In 1735 Anglican priest (and later founder of Methodism), John Wesley sailed from England as a missionary to the American colony of Georgia. On ship he encountered Moravian Brethren, a German pietist sect with its roots in Jan Hus’ fifteenth century reform movement. Wesley was deeply desirous of the emotional conviction of the Moravians but, being thoroughly English, was not by nature an emotive person. In fact, Wesley was anything but emotive. He was Oxford through and through, having been a student at Christchurch, and elected a fellow of Lincoln College. As a student there he had been one of the first members of the “Holy Club”—a group of students who met regularly to discuss their spiritual life and who devised a regular schedule of prayer and devotion by which they shaped their Christian lives. Methodism began as a pietist movement within the Anglican Church and spread to American Anglicans as a result of the preaching of the “First Great Awakening.”
Wesley did not stay long in America. An unhappy love affair which Wesley handled badly compromised his ability to serve in priestly ministry and he returned to England. He never lost interest however in the American mission and after the American Revolution was very concerned that the Anglican Church was unable to consecrate bishops or ordain priests for the new nation as the canons of the Anglican Church at the time required of all ordinands an oath to the King. Wesley, though not a bishop himself, ordained several men as ministers for those Anglican/Methodists. He also ordained Thomas Coke, an Anglican priest, as “Superintendent” of the American Methodists. Coke began using the title “Bishop” several years later. Almost from the beginning, Methodism had encouraged lay preachers, but Wesley’s ordaining men to the ministry was a far more radical step. This ordination of clergy by a priest (Wesley) rather than by a bishop forced a break between Wesley’s followers (Methodists) and Anglicans and in 1784 the American Methodists constituted themselves as the Methodist Church in America.
English Methodists have preserved their ties to the Universities and while the preaching was often “evangelical” it was not theologically naïve. In America the story was different. The preachers sent by Wesley were University trained intellectuals who were men of deep personal piety. But Methodism spread like wildfire in the new American nation—particularly on the frontier. The movement known as the Second Great Awakening revitalized American religion and especially pushed the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian traditions. While there were a handful of Methodist ministers who had been University trained in England, Methodism grew far faster than the ordained clergy could care for and lay preachers shaped the movement far more than ordained clergy. These lay preachers most often had no formal theological training and preached not from sound doctrinal foundations but simply passed on the emotional style which had led to their own conversions. Theology became irrelevant; feelings were the only sign of grace. Methodist theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon relate the following incident in their book when Willimon was preaching in a Presbyterian Church:
“Dr. Willimon, could you recommend a book that explains what Presbyterians believe?” he asked. “Why would I have such a book?” Will asked. “That’s the trouble with you Presbyterians you’re always reading some book, you ought to be like us Methodists and feel a warm tingle down you back.”
Bishop Willimon was obviously being sarcastic about the triumph of feeling over theology among Methodism when he related the incident, but the problem is not limited to Methodism. When I read some of the neo-trad blogs about why women should wear veils in church or even about a preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass, it comes down to what makes a person feel “religious.” “Liberals” are often no better—every Mass has to be a “heavy, deep, and real” experience. We need to move beyond the subjective—not to exclude the affective dimension but not to be limited by it—and develop liturgies, doctrinal formulations, and ecclesial structures that are rooted in our authentic Tradition but which can move beyond old forms to find new ways that resonate with contemporary society while preserving the essential features that have guided us from the times of the apostles.