Tercentenary of John Wesley’s birth on June 17, 1703
2,000 Methodists and friends told: Wesley one of God’s gifts to wider Christian family
ON JUNE 17, 1703 John Wesley was born at Epworth, Lincolnshire, a baby who was to grow up to have such a profound influence on the Church, the nation and the world. Thus, 300 years later, it was to the country of his birth and to Lincoln Cathedral, that nearly 2,000 Methodists and their ecumenical friends made their way to celebrate his life, to give thanks for the past and to look forward to the future.
Overseas guests from around the globe – from Samoa to Cuba, from Portugal to Ghana – made the long journey, living witnesses to the geographical spread of the Methodist family. Among them were Bishop Dr Robert Solomon from Singapore and leaders of partner Methodist Churches from 60 other countries. Others, unable to be there, were able to listen on the Internet.
They heard the President of the British Methodist Conference, the Rev Ian White, tell them that it was not a denominational occasion but an ecumenical one: “Wesley belongs to the Universal Church.” Wesley, he said, was one of God’s gifts to the wider Christian family.
“Today is about the celebration and thanksgiving of a life but not about canonisation. We mark the birthday but then look forward,” he said.
The President reminded his listeners that in John Wesley’s Journal and sermons the word “grace” features regularly. The result of grace was a changed church, a changed society and a restored human dignity. Grace opens up new life and says “There is a place for you.”
“A grace which opens up new life and restores human dignity is a message not confined to the 18th century but relevant to the 21st. A gift which brings value, hope and new beginnings,” he said.
He said he detested labels such as “evangelical”, “sacramentalist”, “modernist” and “traditionalist”. “That is not grace; that is sectarianism. We diminish grace if we separate it into categories.”
God’s gifts are not for private collection but for public sharing, he said. “Grace for all challenges the powerful nation which exploits the poorer one and the powerful Church which ignores the contribution of a poorer one.
“As heirs of Wesley who worked for justice for the slave, education for the poor and care for those in need, we are called to establish ways of caring for those at the fringes of our communities,” he said.
Grace was about change. “We are changed and are being changed.” There are signs of the new life of the People of God at work in the world, he said. “We are being remade and the best is yet to be.” He urged his listeners to celebrate and then move on. “By grace are you saved and the world is renewed.”
Wesley heirs sing a hearty ‘And can it be’
In a thoughtful, varied service, which included music, dance and dramatic readings, children from Bardney, Brant Broughton and Caistor Church of England/Methodist Primary Schools played their part by asking questions in the style of Passover observance. “Why is today so special?” “What shall we do to help us celebrate?” The service provided the answers.
The ancient stones of the cathedral echoed to the lusty singing, while set out at the focal point was John Wesley’s Field Bible, normally only used at the annual induction of the President of the Conference, and a splendid new banner by Dilys Simpson of John Wesley preaching on his father’s tombstone.
Each worshipper had been given a piece of coloured card and, after prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment, the congregation was invited to take the cards and write down the names of those whom they wished to acknowledge before God as having helped them live their life of faith. These cards were collected and made into a large collage which was later displayed at the Conference.
Scallop shells – an image associated with Wesley but also a wider symbol of the Christian pilgrim – had been given to each worshipper as they arrived and towards the end of the service the congregation was asked to hold them as they prayed a prayer of commitment and dedication.
The service, organised by the Rev Harvey Richardson, was written by the Rev Tony McClelland, the Rev Heather Noel-Smith and the Rev John Swarbrick and edited by Wendy Baskett.
At the end of the service, the Chairman of the Lincoln and Grimsby District, the Rev Dr David Perry, carrying the banner, processed down the aisle to the Great West Door, accompanied by 11-year-old Hannah Godfrey from the Caistor school bearing the precious Field Bible. At that moment the thunder faded and the pouring rain, which had fallen during the latter part of the service, stopped and the sun came out, allowing the two of them to lead the congregation out on to the grass.
LIFE OF FAITH
‘Each worshipper had been given a piece of coloured card and, after prayers of thanksgiving and acknowledgment, the congregation was invited to take the cards and write down the names of those whom they wished to acknowledge before God as having helped them live their life of faith. These cards were collected and made into a large collage which was later displayed at the Conference.’
In a brief ceremony Mr Roger Hird, a governor of the USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), presented a copy of the USPG minutes which recorded the society sending John Wesley to America as a missionary. The Vice-President of the Conference, Prof Peter Howdle, led a prayer of commitment and then, with the congregation massed in front of the Great West Door and passersby looking on, Mr Wesley’s heirs sang a hearty unaccompanied “And can it be” completed with the descant so beloved by Methodists. The words of Charles Wesley’s hymn rang across the cobbles as the Methodists sang their theology.
As the last note died away, the President said: “Thank you for coming – now go!” And so they went, back to their communities, back to their places of mission, back to the world – but not before greeting old friends, embracing past colleagues and indulging in some good old Methodist fellowship. – Methodist Recorder.
Moira Sleight is the Managing Editor of Methodist Recorder.