The Great Methodist Project

by Kathleen LaCamera

Response Magazine - June, 2006

John Wesley believed that the key task of the Methodist movement he founded in 18th century Britain was “the spreading scriptural holiness” across the land.” Three centuries on, the task of “spreading holiness” is something we don’t talk about much any more. And that’s a pity.

In a letter to fellow Methodist Robert Carr Brackenbury, Wesley wrote:
This doctrine [holiness] is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up.”  (The Letters of John Wesley, ed. John Telford, Vol. 8).

Holiness is at the heart of what Wesley thought Methodists should be doing. So why has it fallen off our theological radar? How is it that so many of the “people called Methodists” reach for reference books to unpack the meaning of  “holiness” when the contemporary church’s own outreach to the poor and marginalized, the spiritually hungry and imprisoned, illuminates a “holiness project” Wesley would have recognized? Where did we loose the holiness plot?

The Great Methodist Project
Scholar Johnston McMaster of the Irish School of Ecumenics, said as early as the 19th century Methodists were reducing the concept of “holiness” to a very inward dimension; a personal and rather privatized notion which is not what Wesley intended.

“He called it ‘The Great Methodist Project’ and he was really talking of social, economic and political transformation, casting the net wide, outwardly into the world,” explained McMaster.

Wesley’s thoughts on holiness evolved throughout his lifetime. He uses a number of terms such as sanctification, perfection, and perfect love almost interchangeably with holiness. Even from early university days at Oxford, when John Wesley and his brother Charles formed a group dubbed “the Holy Club”, those involved in the Methodist movement combined a personal or inner pursuit of holiness – through Bible study, prayer, fasting and other forms of personal devotion – with outward holiness - serving and visiting the poor, needy and imprisoned. 

Donald Kirkham, Associate Professor of Methodist Studies at Yale Divinity School explains holiness this way: “If justification is what God does for us in Christ, holiness is what God does in us through Christ. It is nothing less than transformation of lives.”

Kirkham says this transformation isn’t just about feeling inwardly different. It’s about living outwardly changed. It’s about taking seriously the whole of the great commandment in Matthew 22:37-40 to love God with all your heart and soul and mind AND to love your neighbor as yourself.  Inward holiness is about growing in grace, striving to have the mind of Christ. Outward holiness is the fulfilling of our love of God through loving our neighbor.

Methodist theologian Theodore Jennings, in his book Good News to the Poor (Abingdon Press, 1990), says that grace is the basis of holiness. He say:  

“For Wesley grace really works. It really changes things, people, relationships and the world…Grace produces [a] visible transformation immediately and not indirectly… A conversion that left unchanged my manner of relating to my neighbor would be an imaginary conversion, an exercise in ‘irreality’. Grace produces real effects.”

Holiness combines person faith and social commitment
For the Rev. Leslie Griffiths, pastor of Wesley’s Chapel and the Leysian Mission in the heart of urban London, Wesley’s unique contribution is holding together inward and outward - personal and social - notions of holiness. Wesley was really all about growing in love and adding value to society,” Griffiths said.

“If people ask me why I’m a Methodist and what it is about my Methodism that I find convincing, it’s the combination of personal faith and social commitment.” 

John Wesley lived, worked and was buried at the Wesley’s Chapel site. Each year thousands visit here from all over the world. Not far from the chapel was the Old Foundry, a complex which Wesley created in 1739 out of the ruins of a disused canon-smelting works. In the foundry, Wesley created a home for older adults where his own mother eventually lived, a school for boys and girls unable to obtain the usual references and money needed for education, a worship center, a medical dispensary, and even a revolving loan fund. Unfortunately nothing remains of foundry and its exact location is no longer known.

Griffiths’ ministerial colleague, the Rev. Jennifer Potter, is pleased to serve a parish with important links to Methodist heritage. However, she says the church is “keen for people to see us as more than just a religious theme park.”

“Wesley’s Chapel is a vibrant congregation with an outreach to the city and to its interfaith community,” said Potter.

The diverse community worshipping at here today comes from an area of London where more than 100 languages are spoken. Like many London churches Wesley’s Chapel is involved helping asylum seekers and other vulnerable and marginalized people. The chapel’s interfaith work has taken on new urgency and energy since bombings in London last summer.  Potter said local Christian, Buddhist and Sikh religious leaders are doing all they can to support a new, moderate leadership team at a local mosque trying hard to turn around its reputation for “breeding extremists.”

“Our being here is not primarily for the members [of the church], but to be a positive influence on the life of the whole neighborhood,” observed Potter.

