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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Those churches which follow the system of religious faith and practice originally promoted by John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1788) are called Methodist. The name was probably derived from the methodical way Wesley’s disciples applied themselves to Bible study and prayer.

Moral laxity among the clergy and people of the Church of England was the background of John Wesley’s evangelism, although it was never intended by him to mean complete severance from the Anglican Communion. Wesley drew up a list of rules for his followers as early as 1739, but the Methodists were not legally recognized in England until 1784. See Anglicanism

Origins and Schisms

American Methodism had three independent beginnings. In 1760, Robert Strawbridge, from Ulster, Ireland, formed a group of Methodist preachers in Maryland. The next year another group of Irish immigrants from Limerick founded the first Methodist meeting house in New York. Between 1769 and 1772, Wesley personally appointed and sent chosen missionaries from England to the colonies.

Although the Methodist Church in America grew in numbers, it also became weakened to the point of near disintegration for lack of Anglican-ordained clergy. When the bishops in England refused to ordain ministers for Methodist societies in the colonies, John Wesley on his own authority consecrated Thomas Coke (1747-1814) and invested him with Episcopal powers. This assumption of the right to consecrate bishops, independent of the Anglican episcopacy, is still a main barrier of separation between the two religious bodies.

From 1787 to 1870 four major schisms occurred among the Methodist churches in America. The first two involved Negro members and were the result of racial tensions. The third division came about over the slavery question, whether slave-holders could be members in good standing in the churches. The last, shortly after the Civil War, was a separation of those who eventually became the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1939 three of the separated bodies reunited to form the 10-million members Methodist Church, which represents 70 percent of world Methodism.

Doctrine and Ritual

Methodist doctrine is less Catholic, and at the same time less Calvinist, than its Anglican sources. When John Wesley set about revising the Thirty-nine Articles of the English church, he made a more complete revision than is commonly supposed (see Thirty-nine Articles). In his reduced version of the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, he removed formal approval from both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. He dropped the Athanasian Creed from his revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The Articles dealing with the authority of the church and of general councils were deleted as not sufficiently Protestant for his purpose. The Anglican doctrine that the unworthiness of a priest did not hinder the effect of a sacrament was also deleted. For the term “priest,” Wesley substituted, “minister,” and the words “bishops, priests, and deacons” became simply “ministers of Christ.” The statement that “they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church” was omitted, and instead of speaking of repentance “after Baptism,” Wesley spoke of “sin after Justification.” In keeping with his anti-Calvinism, Wesley removed the whole Article on Predestination and omitted or changed phrases that referred to the Anglican Establishment. See Book of Common Prayer.

In spite of these significant changes from Anglicanism, it is not easy to identify Methodist doctrine. Wesley himself stressed the minimal importance of belief, in the sense of confessional doctrine, and described his followers in a passage that has since become a classic.

The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally.
We believe indeed that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God;” and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only rule both of faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Roman Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal, the supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.

Among the opinions on which his followers were free to dissent were the character of the priesthood, the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and the role of the sacraments in the life of the church.

However, although Methodists allow a broad range in matters of doctrine, one aspect of their faith specially distinguishes them from their Anglican forebears and from Protestantism in general. Their teaching on sanctification so closely resembles the Catholic doctrine on grace that Wesley has been called a “papalist in disguise.” See Grace.

Hardly any subject in Wesley’s voluminous writings was more vehemently opposed than the Calvinist theory of predestination. He affirmed that God is the source of all human good, and that grace does not depend on any power or merit of man. But at the same time he denied that salvation was restricted to the few who were elected by the unsearchable decrees of an arbitrary God. “The grace of God,” he taught, “whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all.” See Predestination.

Wesley’s concern for the salvation of all people developed into a well-rounded theory of sanctification. This theory assumes the power of man’s free will to cooperate with grace and affirms that justification is an actual removal, not a concealment of sin. Sanctification, according to the American Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Church, is that renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Spirit, “whereby we are not only delivered from the guilt of sin but are washed from its pollution, saved from its power, and are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in His holy commandments blameless.”

Equally characteristic of Methodist theology is an emphasis on the internal Witness of the Spirit. By this witness is understood an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly testifies that a person is a child of God, that his sins are blotted out, and that he is on the road to salvation.

