The Source of Methodist Coherence: Method
The odd thing about discussions of united Methodist unity is the extent to which they avoid talking about what really unites the Methodist movement.
On one hand we have the Wesley Covenant Association and its proposed new denomination. You just have to read the proposed “Discipline” to see that they have reinvented the Wesleyan tradition as generic southern evangelicalism. The historical features of southern Methodism - a high liturgy and powerful bishops, is absent. What we have is a low liturgical tradition, weak bishops, and effective congregationalism.
Progressives on the other hand have reinvented the Wesleyan tradition as generic American social activism. If there is outrage on MSNBC they are on it and if there is a protest march they are in it. Even if it is a theologically complex issue; euthanasia, abortion, undocumented migration, they take a stand because that's what social activists do.
In my view only the centrists have preserved something that is distinctly Wesleyan and Methodist. And even for them it seems an accidental byproduct of their focus on inclusion and their adherence to an essentially conservative ecclesial mind.
But of course they, like the WCA, like the Progressives, all believe they are simply being faithful to their heritage. But what is that heritage really?
What is distinctive about Methodism is hardly in its widely shared confessions of faith and articles of religion. And while Wesley's standard sermons and notes on the New Testament are distinctly Wesleyan they are hardly operative in the day to day life of our churches. How many pastors consult Wesley rather than a modern commentary? Nor is it the concept of “social holiness” distinctive. It is a concept found across English reform movements in Wesley’s day. Everyone from Brethren to Baptists to socially conscious Anglicans could have signed on.
What is distinctly Wesleyan and Methodist is Wesley’s method of evangelism and Christian nurture, as well as the organization that supported it. It is the General Rules and the structural framework created by Wesley in which they were operative. This is where Wesley was unique, and pioneered something distinctive and new. It is this that distinguished his work from Whitfield's "rope of sand."
It is our itinerant ministry, our careful institutionalization of the balance between congregation’s unique needs and the goals of the larger movement, and a system of conferences that combines personal responsibility, democratic goal setting, and shared commitment to joint ministries that both make us distinctive AND provides the basis for our unity.
This isn’t merely clear from our history. We have seen it in the last year. When faced with a breakdown of this system as a source of unity and an effort to replace it with agreed dogmas and moral codes the Central Conference rethought their commitment to their Methodist heritage. They made it clear, from Europe to Africa to the Philippines that they wanted the General Conference to maintain the mission and structure of Methodism; the so-called “connectional system.” And they wanted it more than they wished a new denomination based on doctrinal and ethical purity.
They, and we, should never have allowed ourselves to be faced with this choice. Instead of being slowly gulled into arguments about orthodoxy and antinomianism we should have focused on the pragmatic core of Methodism: building and maintaining the best methods and structures to evangelize the world and nurture disciples. It is Method that we inherited from Wesley, and that Method remains as relevant today as it always has. And it is in that Method that we can and should find our coherence.