As we describe in the ‘About‘ section, part of our purpose here at Via Media Methodists is to offer the Church an alternative voice at a time when it seems we have never been more polarized. This is not chiefly out of an Aristotelian conviction that “virtue lies in the middle,” though that may often be true. Nor is an attempt to stand piously “above it all” as some have accused us. Chiefly, it is an attempt to be true to our progenitor in the faith, John Wesley.
I recall vividly when Randy Maddox, in one of my classes on the history and theology of Methodism, said that Wesley “held things together that other Christians pushed apart.” I am still floored by the degree to which this statement is true. Wesley loved the Church Fathers and contemporary theologians of his day. He was a loyal Anglican even though his efforts were often unsupported. He appreciated the Book of Common Prayer and extemporaneous prayer. He loved Scripture, but also recognized the need for community in spiritual formation. Rev. Wesley also loved the sacraments, but was’t above preaching in a field or on top of a grave to reach the people he needed to reach.
In other words, Methodists at our core are “both-and” rather than “either-or” Christians. We are naive enough to believe that we really should have our cake and eat it. Paul Chilcote has, in this vein, described Wesley as a “conjunctive” theologian. He brought things together from many different traditions in a unique and interesting synthesis. Albert Outler, in a wonderful little book, expounds on how Wesley’s
…all-out advocacy of original sin and justification by faith alone had the effect of cutting him off from most of his Anglican contemporaries. His instinctive rejection of quietism wore out his earlier welcome with the Moravians… [and] the Dissenters wanted no part of his commitment to the Church of England as a comprehensive sacramental community. The resultant “third alternative” was an interesting – and original – anomaly (vis., a Protestant doctrine of original sin minus most of the other elements in classical Protestant soteriology, plus a catholic doctrine of perfection without its full panoply of priesthood and priestcraft.). Thus he stood exposed to charges of inconsistency from both sides.
In 18th century England, Wesley was doing what no one else was doing: he was an evangelical (which should have made him friendly with the Dissenters), but loyal to the Anglican Church. At the same time, he was ardently opposed to the Calvinist wing of Church of England but (for his time) quite friendly with the Roman Catholic tradition. This put Wesley into rarified air:
Even after justification by faith alone had become his central message, he retained the holy living tradition of his upbringing and he taught his people not only to go on toward perfection but to “expect to be made perfect in love in this life”! This caught him in a crossfire – a catholic who had become an evangelical and yet never ceased to be catholic: i.e., an evangelical-catholic! (Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit [Nashville: Discipleship Resources 1975], 33-34, emphasis added.)
What I have noticed as I engage both sides of the church is that, at the extremes, United Methodists start to sound very un-Methodist. They sound more Unitarian Universalist or UCC (all “social justice” and inclusion, with little piety or doctrine), or fundamentalist baptist (all personal holiness with little grace or social witness). These are sadly diminished iterations of the tradition bequeathed to us by John and Charles, who refused such false choices. Outler later says John’s ” driving passion was to find a third alternative to Pelagian optimism and Augustinian pessimism with respect to the human potential.” (36) And that is just one more example of Wesley refusing a dyad that others assumed.
At our best, Christians in the Wesleyan family have had the best of all of it: evangelical witness, progressive justice, catholic piety, charismatic spirituality, and Anglican sacramentality. Our ideological battles in the UMC, and especially the struggle over human sexuality, have exposed a deeper fissure than just arguments over Scripture: we seem determined to pull apart the things that Papa Wesley put together.
I believe the search for a ‘Third’ or ‘Middle Way’ because I believe such an option will be more faithful to who we are, to the movement that transformed 18th century England and 19th century America. I believe it is more true to the witness of the church universal, combining many of the strongest elements of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in a way that could greatly impact our world for Christ. People are hungry – whether they know it or not – for a way to follow Jesus that is at once ancient and contemporary, passionate and reflective, doctrinal and from the heart. At our best, that is what the United Methodist Church has to offer as a community descended from Wesley.
This alternative way – this uniquely conjunctive faith – is, I believe, a gift worth giving. But first it must be rediscovered.