Guiding Theological Principles

What does it mean for the World Methodist Council to be “One”? This question will guide the program of The 21st World Methodist Conference. And it is a complex one. An association that represents 80 Methodist, Wesleyan, and related Uniting and United Churches across the world, the combined membership of which totals over 80.5 million people, the World Methodist Council is hardly homogenous. Each member church traces its heritage back to the Wesley brothers. But they are not outwardly uniform. And they need not be. Diversity in its many forms is a key characteristic of the Council and one of its gifts to the world. The problem, however, is that diversity cannot serve as the conceptual anchor of an association. Every organized group must share a uniting tenet. And this gives rise to the fundamental organizing principle of the 21st World Methodist Conference. The member churches of the World Methodist Council are not one because they are uniform.  The member churches of the World Methodist Council are one because they are unified.

The primary point of unity among the member churches is theological. All profess a faith in the triune God as outlined in the Nicene Creed. So that is where the 21st World Methodist Conference will begin. The opening worship service will invite participants to marvel at the wonder of the triune God, who is the very manifestation of what the World Methodist Council strives to be. God is at the same time unified and diverse. Neither quality outshines the other. Just as soon as you begin to understand the beauty of the three, the marvel of the one comes into focus. And just as soon as you begin to understand the beauty of the one, the marvel of the three comes into focus.

The language of marveling here is intentional. According to the introductory notes to the 1985 Abingdon edition of Wesley’s sermon “On The Trinity,” “the crucial point [about the Trinity for Wesley] is that the mystery of ‘the Three-One God’ is better left as mystery, to be pondered and adored. Speculations must not be overblown nor exalted to the rank of definitive statements” (373). We know that God is “the Three-One,” as Wesley says (385). But the question remains whether we can comprehend it.

Here the program committee wants to make it clear that we believe there is no better place to marvel at an unfathomable idea than in Houston, the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. From the work of NASA and other international space agencies, we can know that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars in each one. But such figures boggle the mind. Can we fully comprehend them?

It is somewhat disingenuous to claim that the member churches of the World Methodist Council are united by a shared belief in the Trinitarian ideals of the Nicene Creed. The Trinity is a shared proclamation of all Christendom. Indeed, in the final portion of his sermon “On The Trinity,” John Wesley claimed, “the knowledge of the Three-One God is interwoven with all true Christian faith, with all vital religion” (385). Orthodox trinitarianism is not a distinctive characteristic of Wesleyan theology. Thus, the second day of the Conference will invite participants into a conversation about a Wesleyan perspective on the Trinity.

In modern theological parlance, one might say that Wesley understood the Trinity to be the perfect manifestation of love. Along the same lines, had he the terminology Wesley could have said that the essence of Christian religion is the believer’s knowledge of the love-fueled perichoretic dance of the Trinity on the one hand, and the believer’s participation in that perichoretic love of God and neighbor on the other. In a sermon entitled, “Spiritual Worship,” Wesley stated,

We may learn hence, secondly, that this happy knowledge of the true God is only another name for religion; I mean Christian religion, which indeed is the only one that deserves the name. Religion, as to the nature or essence of it, does not lie in this or that set of notions, vulgarly called “faith”; nor in a round of duties, however carefully “reformed” from error and superstition. It does not consist in any number of outward actions. No; it is properly and directly consists in the knowledge and love of God, as manifested in the Son of his love, through the eternal Spirit (99).

United in faith, the Wesleyan people are all on a shared journey toward Christian perfection. This life of holiness aims toward perfect love of God and neighbor. In his sermon “On Perfection,” Wesley wrote,

This is the sum of Christian perfection: it is all comprised in that one word, love. The first branch of it is the love of God: and as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” these contain the whole of Christian perfection.

The second full day of the 21st World Methodist Conference will consider the principle of Christian perfection and its power to unite diverse people across the globe, Wesleyan and otherwise.

The final day of the Conference turns forthrightly toward the future. Having marveled at the mystery of the three-in-one, having recounted Wesley’s Trinitarian theology of love, and having found the call toward unity in love, Conference participants will spend the waning hours of their time together considering their shared mission of love. The Wesleyan tradition is built upon a delicate balance between works of piety and works of mercy. In his sermon “On Zeal,” for instance, Wesley wrote,

In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne, which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance…In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety: reading and hearing the Word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one—the church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.

The question, then, is what the World Methodist Council’s particular Christian congregations of the church universal will do over the next quinquennium “to provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” If God is love perfected and calls believers to be perfect likewise, whither shall the World Methodist Council go “united…together in one”?