Before Christmas, Dave Warnock published a few posts on Methodism, which I thought were really good and balanced. I commented on one of them and in his response he asked me to write down some of my own thoughts. He was particularly interested in my own questioning that I have been thinking through, namely, ‘Am I a British Methodist?’ I will get to that question last, but wanted to begin the way Dave did.
I speak from two traditions of Methodism – American and British. There are many similarities, but also a lot more differences than I originally thought. I didn’t take the time to research the British version before I arrived because I assumed it was all the same. I had quite a culture shock when I met my superintendent for lunch that first day in the country, who explained in brief the circuit system! Throughout the posts (I don’t know how many at the moment there will be), I will likely try to navigate through the two.
The simple answer to how I got to be a Methodist is that I was born into a Methodist family. My father and his father were both Methodist. My mother (along with her entire family) and dad’s mother were Southern Baptist. I haven’t really delved into the question of why Methodism won out, but my mother has said simply that one would have thought they were a Roman Catholic and a Protestant the way they argued about it. So, even while my dad and I grew up Methodist, there was a strong Baptist streak running through our family. This can be seen most prominently in how my parents viewed what happened at my baptism as an infant. Both considered this somehow temporary and not a ‘real’ baptism because both had the view that I needed to make the decision on my own.
In Florence, SC, my family attended St. Paul United Methodist Church. Though United Methodist, the Sunday school class my parents joined and many of my Sunday school teachers (some of whom came from my parents class) all had an evangelical-charismatic side, whose theology was closer to the Baptist or Reformed flavour than the Methodist. [I should note that in the United States, Sunday school is for all ages. This has caused confusion over here when some have mistakenly believed April and I are childhood sweethearts because I say we met in a Sunday school class – it was an adult one.] My youth group went to youth gatherings put on by a conservative renewal group within the Presbyterian Church (USA). And because I lived in South Carolina, you couldn’t walk a few feet without running into a Southern Baptist. Southern Baptist is the ‘default’ in the south, much like Anglicanism is here.
So, theologically, I had a very mixed bag. It wasn’t until college (university) where I encountered the Wesley Foundation and the campus minister, Tom Wall, who represented a whole different branch of Methodism. He was much more liberal (theologically and politically) and the services at the ministry (run at the time in partnership with the Lutherans) were much more liturgical than I was used to. In conversations with the minister, my own faith was put in crisis. I didn’t know what to believe. At St. Paul, there was a new minister, who was also very different than the previous ministers, but not in the same way Tom was. Bob Howell, who coincidentally was at seminary with Tom, spent the time talking me through what I had grown up with (he by this time knew my church and parents well) and through what Tom believed. Bob represented a more middle way.
Bob was someone who considered himself a Methodist through and through (others at my church, it was just the denomination). He had a deep appreciation for the liturgy of the church as well as having a solid belief in the faith I recognised though different from what I grew up with. He got me reading John Wesley and to stop reading him through the eyes of a 20th c. conservative evangelical with a Baptist slant. I began to appreciate the connectional system that in the Baptist environment of SC looked odd against their congregational model. This was clear to me in how Bob was able to talk with me about Tom because he knew him, from seminary and from the conference meetings. Bob showed me that one didn’t have to resign yourself to fundamentalism to believe in the Bible or God (though I wouldn’t really work this out until my years at seminary).
A word about Tom, who it seems I am making the bad guy in all of this. He certainly isn’t, and he and I were not as nearly as different as I thought. Well, no, we were. What’s changed is me. Thirteen years after graduating from USC, Tom isn’t all that radical – he is actually quite orthodox. He was the catalyst that sent me searching for a deeper faith and Bob was also there at the right time. But where I have to say Tom’s biggest influence on me is he pushed me at the rough edges of my understanding of social justice. I had no idea there was such a thing. He got me involved with an Oxfam project that made me realise how much Jesus was concerned with the poor as much ‘saving souls’. He took me along to hear Tony Campolo, who was even more conservative theologically than I was, but did not march in step with the religious right politically! A slightly smaller crisis of faith happened here when I tried to get the Navigators, another group I was involved with who had mostly a conservative reformed character, involved with Oxfam. They had no interest (bar a couple of people) in this, and I could not see why not – the Bible plainly tells us we are to feed the hungry! How could they have no interest?
I will pick up these two themes in a later posts when I answer why I stayed. But to finish this out, when I felt the call to ministry, there really was no question as to which church I would candidate in (I did look at the Lutheran Church (ELCA) because April and I were engaged and I felt it important to give the Lutherans a fair hearing – and I love Lutheran liturgy). Of course I was a Christian first, but I made my way in the Methodist tradition. So, I chose Duke University Divinity School, one of the 13 United Methodist seminaries, and my love for Methodism deepened from there (and, of course, for college basketball).