by Chris Ritter
In spite of the Lock-Down, deliberate work is being done behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a new Methodism. This work ranges from the theoretical to the extremely mundane and practical. Assembled in March, a Transitional Leadership Council comprised of bishops, clergy and laity has been meeting weekly and, I am told, has endorsed the work done by the the Wesleyan Covenant Association on the shape and scope of Methodist doctrinal standards. This is good news for all who have longed for a doctrinal renewal of the church.
The most prominent feature of the doctrinal work is a layered approach designed to fix a very muddy treatment of doctrine that has bedeviled the United Methodism. The UMC, as you may know, has a collection of doctrinal standards that includes The Methodist Articles of Faith, the EUB Confession of Faith, the Standard Sermons of Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, and the General Rules of the United Societies. There was no effort to create a hierarchy within these widely diverse sources. They were more or less placed under glass like copies of the Magna Carta.
The theological energy at the time of the UMC merger was focused instead on the “Our Theological Task” Document that was approved at the 1972 General Conference. It provided a method for arriving at theological truth that included the interplay of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience…the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But there is not much of Wesley in it. It has been long criticized as sort of a “grab bag” approach to doctrine wherein the church could pretty much arrive at any desired conclusion. Our current struggles in the church are a testimony to its practical uselessness in group discernment.
The emerging new Methodism proposes to dig back into the sources of Methodist theology to recover our identity and focus.
The draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline aims to fix our theological malaise by first bringing new prominence to the historic creeds of the Christian faith. After a statement on Scripture, the standards list Foundational Documents: the Apostles’ Creed, the Western version of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon on the person and natures of Christ.
The UMC Book of Discipline makes scant mention of the creeds as part of our larger doctrinal heritage and even goes so far as to say they should not be set apart “as absolute standards for doctrinal truth and error.” (Par. 103). Actually, that is exactly what the creeds are there to do. They define the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy and this re-articulation of our doctrinal standards restores that vital function.
An effort at GC2016 to insert the Nicene Creed as a doctrinal standard, presumably to shore up sagging Christology in the UMC, failed to achieve the high margin required. The new standards make it clear that the next Methodism views these creedal statements as essential and foundational for all Christians. We let the creeds do what they are designed to do… describe what all Christians everywhere have always believed. As ecumenical documents, these first-order doctrinal standards are not open to amendment by Methodists.
Beneath (or above?) the Foundational Documents we have “Constitutive Standards”… meaning the doctrines that define our particular expression of church. These are the Methodist Articles of Faith and the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. More detailed than the creeds, these documents flesh out key understandings of scriptural faith. The Methodist Articles of Faith are an abridgment of the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith of Anglicanism prepared by Wesley for the American Methodists as they became a church. As such they are not distinctively “Wesleyan,” but rather represent the accepted doctrines with which Methodist preaching/teaching should never find disharmony.
The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church has clear advantages over the Methodist Articles of Faith. It received helpful refinements over the years. The Confession was last edited in 1963 whereas the Articles are in much the same form as handed down by Wesley in 1784. Originally based on the Methodist Articles, the Confession (rightly, I think) removed several polemical articles against Catholicism. It incorporates some nice features from the great Protestant confessions related to the Last Judgement and Holiness. The four great marks of the Church are articulated from the Nicene Creed (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic).
The language of “Constitutive Standards” is new. It seems that David Watson and Scott Kisker at United Theological Seminary worked out this particular language to distinguish between what all Christians must believe and the more particular understanding of the Christian faith espoused by our church. The intention is for the new church, once formed, to name a commission to meld the Articles of Faith and Confession of Faith into a single document in accessible language. It is hoped that this will be a great catechetical tool for the church.
But this will be a herculean task. The UMC made no effort at updating or reconciling these two documents and instead made them both museum pieces. It locked them under a restrictive rule that said they could not be changed… and then summarily ignored them. So the new church, when formed, will revisit language that has not been touched in our lifetimes to describe what it is we actually believe. That will be a fascinating and important process. After their adoption it will take a 75% vote of General Conference with ratification by the same margin in the annual conferences to amend them.
Normative Wesleyan Standards
The next layer of Doctrine is the “Normative Wesleyan Standards.” These are the Standard Sermons of John Wesley and his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. The history of these documents is that they first appeared as standards in the “Model Deed” that Wesley attached to all the properties held in his name (an early Trust Clause). He wanted to make sure the Methodist Meeting Houses would be places where the faith was expounding in harmony with his particular movement. There were Calvinistic Methodists around who were known to try to take over Methodist Societies. So these standards define the rightful heirs of Wesley. It is right, I think, to list these sources as a separate category from the creeds or the constitutive standards.
