One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing is offering some reflections on our events after their done. Rather than wait till our series is done on Local Explorations in Ecumenical Diaglogue we’ve decided to chime in after each session. Dean will be offering these reflections. This only seems appropriate since the series was his idea and he pulled it together some excellent contributors with relative ease. Our first night was on Wesleyanism and our guest was Greg Lawton. We will be recording these and making them available as soon as they are ready. We were also glad to see an article in our local West Michigan Christian News by Ann Byle. Thank you Ann. Now here’s Dean.
Works of Love, Songs of Theology: Greg Lawton and the Wesleyans
First of all, many thanks to all those who came to support Rev. Lawton and this series! I really enjoyed Greg’s talk, and the dialogue afterwards was especially illuminating. The audience was very personal and interactive, and Greg was a knowledgeable guide in helping us discern the generalities and specifics of the Wesleyan tradition. The “Wesleyan tradition,” in Greg’s talk, functioned as a wide umbrella encompassing Wesleyans and Methodists of many stripes, making the talk especially illuminating as it took very broad strokes without sacrificing the particular problems facing his faith community.
The talk began with Greg’s adept personal and historical introduction to the development of this tradition. Greg grew up with the emergence of the United Methodists, and though it was an inherited tradition he willfully chose to embrace it. Based on his discussion of the historical origins of the Wesleys and the Methodists, it really is no wonder why. Perhaps the most illuminating parts of the presentation for me were the examination of the diverse and grassroots movement of the Wesleys, the repeated emphasis on social action within past and current embodiments of this movement, and the discussion of current problems facing the Wesleyan community (particularly the debated issue of homosexual unions within the church). Greg presented this narrative in a way that was both informative and entertaining, including an emphasis on the musical origins of Wesleyan theology, whereby Charles Wesley would propagate his brother’s teachings via hymns (much like the early Christians), many of which are preserved by multiple denominations in their regular worship. This emphasis was helped by his willingness to sing a few of the more famous hymns for us, and he offered the idea that we ought to continue this tradition intentionally.
Having come without an intimate knowledge of the Wesleyan tradition, I left with a much deeper understanding and appreciation for this layered and elastic group. The tradition speaks to theological innovation and creativity, a deep concern for the marginalized, and a commitment to grounded, existential thinking, all of which are prominent aspects of Jesus’ own ministry. In the talk and throughout the discussion, Greg suggested the Wesleyan tradition had experienced its first hundred years as a period of increasing diversity and its second hundred as a time of reconciliation and unity. With the onset of recent tensions, the future remains unclear to him as to which strand will prevail in the next hundred years, though he remains hopeful that the trend toward unity will continue. When I asked him about the possibility of cross-denominational reconciliation, the kind of talks going on among Anglicans and Roman Catholics, for instance, he seemed to be more concerned with the Wesleyan tradition unifying in its own various splinters first, picking up its pieces before reaching out toward other traditions. That said, the repeated emphasis on the Wesleyan commitment to dialogue and inter-denominational projects was clear, and it seemed opening with this talk was a good move for a series such as this.
I really appreciated Greg’s presence and demeanor. He was a great help to me, personally, and I look forward to seeing the audience members again as we continue these dialogues. After a brush with the English reformation, this Thursday’s talk with Dr. James K. A. Smith on the Reformed tradition will be an interesting presentation, to be sure. We look forward to seeing you!