Rev Norman Goreham
Historically‚ Methodism came into existence on a ticket of inner religion‚ a religion of the heart.
The prevailing religious climate was marked by Deism‚ which‚ together with Latitudinarianism‚ represented the spirit of the Enlightenment on the English scene.
Deism was both philosophical and religious in origin‚ stressing the need for the clear light of reason to act as a guide‚ the only trustworthy guide‚ in matters of science and in matters of belief. The religious antecedents of Deism are of interest to us here and may be said to be found in the Calvinism of the Genevan Reformation.
Take the Calvinism of Geneva‚ strip it of its religious power‚ eliminate from it all sense of mystery‚ reduce it to frozen metaphysics and the supremacy of reason‚ and the result is Deism.
The God of Deism is irresponsible‚ like a watchmaker who creates the mechanism and then lets it run itself down.
This does away with any understanding of the Bible as the record of divine involvement in human affairs.
The God of Deism is unrelated. There is no place in this system for relationships between human beings and God.
It denies the possibility of any acts or processes by which individuals seek to maintain relationships with their Creator and Redeemer.
God does not require worship from his creatures.
Worship is valueless and there is no point in prayer or supplication. Prayers for changes in the world are seen as dangerous blasphemy against the perfectly ordered system of the universe. God is not like us: able to change.
Where all is immutable‚ worship and prayer are the idle beating of wings of the caged bird against its prison bars.
Christianity Not Mysterious is the title of a book by John Toland‚ a leading Deist. “Not mysterious” means “reasonable”. Everything in Christianity can be reduced to cold reason‚ but that means that the element of mystery must be excluded from it‚ for no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery.
By the same token miracles are excluded.
Such a system of belief was highly popular at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Yet some of the greatest minds of the age and some less great set about refuting it.
The reading of the works of the Deists and of the refutations of them is‚ as Rupert Davies has described it‚ “an arid occupation”. There was a good deal of aridity about‚ says Davies. “The theological climate was exceedingly bleak and religiously there was almost a vacuum” (Methodism‚ p. 34).
There had to be a better way. The vacuum had to be filled.
The pendulum had to swing in the opposite direction.
One of the vital forces that sounded the death-knell of Deism‚ more vital than the aridity of its philosophical opponents‚ was the widespread proclamation by the Wesleys of an evangelical Gospel.
Indeed the positive emphases of Wesleyan theology were hammered out and sharpened in opposition to Deism.
Where Deism appealed to logic‚ Wesley appealed to the heart. He replaced a frozen theology by a living faith.
To the unrelatedness of God‚ taught by the Deists‚ Wesley opposed the teaching of Saint Paul that‚ in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit‚ we are children of God.
Wesley answered the Deists’ minimising of prayer by teaching people to pray in such a way that‚ whether God were changed or not‚ their lives in relationship to God were radically changed.
In face of the assertion of the Deists that there is nothing mysterious in Christianity‚ the Wesleys brought people face to face with the mystery of the Cross.
To the Deists’ minimising of miracles‚ Wesley opposed the break in all continuity which takes place in every evangelical conversion when a sinner takes a right-about face and is set on the way to becoming a saint.
Above all‚ to the impersonal God of the Deists‚ the Wesleys opposed One who may be known in a personal relationship.
My God‚ I am Thine‚
What a comfort divine‚
What a blessing to know that my Jesus is mine! (MHB 406: 1)
The relationship may be known and felt: “My God! I know and feel Thee mine” (MHB 387: 1).
This is inner religion‚ a religion of the heart‚ yet based on the objective facts of the Gospel revelation‚ and apprehended by faith:
We know‚ by faith we surely know‚
The Son of God is come‚
Is manifested here below‚
And makes our hearts His home;
To us he hath‚ in gracious love‚
An understanding given‚
To recognize Him from above
The Lord of earth and heaven. (MHB 88: 1)
Because of the nature of this relationship‚ the coldness of Deism is replaced by the warmth and fervour of inner religion‚ the religion of the heart.
