Between Evangelical and Episcopalian

Because Randall Balmer traces his personal journey from Evangelical to Episcopalian, I must explore the odd position Wesleyan Methodism holds between those two poles. On the one hand, John and Charles Wesley were both priests in the Church of England. They never left but rather often defended their place (and the place of Methodism) in the Church of England. John Wesley organized religious societies, which were already used in the Church of England. He did introduce some features that were different from other Anglican religious societies, but he saw Methodism as operating within the Church of England rather than in competition with it.


On the other hand John Wesley was part of the “evangelical” revival. What he hoped for was that Christians in England would be awakened by the Holy Spirit to “true religion,” which he explains in one sermon as “right tempers towards God and man” also stated as “gratitude to our Creator” and “benevolence to our fellow creatures” (in “The Unity of the Divine Being”). He could use the word “evangelical” (in “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption”) to describe the spiritual state of those who have been born of God, that is, aware of God’s forgiveness which opens a new way of being in the world (knowing God’s love and so able to do God’s will in love). This is not the “evangelicalism” Randall knew in his youth, and the Methodism that followed after Wesley, especially in North America, contributed to the features he highlights in his own past.


I once served on the Anglican-Methodist International Commission for Unity in Mission (AMICUM) and an Episcopalian historian spoke with us about the history of Episcopalians and Methodists in North America. He pointed out how the War for Independence left many Christians in the former colonies cut off from ecclesial life because of no longer having connection to the Church of England. From this situation came both the Methodist churches and the Episcopal Church. After having failed to find a bishop who would ordain Methodists, John Wesley took the extraordinary step of ordaining preachers himself (he felt justified in this action both because of the emergency situation and because he believed there was precedent in the early church for presbyters to ordain other presbyters–his brother Charles felt differently about the extraordinary step John took). Those who became Episcopalians finally found a bishop willing to ordain on their behalf. This early difference in responding to this situation may indicate something about the priorities each tradition has in following Jesus. Methodists felt urgency in the need to spread scriptural holiness (and indeed this need had already led to irregular practices in England such as field preaching and using lay preachers). Perhaps those who became Episcopalian felt a greater need for maintaining proper liturgy and sacraments.


This willingness of Methodism to innovate with an eye toward what works in the culture must have set the stage for the evangelicalism Randall left behind for Episcopalian liturgy and sacramentalism. However, as historian Richard Heitzenrater has pointed out, John Wesley conceived the church that Methodism needed to become in North America after the model of the Church of England. He sent to the former colonists a modified version (24 articles, some with editing) of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and a Sunday Service (modeled on the Book of Common Prayer). They already had many of Wesley’s own sermons as patterns for preaching (similar to the Book of Homilies). Despite Wesley’s own intended model, the newly forming Methodist Episcopal Church was far enough in distance from Wesley (also he was near the end of his life) and it existed in circumstances so different from England that it developed more in “conversation” with the other churches in North America than it did under his guidance.


Methodism did not arise in England because of matters of doctrine but rather as a revival movement. The splits that eventually took place within Methodism in North America were not typically over specifically theological questions but rather over matters of race, lay participation, and slavery (of course all these issues matter theologically, but official doctrine as stated in the Articles of Religion was not under debate). Methodists have not been known as a church that cared much about doctrine. Even among Methodists John Wesley was not thought of much as being a theologian but rather for his evangelistic and organizational skills. What we shared as Wesleyan Methodists was emphasis on a living faith rooted in personal experience of Jesus Christ, so following Jesus involved having that personal experience. When I was growing up in The Methodist Church any “logic chopping” I knew arose in connection with understanding what kind of personal experience was a valid experience of being born of God rather than from a desire to have tidy theological categories.


In recent years, the United Methodist Church has taken steps to reclaim the sacramental heritage that Wesley tried to bequeath. We have adopted official statements on baptism and Eucharist. These statements have been especially helpful in ecumenical dialogue with other churches (and I have referenced the World Methodist Council work in dialogue with the Catholic Church on Eucharist in my response to Christina Wassell). Worship practices, though, vary a great deal from one congregation to another.


It also should be said that in recent years, those who identify as “evangelicals” within Methodism have been inclined in the direction that Randall describes. This group also claims to be more “Wesleyan” and “traditional.” I could not, though, characterize all Wesleyan Methodism as “evangelical” in the sense Randall uses it. In fact my own United Methodist Church is facing a possible split primarily over LGBTQ+ issues, but behind that topic lie differences in how to understand the Bible, the role of doctrine, etc. So it may be that a more clearly “evangelical” form of Methodism as Randall understands it will emerge.

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