July 1, 2011

Was John Wesley a Deacon?

Through John Meunier, I was directed to "Four John Wesley quotes everyone should know" by John Pedlar.

They are good quotes, and ones that, as a student of Methodist history and theology, I knew well.

But as John shares, James shares an important insight at the end of his piece.  It is in response to Wesley's quote "the world is my parish."
Wesley’s quote about the world being his parish is usually seen as his missional justification for preaching the gospel wherever he was. But he also knew that he was exempt from the parish boundary rules as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He had no parish of his own, and was free to preach where he liked
I think for me, that quote from James Pedlar asks the question - are we hindered in our ability to preach the gospel where it needs to be preached BECAUSE of our parish/appointment? 

In the context of Wesley's ministry, territory was everything.  Your parish was a geographical location and your people where those within its borders. I think he's right that John was free from that because of his academic placement. 

So, what would that look like today? Would it be more appropriate to think of John Wesley in today's terms as a deacon?  As a pastor without an appointment?

The more I think about it, the more I think Wesley would have been a 21st century United Methodist Deacon rather than anything else.  As far as I can tell, he did not regularly administer the sacraments... he encouraged people to go to their local parish congregation and recieve them there.  He was an academic and a preacher, a writer and a teacher, an organizer... and I have a feeling that he would have been very unhappy under the appointment system.

In our world, our "parish" or our congregation can be limiting if we let it. If we stick within the walls of our church and only preach to those who come to us, the gospel is confined. Sometimes this isn't intentional. Sometimes the demands of newsletters and repairing the roof and worship planning just gets in the way of our ability to be in the world preaching the gospel.

If we were not limited to one congregation - or even two or three or five (in some yoked parishes) - how would the job of ministry change? If the parish were not your primary appointment, but you were still an ordained elder with sacramental responsibility, what would your days look like? The first place I see being thrown out the window is pastoral care, but perhaps that is not fair...

That being said... sometimes Elders under appointment self-limit themselves.  As my bishop reminded a group of young clergy, we are appointed to communities, not to congregations.  The world of ministry around us is far bigger than we sometimes assume.  There are plenty of opportunities to serve outside of our local church communities, also.

The question for me is always one of calling... what are you called to be and to do? 

Wesley was called to use his post as a vehicle for transformation of his church and of disciples of Jesus Christ.  He had some freedom to move and travel to enable him to do that.

I am called to deeply inhabit this community to share the love of God with them in every way that I can.  I have some freedom and authority because of my position to do that as well.

Thank God that there are many ways that we can serve!


  1. Great thoughts, Katie. I agree that Wesley would not do well under our appointment system. Indeed, he turned down the opportunity to serve a parish.

    Maybe we need some elders who serve as "conference fellows" - or free floating deacons - who are charged to serve the gospel within the conference in whatever way will be most effective.

  2. it always amuses me that the aphorism about the world = parish was picked up, appropriated, by Yves Congar. Not a Methodist. Not so's you'd notice! Maybe plagiarism is the true ecumenical bond???

  3. Theoretically, there is such a thing as a Conference Evangelist.