What's Distinctive About Methodism?
Living a holy life
The longing for holiness is not about wanting to be 'holier than thou'. It is about wanting the love of God to permeate all of our life, and for that love to be shown through our lives to other people.
God gives us the Holy Spirit, and when we respond, there is no limit to what the grace of God is able to do in a human life. John Wesley taught about 'Christian perfection.' He believed that a mature Christian can reach a state where the love of God reigns supreme in our heart. We can't be perfect in an absolute way, as God is. But we can be made perfect in love.
However we do not become holy all on our own. Methodists believe in what John Wesley called 'social holiness'. It is vital to meet and worship with other Christians in order to grow in the Christian life and to understand what is God's will for us and for our community.
The Methodist movement began in the eighteenth century when John and Charles Wesley got together with like-minded friends in Oxford to meet regularly for prayer, Bible study and Holy Communion, and to visit prisons and workhouses. It was called the Holy Club.
Holiness is not just about personal spirituality and prayer. It will also be expressed through a commitment to social justice and to enabling other people to become followers of Jesus.
A covenant with God
'I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.'
Methodists hold an annual Covenant Service, at which we celebrate all that God has done for us, and affirm that we give our lives and choices to God.
Most churches hold the service in the New Year, but some hold them in September, at the beginning of the Methodist year.
The traditional Covenant prayer (shown above) makes it very clear that this affirmation is a serious one that embraces the whole of our life, in all its parts. Most people find it quite tough to say, and really mean it. But the prayer is so central to the Christian life that other Churches have also adopted it.
In our culture we tend to prize our ability to make decisions and choose our own path in life. It can feel very hard to give that up. But this prayer is like a love poem. It is about surrendering to God in love and joy.
The Methodist quadrilateral
Methodists traditionally use a fourfold approach to learn about our Christian faith and apply it to contemporary issues and to our Christian practice:
We seek to discover the word of God through reading the Bible. There are different understandings among Methodists about the Bible's authority in our lives. We need to use resources like different Bible translations, commentaries and Bible reading notes.
This is the wisdom and creativity of Christians over time and across the world. It includes inspirational material like hymns, songs, prayers, poetry, Christian art and devotional books,. There are also formally agreed teachings like the creeds, the content of the catechism, and statements and reports from the Methodist Conference.
We are called to love God with our minds as well as with our hearts. To the best of our ability we need to think things through in the light of reason. This means becoming aware of different points of view, and using our own critical thinking to make sense of God's world.
Methodism particularly stresses the importance of our own experience of God's grace working in our lives. We gain wisdom and maturity from life experience, especially when we pray and reflect about our story with other Christians.
Living the Christian life
Living as a Christian means much more than going to church. It involves a life-long journey to follow in Jesus' steps. This will mean trying to apply what we know of God through Jesus to all the different aspects of our life, and make choices in life based on this rather than just our self-interest.
The Methodist Church is still organised in a methodical way using many of the structures introduced by its founder, John Wesley. However, the Church is quite pragmatic, and is willing to make changes where they seem desirable.
Structures are there to enable decision making that takes account of all concerns and views within the Church. No one is given supreme authority – consultation is vital. At the same time, churches cannot simply arrange their own affairs, but have some shared disciplines and ways of working.
Methodists are linked together in a ‘Connexion’ of churches, circuits and districts.
The Local Church
The local church is the congregational place of worship, where Methodist members and attenders are nurtured.
A circuit is a group of local churches, served by a team of local preachers and ministers including the superintendent minister.
The district serves a geographical group of circuits and is led by the district chair.
The annual Methodist Conference meets in different places and is the supreme decision making body of the Church. At the start of Conference a new President and Vice-President are appointed to preside over that Conference and spend the year travelling around the Connexion, and abroad representing the Methodist Church.