The extreme center...

United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones wrote a book about our doctrine that called The United Methodist Church "the extreme center." That is a good description. We are a church and a (Wesleyan) theological tradition that quite deliberately sees itself as at once "catholic and evangelical and reformed" (2008 Book of Discipline, para. 102, page 59).

We hold to the ancient catholic faith of the undivided church, especially as expressed in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the formulation of the Council of Chalcedon (para.101, page 42). Through Anglicanism we've inherited the classic 'catholic' liturgy and order of the ancient church, adapted to our own context (this, after all, is why Scott Jones is a 'bishop' not something else). We use the tradition and experience of the whole catholic/universal Church, across the ages to help us interpret Scripture.

Our official doctrinal statements, the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, not only reaffirm this catholic faith, but also clearly embrace some of the key insights of the Reformation era: such as vernacular liturgy, married clergy, justification by faith, the offering of the Holy Sacrament in both kinds to the lay people, and especially the primacy of Biblical authority. So we are a reformed as well as a catholic church, especially in our emphasis on the primacy of Biblical authority for the life of the Christian Church.

We are also a church that has from the beginning been an evangelical church, seeking to share the good news (evangel) of Jesus Christ through word and deed with the whole world. We were, historically, deeply connected with the "Great Awakenings" and "revivalism" as Methodist preachers called upon sinners everywhere to repent, to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then to express that faith through changed lives and concrete actions in the world. We have always emphasized the need for each sinner to personally experience the forgiveness and salvation of Christ; and from the beginning we have been singing those great revivalistic songs.

This comprehensive identity, catholic+reformed+evangelical, is the great strength of Wesleyan Christianity. You get a little hint of that in the video below from Trinity United Methodist Church (Wilmette, Il). The church's worship space and the sung doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" by Anglican bishop Thomas Ken (Hymnal #95), are clearly inherited from our Anglican/catholic roots. The hymn that is then sung ("Pass me not, O gentle Savior") is one of the great evangelical revival hymns (351 in The United Methodist Hymnal). In an Episcopal or Catholic church you might get this glorious worship space, and the rich liturgical and sacramental worship that it signifies; in a Baptist or Evangelical Free church you might get this wonderful and heart-felt revival hymn; in this United Methodist Church you are given both.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the UMC maintains fidelity to the deposit of faith that 'was delivered once for all unto the saints'--- if she embodies that faith which is 'according to the whole', that which has been believed by the whole ecclesia at all times, and in all places--- neither adding nor subtracting from it--- then she is truly catholic. If catholic, then what need is there of reform?
The steps of reform mentioned here: "...vernacular liturgy, married clergy, justification by faith, the offering of the Holy Sacrament in both kinds to the lay people..." indicate a turning of the clock back several centuries to a time when western Christendom remained catholic with the saints of preceding centuries.
But I am wondering whether this reform has met its goal, or if there is yet further reform to come.

8:35 PM, December 21, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Good point. I would say that our being (and wanting to see ourselves as) "reformed" is simply an acknowledgment that, at times, the church has drifted away from the "faith once delivered to the saints" and has drifted away from fidelity to the Spirit of God, and at such times, reform is necessary.

We United Methodists consciously embrace some of the reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Reformers themselves certainly did not think of "reform" as "innovation" - their calls was "Ad fontes!" - back to the source of the faith, by which they meant the scriptures and the early church.

In this sense, the Reformers saw themselves more as fully catholic than those who embraced medieval innovations that departed from the true catholicity of the early centuries of the church. So "reform" is not necessarily opposed to catholicity. But we do know that in our current cultural context people will understand that, by calling ourselves Reformed, we will simply be signaling our acceptance of the major 16th century reforms (some of which are now accepted by Roman Catholicism as well so that it too, to some extent, is now "reformed" as well).

I am not a big advocate of that whole "reformed but always reforming idea" because, as you point out, it means that if you ever got to a point where your doctrine and practice was truly God-pleasing and Spirit-led, what further need of reform would you have?

10:38 AM, December 22, 2011  

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