One of the greatest minds to refute the Deists was Bishop Butler‚ whose Analogy was an outstanding piece of Christian apologetic. Yet‚ so far as inner religion was concerned‚ there was the same kind of aridity with Butler as with the Deists he was refuting. He it was who said to Wesley: “Sir‚ the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing; yes‚ Sir‚ it is a very horrid thing.”
Wesley’s position‚ in response to such accusations‚ was to stand with Saint Paul who wrote: “God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children” (Romans 8: 16 GNB). And‚ far from this being an “extraordinary” occurrence‚ it was seen as a possibility open to all Christians.
The reference to the Holy Spirit leads us to the great Whitsuntide of 1738‚ the event which we have been celebrating this year as we have come to its 250th anniversary.
Read again the account of Wesley’s conversion with an eye to the references it makes to inner religion‚ a religion of the heart.
“About a quarter before nine‚ while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ‚ I felt my heart strangely warmed.
“I felt I did trust in Christ‚ Christ alone‚ for salvation‚ and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins‚ even mine‚ and saved me from the law of sin and death” (Journal‚ standard edition‚ I; 475-476).
As Benjamin Drewery said‚ preaching in York Minster on Wesley Day 1988: “It was…the ‘existential encounter’ with the Gospel.
“The words ‘my heart’‚ ‘given me’‚ ‘my sins‚ even mine’ could not be undervalued. It was the difference between a dutiful acceptance of an unquestioned truth‚ and a sudden awareness that it had ‘come home’ to his own inner being” (Methodist Recorder‚ May 26‚ 1988‚ p. 17).
This religion of the heart‚ this inner religion‚ was a rediscovery‚ in personal terms‚ of a theme running right through the Old and New Testaments.
“God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10: 9 RV). “Create a pure heart in me‚ O God‚ and put a new and loyal spirit in me” (Psalm 51: 10 GNB). “I will give them a new heart and a new mind. I will take away their stubborn heart of stone and will give them an obedient heart” (Ezekiel 11: 19 GNB). “Happy are the pure in heart: they will see God!” (Matthew 5: 8 GNB).
Other Scripture passages‚ while not referring specifically to the heart (the focus of personal life‚ the seat of spiritual life), refer to the individual communing with a higher power‚ from the psalmist’s longing for God to the Christ-mysticism of Saint Paul.
The theme was continued in the Christian mystical tradition‚ in sources too numerous to mention‚ and it was recovered by the Wesleys‚ put into poetry and made vibrant in human lives.
One factor that helped to prevent this inner religion from basing itself solely on the vagaries of changing religious experience was‚ as we have seen‚ that it was grounded in the objective facts of the Gospel.
Stupendous height of heavenly love‚
Of pitying tenderness divine;
It brought the Saviour from above‚
It caused the springing day to shine‚
The sun of righteousness to appear‚
And gild our gloomy hemisphere...
God did Himself in Christ reveal (MHB 135: 1-2)
O Jesus, my hope‚
For me offered up‚
Who with clamour pursued Thee to Calvary’s top. (MHB 200: 1)
Such consideration of the historical basis of our salvation moves on quickly to a statement‚ straight from the biblical passage already quoted (Ezekiel 11: 9)‚ of the religion of the heart:
Come then from above‚
Its hardness remove‚
And vanquish my heart with the sense of Thy love. (ibid. 2)
The other side of the coin of inner religion is that the initiative is with God’s grace. In other words‚ early Methodism was a powerful restatement of soteriology.
This is not to deny that Methodism was‚ in its origins‚ a force for the renewal of society. It certainly was that and it stemmed from the warmed heart. The religion of the heart was the undergirding spirituality which made possible such a social transformation. The outworking of inner religion in the transformation of society stopped it from becoming inward-looking. It was “inner” religion‚ not “inward” religion.
The hymns contain very little of the social concern expressed in modern hymns. This is because they are too busy laying again the foundations‚ restating the soteriology.
