Hugh Baker responds to John Richardson
John Richards (‘Was Wesley “Converted”’, October 2002, New Directions) obviously remembers far more of his reading about John Wesley than I do. All these years later, my main recollection was Wesley reading his Bible on horseback. Owning a motorbike at the time, I didn’t feel this was an example to follow. Length of years puts one’s early studies in a wider context, and if I am allowed to share them, perhaps this will help us understand a little more of Methodism’s present condition.
The Reformation had a fault line, sometimes unseen, running through it. It delineated different answers to the question ‘Once I have gained salvation, can I then lose it?’ John Calvin said ‘No, you couldn’t.’ Jacob Arminius said ‘Yes, you could.’ The argument, I gather, was fought over no less than 85 Biblical texts. Take, for example, our Gospel for the second Sunday before Advent (Matthew 25.14–30). Should we be telling our flock that the Parable of the Talents teaches us, as per Arminius, that if we fail to respond properly to the gift of salvation, we will lose it, and be bound for hell? Or should we warn them, in Calvinistic fashion that, though our ultimate salvation remains intact, we will lose the fruits and honours thereof? (Here Calvinists vary: some restrict this loss simply to this life; others include any honours we could have gained in heaven.)
Laughter and Tears
John Wesley, introvert, self-analyzing, self-doubting, was an Arminian. To him, the assurance of salvation wasn’t just about what Christ had done for him; it was also bound up with what he had done for Christ. Those of us who have ministered to the mentally ill will know the person who, whatever intellectual arguments for salvation you present to them, still find their mind overwhelmed with gut feelings of being unwanted or rejected – by man or by God. To such a personality, sincerely seeking God, God in his mercy may well grant a work of the Holy Spirit which ‘strangely warms the heart’ at the place where its wounds produce the fears of rejection. The search of the heart is met in the heart; it is not an intellectual matter, even for someone like Wesley who was well-endowed educationally. Thus, what’s going on at brain level as you sit in your own Aldersgate Street meeting is almost irrelevant. I know someone whose ‘heart was strangely warmed’ during a municipal Ways and Means Committee: trying to look as if he were leaving the room in search of a toilet, he made it to the Mayor’s Parlour before giving way to gales of laughter and tides of tears.
Such experiences can be life-changing, as I myself can testify. Their long term effects, however, are bound up with our theology and its effects on us and others. Stir in an admixture of Arminianism, and many saints will continue to look warily over their shoulder to see if their sins are big enough to disqualify them from the divine Prize List. To be able to live with this uncertainty, Marks of the Sanctified have to be invented. Just as ten hours of witnessing per month keeps the Jehovah’s Witness quids in with his distant deity, so Temperance (not a bad thing where circumstances can push you towards the gin shop) becomes a Badge of Belonging. Unthinking Arminianism, alas, produces its own downfall. Let the relationship with Christ be eroded, and the Badge replaces the reality. Our local Mayor is an atheist: he assures me, however, he is a Good Christian; he wears the Badges of civic good behaviour. JB Priestley, among others, poked fun at nonconformism’s con-centration on ‘what we don’t do’, and the ways in which this can become a smokescreen for hiding every kind of subtle sin of the heart. Luther could live with the existence of (in modern parlance) the Unconscious, and our ability to self-deceive. Wesley was so grimly determined that ‘we shall overcome’ he led people towards the temptation to deny the complexities of human nature by trust in what may be seen.
‘Warming the heart’ is not, in itself, the answer to all our problems. Like every gift of God, it can be misused. At least Wesley hoped it would be a remedy for sin. In today’s entertainment-oriented culture, we are liable to hope it will give us licence for fun. I was talking recently with a Baptist minister from Johannesburg about a charismatic ‘power chuch’ well known in southern Africa. He was telling me that, of its five leaders, four had traded in their wives for younger, blonder, models. Seemingly, God is so short of friends that Samson still has to do: but the end of a Samson ministry can be swift and dishonourable.
A force for good
We should not underestimate the good Methodism did our country, both spiritually and practically. It provided Christian fellowship on doorsteps the Established Church ignored; look, for instance, at a map of sparsely populated Delamere Forest, and see the network of tiny Chapels that served it. It gave social coherence to the industrial towns and villages that mushroomed in the nineteenth century, and meaning and direction to countless lives ‘torn untimely’ from their rural roots. Methodism saved England, and beyond, from the atheism underlying the French Revolution and from the dangers inherent in any time of rapid social change. The Badges addressed the social problems of the century before last, and Wesley’s genius for organization helped that to happen. Wesley’s work stood and matured whereas Whitfield’s converts, equally moved but not subsequently shepherded, disappeared back into the chaos whence they came.
Methodism’s success as a social force led it to take seriously what it could do for society. As its spiritual heart slowly rotted, the Gospel applied socially became the Social Gospel. This decline from within shows itself in what Methodism has held on to, and what it has jettisoned. The Band Meeting, at which you were meant to candidly expose your soul to your fellow believers, in order that they may help you be restored to your state of sanctification before God, never took off anyway. The Circuit, initially useful to help a burgeoning lay movement be serviced by a limited number of preachers, has long passed its ‘use by’ date, yet remains with us. The Class System, which actually gave Methodism its ability to produce God-fearing, Biblically literate laymen who could live out their faith credibly in the nation’s world of work, has ebbed away. Methodism has (to my mind) turned its back on what made Methodism distinctive, and was its finest jewel.
In the mega-city
The saddest thing about the abandonment of the Class System is that it now marks the fastest growing churches history has ever seen. You will doubtless have heard of Seoul’s Yoido Full Gospel Central Church, whose million (and rising) membership is based on Class principles. As the world struggles with the modern Megacity replacing the industrial city or town, the Class-based church is keeping pace: across the world, churches with memberships numbered in thousands are using the Class (or Cell, as we now call them in the West) to produce not token adherents, nor emotion-driven conversions, but solid, fruit-bearing disciples. What we have seen of Cell principles applied in British churches suggest they have potential to strengthen us in rural, urban, prosperous or threadbare settings. Would that Methodism had kept the Class system, or that we had learnt from it! There were two Methodist Chapels open in these parishes when I came here twelve years ago: now there are none.
Hugh Baker is incumbent of the Peel Parishes, Diocese of Lichfield.
Unthinking Arminianism, alas, produces its own downfall. Let the relationship with Christ be eroded, and the Badge replaces the reality
Methodism’s success as a social force led it to take seriously what it could do for society: as its spiritual heart slowly rotted, the Gospel applied socially became the Social Gospel.