and respect; that activity comes from a simple but deeply felt theology of the universal love of God and the infinite worth of creation.
This, I believe, is Methodism's truest kind of evangelism. Not knocking on doors and asking if someone else is 'saved', not reducing the Good News of the Gospel to a puritanical code of morality, but addressing the causes of ignorance, crime and poverty, discrimination and oppressive behaviour. Bringing hope to people without hope or means of a decent livelihood, people crushed and overburdened by others, people marginalised and made desperate; putting such people first for a change. In the words of the Deed of Union which drew together all the connexions of the Methodist Church in 1932, 'in the providence of God, Methodism was raised up to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land' - and, when we understand that old phrase 'Scriptural holiness' properly, that is still our brief.
There are other marks of being a Methodist. They include a respectful and open relationship with other faiths and religious cultures (Methodists are haunted by a vision of universal religious unity); Church structures that allow for a healthy sense of independence and local autonomy, yet insist on the importance of community and acting together as a 'connexion'; an insistence that lay folk matter, and that church life should demonstrate the social justice Methodists seek for their communities; and an ethos which is essentially pragmatic (if it works do it), liberal and inclusive.
© Colin Gibson