Wesley and Anglican Mission

By George Sumner

The diversity of the Anglican Communion is breathtaking. Indeed, it is probably the second-widest global fellowship of churches. It encompasses the Arctic, equatorial Africa, the emerging cities of Asia, and the secret Anglicans of Iran. In the Church of Nigeria there are as many dioceses as the strong diocese in the United States has parishes. How Anglicanism came to be in all these places is a story far too long for an essay. Amid such diversity and breadth, could one hope to find a single, common lesson about mission in the Anglican way? My answer is yes, because a shared string of DNA runs through most of it.

First, however, let me offer some general observations on Christian mission. The resurrected Jesus says to his disciples in what is called the Great Commission: “go into all the world, teaching and making disciples of all nations.” Jesus is Lord, and so this idea ought to be basic to a Christian church. But actually mission, by which I mean the spreading of the gospel, especially across cultures, has been sporadic. In the early centuries it was mostly accomplished by individuals, along trade routes or by the example of martyrdom.

After Christianity became the established religion, monks, and later the mendicants, did the yeoman’s work, for example by helping bring the gospel to the British Isles. Not accidentally, communities devoted to the disciplined Christian life, and not the Church at large, were in the forefront. And little mission activity took place for long periods. For a millennium the Christians of western Europe were encircled by Islam, which limited the access and knowledge that make mission possible. For several more centuries too much energy was wasted in struggles between Catholic and Protestant. With respect to the latter in particular, the record of mission activity is thin.

For English men and women the 18th century marked a time of enormous social and economic flux and dislocation. A global economy was emerging. Extreme poverty among working people led to social disruptions and harsh legal responses. The established Anglican church struggled with a certain complacency as well as compromise related to state control. By the early 19th century, with flagging clergy morale, some wondered how much longer the church could survive. In the midst of this, the movement of renewal called the evangelical revival took place. The key figure was John Wesley, an Anglican priest, preacher, and writer, along with his brother Charles. John Wesley remained in orders until his death, though, as we know, soon thereafter a new denomination, the Methodists, was formed, which in time took the American West by storm.

It is sometimes said that it takes a saint to put up with a saint. John Wesley was a prickly character. He was neurotic enough in his younger years to give himself a grade on his spiritual health by the quarter-hour. He set out to be a missionary to the native people of Georgia. He made little impression on them, though he did succeed in making a distinctly negative impression on the young woman with whom he fell in love. But on the voyage home the Moravians he met introduced him to a more intense personal piety of the heart. It changed him, and he in turn changed the face of global Christianity.

Here is a thesis: that the dynamic “x-factor,” the key to the upsurge of Anglican mission in the modern era, and its common feature still today, may be found in the lineage of Wesleyanism. Wesley’s ministry had a shape that has been repeated and reappropriated over and over again. In mission, we are all Methodists now, at least in our root assumptions and many of our strategies. To understand what I mean, we need to consider the particular pattern of Methodist mission and ministry. It was focused on inwardness, conversion, the heart, and yet it was lived out in small groups, “class meetings,” in which the converted held each other to account. In those groups members could confess their failings, be exhorted and encouraged by their peers, and pray for one another. The leaders and the impetus were lay.

The gospel has to be presented to all so as to be received freely in faith. It sounds simple, but with Wesley this reality came to the fore anew. Thus he felt impelled to go to those who had not heard. Shockingly for this time, he went to the openings of mines to preach to the miners at dawn. The sermons were in fact long, dry, and learned, and yet their effect was electric. His earnestness and willingness to go out to people were paramount.

Soon there were numerous converts, and as a result services were held in the open air, where they would sing. Methodism was in large measure a musical movement. Many of the hymns by the Wesley brothers were for devotions preparatory to Holy Communion, or as the congregation waited while the long lines went up for the sacrament. The movement was at once deeply evangelical and eucharistic. And it had spinoffs: lives of the converted changed, drinking was curtailed, family life improved, trades were learned, and money was saved. Social change and conversion were intertwined.

One may offer valid objections to the thesis. The Roman Catholics had their own mission societies with their own interest in the converted heart. Obviously Anglicans did not become Methodists — though I use methodist to refer not to a denomination but rather to a way of organizing and thinking about missionary activity. Again, one might note how, in many ways, fellow Protestant missionaries disagreed with Methodists about ordination, the sacraments, and predestination. If we focus more specifically on the Episcopal Church, we find the mission work of Bishop Jackson Kemper, an Anglo-Catholic rather than an evangelical, sent out not by a voluntary society but by the church itself.

