ON MAY 24, Methodists the world over celebrate the day and the fact that John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed”.
This spiritual experience (which took place at Aldersgate Street in London) became an unforgettable occurrence because of its impact on the life of churches and nations through the transformation of Wesley and the spiritual movement which resulted.
Singapore Methodists did more than just observe the day. Led by our Bishop Dr Robert Solomon, the whole week of Aldersgate Convention 2002 was set aside to give thanks to God for what God has done more than 250 years ago and for the people called Methodists to learn about or rediscover their rich spiritual heritage in the Wesleyan theological tradition.
As our Bishop emphasised throughout the week – “We do not follow John Wesley – we follow Jesus in the company of Mr Wesley!” Again, “we listen to Wesley because he teaches us faithfully about Jesus!”
To help us to know more about our spiritual roots, Dr Thomas Oden, the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University, gave three nights of public talks (May 21 to 23, 2002) in the beautiful sanctuary of Paya Lebar Methodist Church (PLMC). He also addressed the combined Pastors’ meeting on the morning of May 22 at which all pastors from the three Annual Conferences were present.
On the evening of the 24th itself, Dr Oden was the speaker for the combined Aldersgate Service, also held at PLMC. For those who followed the meetings throughout the week, his teaching styles varied meaningfully for the various occasions – academician/lecturer (May 21 to 23 evenings), pastor (May 22 morning) and preacher/evangelist (May 24 evening). No wonder all who came for the meetings appeared to be listening intensely to what was being shared by him.
Thomas Oden raises issues that arouse interest of thinking Methodists
We shall focus here on Dr Oden as lecturer and preacher. As is widely known, about 20 years ago, he found himself, upon reflection, abandoning the radical theological tradition for a more orthodox doctrinal position. In his own spiritual and ideological journey he has described himself as “a former convinced proponent of the radical demythologising biblical criticism of Rudolf Bultmann (on whose work I wrote my doctoral dissertation)”. This meant that for many years he regretfully tried “to read the New Testament without the premise of incarnation and resurrection”. Today, he confesses instead that he “grows ever more grateful that (his) own Wesleyan evangelical ethos is deeply grounded intuitively in the classic Protestant confessional tradition”.
This is being interpreted by him to mean that for Methodists, the doctrinal core cannot be amended or “improved upon”. Consequently, according to him, “traditional Wesleyans can give thanks for the sagacity of the founding fathers and mothers of our tradition”. He therefore combines both the burning conviction of a recent convert and the deep maturity of one who has faithfully served and taught in the Methodist communion for many decades.
The three public talks were conducted in a serious, straightforward but learned manner. They were preceded by about 20 minutes of prayer, announcements, hymn singing and choral items. The three Annual Conferences were responsible for an evening each, with the Chinese Annual Conference (CAC) looking after May 21, Emmanuel Tamil Annual Conference (ETAC) responsible for May 22, and Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) responsible for May 23.
The Pastoral Prayers for each of the evenings were said by the respective Conference Presidents – the Rev Khoo Cheng Hoot (CAC), the Rev Dr Vinson Samuel (ETAC) and the Rev Dr Isaac Lim (TRAC).
Not one to avoid controversy, Dr Oden touched on many a topic that would address the interest of thinking Singapore Methodists. John Wesley’s views about church schism, the old/new doctrine of biblical separatism and infant baptism were addressed on the first night.
On the second night, Wesley’ views about the Holy Spirit received some attention. Dr Oden summed it up well: “The filling of all the faithful with the Spirit was not primarily to manifest extraordinary gifts, but simply for bestowing the mind of Christ upon all so as to elicit the fruits of the Spirit in all … What happened at Pentecost does not happen occasionally, but ordinarily and normatively within the faithful community of the baptised.”
Those with an unhealthy fixation on the miraculous and those who dogmatically insist, on the other hand, that God does not continue to wonderfully pour out His Holy Spirit today, need to pay attention here. Dr Oden also said that the doctrine and experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit within the heart of the believer (Blessed Assurance!) is the great Wesleyan emphasis within the overall teaching about the Holy Spirit.
On the third night, the point was insightfully made that spiritual renewal encompasses more than vibrant “feel good” experiences. Besides the experience of the Living God, doctrine and discipline were the other characteristics of the Wesleyan Revival more than 250 years ago.
Surely one of the desirable things coming from the Aldersgate week would be that Methodists would want to read John Wesley’s sermons once again and learn from him the deep and timeless truths of God.
Aldersgate Night itself was a memorable occasion with the black-robed pastors from all three Annual Conferences processing together in “one accord” led by the Cross, Banner of The Methodist Church in Singapore and the Bible held respectively by the three Conference Lay Leaders – Mr Chan Fook Kay (CAC), Mr Kim Seah (TRAC) and Mr M. Geevananthan (ETAC).
After Dr Oden preached on “The Church and Sanctifying Grace”, the Holy Communion was administered by Bishop Dr Solomon, who was assisted by the three Conference Presidents and senior pastors.
Aldersgate Convention 2002 ended on a high note on the evening of May 25 – Methodists, who are known for their love for singing, clearly sang with great joy at the Wesleyan Hymn Festival.
Surely one cannot but look forward to next year’s Aldersgate Convention with the deep conviction of both Mr Wesley and Dr Oden: “The best of all is that God is with us!”
The Rev Malcolm Tan is Pastor-in-Charge of Barker Road Methodist Church.