Sermon: Called to preach (Aldersgate Sunday/Admission of Local Preachers)

Statue of John Wesley in St Paul's Churchyard

Statue of John Wesley in St Paul's Churchyard

A sermon written for the Service of Admission of Miss Dawn Coates and Deacon Brian Purchase to the office of Local Preacher. Archway Methodist Church 22nd May 2011 (Aldersgate Sunday).

The service in which we share today does not come often in the life of a circuit; indeed, this is the first time I have had the privilege of presiding over a service of admission to the office of local preacher. I can’t speak for Brian or Dawn, but I have to say that I for one have been really been looking forward to this service!

Today we affirm not just the preaching ministry of Dawn and Brian, but the office of local preacher. Of all the denominations Methodism has put the greatest emphasis and value in an order of lay preachers. On an average Sunday two out of every three worship services taking place in British Methodist churches is led by a local preacher.

The importance of this ministry is demonstrated in a number of ways: by the way in which those who feel called to preach have their call rigorously tested; by the demanding period of training, which takes a minimum of two years to complete and often more; by the recognition of the status of local preacher across the whole Methodist connexion; (although called local, local preachers have the right to exercise that ministry in whichever circuit they reside;) and by the fact that the status of local preacher is conferred for life.

So this is no inconsiderable ministry and I wonder whether we always value and appreciate the contribution our local preachers bring to our worship. If we think only of our local preachers as filling gaps in the preaching plan when the minister is not here, then we do our preachers a great disservice. Rather, the ministry of local preachers complements that of presbyters and enhances the worship life of our churches.

Lay preaching has been a distinctive feature of Methodism since the early days of the Methodist movement in the first half of the 18th Century. At the time it was considered highly irregular. Preaching was something done by ordained men in a church. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, authorized lay preachers – mostly men but also a handful of women – because of his belief in the absolute urgency and priority of the task of preaching the good news. Breaking tradition and church order was not something that came naturally to Wesley. Rather it came about through his own conversion and spiritual journey, which we are commemorating today on Aldersgate Sunday.

In other words, if we want to understand the reason lay preaching was and is so central to Methodism, we have to understand Aldersgate and the spiritual awakening that took place there and gave birth to a movement. This is a story that every Methodist should know.

In the year 1738 John Wesley had not long since returned from a two year appointment as missionary in the American colony of Georgia. [1] For various reasons this had ended in failure and caused John to question his vocation as a minister and indeed his very faith. He wrote in his Journal:

“But how deep I have fallen! How far I am from God’s glory! I feel that I am sold under sin. I know that I deserve only wrath… God is holy, I am sinful. God is a consuming fire; it must devour me the sinner.”

On the afternoon of 24th May Wesley attended evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. What followed afterward is best told in his own words:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

The room where this religious society met disappeared in wartime bombing and the site is now covered by the Museum of London. But there is a large memorial next to the main entrance of the museum. It is in the shape of a flame, with those words from Wesley’s journal inscribed upon it. The symbol of the flame is significant, reminding us both of Wesley’s experience of the warmed heart and the Holy Spirit, which on the Day of Pentecost moved through the church as tongues of fire. As the apostolic church was give new life and purpose through the Spirit, so too was John Wesley as he felt God’s presence in a way he had never experienced before.

John was so excited by this turn of events that he felt he must share his news with his brother Charles. Charles was in bed, recovering from pleurisy, when John came round, late on the evening of 24 May to relate all that had happened. In fact, three days previously, on Pentecost Sunday, Charles had had a very similar experience. In his sickbed Charles had written a hymn and the brothers and their friends sang this together:

Where shall my wandering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great deliverer’s praise.

But this was no celebration of an inward looking, self-centred piety. Others must be invited to share this experience of grace, assurance and sins forgiven. So the hymn continues:

Outcasts of men, to you I call,
Harlots and publicans and thieves!
He spreads his arms to embrace you all:
Sinners alone his grace receives:
No need of him the righteous have;
He came the lost to seek and save.

Here then we discover the evangelistic imperative which later led to the authorization of local preachers. But we mustn’t leave Wesley just yet. The energy that he had previously spent brooding upon the state of his soul was now directed outward to his fellow men and women who stood in need of the same liberation. But God was still at work converting John Wesley. This happened through the encouragement of his friend George Whitefield, who persuaded him to reach out to those outside the church by preaching in the villages and fields.

