21 April 2021
In this fourth article on Methodist identity, first published in the Methodist Recorder, the Revd Richard Teal considers social holiness.
In this month’s article we move to the fourth in our series ‘what makes a Methodist a Methodist’ and it is Social Holiness. Methodist theology holds together two strands in its understanding of Holiness, one is personal holiness as we thought about last month and the other is Social Holiness. To truly share in the good news means living in God’s kingdom now, allowing God’s rule and reign now. John Wesley famously said, ‘do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can’’. He also said, ’there was no holiness that was not social holiness’.
John Wesley preached his last sermon on 22 February 1791 at the home of a well to do family at Leatherhead. On his way home to City Road, London, he stayed the night with his old friend, George Wolff, at Balham, and it was there he wrote his final letter, which was addressed to William Wilberforce about the abolition of slavery. Wesley said ‘Let the light which is in your heart shine in all good works, both works of piety and works of mercy’.
In early Methodism, ‘social holiness’ began in small groups who helped one another grow in grace and love for God and neighbour. ‘This love’ writes Philip Meadows ‘was then to shine within a Methodist society by doing good to others in the community of faith, especially the poor’. In short, social holiness refers to the love of God rooted in the heart of every believer and overflowing in ever-widening circles; from small groups, through the community of faith and out into the world.
From his early days as a Fellow of Lincoln College, Wesley had a deep concern for the poor. His extensive travelling throughout the United Kingdom and his meeting of people from all spheres of life, had given him a wider knowledge and understanding of their problems than many of his contemporaries. He strongly condemned the idea that people were only poor because they were lazy and refused to work. Ralph Waller informs us in his book ‘John Wesley a personal portrait’, how on 21 January 1740, four miles from Bristol at Lawford’s Gate, John Wesley helped at least 150 people who were on the verge of starvation owing to severe frosts that had prevented the breadwinners in each family from working. But it was not simply bad weather that could result in hunger; he found that many people, although working hard, could not earn sufficient money to support themselves and their families. This is just one example of a man who was deeply concerned for people and modelled social justice in his life. Social responsibility in early Methodism was a lived out personal faith harnessed to social outreach. In addition to visiting the sick, Methodists founded medical dispensaries, almshouses, orphanages and other charities. They also joined in wider movements of social responsibility such as the Temperance Movement, the development of Sunday Schools and agencies dedicated to relieving the problems of poverty.
Today I have signed along with other Church leaders a statement condemning the Government’s decision to increase the number of Trident nuclear warheads. Why does this and the above matter? Because Methodist people believe in their hearts that millions struggle again hunger and repression of all kinds and these things can only be relived, by human action. Wesleyan theology does not permit Quietism in the face of injustice.
Richard J Teal, President of the Conference, 2020-21.
The first article in the series is here.
The second article in the series here.
The third article in the series is here.