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Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

Modeling Francis Asbury's glasses is the Rev. Robert J. Williams, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

Illustration of Thomas Coke. Dated July 6, 1789

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Does Methodism have a usable past?

Commentary by the Rev. Robert J. Williams
May 16, 2014

“If we neglect or refuse the invitation (to look into the windows of our past), we threaten to cut ourselves off from our genius, our mission, our rich contribution to the church catholic. Our history, our polity, our texts, our connectionalism — are these encumbrances from the past, barriers to effective mission, walls that entrap us? Or are they windows through which we see, with God’s guidance, a vision for our calling as a church?”

United Methodist historian Russell Richey poses these questions in his book, "Methodist Connectionalism: Historical Perspectives" (United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2009).

In the same volume, he writes: “More needful than such hindsight is a compelling vision for the future. … Memory, including the memory of our own tradition, constitutes an important source of Methodism’s self-understanding, a point reinforced in the (Book of) Discipline’s theological guidelines and its own appeal to history. We do need to be reminded of our forebears’ vision and their perplexities. That can be a stimulus for today’s ministry — but it will not suffice. History can inform but cannot provide the vision.”

Our history comes into focus this month as United Methodists observe Heritage Sunday (May 18). Our Book of Discipline states, “Heritage Sunday calls the Church to remember the past by committing itself to the continuing call of God.”

As we mark Heritage Sunday, the question comes to mind: Do we as United Methodists have a usable past?

Informing, inspiring — and indicting

Several personal experiences illustrate the value of a historical perspective:

  • When women were becoming clergy in the former Southern New Jersey Conference, much of the resistance was coming from women in the congregations. My wife was vice president of the district United Methodist Women, and I had just started graduate work at Drew University. We planned a program on the quest for ordination and clergy rights for women beginning with Barbara Heck on to Anna Oliver and to the present.
  • When a member of the pastor-parish relations committee in a church challenged my use of gender-inclusive language, I quoted the 1880 Book of Discipline about masculine pronouns and language.
  • After completing my dissertation, I addressed a predominantly African-American church about New Jersey Methodists and issues related to African Americans. I tried to offer the hope that persons were studying this history so that we would not forget the injustices. 

The past and present are closely intertwined, and Heritage Sunday calls us to reflect on those points of convergence in our own lives.

In 2014, the church is focusing on Thomas Coke, who, along with Francis Asbury, was the first American bishop of Methodism. The Commission on Archives and History has set the theme for Heritage Sunday 2014 as “The Church’s Heritage in Mission: Remembering the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Dr. Thomas Coke.”

Two centuries have not diminished the importance of Coke’s life to us today. He struggled with many of the same challenges we face, including tensions in the church and obstacles to evangelizing, and addressed social ills such as human trafficking.

The lives of Coke and those who have gone before us, and the journey of the Methodist movement itself, hold lessons and provide a framework for understanding our present and envisioning our future.

History can inform.  History always teaches that for any issue, it’s more complex than we think!  Every debate and issue today, including the global nature of the church, the study of ministry and the Four Areas of Focus, can be informed by knowledge of the past.

History can inspire.  I think of Methodists Alma Matthews and Kathryn Maurer welcoming the stranger at Ellis Island and Angel Island, respectively, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It certainly relates to debates about immigration and powerfully illustrates ministry with the poor.

History can indict. This text from Isaiah can encourage us to write down what is happening, but the text goes on to states its purpose as reminding future generations about the sinfulness of those who were creating the record. In Isaiah 30:8-9 we read, “Go now, write it before them on a tablet, and inscribe it in a book, so that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever, for they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord.”

We regret the slow willingness to allow women to have full clergy rights, the reality of the Central Jurisdiction, the treatment of other racial/ethnic groups. I have had interest in the appointment record of Col. John Milton Chivington, a Methodist who led the massacre of Native Americans at Sand Creek 150 years ago. He was located at the time but still a prominent figure in the Methodist Episcopal Church and later readmitted on trial in the Nebraska Conference. 

Concerns and questions

We are concerned about what it means if we don’t claim our history in shaping the church. What is the work to be accomplished? What values do we want to take into the 21st century from our history? What will help the church attract new disciples?

We might ask what the church would look like through Francis Asbury’s glasses or what would John Wesley say to today’s church. Near the end of his biography of Asbury, titled "American Saint," John Wigger quotes an 1808 letter from Asbury to Thomas Coke. In it, Asbury writes that “managing the appointments of all the circuit preachers ‘may possibly be my martyrdom. I see, I feel what is wrong in preachers and people, but I cannot make it right.’”

These words hold relevance for us today as well.

United Methodist theologian Albert Outler said, “I’m not interested in Wesley, I’m interested in the same things Wesley was interested in.”

That speaks to my interest in the life and ministry of both John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. The Wesleys were interested in faith and in living that faith. I am interested in that as well.

John’s spiritual autobiography informs my own spiritual experiences. His insights into the experience of salvation can still speak to 21st century persons.

Charles’ hymns have a theological depth and experiential power that we will lose at our peril if we don’t sing them alongside the current music and there are fresh tunes available.

Applying perspective today

Issues that we are facing or have dealt with recently as a denomination could benefit from a historical perspective. For example:

Local church

            The debate on worship formats and style of music 

            Use of bulletins versus projection on screens

            How the local church can address social issues 

            The place and leadership of the laity and use of local preachers

Annual conference

            Merger of the conferences and the impact of the size of conferences on mission

            Guaranteed appointment and the role of the clergy session 

General church

            Set-aside bishop as president of the Council of Bishops

            Change in agency structure as proposed in 2012 by the Call to Action

            World Wide Nature of the Church as developed through the missionary movement and                             the development of central conferences

United Methodists do have a usable past. The past becomes even more relevant to us through the act of remembering. Scripture emphasizes the importance of this, with Jeremiah 6:16 offering one of many examples: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

Perhaps the most important word about memory is said when we take the bread and cup as part of the Lord’s Supper, for Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The “ministry of memory” shapes us, informs and inspires our mission, and creates a vision for discipleship.  In spite of the pieces of our past that we would want to reform or repudiate, I still say with the Psalmist (Psalm 16:6b), “I have a goodly heritage.”

*Williams is top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

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