Celebrating Wesleyan Treasures and Rooting for United Methodists to Continue Offering Them

Reading Sarah Lancaster’s insightful overview of Wesleyanism and keeping in mind its United Methodist denominational expressions took me back to when it was my responsibility to articulate overlaps between Mennonite and United Methodist teachings and values. The United Methodist University Senate oversees UM higher education, including in non-UM institutions it approves to teach UM students. To maintain the Eastern Mennonite Seminary UM Senate approval for further quadrennials, as seminary dean I needed to validate, on behalf of our students and faculty, that EMS adequately understood United Methodism and was prepared to teach and form UM students accordingly.

I was struck at the time, and now in reading Lancaster, that there are indeed significant commonalities. A key one is the overlap between the Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on discipleship and the Wesleyan emphasis on scriptural holiness along with the growth in holiness summarized through sanctification. There are variations in the details (particularly the Anabaptist grounding in believers baptism versus the Methodist affirmation of infant baptism), yet discipleship and sanctification both involve living faithfully for Jesus and not simply articulating doctrines or believing this or that.

This is communally expressed for both traditions. As Lancaster puts it, “Following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” And if holiness is not individualistic but public, this in turn leads to what Lancaster calls “social holiness.” In Wesley’s day as in ours, this can lead to opposing slavery, racism, oppression, alcohol production that leads to grain shortages for the poor, and so forth.

As I learned during my seminary dean days, it has also led to the “Social Principles” of the United Methodist Church. The fact that UM student numbers at EMS were second only to Mennonites made sense as I learned, for example, that both the United Methodists and Mennonites are committed to peacebuilding and principles of social justice. Both traditions take seriously the way of peace taught in the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus who stressed love of enemies.

As the UM 2016 version of the UM Book of Discipline affirms in relation to Social Principles: The World Community,

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict

Throughout my reading of the Social Principles, I’m struck that again and again Mennonites would say amen to the UM social principles related to the natural world, the nurturing community, the social community, the economic community, the political community, the world community. This includes resonating with the UM position on the separation of church and state, a principle dear to many Anabaptist-Mennonites, and affirming, with the UM Social Principle on the Political Community,  “the diversity of religious expressions and the freedom to worship God according to each person’s conscience.”

If amid occasional differences in details and emphasis, many Anabaptist-Mennonites will resonate with the UM Social Creed and its celebrations of God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, natural world as God’s handiwork, the rights of all, the rights and duties of workers amid “elimination of economic and social distress,” and more. Affirmations in response to Lancaster and such principles could go on and on. If anything as a Mennonite I feel a hint of chastening as I encounter the sheer comprehensiveness with which United Methodists address social issues and UM faith commitments.

Yet that does not exhaust United Methodism. Lancaster also highlights effectively the suppleness of a Wesleyan ethos that can catalyze such significant social thought yet also encompass “seeking emotional experiences of God in prayer and worship.” She helps us integrate social principles with John Wesley’s famous and memorable journal testimony that as he was listening to a reading of Luther’s Preface to the epistle to the Romans,

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. . . .

This also overlaps with Christopher Gehrz’s thoughts on the Pietist influence across multiple traditions.

There was one area in which I wished for Lawrence’s fuller exploration. She does observe that “There have been divisions over various matters, such as race and slavery, lay rights, women’s ordination, etc. (and we face division now over LGBTQ+ issues), but none of these ‘various views’ are distinctive to Wesleyans.”

There she lets things rest, perhaps understandably and deliberately so. To wade into such matters is to find all too little rest and perhaps often to muddy core convictions. It can be a challenge indeed, for example, to maintain communal commitments as polarizations related to “LGBTQ+ issues” threaten to shred community, at least at the formal denominational level. And Lancaster is understandably aiming to speak not only for United Methodism but also more broadly for a Wesleyanism expressed in but not limited to the UM denominational manifestions.

Yet fragmentation is affecting so many of our traditions, very much including Anabaptist-Mennonite as I earlier touched on. In addition, the UM battles related to LGBTQ+ denominational positions seem to involve significant intertwining with Wesleyan emphases on holiness, perfection, social creeds. When such core teachings confront the acids of controversies in which alternative views of sin and right living are in play, how do they fare? It would be valuable to learn more about how Lancaster sees United Methodists continuing to offer the treasures of Wesleyanism while confronting intense denominational factionalisms.

During my days as seminary dean, such denominational dynamics were omnipresent for both Mennonites involved in Mennonite Church USA and for United Methodists. Several times UM leaders provided resources to the EMS community based on UM dynamics that were not identical to Mennonite ones, given polity variations, yet involved overlapping complexities and sufferings still working their way through both denominations.

Mennonite Church USA is in the final stages of preparing for a May 2022 special delegate session that could “retire” or embrace several resolutions affecting LGBTQ-related denominational positions.  And as of this spring, even such a general-audience, non-theological source as USA Today was stirred to report, for instance, that a new Global Methodist Church would split from the UM Church by May and that

The new denomination announced its plans on the same day the UMC postponed its General Conference for the third time, this time until 2024. Delegates were expected to vote on proposals regarding the creation of a new denomination at the General Conference on Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis.

I certainly don’t propose that such developments invalidate Lancaster’s overview. But as an Anabaptist-Mennonite who has experienced the challenges of maintaining communal commitments when divisions erode denominations’ ability to gather around core understandings and practices, I will continue to watch with interest and concern how the United Methodist Church navigates such shoals.

And I’ll be rooting, Sarah Lancaster, for the various wings of the United Methodist Church, whether still officially part of one “United” denomination or fragments of what once was, to continue to offer us what you summarize in your memorable conclusion:

In the Wesleyan tradition, following Jesus means being a child of God and living appropriately in that relationship. However differently holiness may be conceived, it is a common conviction that God empowers us to live in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may work with God in God’s intention to restore the world to what God created us to be.