All fair enough. But a background agreement on approach surrounds these foreground theological disputes. The new chapter of mission history that followed Wesleyan influence crossed liturgical parties and incorporated a common set of features:

  • Lay leadership
  • Going out to where people are
  • Evangelistic gatherings
  • Small groups
  • Confession
  • Converted hearts
  • Singing

This pattern was key to both the success of the movement and its ability to replicate itself. Confession made it real, and singing made it enjoyable. The cells could undergo mitosis with minimal control or distraction from authorities higher up.

This all may seem obvious. Missionaries form societies, invite new Christians into cells, and send them out to witness with testimony and song. So what? But this is the point. We do not notice the influence of the evangelical revival on the mission scene, so complete was its transformation of a range of denominations. Its originators, and some of its seminal figures, happen to have been Anglican.

Two generations after the Wesleys, another wave of revival led to the creation of the Church Missionary Society. At first it focused on the evils of slavery in both east and west Africa, but soon they saw the need to care for the souls of those freed, and to employ them to evangelize the interior. The society’s efforts led to the evangelization of east and west Africa, India, China, Persia, Australia, and the frozen north of Canada.

The history of the CMS helps us to answer an insistent question in our time: why should we impose this shape of the Christian life, originating in the British Isles, on the rest of the world? In fact, this is not at all what happened in global Anglicanism. Christians in many different places made the gospel their own. Two examples will suffice for now, though there are more.

The CMS brought its brand of evangelical Anglicanism, oriented to conversion and personal witness, to east Africa in the late 19th century. After some success the first third of the 20th century produced much nominal faith and moral struggle. Polygamy and reversion to pre-Christian practice were rampant. Suddenly, in the 1930s, a locally derived revival spread like wildfire. Racial tensions between missionary and east African were resolved by putting them “in the light” in small fellowship groups. The Holy Spirit gave the power to overcome backsliding. Those who received the message were the balokole, “the saved.” They met in groups, committed themselves to evangelistic work, and put off practices they associated with the old, compromised life such as smoking and drinking. They stressed the possibility of a new sanctification. It was as if they had formed a new brand of African Methodism, without ever having read the history.

There were also familiar problems, such as judgmentalism and threats to leave the Anglican fold, whose leadership seemed compromised. But in this case they stayed, with an attendant, inspiring power for the renewal of Anglicanism. The DNA of Wesley expressed itself newly and truly. And the subsequent, dramatic growth of Anglican churches in Africa would derive from the influence of this kind of CMS-derived piety.

Consider a second example. India proved a challenging site for evangelism, with the vast and imposing wall of Hinduism. Centuries earlier the Jesuits made a creative effort to dress Christianity in saffron among upper-caste Hindus, but it did not last. By the early 20th century evangelical Anglicans found some modest success going house-to-house as they offered the gospel to lower-caste Indians. An instance of this work was Samuel Azariah, who eventually became the first native Anglican bishop. He actually worked for the YMCA — in those days an energetic, ecumenically evangelical agency of witness worldwide. Converts would be taught the Bible and formed in small groups in precisely the framework we associate with the Methodist way.

Was all this imposed, or authentically Indian? All one can say is that Azariah lived, spoke, and worked in a thoroughly Indian way, living humbly among his own people. The pattern proved perfectly adaptable to his circumstances, although Indian culture was not modern or voluntarist in a Western sense. But the methods worked well in the initiation of a subculture to which people could freely join themselves. His diocese had grown tenfold, to 100,000 members, by the time of Indian independence.

In each case — in east Africa and in India — local leaders made the pattern their own, even as all, like Wesley, assumed worship according to the Book of Common Prayer. In fact, the Methodist model proved serviceable in various denominations, but for Anglicans it fit well into the more formal framework of the prayer book. Intimate fellowship complemented the formal liturgy, both in its ancient and Reformation roots.

Stepping back to consider the pattern once more, we see both that a variety of cultures appropriated it and that it particularly suited the modern age. In his study of contemporary Pentecostalism, Tongues of Fire, Anglican sociologist David Martin contends that this pattern marked the great inculturation of the Christian faith in the modern world. In an epoch characterized by feeling, free association, and mobility, the Wesleyan model was especially apt: portable, conducive to cell mitosis, and less dependent on ecclesial superstructures. And yet it did not acquiesce to privatism, since it included the small group, the religious society, and the common prayer of the Church.

