July | Valuing Reason and Knowing its Limits

by Methodist Survey
Tags: church history, John Wesley, Methodism, theology

1. David Attenborough - naturalist | John Wesley - theologian

2. The Imperfection of Human Knowledge

3. Head or Heart? Christian Life Decisions

4. Find Christ in Reason

John Wesley and the Age of Reason: Jim Stuart and David Bell

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The Significance of the Laity

Transcript of Eric Laurenson

David: Eric Laurenson who’s a former president of the Methodist Church of New Zealand, and I’m particularly interested to explore with Eric his understanding of some of the chief elements of Wesleyan spirituality for today. So, I wonder if you could start of by giving some of those in a nutshell, Eric.

Eric: Well, David I’m a product of Methodist and Wesleyan spirituality I suppose. I’m a lifelong Methodist and spent all my years in the Methodist Church in New Zealand, so I guess what you see today is a product of Wesleyan spirituality. I think that I’ve probably come to a number of conclusions that might be interesting, but...

David: You grew up in a Methodist parsonage. You had a father that was very committed to work with Maori people in the Methodist Church.

Eric: Yes, I was, and that influence has stayed with me although I kept my own counsel over the years and I think I’ve in many ways observed the Methodist [presbyter 1:11] with some caution, because of what I’ve seen from within a parsonage family.

David: Now, that’s quite interesting. You have also developed a quite clear understanding of the dynamic role that laity must play within the Methodist ministry.

Eric: Absolutely, and I grew up in the Mt Eden Methodist Church where there was a very strong lay presence there. Interestingly the church didn’t produce any [presbyter 1:43] leaders over the years, but it had some very strong lay people, and they were a very powerful model for me.

David: What were some of the dynamic elements of Methodism that you [2:00] as you grew up in that church, Eric?

Eric: Well, I suppose in the terms of the time, it was a liberal type of church. You could have argued that it was also fairly conservative in some of its attitudes, but it was a warm and a friendly church, and that warmth is I think one of the strong aspects of Methodism that we can see exemplified in say conference or in various church meetings; that warm fellowship between people is a very strong factor.

David: That would be not so different from the Wesleyan experience of the warming of the heart.

Eric: The warming of the heart, and I think just in one or two instances recently I’ve been talking with people about the fact that I think Methodism always has to remember it’s a movement and not an institution. Where we have behaved as an institution we’ve started to get into trouble.

David: I find that actually quite revealing for the New Zealand context, because at the turn of the 20th Century, the diverse strands of Methodism - the primitive and the Wesleyan were quite strong in New Zealand terms, but since that time over the last century there’s been quite a marked decline and particularly post-World War II. In some ways that personally surprises me because Methodism was in some sense at its most heart-warming liberal best. What would you see as the causes of decline in our church?

Eric: I think institutionalism is one of the things I would criticise. I think we’ve lost the vision of a reforming movement within Christendom. I think we have become concentrating on maintaining an institution and the structures of the institution in a way which has been probably quite dangerous.

David: Sometimes too, when people become involved in running institutions, they’re particularly concerned to preserve their own patch - preserve their own power, and I don’t believe that Wesley saw that as being the chief end of Methodism at all.

Eric: No, although he was, as I understand it, something of an autocrat, and I think that at one stage you could have defined the Methodist Conference as John Wesley. In fact, being in full connection was again, as I understand it, being in connection with John Wesley. So, in a sense he was preserving his own patch, but I think he was always a man under divine intention, and he was a person who was both an Anglican priest to his dying day, but also a man who was compelled to face the realities of the people that are there; the world is my parish, type of people.

David: He believed that his preaching had one primary task, and that was to save souls, but there were a whole lot of secondary tasks that went along with that; the improvement of society - particular concern for the life of the poor, and how they might improve themselves. What today might be the features that Methodism should strive for beyond saving souls?

Eric: Yes, well I mean the marked feature of Methodism is its strong social justice dimension, and I hope it never loses that, but Methodism like all the main stream churches is caught up with the risk that in emphasising the social justice dimension, it will become a secular organisation, or a form of humanism, if you like. I think that is what is currently really being debated within the church; what this movement called Methodism is really saying about spiritual life.

David: Eric, one of the things that’s impressed me over the years that I’ve known you is that you do have the strong commitment to social justice. In fact, you convene a Ginger Group within the Auckland Synod as it is at present, on concerns of social justice, but you are also very concerned that there is a loss of that spirituality that’s so important in the prime Methodist movement.

Eric: Yes, and I personally, when one comes down to it, I still believe in those fundamental aspects of Methodist teaching, prayer, study - not just of the Bible - of a personal commitment and faith. In fact, once one adopts a certain perhaps modern mindset, one can go back to those old values and still honour them.

David: You’ve managed to do that, despite having moments of tension in terms of institutional values as well, haven’t you?

Eric: Yes.

David: You’ve kept your honour - honouring and your commitment, and now you must have a certain sagacity looking back at the broad sweep of Methodism over a lifetime of involvement.

Eric: Yes, and I guess I’ve always also been a little bit of a - if I have any sagacity I’ve also been a little bit of a rebel.

David: A rebel with a cause.

Eric: A rebel with a cause; I’ve always been uneasy about aspects of some of our traditional teaching in the church, and I have to say that I think we have a long way to go in the way in which we regard our faith. I think we have been relatively static in that area while advancing on the social justice of other areas. We have a lot of work to do in theological things.