Related to the stress on religion as personal experience, has been the Methodist conviction that Christianity is essentially social. Solitary religion, declared Wesley, is not to be found in the Gospel. “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” This has deeply influenced Methodist thought and action, and stimulated what has become a new religious dimension in the Western world. Among Protestants generally, Methodists have stood for a Christian fellowship in which moral, economic, and racial issues are an integral part of living the faith. They have become pioneers of the “Social Gospel” which characterizes so much of American (and Anglo-Saxon) Protestantism.

A familiar area of Methodist social evangelism is the temperance movement. “Our Church,” they state in official documents, “reasserts its long-established conviction that intoxicating liquor cannot be legalized without sin.” This emphasis was illustrated by the Methodist promotion of what became the Eighteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. Ministers are forbidden to indulge in alcoholic beverages and may be penalized for proved breach of their abstinence pledge. See Temperance Movements, Protestant.

Methodist worship follows a modified Anglican ritual, with less emphasis on external ceremony, more on prayers and exhortation, and special accent on songs and chants. Charles Wesley was the most gifted and indefatigable hymn-writer that England has ever known. He wrote over 5,500 hymns in all, and he shared his brother’s conviction about the immense value of religious songs for missionary, devotional, and instructional purposes.

The standard Methodist Discipline allows a variety of “Orders of Worship” for Sunday and weekday services, for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the administration of baptism, marriages and funerals, and special occasions. Consistent with their attitude toward alcohol, Methodists substitute unfermented grape juice for wine at the Lord’s Supper. The substitution of “bread and wine” for “body and blood” in the Prayer of Consecration, and the exhortation to “feed on him in your heart by faith” in the Communion Prayer reveal the Methodist idea of the Eucharist as mainly subjective. Although individual ministers differ widely in their interpretation of this idea, the more common opinion holds that there is no real bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist independently of the mind of the communicant.

Organization and Government

The government of the Methodist Church is highly organized and is centered around the Conference. The duties and functions of officials form an integrated unit which elaborates on the norms set down by Wesley. The same structure is duplicated, on a minor scale, by the smaller Methodist bodies.

There are six types of Methodist Conferences, the most important being the General Conference which is held every four years and is the legislative body for the entire church. Lesser Conferences, such as the Jurisdictional, the Annual, the District, the Quarterly, and the Church Conferences, are held more frequently. Representatives to all the assemblies are both clergy and laity, with equal rights in passing laws or otherwise directing the government of the church.

Among the church ministers and officials, the highest in rank is the bishop, who is general superintendent within his own territory. He is an elder, specially ordained, and normally holding office for life. Although nominally an executive, his duties are severely limited by the democratic structure of the Methodist Church, in which the Conferences play the major role. One significant power the bishop enjoys is to appoint pastors and other ministers of the Gospel after consultation with the district superintendents. Since 1939, when the non-Episcopal Methodist Protestant Church was absorbed into membership, the Methodist episcopacy has become still less essential. Merger negotiations with congregational bodies such as the United Church of Christ suggest that this aspect of Methodist government practice has departed more than ever from its Anglican ancestry.

Next in ministerial rank are the elders who have been duly ordained by the laying on of hands of a bishop and other elders. Below them are deacons, also ordained by the bishop. Deaconesses are not ordained but consecrated and commissioned for social, educational, and missionary work; they are paid a fixed salary and assured financial security after retirement from active service.

Peculiar to the Methodist Church is the importance of the laity in the religious ministry. A person may be licensed to serve as pastor of a charge (church) even though not ordained either as elder or deacon. The license gives him the right to exercise the ministry, to preach, and to administer the Lord’s Supper. Lay trustees manage the property interests of the local congregation, and lay stewards handle the finances and generally guide the spiritual work of the parish under the pastor’s direction. In 1956, the General Conference authorized the admission of women to full exercise of the ministry, to serve as itinerant preachers and to participate in the highest legislative functions of the Methodist Church.

The two main branches of Methodism are the British and the American. In Britain practically all Methodists belong to a single denomination. In the United States, however, besides the main group in the Methodist Church (10 million), there are 20 other religious bodies in the same tradition. The three largest are Negro segments: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches; and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. They have a combined membership of over 2 million. Most of the smaller groups are offshoots from parent denominations because of grievances and disputes. Those favoring a less Protestant notion of justification entered the Holiness movement (see Holiness Churches). Those who wanted more centralized government became Episcopalian in structure and sometimes in name.

For further information read Protestantism; Protestantism In The United States; Wesley, Charles; Wesley, John.

Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
Vol. 7,1993, pp. 114-117

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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