Lord God, who didst inspire thy servants John and Charles Wesley with burning zeal for the sanctification of souls, and didst endow them with eloquence in speech and song: Kindle in thy Church, we beseech thee, such fervor, that those whose faith has cooled may be warmed, and that those who have not known thy Christ may turn to him and be saved; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– Collect for the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006.
Fathers John and Charles Wesley are interesting to say the least. They are fine examples of priests who strove to grow closer to God and empower others to do the same. This is made evident by their desire to build a community of believers in the Church of England that adhered to a strict interpretation of the Book of Common Prayer. If the Wesleys were alive today, they would be accused of being “fundamentalists” in the most negative of senses.
The conflict between the brothers (John’s ordaining of American “elders” against the wishes of Church authorities in England, and his brother Charles) is what ultimately lead to the founding of the Methodist denomination. I’ve often wondered about John’s action, was it just or not?
On one hand, he is a representative of the Church of England in the New World. He took the same ordination vows that I would take some 300+ years later: that we would adhere to the instruction of our Bishops. It is clear that John Wesley did not.
On the other hand, John Wesley has several communities of believers, those who need pastoral care and support. It is more than he or his brother Charles could handle. If the Church of England were to send more priests to the New World, that would have solved the problem. However, that did not to seem to be the case. The only feasible solution would have been to enlist lay leaders as “elders” to provide pastoral oversight in their absence.
I struggle with this story because I understand both the duty to the Church Universal and the duty to the local parish. However, I must admit, that I place a little more stock on the Church Universal than the local church. This may be shocking considering that I come from a Baptist background where local church autonomy is the law of the land. Even then, I agreed with that concept in principal. I believe the needs of the local congregation are important, but they are not important than the authority of the Universal Church.
I believe that this is what happening with the church today. We have priests who are succumbing to the pressures of the congregation and are violating the authority, history, tradition and scriptural interpretation of the Universal Church. This violation leads to the extreme liberal and conservative wings of the Church which leaves out a large segment of our society being un-churched. This segment are those, like myself, who don’t view the world in only black and white but rather some shades of grey. There are some issues that are black and white, but there are many that are grey.
With that said, I understand the situation in which John Wesley was in. However, I also understand the situation that Charles Wesley was in. In the end the priest must seek guidance from God, his clergy superiors, his colleagues and parishioners that have his and the congregations best interest at heart. Doing this and above all, trusting in God, will he avoid falling to the pressure of one segment of the church that alienates another.
– FR. JMH