By Ryan N. Danker
October 29, 2021
There’s a t-shirt that I’ve always been tempted to purchase with an image of the Wesley brothers and the words “John and Charles Wesley were Anglicans” clearly printed below it. I’m not sure it would be a popular t-shirt at United Methodist Church annual conference meetings, but the claim is a simple historical fact. Both of the brothers lived and died within the Church of England. They never left it.
In fact, they were never censured for their activities, even as many of those activities – like setting up a system of societies and class meetings – were clearly illegal. The closest they ever came to official censure was when the brothers were called into the office of the Bishop of London, then held by church law expert Edmund Gibson, who when he heard what they were preaching, simply encouraged them to carry on, even if they needed to be careful not to push too far.
After the death of the Wesley brothers, Charles in 1788 and John in 1791, Methodism – or most of it – was on a path toward independence from the church that had given it birth. There are many reasons for this and we don’t have space for that here, but after the 1790s in America and the 1850s in Britain, Methodism was on its own. But the imprint of Anglicanism remains.
There are many ways to see this imprint but I will highlight three that have practical impact on Wesleyans today. These include our understanding of grace, holiness, and Holy Communion.
Grace Methodists are often accused of talking about grace at every opportunity. And the accusation is accurate. But what is grace? We often talk about it without defining the term. Wesley has a wonderfully short definition: “grace is the power of the Holy Spirit.” But this view is not uniquely Wesleyan. He learned about this transforming, active power by praying Morning and Evening Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer, the official liturgy of the Church of England. The “office,” as it is called, includes a prayer titled the “Collect for Grace” and yet the word grace is never used in the prayer. Instead, it provides synonyms: God’s “mighty power” and His “governance.” The result of this grace is that “this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger” but that our lives may be “ordered” to God’s intention for us. It’s a beautiful prayer. And it provided Wesley with the active, transformative, Spirit-affected definition of grace that we see in his preaching and ministry.
Holiness Because God’s grace is active, transformative, and even best understood as an intentional repercussion of God’s presence in our lives, we believe in holiness. We believe, as the Wesleys taught, that God wants to make us whole, to be fully human, i.e. to be Christlike. And while some have searched high and low to find where Wesley was inspired to preach holiness, they need look no further than his own Church of England.
Within Anglicanism there is a rich tradition of holiness preaching and teaching, in addition to the Book of Common Prayer. A useful source for this is an anthology edited by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams, Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (2001). I often use this book with short snippets from many centuries of faithful Anglican believers for my daily devotions. What you can see in this broader survey is that the Wesleys may have had some unique emphases in their understanding of holiness, but that the emphasis on Christ as the pattern for holiness, of grace as the fuel, so to speak, for a holy life, and the emphasis on renewing the Image of God in fallen humanity all come from the Anglican tradition – and sometimes from the ancient Church Fathers as read by Anglican thinkers later. Holiness is dynamic, holistic, and Christ-shaped. This is all very Anglican and subsequently very Wesleyan.
Holy Communion Finally, a brief discussion of Holy Communion. I plan to write another article later on Wesley and Holy Communion, but for this article I want to highlight the continuity between the Wesley brothers’ teachings and the teachings of the Church of England. The Wesleys were part of a movement within the Church of England to have more regular celebration of communion. John Wesley had it on average once every four days throughout his life.
For Wesley, communion was the “grand channel” of God’s grace. Communion and holiness go together. But his teachings were the teachings of the Church of England, including a firm conviction that Christ is made present to the believer in communion while at the same time acknowledging that we cannot explain precisely how Christ is made present to us through something as simple as bread and wine. Anglican theology embraces the mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacraments, an extension, one might say, of Christ’s presence with us in the Incarnation. The God revealed in Jesus loves the tangible! Wesley believed, with the Church, that this holy encounter was a transforming gift of God’s grace, that it needed to be taken with both reverence and joy, and that it was part of the ordained ministry of presbyters (i.e. elders). Like so many other Anglican thinkers, we find the Wesley brothers’ thought on this subject in practical forms like sermons and hymns. Communion isn’t an academic exercise. It is the heart of Christian worship.
There are many other ways that the Wesleys and their formation within Anglicanism continue to influence Methodism, from the liturgies we use, the hymns we sing, and even the ordering of bishops, presbyters, and deacons – the ancient church understood through the practice of the English Church. And for Wesleyans today, this means we have a rich theological heritage that extends well beyond the Wesleys – our family is much bigger! And this is a heritage, and a family, we can be thankful to be a part.
Dr. Ryan Danker is the President of the Charles Wesley Society in Washington, D.C.
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