The pattern can also shed light on contemporary trends and movements on the mission scene. The challenges of the Church today are not dissimilar to those faced by Wesley. A fundraiser friend recently characterized our demographics as “doom and doomer.” Younger inquirers are not “joiners” as their forebears were. We are dazzled by and wary of the rising tide of technology. We are riven by conflict. The globe is perched on our urban doorstep. The world economy writhes amid massive transition. We worry that we do not know our Bibles as we once did. Everyone wonders how to attract the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, when we are not debating how big the “none” segment really is. The young in our post-industrial age long for the personal and intimate, but also for the traditional and rooted.

In such a context, the most successful ventures remain straightforwardly Wesleyan. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow entitled his book about small groups I Come Away Stronger. And so Alpha now has its own bishop, seminary, and international conferences. Its secret is a meal, a prayer, a joke, a Bible lesson; the dour Mr. Wesley had all that, without the joke. The heart of its power is the intimacy and accountability of the small group. To be sure, Alpha has its challenges, but Holy Trinity Brompton succeeds in leading people back to the assembly, the body of Christ gathered, and in encouraging groups to reproduce themselves.

Another encouraging trend may be seen in the continuing mass of evangelicals on the Canterbury trail, identified a generation ago by Robert Webber. Young people at Wheaton or Biola or Briercrest are still drawn to the deep roots of liturgy and patristic theology, without sacrificing their commitment to the Scriptures and their entrepreneurial gifts in evangelism. At Wycliffe College in Toronto, new Anglicans from InterVarsity or Power to Change bring skills in mentoring and testimony that are quintessentially Wesleyan and greatly needed among Anglicans. Here is evangelistic purpose in catholic form: a force for renewal in our tradition and circumstance.

In other cases the Methodist roots may be harder to identify immediately. England has seen, in recent decades, an effort to come to terms with the rapid and pervasive secularization of society, as a result of which Christians have become a small minority whose beliefs and practices seem increasingly strange to their compadres. Evangelicals, in particular, in the Church of England have attempted to respond via what is called Fresh Expressions. Team members live in and seek to understand a neighborhood, and eventually try to start a Bible study in a pub, or with skateboarders, or perhaps in a laundry. This low-key approach seeks to avoid scaring possible new Christians away. Going where people are and starting small groups is of course Wesleyan. But the program faces challenges. Leading new Christians back to the body as a whole is tricky. And some practitioners may misunderstand the movement as a technique that is free to drop its conversionist roots. Method without the converted heart and the orthodox mind is no longer truly Methodist.

Recall east Africa after balokole revival. The standard congregational minister was a lay leader, called either a “catechist” or an “evangelist.” What was once a minor order in the Church came to play a major role. Here too the Methodist precedent proved powerful, since Wesley himself was called the “patron and friend of the lay preacher.” The African lay evangelists had gone to Bible school where they were mentored and learned the outline of Scripture’s story. They were left under a baobob tree in a village and told to go door-to-door to gather and plant a church. Buildings were made simply of mud and stick. A youth choir and the Mothers’ Union were set in place, with fellowship groups for the converted. Ministers saw to their own material needs by farming like their congregants. The priest was more like an archdeacon, visiting every few months to oversee the work. He would also preside at the Eucharist, which was less frequent, and yet it was an occasion of spiritual excitement — a true feast day. All of this would have made Wesley’s heart glad.

We might usefully consider the Total Ministry movement (of which I was a part some years ago in Navajoland) in this light. It has sought to discern the ordained — usually non-stipendiary — from the congregation in each place. It has enabled many rural churches to survive, and laudably stressed complementary lay ministries. Yet one wonders if its emphasis on the ordained has discouraged the alternative of a strong lay order of catechist evangelists. If ours is a biblically illiterate generation, with a real need for ministry in the Methodist model, should not such an order of lay evangelists have a place of honor?

The Rev. George Sumner is principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. This essay appeared the October 19 edition of TLC as “‘All Thanks to the Lamb, Who Gives Us to Meet’: John Wesley and the Common Thread of Modern Anglican Mission.”

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Wesley and Modern Anglican Mission


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