Holiness for all
Unlike Protestant theologian John Calvin, Wesley believed it was possible for everyone to achieve holiness. He believed God is working in everyone; that God gives everyone a chance.  Wesley biographer Henry Rack explained:

“Wesley had an optimistic view of the kinds of gifts that God actually or potentially gives you. The further you engage with holiness, the more you get.”

Rack said Wesley is keen to see how we not only embrace God’s love for us, but what we do with it.  This notion of a kind of progressive holiness is one of Wesley’s great contributions.

“You build on what you are given,” explained Rack. “God gives the gift of conversion. Once its there, the grace keeps coming, but you have to make use of it. For Wesley what’s important is not only how you begin, but how you go on after conversion.”

Rack said that the Christian life is not just about the love of God but also loving your neighbor.

“That has practical applications,” he explained. “You must do physical good to them, not just engage in wish washy hoping for their conversion. That’s all part of it.”

Holiness means getting your hands dirty: The Livestock Auction Mart
In his “Twelve Rules for the Helpers” -reproduced in the first edition of the “Large Minutes”, 1753 - Wesley says “Go not only to those who want you, but those who want you most.”

“Want” means “need” in this 18th century context. Loving your neighbour - expressing holiness outwardly  - for Wesley meant going to where you are most needed.

The Rev. Elizabeth Clark grew up in the very urban East End of London. When she found herself the pastor of five churches in rural Yorkshire, one of the first things she had to do is figure out what her rural neighbors needed most from her and from the congregations she was to pastor.

“When I first came I asked myself what makes this place tick?” remembered Clark. Soon she discovered the local auction mart where farmers come to sell their live stock. Clark got a farmer who was a member of her church to take her to the weekly mart and introduce her around.

“Sometimes nothing much would happen,” said Clark, “but then a person would ask me a question or we’d have a chat about something and I’d think, ah, that’s why I’m here.”

The time she spent getting to know local farmers at the mart established links that became crucial during the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis. Clark’s Yorkshire farming community was traumatized by a disease that nearly destroyed the British dairy and livestock industry. Unable to leave their farms for fear of spreading foot and mouth disease or bringing it into their herds, farmers remained cut off for months. Others lost all of their livestock to disease-controlling culls. Even now, the financial and psychological scars from that period remain.

Because of relationships that began at the auction mart, Clark was able to head-up a letter-writing campaign that kept links going with people when visiting in person was impossible. She also helped farm families fill out forms and apply for the government funding. And she did a lot of listening. Depression and the threat of suicide among farmers were common.

When the crisis passed, people rang Clark to thank her and those who worked with her for their support during the crisis.

“One farmer in Wensleydale told me, ‘I don’t know what happens, but when I talk to you the spirit starts to flow.’ Then you know it’s worthwhile,” said Clark.

In addition to her parish responsibilities, Clark is now the part-time Rural Officer for the Methodist Church in her region. She also is a member of the Farm Crisis Network which continues to assist farmers across Britain.

“Work with farmers and contact at the auction mart doesn’t necessarily translate into [people] coming to chapel,” said Clark. “It’s a ministry of presence, my role is to listen.”

She says that loving your neighbor means getting out there and being with people.

“That’s part of our bones,” says Clark. “I grew up with a Methodism that isn’t afraid to get our hands dirty. I wear a collar, but I don’t preach to people in the auction mart. You have to earn your place…. It’s all about loving, giving and doing.”  

Holiness means venturing beyond the comfort zone: The Night Cafe
John Wesley is often called a practical and even pragmatic theologian.
Johnson McMaster explained:
“In his own time and own way, Wesley is the forerunner to the perspective that says response to need becomes a theological reflection. Theology shaped by action and experience. We’ve narrowed [holiness] a great deal to refer to an inner experience only, when experience for Wesley was life and the whole of life.”

The Nexus Night Café in the center of Manchester is a ministry to night club-goers -primarily aged 18 to 40 - and those working in the night-time economy of this city in the northwest of England. It caters to a community of people which café organizers say the church has often neglected.

Cris Acher is the 29 year-old Methodist minister who has been a key force in setting up the Night Café.

“I have a real passion for my generation, a generation that the church hasn’t been able to meet the needs of,” observed Acher. “There’s a huge cultural gap between what happens in church and what happens in the world and we have to re-evaluate that…. Night life is buzzing and alive and God is in it. The Church has been guilty of condemning it. ”

Open every Saturday night from 11:30pm – 4am, the cafe is a place where people can get a cup of coffee, call a taxi, relax and have a chat with friends after a night out. It’s a space for people who might otherwise be walking the streets after the clubs close. Some come looking for help, while others simply want to unwind. There’s even an Oxygen bar, for those who think a bit of 02 will help them breathe easier after the smoky atmosphere of the clubs. “Professional door staff” (i.e. bouncers) help maintain a secure, relaxed environment inside and outside the café.  Acher said local pub owners and their staff promote the Night café, glad to have a safe place to send customers after closing time.

