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Sermon at Evensong to Celebrate the Tercentenary of the Birth of Charles Wesley

Tuesday 2nd October 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered the following sermon at Westminster Abbey.

Lectionary: Ezekiel 2: 1–5; Ephesians 5: 15–20

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Careless students of history are probably inclined to think of the Wesley brothers as an almost indistinguishable unit, the Founders of Methodism (capital F, capital M). And it comes as just a little bit of a shock to realize that they were not joined at the hip, either mentally or physically. It comes as a little bit of a shock to realize that there were moments of considerable stress and tension between them. They disapproved of each other's marriages. And they told each other so, speaking the truth in love at some length and with some feeling! They disagreed strongly about John's irregular ordinations, towards the end. They disagreed about various specific cases; local preachers about whom John was hopeful, and Charles realistic. They were not above (I'm sorry to say) allowing their friends to write critical articles about each other in various journals. Not an easy relationship, then. And yet one which, in its very tension, its very duality, is at the heart of what Methodism is.

Charles was criticized in his lifetime and after his death by some of John's closest supporters for what some referred to as his 'high church bigotry'. But his concern that the Methodist movement should retain a solid churchly identity, whatever exactly that meant; his concern that the preaching and the teaching of the Church should be informed at every point by all the wealth of Christian tradition and sacramental practice - that certainly made Methodism what it became in due course. And that in itself is a helpful reminder to churches that are not strangers to conflict (and I include both Methodist and Anglican families in this) that tension is not always rupture. A useful reminder that churches become what they are by what one great thinker of our age has called 'continuities of conflict'.

John and Charles together produced a churchly identity, a style and ethos of Christian living which was and remains wholly distinctive: distinctive in its skilful, resourceful balance of the contemplative and the active, of the traditional and the innovative, a balance whose centre point was and remains a deep commitment to the Lord's Supper at the heart of Christian practice. I have, I'm afraid, lost count of just how many hymns on the Lord's Supper are ascribed to both of them, though mostly, of course, to Charles.

But this is not just a point about the usefulness of conflict and argument in the formation of Christian identity. It goes rather deeper than that, because when conflicts between Christians are as sharp as they sometimes were between John and Charles, or for that matter between Paul and Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles, we have to ask what it is that makes it worthwhile for the relationship to be worked at and to persist. We forget too readily that conflicts very often reveal the underlying commitment to continue the relationship. If you weren't interested in staying on terms with your brother, you might very well walk away. The question as to what made it worthwhile to stay on terms with your brother is one that I believe is answered – though rather obliquely – through a phrase that we heard in our first lesson this evening: 'When he spoke to me a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.' (Ezekiel 2.2)

The spirit of God sets us on our feet, as it set the prophet, so that we may see. Prophets and seers in the Bible are constantly falling on their faces in shock and terror. And angels and divine voices are constantly telling them to stand up. Stand up on your feet and look: what can you see as you respond to the voice that has shattered and flattened you? Stand on your feet and look God in the face. Of course you can't, yet you are set on your feet so that your eyes may be turned God-wards, glory-wards. And in that vision, as you stand on your feet, you learn where your roots are and where your end is. You learn why you matter to God, and you learn therefore why your brother and your sister matter to God, and why therefore they matter to you.

'A spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.' That bold picture of humanity raised to its feet by the love of God is of course the vision that informs such a great deal of Charles Wesley's hymnody. We've just sung four verses which – perhaps more than any other lines in the English language – give us a brief, memorable compendium of the entire New Testament doctrine of salvation and adoption, the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the Church.[] If you want a very short catechism, here it is: 'Since the Son hath made me free,/ let me taste my liberty;/ thee behold with open face,/ triumph in thy saving grace.' 'Thee behold with open face', that's what happens when the Spirit sets you on your feet. And when you look around at those others to whom God has spoken, you see other human beings set on their feet. It's a vision of God's glory that turns you to a vision of the dignity of your brother and sister. And the apparent gulf between Charles' contemplative excitement over the glory of God and the tradition of Methodist social witness is no gulf at all, but a perfectly natural relationship.

Now it's not that Charles was optimistic about human beings in a late nineteenth-century sense. He himself recalls the incident of meeting a rather talkative and pious lady on a long coach journey. After (it seems) several hours of listening to her explaining how good a person she was, said Charles, 'I told her, I deserved nothing but hell, and so did she!' It's not about a Pelagian acquisition of holiness, it's about a gift. We stand on our feet because the Spirit is in us. 'Be it I no longer now/living in the flesh, but thou.' And that prayer that the Holy Spirit may come and abide, come and inhabit us, is praying that we and all our brothers and sisters may be established in the Holy Spirit. Not by our achievement, but by our receptivity to what God longs to give us; the vision of his glory and the vision of each other's dignity, the active hopeful promise that spills over from that.

Charles loves to use the language of vision. 'Thee behold with open face', 'I woke, the dungeon flamed with light', 'Let us see thy great salvation'. Again and again, it is that vision which comes to the fore in Charles' writing, reminding us that the energy of the Church for worship, for work and for service is all rooted in vision. And without such vision the Christian people perish, we cease to be passionate about God or each other, and we cease to be committed to God and each other.

And so as we give thanks for Charles' life, we give thanks not only for the words of the hymns, granted that they are an irreplaceable and inexhaustible treasure of classical Christian wisdom. We give thanks for what he saw, and for the fact that he has enabled us to be drawn into his seeing. Not only his seeing that the God of glory has made him free, the God of glory who died for him, the God of glory into whose purposes the 'firstborn seraph' seeks to penetrate in vain. (How Charles loved those firstborn seraphs! They appear more than once.) But also we give thanks for Charles' vision of his tiresome, beloved brother. Because the vision of tiresome, beloved brothers and sisters is, I'm afraid, what Christians are condemned to! They will sustain it and make something of it, insofar as they retain the joy of that first fresh unsurpassable vision into which the firstborn seraph seeks to look: the vision of glory and of grace.

Our churches, Anglican and Methodist, remain in many ways divided, between themselves and within themselves. They seek to minister to a divided and struggling world, and a society that appears to be getting more and more fragmented by the day. God knows, we need vision: vision of God's glory to set us on our feet; vision that will give us the strength to see others set on their feet, in their proper dignity and beauty. Thank God that Charles Wesley gives us some of the words we need for that; that we are able to stand, to be set on our feet, to 'sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [ourselves]; singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' (Ephesians, 5.19f)


© Rowan Williams 2007

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