Understanding the nature of the Church

WHAT is the Church and where is it to be found? Though the question seems straightforward, in fact Christians disagree among themselves about how to answer it. The existence of separate Christian denominations bears witness to the wide range of different and sometimes contradictory beliefs about the nature of the Church and its essential characteristics. Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostalists, Reformed and Orthodox (to name just a few) all have different ways of identifying the Church so that some groups are unable to recognise others as “church” in the truest or fullest sense of the word.

Inspired in part by the modern ecumenical movement, ecclesiology or the theological investigation of the Church has become a major topic in Christian theology in recent years, generating a bewildering variety of studies from various standpoints, both denominational and ecumenical.

Moreover, in the past 30 years the classical forms of ecclesiology – Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox – have been joined by new and sometimes radical ways of describing the Church. Often these stem from dissatisfaction with traditional descriptions, which (it is argued) are no longer appropriate in today’s world.

In the United States the so-called “emerging church” scene generates lively debate; even the meaning of the term is hotly contested. In Britain, Anglicans and Methodists are involved in a joint venture to develop “Fresh Expressions of Church” for the benefit of those who are not yet members of any church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has suggested that the future of the Church lies in a “mixed economy” in which fresh expressions exist alongside more traditional manifestations of “church”.

The ambiguities involved in using the term “church” prompt a number of questions for Methodists. Where do Methodists stand in the range of possible ways of understanding the nature of the Church and its concrete location in the world today? The question is important for our mission strategy. Unless we are sure what the Church is in the first place, how can we be confident that something is a fresh expression or an emerging form of “church”? What elements would have to be present in a particular group for us to be able to recognise the Church as such?

Finding the resources to answer such questions is problematic since Methodists are not noted for theological reflection on the Church. Nevertheless, the rich legacy of John Wesley for Methodism today includes a distinctive way of being Church which embraces and holds together in tension a variety of insights that others would regard as mutually exclusive. By rediscovering the Wesleyan way of being Church, Methodists will be better equipped to fulfil their contemporary mission. They will also have something worthwhile to contribute to continuing ecumenical dialogue about the nature of the Church.

In the 2009 Aldersgate Convention evening talks I shall be exploring the Wesleyan way of being Church, identifying its essential characteristics and what these might mean for Methodism today in a cultural context marked by consumerism, individualism and religious pluralism.

I hope to show that John Wesley’s approach to understanding the Church is more relevant to the 21st century than many Methodists might suppose.

Indeed, I believe we have much to learn from a teacher who was less interested in the Church as an abstract theological concept and much more concerned to describe a practical way of being Church for the People called Methodists.

The Rev Dr David M. Chapman, an ordained elder of The Methodist Church in Britain, is a keynote speaker at the Aldersgate Convention 2009 to be held at Barker Road Methodist Church from May 18 to 23.


Convention speaker’s book traces Methodist worship

Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain

METHODISTS are not only a singing people, their church was born in song, according to the Rev Dr David Chapman in his book Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain. The Rev Dr Chapman is the English speaker for the 2009 Aldersgate Convention to be held at Barker Road Methodist Church from May 18-23. He will address the theme “The Wesleyan Way of Being Church” through a series of evening talks, a Saturday seminar and the Aldersgate Service on Saturday, May 23. Written in anticipation of the 2007 tercentenary of the birth of Charles Wesley and the bicentenary of the first Methodist camp meeting in Britain, Born in Song reflects how Methodism’s musical heritage has allowed it “to flourish in different cultural settings”.

The global reality of Methodism means that worship continues to mirror diverse cultural settings. That makes such a book all the more valuable. While specifically focused on the British context, Born in Song addresses issues that are relevant to worldwide Methodism.

Though rooted in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, Methodist worship has always borrowed from other traditions, from the simplicity of the Puritans and Moravians to the recent liturgical movement, with its ecumenical connections.

Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain traces its origins and development from John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists to the present day. Besides dealing with the principal forms of Methodist worship, space is also given to occasional festivals (including the love-feast, covenant service and watch-night) as well as to sacred space and time.

Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain was published in England by Church in the Market Place in 2006.