“I DIDN’T have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one instead” is a quip ascribed to Mark Twain. The Oxford Very Short Introduction series illustrates Twain’s paradox aptly. Each compresses into a standard 120 pages an offering of insight more useful to novices and, sometimes, to established scholars than that of many longer works.
Methodism is the latest religious tradition to get the VSI treatment, joining earlier volumes on (among other things) Catholicism, Anglicanism, and The Quakers. After the General Synod’s cold-shouldering of unity proposals in July 2019, there seems a particular onus on Anglicans to understand better the life of this ecclesial close relative.
Abraham, retired Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, Texas), takes us through the topic over nine chapters. He begins with a sketch of historical origins (chapters one to three), and proceeds through an explanation of enduring characteristics (chapters four to seven), before turning to an assessment of the denomination’s present state and future prospects (chapters eight and nine).
It is in the first two chapters and the final one that Abraham is at his strongest. The nuances brought into the assessment of Wesley’s own ministry reflect the best modern historical scholarship on the 18th century. This includes acknowledgement that, objectively speaking, the C of E “was much healthier than Wesley realized” (or the Tractarians later alleged).
PASt Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta, expresses support for the LGBTQ community and opposition to racism (photo taken last August)
In his conclusion, Abraham posits a way forward for Methodist ecclesiology: harvesting its own strong pneumatology. He argues that Christianity should strive neither for recovery of a pure early state (Protestant preference) or self-understanding as a linear development (Catholic view). Instead, he suggests that attention to Methodism’s experience suggest a conception of the Church in terms “of an original prototype and its fresh expression or reproduction across space and time”.
American Methodism’s historic fractures over race deserve fuller treatment than they receive here. Heavy focus on the more recent history of America’s United Methodist Church (UMC) is likewise problematic, limiting the book’s usefulness to readers elsewhere. The latter might appreciate more exploration of Methodism’s global cross-currents of hymnody, liturgy, and architecture, and less on UMC internal politics.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing studies in law.
Methodism: A very short introduction
William J. Abraham
Church Times Bookshop £8.09