Perfecting Perfection: Essays in honour of Henry D. Rack, edited by Robert Webster

by
01 June 2018

Colin Podmore traces Wesley’s thought and the shift in Methodism

HENRY RACK is the British doyen of Wesley studies. His 1989 study of John Wesley remains the standard biography. Its title, Reasonable Enthusiast, encapsulates in two words Wesley’s complexity — given to enthusiasm in the 18th-century sense (what Dr Johnson dismissed as “a vain belief of private revelation”) and yet also influenced by the Enlightenment.

The part that Wesley’s played as a “cultural mediator” (Rack’s description) included making complex medical knowledge accessible to the poor. As Deborah Madden points out, he adopted an empirical approach to medicine and kept up with medical developments. She highlights the influence of Rack’s reassessment of Wesley on 18th-century studies, commenting that Wesley “confounds simplistic polarities about the Enlightenment” and is now seen as “more typical of someone writing within the context of Christian enlightenment thought”.

Robert Webster focuses on the other side of Rack’s equation: Wesley has been described as “the spiritual and intellectual father of the modern holiness and Pentecostal movements”. Webster argues that for both 18th-century Methodism and modern Pentecostals and Charismatics “the belief in the supernatural was not just a naïve form of biblicalism but a theological articulation of its faith that has proved to be integral to its evangelical success”.

Patrick Streiff directs attention to the development of Wesley’s theology as documented by his later sermons — often neglected because, unlike the Standard Sermons (published in 1762), they are not among Methodism’s doctrinal standards.

That the chapters range widely reflects the breadth of Wesley’s interests and influence. The majority of the contributors are American, and their choice of subjects probably reflects contemporary American Methodist concerns. Reformation theology and missionary spirituality are to the fore; Wesley’s high-churchmanship and his relations with the Church of England are mostly out of sight.

A surprising jewel (given its limited reference to Methodism) is Peter Nockles’s discussion of the Oxford Movement as a “church revival” and its relationship with the Evangelical Revival’s 19th-century Anglican heirs. He argues that Tractarianism “depended on the ground prepared by an earlier more individualistic revival of personal religion”.

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An Evangelical background or earlier career had shaped many of the first-generation Tractarians: they did not repudiate Evangelicalism, as later Anglo-Catholics did. Samuel Wilberforce observed in 1869 that Evangelicals had often given the Tracts a warmer reception than the old “high and dry” churchmen had. (A comparable phenomenon can now be observed in the United States, where interest in the Fathers, liturgy, and Catholic spirituality is drawing Evangelicals into an admittedly more loosely defined Catholicism.) Other Evangelicals opposed the Oxford Movement doctrinally, but admired its ethical and spiritual dimension.

Martin Wellings’s chapter on Methodist responses to Anglo-Catholicism crowns the collection. The college principal J. H. Rigg (who “came as near to being hated as any man in a College based on a religious foundation could be”) was a polemicist: “Puseyism . . . is essentially Popery.” The more creative and Catholic Benjamin Gregory engaged in ecumenical dialogue and supported spiritual unity, and yet he was as robust as Rigg, attacking visible unity and apostolic succession.

The Cornish novelist Joseph Hocking communicated Rigg’s polemics and Gregory’s ecclesiology to a wider readership in The Soul of Dominic Wildthorne, about the “Community of the Incarnation” at “Meremeadows” in Yorkshire. (Wellings leaves the obvious reference to Mirfield unstated.)

Opposition to Ritualism changed Wesleyan Methodism. In 1868, Wesleyans still saw themselves as a via media between the Church of England and Dissent; Ritualism was among the factors that drew them away from the Church.

In 1882, the Prayer Book was supplanted by Public Prayers and Services, from which elements that might support Anglo-Catholic teaching had been removed. Two decades later, liturgical worship itself came under attack: the Guild of Divine Service, formed in 1900 to defend it, was derided as the “Guild for Corrupting Methodism with Ritualism”.

Wellings suggests that some Methodists are still hostile to Catholic elements of Anglican identity: “Ritualism . . . set the denominations on paths of separate development which . . . ecumenical endeavours . . . have yet fully to overcome.”

 

Dr Colin Podmore is the Director of Forward in Faith.

 

Perfecting Perfection: Essays in honour of Henry D. Rack
Robert Webster, editor
James Clarke & Co £24
(978-0-227-17588-0)

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