Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ecumethodist Task


I created this blog as an outlet for my own thoughts on the search for Christian unity in a postmodern world. But my sincere hope is that it might also stimulate dialogue with other Christians, as well as with people of other faiths or people of no faith. In a world full of division, the Church's continued scandalous disunity contradicts its gospel that Jesus Christ has reconciled us to God and to each other.

For Protestant Christians in particular, who do not claim to represent "the Church" in its fullness (like Catholic or Orthodox Christians), the willingness to remain visibly divided in a myriad of denominations is inexcusable. For years, I wrestled with questions surrounding the nature and authority of the Church. I came to the conviction that if I was to remain a Protestant, it could not be as an end in itself. Rather, to be Protestant is to be ecumenical, to be led by the Holy Spirit toward a unity that includes the many gifts scattered within the broken Body of Christ.

Methodism has provided a tradition in which I could live out these convictions with integrity. As originally a renewal movement led by the Wesleys in the Church of England, Methodism has never understood itself to be the fullness of what it means to be the Church. It is better understood as a kind of Protestant evangelical "order" (along the lines of the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.). Methodism, then, requires a catholic Church within which to properly function. Here are some favorite quotes relating to ecumenism from John Wesley, an eighteenth century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism:

From Wesley's "Character of a Methodist":
"From real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: "Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship. If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies; let us strive together for the faith of the Gospel; walking worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called; with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; remembering, there is one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called with one hope of our calling; "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."
And here, from his "Letter to a Roman Catholic":

"Come, my brother, and let us reason together...We ought, without this endless jangling about opinions, to provoke one another to love and to good works. Let the points wherein we differ stand aside: here are enough...to be the ground of every Christian temper and every Christian action....if we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike...In the name and in the strength of God, let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another...secondly, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other...thirdly, resolve to harbour no unkind thought...fourthly, endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God."
More than ever, I am convinced that the Church needs thoughtful Protestants who are committed to the gifts of their particular traditions (be it Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Pentecostal...) and to offering them up to the Church as a whole. This is hard, slow work that requires patience and humility. Yet the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church still confesses with Jesus Christ, who prayed for his followers to be one, that "what is impossible for mortals is possible with God." (John 17:21; Luke 18:27)


  1. Paul,

    What is the "catholic Church" that will hold us Methodists withing herself as an "order"? Also, it seems to me that Protestants are not the only ones who are comfortable with visible disunity. If Catholics and Orthodox Christians cannot decide which among themselves is the "true" church, what hope do protestants - who historically have problems with ecclessiology as a whole - have at all?

    I find myself amazed that those of us who come out of Duke end up staying Methodist at all. I fear that, if I had the courage of my convictions, I'd simply become Orthodox or Catholic (but who wants to grow a long beard or be celibate, right?). Blessings,


  2. Drew,

    Don't you have a beard? :)

    I agree with you that Protestants are not the only ones guilty of remaining comfortable with visible disunity. But the fact that Catholic and Orthodox Christians remain ecumenically engaged in spite of their ecclesial self-understandings is significant (What are they missing, if anything?). As for the discussions between Catholics and Orthodox over which is the "true" church, you may be interested in this: http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2010/01/29/serbian-church-leader-breaks-with-past-invites-pope-to-belgrade/

    It seems to me, though, that the messy ecclesiology among Protestants (the one invisible church made up of many visibly divided churches) gives us even less of an excuse to be comfortable with disunity than Catholics and Orthodox, who have more robust, historical arguments for being defined as "the Church."

    From this messy Protestant perspective (my own), Methodism's "catholic Church" would have to be something new - a making visible of the "invisible" Church. That may include the Catholic Church (likely) or the Orthodox (unlikely), but it would have to involve a recognition of the gifts Methodism has to bring, and so it couldn't simply be the Catholic Church as it currently is, but a new catholic Church. A catholic Church that is able to receive all the gifts that Protestantism (and Orthodoxy) has to offer.


  3. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  4. Great first post, Paul. I look forward to following this blog.

    Next Monday (or whenever we end up Skyping), I want to talk with you a bit more about why you think unity is so important (and I know you do). Everyone ends up striking a balance of some sort between absolute loyalty to their perspective or convictions vs. seeking unity and approval with others, but the lines are often drawn in peculiar places.

    Miss you.

  5. Excited to read what you have to say, Paul!

  6. Let me just add another egg to the basket Mr. Brown.