I spent a brief time in England this summer, participating in the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies, which is held once every five years. Just prior we visited in Durham, one of the northernmost cities in the country. Pam and I worshipped at Durham Cathedral on August 11--exactly 1020 years after the laying of the foundation stone on August 11, 1093---and saw an exhibit of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a transcription of the four gospels by monks in the seventh century that helped to deepen the spirituality of a divided church under siege.
England is the birthplace of Methodist Christianity. We were in residence at Christ Church in Oxford, where John and Charles Wesley attended college and trained for the ministry. The Wesleys were ordained in the Christ Church Cathedral as priests of the Church of England, and understood themselves (especially Charles) to be within that tradition their entire lives. One of the meaningful experiences of the Institute was a Methodist covenant renewal service in the cathedral where John and Charles had made their ordination promises just prior to their missionary journey to Georgia.
My working group in the Institute focused on mission and evangelism. Among the 18 of us were representatives from Jamaica, New Zealand, India, Cambodia, Ireland, Brazil, England and the U.S. Our topics included immigration, discipleship in a virtual world, E. Stanley Jones' practice of evangelism and interfaith dialogue, relief, the environmental crisis, the explosion of Christianity in China, a systematic theology of salvation, and the development of new monastic communities.
One of the participants in this working group was Dr. Jack Jackson, an elder in the Florida Conference and a professor of evangelism and global Methodism at the Claremont School of Theology in California. Dr. Jackson gave a presentation on the relevance of E. Stanley Jones' ministries of public lectures, round table interfaith discussions, and ashrams in our present multi-faith context. I am grateful that Jack is influencing a generation of seminary students in the areas of evangelism and mission. In addition, I was able to spend time with Rev. Chris Corbin, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and a provisional elder in the Florida Conference. Chris's paper looked at the relationship between our the emerging digital culture and our Wesleyan tradition. I had met Chris at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa and enjoyed becoming reacquainted with him.
One of the highlights for me was an extended conversation with Dr. Martyn Atkins, the General Secretary of the British Methodist Church and a leading proponent of the renewal movement known as "fresh expressions". A joint initiative with the Church of England, "fresh expressions" is a creative response to the steep decline of Christian profession in England. Aware that many persons in England will never cross the threshold of a local church; "fresh expressions" equips lay and clergy leaders to begin "fresh expressions" of Christianity in the networks where people live--sports, school, neighborhoods, and music scenes. This is described as a "mixed economy" of traditional and non-traditional mission, and each is essential to the fulfillment of God's purpose. It is clear to me that our two churches, British Methodist and United Methodist, have much to learn from each other.
The Oxford Institute had as its theme this year the relationship between "Wesleyan communities and the worlds beyond Christianity." This inevitably led us, again and again, to basic questions: How and why do we share our faith in Jesus Christ with others? How do we listen to others, respect their traditions and at the same time bear witness to our faith in words and in actions? How can we do this in humble and non-violent ways? And in an increasingly non-religious culture, how do we awaken our people to the movement of the Holy Spirit?
In May, I had the gift of celebrating 125 years of Methodism in Cuba. 2013 has also marked the 275th anniversary of John Wesley's "Aldersgate" experience, the evening, when Wesley was made vividly aware of the grace of God and the assurance of his salvation. He would go forward to initiate a movement that has taken the gospel to the ends of the earth. You and I are blessed to be his descendants, and yet we are called, in each generation, to share the good news of our faith in ever-changing world.