by David McAllister-Wilson
What is essential to us as United Methodists? What is our DNA? It is not the Book of Discipline; and, it is not that we are “open” or “connectional.” John Wesley is oft quoted as saying it was possible that the Methodists might only “exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”1 What did he mean?
He hoped we would evidence the power of grace rather than the mere form of religion. That we would practice accountable discipleship: a disciplined and communal approach to discovering and nurturing the experience of the Holy Spirit.
Isn’t this conviction of the immediacy of the Holy Spirit, and the belief that our primary task is to grow in grace and extend that grace to the world the essence of who we are as Methodists?
In his sermon, “The Good Steward,” Wesley spoke of us as stewards – caretakers—of the “grace of God, the power of his Holy Spirit, which alone worketh in us all that is acceptable in his sight.”2 Randy Maddox calls it responsible grace and Tom Langford (following John’s mother, Susanna Wesley) calls it practical divinity.3 And the purpose is our distinctively audacious view that we are actually working out our own salvation, as John Wesley said. And, we are progressing, and going on to perfection.
Lovett Weems asked the United Methodist Bishops a good rhetorical question, “Could this Wesleyan identity be captured in an inclusive vision of an evangelical church in a liberal tradition? We are an evangelical church. At the same time, we are in a liberal tradition. We are the first to challenge assumptions. We are the first to open windows and doors to new ideas and possibilities when faith mandates it. Could such a vision that is both deep (in faith and piety) and open (to new needs and possibilities) sustain us over the years ahead?”4
Just as John Wesley’s contemporary, Benjamin Franklin, made the connection between the power of lightning from the heavens and electrical phenomenon on earth, Wesley and the members of the Holy Club were conducting experiments on the other power emanating from heaven — the grace of God — and how that power can be experienced. Methodists, and all our aunts and uncles and cousins, are a longitudinal study in the experience of God’s power to transform lives individually and in community.
We are experimental by nature. Because we seek the real presence of the Holy Spirit, we are “deep”; because we look for its urgings everywhere, we are also “open.”
We are an experiment in grace. To that, we should hold fast.
1 Ibid, “Thoughts Upon Methodism” (7:315)
2 John Wesley, “The Good Steward”, in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. John Emory, ed., (New York: Carlton & Lanahan, 1831), 1:451.
3 Maddox, 5; See Thomas A. Langford, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983).
David McAllister-Wilson is President of Wesley Theological Seminary. This post is adapted from A New Church and a New Seminary: Theological Education Is the Solution by David McAllister-Wilson – Abingdon Press, 2018.