Not being a Methodist, I have not taken much notice of that “renegade” Anglican cleric from the eighteenth century. However, being a north countryman, I have had quite a good deal of contact with Methodists. The first thing that struck me is that they were such good and enthusiastic hymn-singers. This comes from their piety, moral integrity and the emphasis they place on the experience of the faith. Their chapels resemble those of most non-conformist denominations in England and the reformed churches on the Continent. The seating arrangements are designed for large numbers of worshippers, including side galleries, and the church is dominated by a pulpit and the organ behind where the choir would sit. In front of the pulpit, you would find the communion table in an area marked off by front and side communion rails with lots of little holes. Those holes are for the little glasses for giving communion under the species of wine (or grape juice in some places) in individual glasses. Methodist worship is close to pre-Oxford Movement Anglicanism, and I have just heard that one Superintendent Minister of Westminster Central Hall celebrated a fairly middle-of-the-road Anglican Eucharist and even wore vestments. In this, Methodism is not foreign from the high-church movement of Lutheranism and even in some local parishes of Swiss Calvinism.
The one thing we have to remember about Wesley is that he remained an Anglican to the end of his life. Even if he forced to conduct most of his ministry of evangelism outside Anglican structures, he never formally broke with the Church of England. I refer you to this article for an introduction to John Wesley.
One thing about Wesley that impressed me as I saw the life-sized statue at Westminster Central Hall is his long hair. I have no reason to believe that he ever wore the powdered wig of gentlemen, as was in fashion in those days. His coiffure always seems to have been his natural hair, as in the younger portrait of him from before he went grey.
The style is quite surprising for a man of strict ascetic life. The rolled curls seem only to be possible by means similar to what women use to achieve the same kind of effect. The third portrait shows curly hair, not unlike my own, and falling more naturally. Certainly, he saw sprucing himself up as important before preaching to a crowd and leading his movement.
Having commented on some aspects of Romanticism, I see much in common between Wesley and someone like William Blake whose life spanned into the early nineteenth century. Blake rose against the Industrial Revolution and the way it treated human beings as expendable commodities. Romanticism was really a reaction against “classical” rationalism and an appeal to the heart and the imagination. These, like in the spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, would define pietism and the quest for Christian spirituality and the individual person. Wesley’s theology had much more in common with the Lutheran and Moravian traditions than with the Calvinism of the Established Church.
I also admire the way he reached out to Christians of all traditions. His problem with the Church of England was canonical and disciplinary – he disregarded institutions and jurisdictional boundaries. Wesley and the first Methodists worked among the poor as did the later Oxford Movement Romantics. They were even accused at times of trying to reintroduce Catholicism! The reasons were obvious: institutional inertia, self-interest in the clergy and spiritual apathy, inordinate wealth. One has only to compare Wesley with Francis of Assisi. What good is a Church that doesn’t put God and prayer in first place? We all have lessons to learn about our missionary duty.
What did Wesley say about the relationship between faith and reason? The issue is discussed today in the discipline called fundamental theology. In the history of Christianity, there have often been excesses of rationalism on one hand and fideism on the other. He seems to have taken a moderate position, provided that everything is justifiable by the words of Scripture. Wesley was opposed to the Calvinistic teaching on predestination. Wesley was familiar with the notion of Theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy – salvation being something progressive and beginning in this life.
Another Romantic trait in this man from before the Romantic era was his humanitarianism. Like Wilberforce, Wesley was opposed to slavery and was influential in its abolition. I read in the Wikipedia article:
He is described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. Wesley married very unhappily at the age of 48 to a widow, Mary Vazeille, and had no children. Vazeille left him 15 years later, to which Wesley wryly reported in his journal, “I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.”
Going by the life-sized statue, he was small, hardly coming up to my chin – a bit like me standing next to my Bishop who towers above my head. I read about his wife being an absolutely horrible woman, consumed by jealousy and capable of dragging her husband around by his hair. He was certainly glad to see her go!
What really is of interest is Wesley’s fundamental philosophy other than being a pious Christian. He was a logical thinker and a born leader. He wrote prose and poetry, and of course, his immortal hymns for singing in church. It would be an anachronism to call Wesley a Romantic, but several characteristics show the fundamental tendency in his thinking, his feeling – and the individual personality so beautifully symbolised by his hair.
Wesley needs a lot of study, and we all have many lessons to learn from his example as a witness of Christ’s love.