COI Gazette – 19th August 2016

Renowned Methodist theologian urges development of an ecumenism of ‘gift sharing’


The Revd Dr William Abraham

The Revd Dr William Abraham

In the opening essay in the recently published Bulletin of the Methodist Historical Society of Ireland, a distinguished, Irish-born theologian has expressed reservations about the conventional focus “on reaching convergence and agreement” around divisions of doctrine and practice in ecumenical conversations.

Professor William J. Abraham stated that “the crucial problem [with the convergence and agreement approach] is not just the difficulty of getting agreement among the experts and then securing adoption and reception in the member-Churches. The crucial problem is that it limits the way we want to bring our gifts and graces to the table in the first place”.

Commenting on the debates that continue “around issues of authority and ministry”, Prof. Abraham made reference to “the recent conversations between the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland around the episcopal dimensions of the Presidency of the Methodist Church”.




John and Charles Wesley, together the founders of the Methodist movement which evolved into the Methodist Church and has given rise to many ecclesial offshoots, may be regarded as among the greatest evangelists in Church history – John through his preaching and teaching and organisational ability and Charles through his more than 6,000 hymns.

John was educated at Charterhouse School and Oxford University, being elected a Fellow of Lincoln College at an early age. He became the leader of a Holy Club founded by his brother; it included in its membership George Whitfield, who was to become an evangelist whose fame approached that of the Wesleys, although he differed from them in some aspects of theology. The members of the Club followed a strict rule of life, earning from their fellow students the title of ‘Methodists’ – the name stuck!

The two brothers made a missionary foray into Savannah in the colony of Georgia which, while not as unsuccessful as has sometimes been alleged, was by no means an unqualified success. When they returned, disillusioned, to England, John took up with some Moravian Christians and in 1738 had his ‘Aldersgate experience’ which he recorded in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to 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.”

Charles had already had a conversion experience and the outcome changed the lives of both men and transformed their ministries as Anglican clergy, both of them believing fervently that the place of the Methodist societies which sprang up from their work of evangelism was firmly within the Church of England.

Field preaching was one of the successful innovations practised by the Wesleys under the influence of George Whitfield, although for health reasons Charles had to give this up. The statistics of John Wesley’s activities are staggering, taking place all over the British Isles and including visits to Ireland. He is said to have travelled over 200,000 miles and to have preached over 40,000 sermons as well as writing thousands of letters. An organisational genius, he established circuit lay preachers and a system of tightly disciplined local gatherings, the members of which nonetheless still retained, until after his death, an Anglican connection. In some cases this was for long afterwards, members often attending their parish churches in the mornings and their own distinctive evangelistic meetings in the evenings, receiving Holy Communion in the Churches of England and Ireland.

Theologically, John emphasised the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, at the same time, he stressed the importance of holiness of life, believing that a kind of Christian ‘perfection’ could be established where the power of sin and death was overcome. He was an Arminian, believing in the possibility of the salvation of all and differing strongly from Calvinists like Whitfield who restricted this to the predestined ‘elect’.

John, although making much use of extempore prayer and worship, was also deeply devoted to the liturgy of the Church of which he was an ordained member; the rather ‘high’ theology of the Holy Communion which both brothers espoused may be seen in some of the eucharistic hymns written by Charles. Although a break with the Church of England was to some extent made inevitable by John’s action in ordaining people to the ministry himself (as he believed a presbyter had the power to do), he would, one is sure, have been pleased to discover the ministerial rapprochement between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church.

This editorial is one in a series of occasional reflections on figures in Church history, following a chronological sequence as they appear.


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