1 John 1
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
This Methodist Heritage Month we are going to be looking at the major denominations that have come together or split apart to form the United Methodist Church that we live in today. Now, very easily this could become a series of boring history lectures given from a pulpit for no real purpose other than to fill our heads and maybe help us win at some very specific bar trivia nights. So let me lay out the particular reason I think we need this kind of reflection now more than ever. Some of you might not know this, but United Methodism has been having some trouble over the last few decades. From the moment the EUB and the UMC merged in 1968, there has been a building up of all kinds of conflict, culminating in the dreaded business that has begun today.
A new denomination has formed, the Global Methodist Church, and it has for several years now, in the form of influence from the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its related movements, been pushing for churches to leave United Methodism and join them. I do not know how many churches across the world will actually join in with this denomination but having read their founding documents I do not think that a change of the sign outside a church will make much a difference. Other than changing the way the church is run to look more like what it did thirty years ago, this movement is a lot of fuss and trouble just to regress to the past.
I will be upfront in saying I was called to be a United Methodist and I don’t see God changing that trajectory in my life. I’ll be more upfront and say that I think the creation of a new denomination, without the careful deliberation of a general conference and without collaboration, only invites more fighting and conflict. We are called to be one Church together, and it is an absolute travesty that we would rather pick up our ball and go home than figure out how to do that. Especially when the only posted goal of those leaving is to be less inclusive.
My goal this month is to walk through our history as a denomination, and to tell the stories of each of our predecessors, because those stories are important. They remind us that the issues we face today are not new or different in anyway from what people faced long ago. We have always been people, we have always been the Church, and when people meet together in the Church, struggle is bound to ensue. So today we are going to begin our journey of understanding our past so that we can begin to dream of what our future might be, and we do that by joining together in the liturgy and the history of the Anglican church.
The Anglican Church was born out of a time of great uncertainty in the British Isles and the larger world. In mainland Europe, a monk turned Bible Scholar had recently made a stink about the Catholic Church’s failure to reform on several immediate issues. Bishops were in charge of too much land to be useful, money was being accrued for building projects rather than to help people, and a lack of Biblical literacy led to a stratification of piety between the rich and the poor, the clergy and the laity. All in all, there were problems that needed fixed. The current Pope, Leo X, was not pleased with this monk named Martin Luther, and so he excommunicated him for his trouble.
Luther became popular among certain monarchs in Europe because he allowed them to make a clean break from the Vatican. While the Holy Roman Empire kept Catholicism as the dominate power on the Continent, many of its constituent kingdoms were working to separate themselves from Catholic influence. For reasons that were as political as they were religious, the Church experienced its second major schism – the Protestant Reformation had begun.
England was ruled by a devout Catholic, and that kept any Protestantism from taking hold for some time. King Henry VIII was deeply religious and had married a Spanish princess known for her own piety. With the leadership of his Lord High Chancellor, St. Thomas More, it seemed that little could encroach upon this Catholic bastion floating in the Atlantic. Of course, we know this would not remain true forever. Henry fell in love with a young woman, Anne Boleyn, a woman with protestant leanings. Add to this a fear that he had entered his first marriage wrongfully and a desire to see himself rid of Vatican taxes, and the stage was set for Henry to follow the example of other monarchs of his time. This culminated in Henry forming the Church of England, placing himself as the chief authority of it, and furthering shattering Western Christianity.
Henry’s Church was essentially Catholic in all but its name and leadership. The ritual remained the same and Latin was still the primary language of scholars and priests. Henry would change some of these things before his death, but for the most part Anglican Christianity was just Catholicism sans-Pope. His daughter Mary would reinstate Catholicism in England, and her harsh treatment of the Protestants who had banished her and her mother led to her being dubbed “Bloody Mary,” by her enemies. Mary Tudor would eventually die, and her sister Elizabeth would assume the throne in her place. Elizabeth was not as hotheaded as her father or sister, and established the Anglican policy of the Via Media, “The Middle Path.”
This concept sought to walk between the ways of the Lutherans and the Calvinists on one side and the Catholics on the other. Over the course of just three monarchs, Christianity in Europe had become a lot more complicated. There were now the foundations of what would become Presbyterians, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and all other manner of sects mixing and mingling in England. A monarch who sided too quickly with one would face the wrath of others.
This policy had obvious problems. As we talked about when we looked at virtues – picking the middle option in any given conflict seldom makes anyone happy for long. Not having an opinion, or forming only moderate ones, can lead to a great deal of unrest. Elizabeth ruled over a fairly prosperous England and a vibrant Church, but her successors struggled. James I, one such descendant, was the first Scottish monarch to take the throne, ruling over a United Kingdom for the first time. James was seen as a quiet, thoughtful ruler, but was also controversial because of his various romantic affairs with men and women throughout the nobility. Nonetheless, he won a great many people over by commissioning a definitive English version of the Bible. The King James Bible, or the “Authorized Version,” as it is sometimes called, came together under his reign.
Within a generation, the Anglican Church would crumble following a Puritan revolt. The Puritan government was brutal, but ultimately short lived. King Charles II took the throne back and re-established the monarchy. His rule would see the writing of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a version of which is still used today, and a book whose Communion liturgy we are using for our eucharistic celebration. There was still plenty of disagreement among British Christians, with dozens of sects vying for political power under the larger umbrella of Anglicanism. Still, a path was set to find a more meaningful space where all these different groups could come together and worship, a more central Church that could really make a difference in people’s lives.
We’ll look next week at how John and Charles Wesley came to begin a revitalizing mission in the Anglican Church, but this week I want to talk about the lessons we can begin to take from this bit of history. I have gone over about two hundred years of stuff in just a few minutes, I simplified a lot and skipped over a little more, but I hope that we can see that our earliest direct ancestor in Christianity was a complicated, mixed bag of good and bad. From our origins in a man wanting a divorce, to the warring madness of the English Civil War.
Yet, Anglicanism has been willing to grapple with its missteps, and to try and change. It has survived to this day, not just in England but in the Episcopal communions around the world, precisely because it has embarked on the difficult self-reflection that allows for new growth. As our scripture reminds us, we all are sinners redeemed by Christ’s work on the cross. We all are equal in our need for Christ, and we all come together to worship that selfsame savior. For the Anglican Church that meant not the moderate view between extremes, but the views which were central to the faith. The Via Media, morphed over time to capture the essential nature of Christianity, not just its least offensive permutations.
Recently, in a meeting where discussions about the divides in the United Methodist Church were being held, someone suggested we strive to find a new Via Media. It is not easy to find a solution to our present disagreements that will make everyone happy. There is not an easy middle road on matters of human sexuality, for example, which is the issue many claim this most recent schism of ours is about. How can we be neutral when the question at hand is whether all people are worthy of love and respect and acceptance? I do believe in a church that allows people to have different perspectives on this sort of thing, but only to a point.
The reason that this issue is so strongly felt, is that it impacts the very essence of who a person is. I can disagree with someone’s politics and see them as reasoning differently than I can. When I disagree on something as large and as core to a person as their sexuality or their gender identity, then the stakes are often higher than just occasional arguments. The issue is a person’s human dignity. Disagreements are inevitable, but human dignity must be nonnegotiable. As we delve forward into our history, we’ll see when we as a Church failed in that mission time and time again. As we chase the Via Media together, let us not accept apathy or bigotry as moderate stances, but excel in love and excellence toward one another. – Amen.