by James A. Harnish
A bronze plaque on the wall of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of Asbury University proclaims the words of my alma mater’s most famous graduate, E. Stanley Jones:
“Here we enter a fellowship. Sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.”
There is something deeply Wesleyan about those words from the most widely-known and globally-respected Methodist missionary of the 20th Century.
In his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease (Nashville: GBHEM, 2017), David N. Field emphasizes that “the division and separations within Methodism must … be understood as a challenge to and in many cases a contradiction of Methodist identity” in which “holiness is central” (p. xiv). He points to Wesley’s definition of holiness as “love of God and of all mankind” (p. 5) and identifies “the heart of Methodist identity” as “the pursuit of holiness, as the transformation of persons so that they love God and their neighbors” (p. 21).
Field points out that centering Methodist identity in “understanding holiness as love counters the danger of self-righteousness, spiritual narcissism, and legalism” (p. 20). It also results in “a certain untidy open-endedness to the task of discerning what the moral law requires in particular contexts” by providing “significant space for Christians to disagree with each other about the contents and requirements of the moral law even when they agree on its normative authority” (p. 14-15).
It was this understanding of holiness that enabled Wesley to be both very clear about his own convictions while at the same time respecting fellow Christians who disagreed with him. It was the motivating spirit of his sermons “Catholic Spirit” and “A Caution Against Bigotry.” It has also been the unique identity of the strong “Methodist middle” that continues to be alive in congregations across the denomination today.
This deeply Wesleyan understanding of holiness is the motivation of more than 4,000 people who have signed on in support of Uniting Methodists. From the earliest beginning of this movement, our prayer has been that the Holy Spirit might use this movement as a way of witness for United Methodist people who believe that our denomination’s theology, mission, tradition, and ministry provide a way for faithful people who “agree to differ” on their convictions surrounding same-sex relationships while, at the same time, they “resolve to love and unite to serve.”
E. Stanley Jones spoke prophetically to our own time when he wrote, “In a divided world seeking unity, a divided Church not seeking unity has little or no moral authority. But it must more than seek unity; it must achieve unity” (Mathews & Mathews, compilers, Selections from E. Stanley Jones [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972] p. 83).
Uniting Methodists acknowledge “a certain untidy open-endedness” to this approach. We are willing to allow “significant space” for the contextualization of our mission. And we dare to believe that the same Spirit who inspired the first Methodists will continue to be at work through us as we attempt, in the words of Charles Wesley, “to serve the present age, [our] calling to fulfill.”