Yet a rare reference‚ such as:
While, listening to the sufferer’s cry‚
The widow’s and the orphan’s groan‚
On mercy’s wings I swiftly fly‚
The poor and helpless to relieve‚
My life‚ my all‚ for them to give. (MHB 605: 4)
gives an insight into the social programme of the early Methodist societies.
Yet‚ underlying it all is Methodist spirituality. How does one find
Thy yearning pity for mankind‚
Thy burning charity?
In me Thy Spirit dwell. (MHB 385).
Historically Methodism came into existence on a ticket of such inner religion‚ a religion of the heart.
As we‚ spiritual descendants of the Wesleys in twentieth-century Aotearoa‚ celebrate our history‚ we ask:
“How do we measure up? Whatever happened to inner religion? Why are we so uncomfortable with this part of our heritage?”
There are many who would decry inner religion‚ wishing to place the emphasis elsewhere. And the modern detractors of inner religion have learned well a lesson learned by its eighteenth-century detractors: If you want to discredit something give it a label. In early Methodism the labels were: enthusiasm‚ ranting. Today they are: gobbledygook‚ navel-gazing.
The opponents of inner religion today are not‚ as were the Deists‚ the intellectuals‚ the proponents of a rational framework for Christian faith. Would that more attention were paid today to the precise definition of the intellectual content of faith and the task of Christian apologetics!
Neither are the opponents of inner religion those who would wish to counter its individualism by stressing the corporate dimension of Christian faith. Would that there were a greater awareness of the Church as a community of faith‚ and of the importance if its sacraments: baptism (the rite of entry into the community) and eucharist (by which the community’s life is nourished)!
Nor is opposition to inner religion based on a desire to counter it by stressing the role of outward rites in worship: liturgy‚ gesture‚ ritual‚ symbolism. Would that there were a greater awareness of the transcendent and of appropriate ways of celebrating this in worship!
The opposition appears to stem from a reductionist view of Christian faith which sees it in purely functional terms‚ stressing the need for faith to transform society‚ but doing so by stripping away the very sources of such transforming power that early Methodism laid in lives changed because hearts were warmed.
Among all the polarities in today’s church there is this one‚ between those who stress the functional and those who stress the mystical‚ whereas surely they belong together. Is not the latter the wellspring of the former?
My thesis is that a Christian activism not undergirded by an adequate spirituality is shallow‚ arid‚ rootless‚ and it leaves a vacuum.
Let me tell you the story of Harry Morton‚ a well-known British Methodist minister‚ a former President of the British Conference‚ who held high office in the British Council of Churches and the Methodist Missionary Society. He served for many years as a missionary in India and became an advocate of many just causes‚ especially the cause of the poor in the Third World.
He returned from India to Britain‚ rather like Wesley returning from Georgia‚ with a vacuum‚ all the springs of inspiration dried up. Harry made contact with his roots and gained fresh inspiration by spending some time living with a community of Anglican nuns in the south of England. It was a community overlooked by the world and almost forgotten by the church.
Had those nuns learned a lesson that we need to learn: that inner religion may be unashamedly nourished‚ and nourished in the life of a welcoming community‚ where Christian activists may return to their source?
As I survey the life of the Church‚ I detect a great deal of sterility. The wells are dry. There is a vacuum waiting to be filled. There must be a better way.
The pendulum must swing in the opposite direction. And it will do in God’s good time.
The Wesleys believed that they‚ and the Methodist movement they founded‚ were raised up by God for a specific purpose.
God is always springing surprises on his people. I can’t wait for the next one.
Already there are encouraging signs. These are quite diverse‚ ranging from the ministry of Sue Paterson. (getting the word “spirituality” into such a nuts-and-bolts document as the stationing sheet is a real triumph of grace) to the task of liturgical revision with its strong soteriological statements in the eucharistic Great Prayer of Thanksgiving.
There will be many who will want to qualify what I have written here. That’s good. It surely needs qualification.
But it cannot be overthrown. The need for inner religion must never be denied.
As John Wesley‚ himself‚ once said: “Faith‚ hope and love must be inwardly felt: else they have no meaning.”