The Character of a Methodist
By Rev Terry Wall
Around the world this year the heirs of John Wesley's preaching will celebrate the tercentenary of his birth. There will be much comment of our indebtedness to him and exploration of his continuing inspiration in Methodist traditions.
Above all Wesley sought to renew the Church of England. He had experienced the grace of God in his own life. The change that this initiated was profoundly personal. He was known by God and loved by God. His response was to preach what he had discovered.
This essentially conservative clergyman found himself doing surprising things. Banned from increasing numbers of pulpits, he began preaching in fields and market places. He organised converts into classes for nurture, prayer and encouragement in the faith. He was even persuaded by his mother Susannah that lay people were called to preach.
It was not long before his evangelism showed signs of success. He had set out on his itinerant ministry to all parts of Britain. Inclement weather, poor roads and hostile receptions could not deter him. Nor was he discouraged by adverse reaction to his teaching on assurance and perfection.
By 1742 John Wesley felt it necessary to defend his approach to Christian faith. He wrote an eight page tract entitled The Character of a Methodist. He was at pains to explain just exactly what it meant to be a Methodist. The tract went through nineteen printings and was designed to respond to criticism.
It is here that he states in the first printing that the name Methodist was "one fixed upon them by way of reproach, without their approbation or consent. It was first given to three or four young men at Oxford, by Mr John Bingham, then student at Christ Church." Wesley comments that he would rejoice if the name were never mentioned again, but conceding that was unlikely, he says "at least let those who will use it, know the meaning of the word."
In Wesley's thought there is a great difference between essential doctrines and opinions. For him the essential doctrines of Christian faith were creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, salvation through Christ and the trinity. These he took for granted as the inheritance of the church. Opinions had to do with manner of worship, language, customs and actions.
In The Character of a Methodist Wesley insists that a Methodist is not distinguished by their opinions. There is room for a variety of opinions within the church that do not undermine essential doctrines. Indeed he makes a plea that "we be not 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." Methodist ethos has been characterized by this freedom of opinion.
The main body of the tract is a simple outline of the Christian life. It has deep roots in scripture. The Methodist is one who "has the love of God shed abroad in their heart." The "Spirit bears witness that they are a child of God." Thanksgiving is central and they "pray without ceasing." Methodists are "pure in heart," and their "heart is full of love." They desire to keep the commandments and not do their own will, but the will of God. The Methodist does good to "neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies." All this is done to the glory of God.
Wesley is conscious that this is an ideal and he appends to the first printing of the tract Phil 3:12 "Not that I have already attained this or am already perfect..." The character of a Methodist is the ideal to which we aspire and is realized to varying degrees. "From real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all."
Wesley's contribution to our life today lies especially in the field of spirituality. Wesleyan spirituality is primarily about the dynamic of transformation. He rediscovered the work of the Holy Spirit - transforming hearts, and the heart of society. What does it mean to be in this spiritual tradition today ? Perhaps we could say that to be Methodist is to be prepared to do the heart-work, the soul-work with the Spirit of God.