The Wesley Pilgrimage: Walking the path of early Methodists
On Monday, July 11, 2016 a group of United Methodists will gather at Sarum College in Salisbury, England, from Nigeria, Liberia, and across the United States to participate in the 10th Wesley Pilgrimage in England. The 34 pilgrims and 4 leaders will walk where John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, and many other early Methodists lived, worshiped, served, prayed, and launched a movement that changed the church and the world.
The Pilgrimage, sponsored by United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, the General Commission on Archives and History, and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, began in 2003, the 300th anniversary of John Wesley’s birth.
Attendees visit significant, historic sites of the early Methodist movement, but they do not go simply to learn some facts, buy souvenirs, or snap cool photos. There are not tourists, but pilgrims.
The pilgrims travel to immerse themselves in the Christ-centered leadership of John and Charles Wesley; to learn, pray, and explore; to reflect, and to make connections between the Wesleyan heritage and missional leadership for today.
Bringing history to life
Walking the pathways of Oxford; seeing the font in which the Rev. Samuel Wesley baptized his sons John and Charles; visiting the homes of John and Charles Wesley and Bishop Francis Asbury’s cottage; and standing in the first Methodist building, which Wesley called the New Room, brings history to life.
“As [United] Methodists, we study John Wesley, we read his sermons, and we learn about what it means to be Wesleyan,” explains the Rev. Jody Topping, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona and a 2015 pilgrim. “But until we experienced the places he grew up and was engaged in ministry, his mission and his life were more theory than reality.”
The Rev. John Huff, newly-appointed pastor of Hagerstown (Indiana) First United Methodist Church agrees. “They weren’t just these mythical figures who changed the church and world, they were people too, dealing with personal stuff.” Huff continues, “Seeing how God worked in their lives reminded me that God can work in mine, and God can work in anyone’s life.”
That connection between the Methodist movement in 18th century England and what can happen in our lives today, is a critical takeaway for the pilgrims and feeds their spiritual lives.
The Rev. Kimberly Brumm, a 2011 pilgrim and pastor of Elkhorn-Bethel and Richmond United Methodist churches in Wisconsin, remembers the importance one specific place held for her. “Wesley's prayer room in his house convicted me to deepen my own prayer life,” she remembers nearly five years later, “which I continue to do.”
Learning the method
Along with seeing the sites, pilgrims receive teaching from experts in Methodist history and Wesleyan theology and practice. In 2016 the Rev. Paul Chilcote, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary, author, and ordained elder in the Indiana Annual Conference, will travel from the U.S. to be with the pilgrims, as will the Rev. Steven Manskar and the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, both of Discipleship Ministries.
English scholars will also teach the pilgrims. The Rev. Martin Wellings, a Wesley scholar and Superintendent Minister of the Oxford Methodist Circuit, and the Rev. Phil Meadows, Senior Research Fellow, Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, U.K. will share on the early days of Methodism. The Rev. Colin Smith, Superintendent of the Cambridge Circuit of the Methodist Church in Britain, will lead a walking tour of Wesley sites.
Worship is another important component of the Wesley Pilgrimage. Pilgrims begin each day with morning Eucharist, and close each day with a prayer service called compline. Pilgrims also worship at Salisbury Methodist Church, and attend evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
A new vision of ministry
The combination of the touring, teaching, worshiping, and sharing together as a team of pilgrims feeds individual spirits, but can also have wide-ranging effects for ministry.
Linda D. Flanagan, a 2013 pilgrim and a Lay Leader and District Director of Lay Servant Ministries in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, says, “The Pilgrimage experience led me to answer a call this year  to become a Certified Lay Minister in training!”
The Rev. Donnie Shumate Mitchem, a deacon in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference who serves as a psychologist at a public middle school, was a pilgrim in 2014. “As a Deacon, we are charged with taking church to the world, and connecting the church to the last, least and lost of the world. This trip,” Mitchem recalls, “made it clear how a life of personal and social holiness can be lived out.”
The Rev. Heather Scherer, a 2014 pilgrim and pastor of Living Water United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, found encouragement for her ministry as well. “As a new church planter, it has inspired my ministry to focus on being a mission-driven way of life rather than an event to attend.”
“Everything for me now is geared towards discipleship,” Huff adds. “We make disciples. We grow disciples. We send disciples.”
“We should be making disciples at the nursery; and we should be making disciples at the nursing home,” Huff continues. “No matter your age, if you have breath in your lungs, you can be made and grown into a disciple.”
If you can go… go!
Many former pilgrims wish every clergyperson could go on the trip. “I would encourage every minister to take this trip,” Scherer says.
Yet pilgrims are aware that the cost can be prohibitive.
“I really hope that bishops, cabinets, and BOOMs,” Huff says, referring to boards of ordained ministry,
“allocate funds to support this great, great ministry for clergy and laity.”
Mitchem agrees, “If you can go on this pilgrimage, go. You'll be a better follower or Christ for it.”
Joe Iovino and Kathleen Barry of United Methodist Communications will be 2016 pilgrims. Joe plans to blog through the journey here: Blogs posts by Joe Iovino.