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Jim's Column

The Weight of Religion

Dr Jim StuartBy Dr Jim Stuart

Throughout his ministry John Wesley faced unrelenting criticism because of his unorthodox ways. Church leaders said he was distorting Christian truths, engaging in ecclesiastical disobedience and instigating schism.

Dr Richard Smalbroke, Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, called Wesley an "enthusiast" and claimed Wesley was encouraging Methodists to break the law of the land. Edward Gibson, Bishop of London circulated a pamphlet entitled Observations upon the conduct and behaviour of a certain sect usually distinguished by the name of Methodists. He levelled three charges against Wesley and his lay preachers:

1. "They open and establish places of worship;

2. They are so bold as to preach in the fields;

3. And by public advertisements they invite the rabble to be their hearers."

All of this, argued Gibson, was "quite irregular."

The full impact of these criticisms come to a head when Wesley and a band of his itinerant preachers went to Wednesbury, Staffordshire in 1743. There they encountered a mob that bayed for their blood and it was a miracle that they escaped with their lives.

This was not the only time that Wesley was in danger of losing his life. Later at Bolton, Rochdale, Hull, Falmouth, Cornwall and other towns throughout England, Wesley had to face the anger of mobs. He once remarked in his Journal that, "it was his rule, confirmed from long experience, always to look a mob in the face." (August 6, 1746).

During the last week the Methodist Conference gathered in Christchurch to conduct the business of the church. There were no mobs awaiting the delegates as they gathered, no pamphlets were circulated condemning the practices of the Methodists, and no one was criticising the Methodist Church for breaking the law. The delegates were left to conduct the business of the Church as they saw fit. They enjoyed the freedom of being together as a Conference for which Wesley and his band of itinerant preachers had risked their lives long ago.

However, in Wesley's day religion was a "weighty" matter whereas today religion in our society has been reduced to a private matter, the internal concerns of the church. The big issues that always have made religion weighty may have been mentioned at Conference, but if so, they were subservient to the internal matters of the Church. No headlines appeared in the Christchurch Press reporting the weighty and important matters the Methodists were discussing.

Weighty religion, religion that matters and makes a difference in people's lives, has always been controversial in any society. One wonders what might have happened if Conference had put aside the business of the Church and devoted the time to discuss and debate the weightier matters of religion such as the role of the Church in a pluralistic, globalised society or the role of religion as a perpetuator of violence or the need for inter-faith dialogue and understanding. Perhaps a bit of "creative chaos" and open debate might have injected new life and vitality into the people called Methodists.

Wesley once wrote in his apology for Methodism:

"We do not lay the main stress of our religion on any opinions, right or wrong; neither do we ever begin or willingly join in any dispute concerning them. The weight of all religion, we apprehend, rests on holiness of heart and life. And consequently wherever we come we press this with all our might."

Holiness of heart and life takes the weighty matters of life seriously, it gives religion its depth and meaning and it can make a significant contribution in this world. As Wesley learned by experience the purpose of the church is not to please its adherents but to transform them and through them bring healing and hope to the world. The apostle Paul called this the power of the Gospel. Wesley might have called it the weight of true religion. But whatever we call it, we can be sure that no society will be able to ignore it.

Jim Stuart 13 November 2002