By Walter B. Fenton
The tyranny of the present is an ever present danger to the church. We can become so fixated on what is immediately before us that we fail to consider how we can shape the future in powerful ways by drawing on the rich traditions of our past.
While the Global Methodist Church’s core confessions of faith are grounded in Scripture and the great creeds of the church universal, they are also enriched by the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps even more so by the English Reformation. The rise of Methodism was an eighteenth century movement, coming nearly two centuries after towering figures like Martin Luther in Europe and Thomas Cranmer in England proved key to the formation of new Christian denominations that had separated from the Roman Catholic Church.
Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley were profoundly influenced by the reformations of the sixteenth century. And the pietistic movement, that crisscrossed various expressions of the Christian faith in the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, also shaped the spiritual lives of the Wesley brothers, and in turn the Methodist movement as a whole.
One of John Wesley’s most profound religious experiences occurred at a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London, where he found his heart “strangely warmed” while someone read aloud from Luther’s preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Wesley and the entire Methodist movement emphasized, and clarified for many believers, how God’s grace shapes our lives from beginning to end. To this day Methodists affirm Luther’s reclamation of the biblical teaching that it is by God’s grace alone, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that we are saved from our slavery to sin.
And while Wesley revered and was guided by many of the early Church’s great ancestors in the faith, he embraced the Protestant and English Reformations’ re-emphasis on the Bible as the primary authority for discerning God’s will for our salvation, our daily practice of the faith, and the direction of the church. Without diminishing the creeds or the traditions of the church, Methodists followed Luther and many others who championed the primacy of the Bible.
Along with the Wesley brothers, many of Methodism’s original founders were priests in the Church of England. While their movement was aimed at reforming and revitalizing that church, they freely owned how it and English Reformers like Cranmer and others had influenced them. They used the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer every day, and affirmed the 39 Articles of Religion contained therein along with the creeds, instructions for worship, the celebration of the sacraments, holy rites, and so much more. In 1784, Wesley provided the Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of Methodist denominations in the U.S. and many countries around the world, with his abridged edition of The Book of Common Prayer. It served as the new church’s principal resource for the order of worship, the celebration of the sacraments, and the observance of holy rites.
And Pietism profoundly influenced Methodism’s emphasis on personal and social holiness. To this day many Methodists find inspiration in the devotional works from Thomas à Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, just two of many notable pietistic authors that shaped the Wesley’s and scores of their early followers.
These great traditions and movements firmly root the Global Methodist Church in Christian history, providing it with the nourishment necessary for it to flourish and grow as a healthy and vital branch of Christ’s larger Church. The doctrinal affirmations of the Global Methodist Church are found in Part One of the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.
Since the seventeenth century the warm hearted, Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith has flowed into the Caribbean Islands, Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and on to Europe and Eurasia. It continues to grow in these lands despite major political, economic, and cultural challenges. And it is no exaggeration to say the people in these places are among its most ardent proponents and defenders. They are not only sharing the expression in their own countries; they are also rekindling in America, Canada, and England the fire and passion of a movement that once changed the lives of many people and so profoundly impacted the societies and cultures around them.
By breaking away from the tyranny of the present, a tyranny that too often distracts us with idle entertainments or feeds our worst anxieties, members of the Global Methodist Church can find encouragement, strength and liberation for the future by drawing on the God given treasures in our past.
You can learn more about the Global Methodist Church’s rich heritage by exploring its website.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.