The café is located in the basement of the Methodist Central Hall church and works in partnership with Sanctus1, an “emerging city center church” that meets weekly for creative worship and discussion. The Nexus project also includes a creative arts program and soon-to-be opened recording studio, where a special initiative with disabled musicians of school age on up will be on offer.

“I’m a city boy and I get so much out of being in a city. I feel close to God in the concrete and the creativity that exists in the city,” explained Acher. “In the church there is this fear of the city. I just want to say we need to break out of that, not to be afraid and see what God is doing.”

The café has been in operation since 2005 and many who first stumble into the Night Café as patrons go on to get involved as volunteers. Cris Acher believes part of the café’s success is that people feel they are welcome for who they are.

“People say ‘I can come here and I don’t have to leave my culture at the door.’”

Patrons are also surprised to find a church-affiliated enterprise that is celebrating the energy and creativity found in club life and music.

“It’s a spiritual hunger that people are searching to fill,” Acher said. “Here’s a place people aren’t expecting to find on a Saturday night.”  

Acher acknowledges there is a destructive side to the nightclub scene and says the Night Café is a place of refuge for those for whom an evening has gone wrong. Volunteers who staff the café are trained to spot people in serious trouble from drugs and alcohol. They also make sure that patrons   leave the café in officially registered taxis avoiding rogue cabs particularly notorious for targeting vulnerable young women and others worse for wear after an evening out.   

Acher emphasizes what’s important is that Christians take risks and get out into the world and see their “neighbor” in places they ordinarily don’t venture.

“We run away from city centres,” Acher said. “I want to point to God, name God in those places and provide that sacred space where people can share and claim that.”

The Future of the Holiness Project
From its early “Holy Club” days Methodism has grown in to a worldwide church with millions of members throughout the world. Even so, towards the end of his own life in the 1790s, Wesley was already calling his Methodist Holiness Project a failure, precisely because of Methodism’s success. His Methodist movement was acquiring wealth, attracting more of the middle-classes into its midst and that worried him.

“Wesley could see as Methodists became richer, they cared less about holiness,” McMaster said. “He observed ‘as riches increased, holiness declined.’”

Reflecting on Wesley’s disappointment, writer Theodore Jennings observes, “by Wesley’s own standards, the [contemporary] Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure… The concern for the destitute and oppressed has not been silenced, but it has been marginalized, placed not at the center, but at the periphery of institutional life and commitment (Good News for the Poor).”

McMaster believes some of the reasons for the failure of Wesley’s holiness project lie with Wesley himself.

“He is a person of his time when the focus was on the individual and individualism. Now we have a different awareness, now we need to think in terms of community and structures,” McMaster said. “He doesn’t seem to understand that there are structural systems of sinfulness that create injustice, violence and conflict. “

McMaster believes its up to modern day Methodists to take Wesley’s initial vision of holiness and see it in global terms, in relationship to issues of poverty, war, violence and environmental catastrophe.

“We can begin to see how these issues are bigger than an individual’s sin, bigger than an individual’s transformation. This task is now too big for the people called Methodists alone. Methodists need to do this in partnership with people of all faith,” concluded McMaster. “Then holiness becomes something of a task for the whole inhabited earth, focused on justice and peace.”

McMaster and others imagine if Wesley were living in the 21st century, he would have been on the front line of interfaith dialogue.

“He would be encouraging Methodist people to engage with the huge diversity of cultures,” McMaster projected.

Despite flaws and misunderstandings, Wesley’s theology of holiness and his 300 year old vision for Methodists transformed by God’s grace continues to be the foundation for something rather radical.  

Should Wesley find himself revisiting old haunts in London or Yorkshire or Manchester today, it seems quite likely he would send an approving nod in the direction of those 21st century “people called Methodists” who are out in their communities sharing the transforming grace of God with others.

Some additional suggested reading:

Reasonable Enthusiast: John Welsey and the Rise of Methodism, Henry D. Rack, 3rd Edition, Epworth Press 2002

“Wesley on Social Holiness” and “Holiness and the Wider Ecumenical Perspective”, by Johnston McMaster, Irish School of Ecumenics, papers presented to the European Methodist Theological Commission, Austria 2002;
Available from:

Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Abingdon Press, 1990.

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