Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Listening to John Wesley' in the Uniting Church


Paragraph 10 of the Basis of Union calls upon the Uniting Church to ‘listen to the preaching of John Wesley in his Forty-Four Sermons (1793)’ (along with the ‘witness of the Reformers’) and commits its ministers and instructors to ‘study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ’s people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.’[1] 

It is sometimes difficult to say too much about one of the precedent traditions of the UCA since to do so might seem to be privileging the contribution of one tradition over the other two. There are those who feel that hearkening back to Wesley’s Sermons would be a backward step when the UCA is called to be a new, dynamic, and forward-looking Church.  Yet the Basis of Union calls us to pay close attention to such formative voices of the past.    

J. Davis McCaughey, in his Commentary on the Basis of Union, reflects on the Uniting Church’s readiness, expressed in Paragraph 1 of the BoU, to ‘go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ, the living Head of the Church.’[2]

There is an exhilaration and a loneliness about this. The reader ought to catch his breath. It would have been easier to say, ‘we shall go forward loyal to the best of our traditions as Calvinists and Wesleyans…And…we would neglect what Calvin and Wesley have to teach us to our peril. But at the beginning the Basis of Union reminds that our loyalty is not to them but to Christ.[3] 

There is wisdom in these words.  The ancestors are not to be followed blindly or uncritically and our loyalty is first to Christ. Yet to neglect Calvin, Wesley and other fathers and mothers of the faith is to be imperilled. It is worthy of note that it is the Standard Sermons that are singled out from Wesley’s many writings as having a level of special importance and that these focus on the dynamics of Christian experience. Their selection perhaps reflects their official status in Australian (and British) Methodism, along with Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, as constituting a doctrinal standard.[4] However, a collection of sermons is very different from a formal Creed or Confession.[5]  When a selection of Wesley’s sermons were chosen for inclusion in a book of ‘Historic Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia,’ those chosen were focused on Christian experience – Salvation by Faith, Justification by Faith, The Witness of the Spirit, The Means of Grace and Christian Perfection.[6]  When the Uniting Church listens to these sermons it will be listening to preaching ‘aimed at awakening and reviving faith, not to faith declaring what it believes nor to systematic instruction in the faith.’[7]

The study of the Standard Sermons and other important historical documents must of course be carried out with the recognition that they are bound to a great extent by their historical context and particularity. ‘That is at once their glory and their limitation.’[9]  John Wesley was a man of his time and we cannot simply restate his formulations as though no further thinking were needed.  When earlier this year I read Bos and Thompson’s Theology for Pilgrims, it was interesting to note the tendency in the documents selected to appeal to John Wesley and the Methodist tradition when wishing to affirm the ongoing significance of Evangelicalism and evangelistic activity in the Uniting Church.[8] The idea that Wesley’s thought may be an important theological resource for the Uniting Church was less evident.  I think it is fair to say that the renaissance in Wesley studies that was initiated in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to the present, has made it much clearer than the framers of the Basis of Union could have foreseen, how valuable a theological resource is the thought of the founder of Methodism.

While the Christocentric features of the Basis of Union make the document profoundly Evangelical in the broadest sense of that term, there is one particular place in the BoU where the characteristically Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification is identified.  Paragraph 6 confesses that Christ, by the gift of the Spirit, ‘awakens, purifies, and advances in [us] that faith and hope in which alone [the] benefits [of new life and freedom] can be accepted.’[10] Giving close attention to Wesley’s theology can continue to be one way that the Uniting Church can live out of that freedom which is made ever new by the Spirit. 

[1] BoU, paragraph 10, pp. 9-10.
[2] BoU, paragraph 1, p. 5.
[3] J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980), 8.
[4] To these American Methodists had added the 25 Articles (Wesley’s abridgment of the Anglican 39 Articles). See Thomas C. Oden, Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008). 
[5]‘They are perhaps best thought of as doctrine tested in preaching: they are expositions of the map, rather than the map itself.’ J. D. McCaughey, Commentary, 56.
[6] Michael Owen, ed. Witness of Faith: Historic Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1984), 175-223.
[7] Owen, ed. Witness of Faith, 177.
[8] Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims: Selected Theological Documents of the Uniting Church in Australia (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2008).  This is my anecdotal reflection, though specific page numbers could be provided.
[9] J. D. McCaughey, Commentary, 52.
[10] BoU, Paragraph 6, p. 8.

No comments:


Share |