18 June 2003

Celebrate but don't canonise Wesley, says Methodist leader

Christians should celebrate the 300th birthday of John Wesley and then move on, said the leader of Britain's Methodists yesterday during a service marking the anniversary of the Church's founder at Lincoln Cathedral.

The Rev Ian White, President of the British Methodist Conference, said in his sermon at the ecumenical service for John Wesley - born on 17 June 1703 - that the anniversary "is about celebration and thanksgiving of a life, but not about canonisation. We mark the birthday and then look forward."

In a meditation on Grace, the President went to say that Churches and other organisations must be prepared to be continually renewed in order to thrive: "That involves a letting go of some of the elements we cherish to embrace the new. We are being remade and the best is yet to be."

Grace challenges the powerful in society - whether nations or churches - to look out for the less powerful. He warned against powerful nations that exploit the poorer one and deny them Jubilee. And he also warned powerful churches not to ignore the contribution of smaller ones.

More than 1,600 people attended the service at Lincoln Cathedral, which was broadcast live on the world wide web by BBC Radio Lincolnshire. More than 50 guests representing Methodist Churches across the globe took part in the celebration, as well as civic and ecumenical guests from Lincolnshire and across Britain.

John Wesley was born on 17 June 1703 in Epworth, Lincolnshire, the son of the local Anglican rector. He went on to be ordained in the Church of England himself. He was the founder of the Methodist movement, and during his life travelled more than 250,000 miles and preached over 45,000 sermons. Last year the BBC included Wesley in the 100 Greatest Britons.

The Methodist Church is today the largest Free Church denomination in Britain, with more than 320,000 members attending around 6,100 churches. It is governed by the annual Methodist Conference that was first established by John Wesley. There are more than 33 million members of the Methodist Church worldwide.

Fuller extract from the sermon by the Rev Ian White, President of the Methodist Conference, at the national service of celebration for the life of John Wesley, Lincoln Cathedral, 17 June 2003:

"Today is an occasion for celebration. As we give thanks for the birth of John Wesley 300 years ago we celebrate the preacher, leader, founder of Methodism, writer, evangelist, entrepreneur. The list is almost endless. Earlier today, along with our international visitors, the Vice President and I visited Epworth Rectory - the place of his birth here in Lincolnshire.

Writing in his Journal of his experience on 24 May, 1738 Wesley also reflects on those formative years and those responsible for his nurture. It was a time of tension and care, education and social commitment. Today, we recognise a leader whose ministry impacted upon both church and nation, which is a matter of historical record. Today, however, is not only a denominational occasion. For John Wesley belongs to the Universal Church and to the people of these Islands. But he is also a person whose influence and ministry reached out across the world - he became an international figure as the presence of the World Church representatives indicates. Today is about celebration and thanksgiving of life but not about canonisation. We mark the birthday but then look forward.

In his Journals and Sermons the word 'Grace' is a regular feature. A gift from God, a power to change lives and renew life. Throughout his life the free gift of God's Grace was an emphasis which took the outsider from a sense of rejection to being a person of worth. Through the changed person came the changed society. A gift from God which changed a church from a narrowness of vision to a breadth of life that proclaimed acceptance for all. For all for all was a constant theme.

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. A wholeness which for Wesley was grounded in the work of the evangelist and the sacramentalist. We diminish the grace if we separate the two or allow them to become party matters. We need to hold evangelism and the sacraments as one.

A grace for the individual which also reaches out to the wider community. From a changed person to a changed community. God's Grace for all challenges the powerful as the Gospel reading reminds us. Grace for all challenges the powerful nation which exploits the poorer one and denies them Jubilee; the powerful church which ignores the contribution of a poorer one. Grace is based not on strength or numbers or influence. God's Grace challenges nationalism and denominationalism. The grace that exposes racism, the exploitation of the asylum seeker or international conflict. As heirs of Wesley who worked for justice for the slave, education for the poor and care for those in need we too care called to continue that work within our modern context.

A grace which is continuing to work amongst the people. The Grace we share is constantly working amongst us - we are being made new. That involves a letting go of some of those elements we cherish to embrace the new. As a church, a nation or international family we cannot be tied into the past or to a previous generation. We cannot live on the faith and experience of others. God's Grace moves onwards and invites us to respond to the movement. Around this nation and others are signs of the new life of the People of God at work in the world. We are being remade and the best is yet to be.

We celebrate a life; we share in the continuing work of Gods grace. Give thanks, reflect upon it for ourselves and the world we share and then move on. You each represent the gift of grace - God to you, you to one another and to the wider world. What a movement for change and the work of God's Kingdom. Amazing Grace - for All."

Views from Lincoln Cathdedral

Read the full Order of Service from Lincoln Cathedral

More information on the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley

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