There are Methodist/Wesleyan clergy living who had to memorize certain sermons of Wesley as part of their ordination process. Most United Methodist clergy have never read them. Unlike the UMC, the new church will take the trouble of actually listing by title the forty-four sermons that are considered standards of Methodist teaching.
Kevin Watson has been writing recently on the “grand depositum” that is Methodism’s conception of sanctification. The Normative Wesleyan Standard are where we will locate the unique contributions of Wesley to theology and celebrate our peculiar distinctives within the larger Body of Christ. Hopefully this will trigger additional work to unpack and apply Wesleyan theology to our varied global ministry contexts.
The General Rules
The doctrinal standards technically end with the Normative Wesleyan Standards. But the larger doctrinal section continues by including the “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies.” These General Rules have always been included in Methodist lists of doctrine and are protected by restrictive rules. But the General Rules are problematic, both in their original language and in more recent efforts to make them relevant. The document is partly a historical statement on the roots of the movement and partly a list of rules that Methodists should follow.
We need to first admit that we do not, as a church, maintain the General Rules. I only know of one United Methodist Church that does not sell books and other items on Sunday. Most of us visit restaurants after church. Those of us who choose not to imbibe are an extreme minority in any gathering… UMC, WCA or otherwise. Much to our shame, we do not have a robust system of Methodist class meetings. We wear gold. We watch Netflix and participate in other “entertainments” that does not tend to the glory of God. If the General Rules are a standard, Methodists have not been meeting that standard for some time… or even trying to do so. Keeping as a standard something to which we are not at least aspiring, I believe, tends to degrade all other statements we make.
Bishop Rueben Job attempted to rescue the General Rules by generalizing them into Three Simple Rules: “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” In doing so, I think he defeated the actual intent of the document and how it was supposed to function for Methodists. Job’s “Simple Rules” are nice, smooth and hard to argue against. But they don’t define Methodism. They actually have the opposite effect… reducing Methodism to something a Unitarian or pious Muslim might espouse.
The power (and problem) of the original General Rules is their specificity. The sins listed that Methodists should avoid are “churchy” sins… things too-often tolerated in Anglicanism that were not to be tolerated among Methodists. The General Rules are a declaration of our peculiarity. Universalizing them into laudable principles defeats their very purpose.
The General Rules ideally function as a description of how we Methodists are to live. This is our particular version of orthopraxy that accompanies our orthodoxy. There have been other attempts. In 1908 General Conference of the MEC adopted a “Social Creed” that listed a Methodist response to the labor conditions of the day. When reading the original Social Creed, there is no mistaking it for a doctrinal statement. It was something much more akin to our Social Principles, offering no theological justifications other than the Golden Rule. Today’s Social Creed (largely ignored) attempts (unhelpfully) to mimic the form of the historic creeds.
I would like to see the new church take a swipe at bifurcating the Methodist Rules by teasing out a historical statement that honors the genius of original Methodism. This statement should sit alongside a companion piece that distills out a call to social holiness for today. Otherwise, we insult the document by including it. For now, the tension is managed by placing it as its own category.
Liturgical Norms and Guidelines
Wesley sent over with Thomas Coke a document called “The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America.” It was an abridgment of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The new Methodism seeks to rightly identify worship resources as doctrinal standards by including the category “Liturgical Norms and Guidelines.” Unlike some other layers, this section is not protected by a restrictive rule other than 2/3 passage at General Conference.
This section is a place for the church to reference its rites and rituals for Sunday Worship, Holy Communion, Baptism, Ordination, and Covenant Renewal. The Methodist theology that we are most familiar with is that contained in our Wesleyan hymns, so it is most appropriate this section will include a recommended collections of hymns and songs. Here we might also reference church-wide statements on Communion and Baptism.
The final layer is a mere placeholder for a new “Our Theological Task” to be written by a commission formed by the new church. No attempt is made to describe what this statement might include. I will be fine if this category is eventually eliminated, but some feel it would be healthy to articulate how the new church intends to approach theology.
All totaled, this creates a potential six layers of doctrine and theology. More importantly, it is a genuine effort to clarify the theological sources and standards of Methodists.
Methodist identity cannot be completely captured by doctrinal statements. In “The Way of the Kingdom,” Wesley posits that a person could be “almost as orthodox as the devil . . . and may, all the while be as great a stranger as to the religion of the heart.” Wesley saw himself as a purveyor of nothing less than primitive Christianity, the faith of the early church. He ministered in a day when people formally claimed the faith of the Church but lived far from God. His movement was a movement of the heart and affections. Our generation faces both a doctrinal crisis as well as a crisis of the heart. The serious grappling done to bring this fresh articulation of doctrine should prove most helpful on the road ahead.