John Wesley could be a pain.
He was dogmatic, opinionated, partisan and stubbornly hard to shift from what he believed was the central ground of Christian faith. But that made him neither an exclusive nor a separatist from other Christians.
In 1749, he preached a sermon titled “The Catholic Spirit” based on 2 Kings 10:15.
“But while he is steadily fixed in his religious principles in what he believes to be the truth as it is in Jesus; while he firmly adheres to that worship of God which he judges to be most acceptable in his sight; and while he is united by the tenderest and closest ties to one particular congregation,” Wesley stated, “his heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies.”
He added, “This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit. For love alone gives the title to this character: Catholic love is a catholic spirit.”
This sermon is about the spirit of welcome, the formation of a settled and consistent predisposition to love and a commitment divinely maintained to make peace, developing a spirit-inspired instinct for unity of heart and practical goodwill toward others.
When Wesley talked about the Christian calling to live and think and exhibit a catholic spirit, he was unmistakable and explicit in his demand that those who professed faith in the God of universal love are called to mirror that love to other Christians, and even to those who make no such claims to faith.
Universal love cannot be selective, a catholic spirit refuses to reject, the “ingrasping love of God” does not exclude or disqualify.
The love of God, poured into the heart by the Holy Spirit overflows in goodwill, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, conciliation to those who are friends and those who are opponents, even to enemies, and therefore the love of Christ loves without exception and without excusing.
Wesley got into trouble for his views on Christian perfection, and for using phrases like universal love, and yes, for encouraging a catholic spirit in a fractious age.
The second half of the 18th century was a time of denominational jealousies, cultural upheavals, theological realignments and social unrest.
But beneath the surface there were also the subterranean disturbances of established authorities, threatened privileges, competitive religiosity, and these inevitably promoted power games as the established church felt the threat and impetus of rising dissenting churches, of which the rapidly growing Methodists was one of the more worrying examples.
Wesley’s sermon is a defining document of the classic Methodist commitment to unity and fellowship with other churches.
The word ecumenical for Wesley was synonymous with catholic, and both required a disposition of openness and vulnerability to the presence and reality of those with whom he, or his Methodist societies, disagreed.
And by the way, this isn’t your soft, mushy, marshmallow ecumenism where no matter what somebody believes, it’s OK.
The catholic spirit tries to hold the ground between an exclusive dogmatism and an all-inclusive indifferentism.
It is a place where those of different Christian traditions, acknowledging the integrity each of the other, exchange the hand of fellowship and mutual gladness in their shared faith in Christ.
“That we may all love one another as Christ loved us,” Wesley says. The past tense is crucial, is a crux point; it points to the supreme evidence of Christ’s love on the cross.
There, beneath the cross of Jesus, Christians from whatever denomination, tradition, culture or time stand in the place where all hearts are equal in their need of grace and their sense of gratitude.
From my earliest days as a Christian, I have been passionately ecumenical. From my first serious reading of John Wesley, now more than 30 years ago, I have sensed a kindred spirit.
This sermon is one of the core documents of Wesleyan spirituality, and of the Methodist way of being the church.
I’ve gone back to it repeatedly, and I recall it frequently when I encounter those whose primary calling seems to be telling every other Christian tradition how wrong it is or where its deficits lie or why they could never be the kind of Christian those other people are pretending to be.
Wesley uses his sermon to dare his hearers into an act of trust, the shaking of hands between strangers, the measuring of the heart of the other, and therefore the risk of that middle ground where mutual respect and shared grace enable gratitude in duplicate or multiple voices.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.