David: Very recently I was talking to Diana Tana of Te Taha Maori. Diana is particularly interested in developing some resources with the [AMECB 8:39] way of getting CDs and booklets out and so on. It seemed to me that it would be very helpful if we were to explore some of those Maori understandings of early Wesleyan spirituality that are lost I think in the plethora of concerns that are going on. In some ways they stand out, don’t they, in today’s society as a way of being uniquely kiwi in this land.

Eric: I don’t think people are prepared to acknowledge the impact that Maori and those early settlers had on each other. The Maori way of viewing life is almost diametrically opposed to the Pakeha way, and we desperately need each other in today’s modern world. I was just listening to a Maori academic this morning talking about the way in which Maori view the progress of time, for instance; completely opposed to our Pakeha way of viewing it. The foreshore debate has again shown the distinctiveness between us, where Pakeha who understand ownership in terms of possession and the ability to do whatever we will with our possessions, stands over against Maori view of being possessed by the land; we are the product of the land - not the owners and the autocrats over the land.

David: I think too, in this, the year of Rugby World Cup, on a world stage we see the New Zealand team doing the haka which is uniquely New Zealand, but many kiwis don’t understand the haka is a form of saying, from death to life. It is an expression of something very dynamic, to revitalise our faith we could take much more seriously, I believe as Pakeha New Zealanders.

Eric: Well, the Maori lived in relationship to the land and to the world around them in a way that we have to rediscover. Maybe somewhere in our past that is the way we did live, but somehow the way in which we’ve interpreted the Christian Gospel has I think distorted that fundamental relationship with people around us - with creation around us, to the point where I think that may be the major weakness of the church at this time.

David: We can’t be too romantic about the past, but it’s certainly the case isn’t it, that the more Pakeha explore the Maori understandings of the Wesleyan spirituality in the church, the greater their enhancement of their own faith.

Eric: I believe so, and I think that if one looked at the battle that Wesley had within his own being, and perhaps the people who followed him as they journeyed to New Zealand, and the response to that attitude within the Maori people here, we get some clues as to where we might be heading in this country.

David: That stimulates me to ask; do you have any signposts that you would like to flag for us - a way ahead to recover some of this?

Eric: Well, I think the first thing for me, and it might be seen as a hobby horse of mine, is that we have to see our faith in terms of an ongoing relationship to God. If we keep looking back 2000 or more years to a time when people’s thought-forms were different - when social conditions were different, as our only way of regarding the present, we’re going to miss out seriously. So I would want to say that it’s at its most fundamental in the way in which we view our faith, we have to start to see that simply concentrating on Palestine 2000 years ago is completely inadequate as a way of regarding the present world.

David: In that sense we follow Jesus - the figure of 2000 years ago, but we live in the presence of the Risen Christ, who is quite different from the historic Jesus. Perhaps this distinction is not always drawn clearly for us in church life.

Eric: The distinction between the historic Jesus and the Christ of the present world is absolutely fundamental, and until we come to grips with that, we won’t really be making any meaningful contribution to this world. I was talking with a senior Methodist Minister the other day who was being very much held by the theologian [Brueggamann 14:17] and I said to him; do you find that in fact Brueggamann has become for you a prophet? He said, yes very much so. So here we’ve moved beyond that Palestinian view of life; we’re starting to move into a 21st Century view of life where we continue to write the Bible, if you like. The Book of Acts has gone on continuously to the present day, and we are part of it. Until we get the Bible out from between those black covers, and start to see that we are still Biblical people in tradition which is alive and well, we will simply be seen as an activist in the present world.

David: I wondered too, whether that isn’t a bad model for how the Methodist Church ought to develop. The New Zealand Methodist scene has evolved into a structure - a way of doing things that is quite different from its parent body in England and Dunedin or other parts of the world. We have a particularly contextual theology that is shaped by the unique geographic location of where we live, and also by the spirituality of the indigenous peopled of this land. Now, I wonder whether though we lack many things in the Methodist scene because of our isolation and relatively small size, we also have something to offer on the worldwide scene of the Methodist Church.

Eric: Yes, I think that as I observe it, maybe Wesley’s thoughts about the world being his parish have been put into a better context in New Zealand. I think we’ve started to see that one way of interpreting what Wesley was saying was not that the world has become Methodist, but that Methodism should be where the world is. We in New Zealand, as Methodists have much to say to this country, and this country has much to say to the world.

David: I think that’s a very helpful note to end on, and I thank you for being a part of this.

Eric: Thank you, David. It’s been good to talk.


Links to NZ Methodist history/theology resources

This link ⇒ the John Kinder Library online church newspapers out of print will also take you to the Outlook, the Methodist and Presbyterian newspaper in the colonial period.

This link ⇒ a high quality PDF reproduction of William Morley's History of New Zealand.

This link ⇒ Wesley Historical Society NZ

This link ⇒ Sung and Unsung Personalities by Rev Donald Phillipps, Rev Dr Susan thompson, Rev Dr David Bell

This link ⇒ Rev Dr James Stuart, video and associated resources, including links to the John Wesley Code Study Guide, PGPL

This link ⇒ Donald Phillipps papers on Independent Methodism in NZ from the Practical Dreamers Drop In Centre

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