On 2nd April 1739 Wesley wrote in his Journal:

“At four in the afternoon I submitted to being more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in the ground adjoining the city to about 3,000 people. The scripture on which I spoke (is it possible any one should be ignorant that it is fulfilled in every true minister of Christ?) was, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

So it was that over the next year, the societies in Bristol and London were joined by about 300 people in each place. For Wesley the growth of the societies was evidence that a providential hand was behind this train of events. He put it plainly in a letter to brother Charles:

“I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary call. My ordinary call is my ordination by the bishop; Take thou authority to preach the word of God. My extraordinary call is witnessed by the works that God doeth by my ministry, which prove he is of a truth in the exercise of my office.”

In order to better fulfil this ‘extraordinary call’ Wesley appointed a number of assistants, or helpers, to assist him in his work. Some, like himself, were ordained ministers of the Church of England, others were lay men – and women. It was possible for some of Mr Wesley’s helpers to emulate Wesley and adopt an itinerant lifestyle; others, for reasons of employment, family commitments or because they lacked the robust health needed to travel, were restricted to a more local area. Because they lived and worked locally they were rooted in the local congregations and the local community. They became known as local preachers, though it has to be said that as some of the early circuits were huge, they don’t seem very local to us. It was not uncommon for some of the first local preachers to travel forty or fifty miles on horseback to reach their preaching engagements, following rough roads and tracks in all weathers, and sometimes in the face of opposition and abuse.

So this was the origin of the office of local preacher. Like much else in early Methodism, this was not a ministry that was carefully planned or thought through in advance. Rather it was a response to a need – the shortage of preachers to proclaim the Gospel – and the recognition of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of men and women. More specifically, it came about through John Wesley coming to understand that the desire to preach the good news that burned within him was shared by others, even those not theologically trained, or called to Holy Orders.

[2] Who was the first authorized local preacher? There are a number of candidates, but Thomas Maxfield has as good a claim as any. Converted in 1739 by the preaching of George Whitefield, the authorization of Thomas Maxfield came about, strangely enough, through John Wesley’s mother Susanna, herself a strong Churchwoman. Up to this point Maxfield and a few others had been allowed to ‘exhort’, but there had been no question of his ‘preaching’. The distinction, which seems slight, was a very real one to John Wesley. Hearing, when he was in Bristol, that Thomas Maxfield was actually ‘preaching’ in London, he came to town evidently determined to forbid it. His mother made him pause before taking action. ‘John’, she said, ‘take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching and hear him for yourself.’

Fruits! Who was he to cut down a tree that bore fruit! Wesley’s prejudices may have been stubborn, but they always yielded to facts. The battle was soon over and John Wesley authorized Thomas Maxfield to preach.

Where Maxfield led others followed, forcing the Methodist Conference to adopt guidelines for the sake of good order. In 1746 Conference identified three key questions to ask of those called to preach:

1. Has he grace?
2. Has he gifts as well as grace?
3. Has he fruit?

And concluded: “As long as these three marks occur in anyone, we believe he is called of God to preach. These we receive as sufficient proof that he is moved thereto by the Holy Spirit.”

Unfortunately, as a man of his era, Wesley was unable to fully extend the same principle to women. Generally he believed women ought not to preach, although they might lead prayer, class meetings, and offer a short word of exhortation. And yet there were those – and their names ought to be remembered – women like Mary Bosanquet, Sarah Crosby, Ann Cutler and Sarah Mallet – whose work he could not deny and whose preaching was confirmed by a harvesting of souls.

Rather than giving general sanction to women preachers, to the end of his life Wesley insisted on judging each case by its merits. He even sent a message to Mr Peacock, the minister at Grimsby:

“I desire Mr Peacock to put a final stop to the preaching of women in his circuit. If it were suffered it would grow, and we know not where it would end.” [3]

Although Wesley spoke disapprovingly, his words proved prophetic. Great has been the company of preachers, both men and women. This is (fortuitously) represented in the two preachers who are being authorized this evening. Dawn, you follow in the footsteps of those pioneering women, who shared not just the same conditions as their male colleagues, but also faced the considerable prejudice and opposition of the age in which they lived. And you are a testimony to those in this present day and age who still think that the pulpit is no place for a woman.

[4] So what is the distinctive calling of local preachers and their contribution to the church today? The key is in that word ‘local’. The early local preachers were able to preach in local dialects, in the everyday language of ordinary folk. They related local concerns to scripture and theology. A modern word we might use to describe them is ‘contextual’; in other words their preaching and practice arose out of their familiarity with their local context. This is still true of our local preachers. What they bring is their rootedness in the local community and local church.

We should not be surprised that God raises up people from amongst us to lead worship and preach. God acts for the benefit of the Church and for the fulfilment of his mission. The Church needs local preachers in order to hear the gospel spoken from the context of the world. It needs to hear the expression of Christian faith that has been tested and deepened in the home and the workplace, in the business and busyness of everyday life. This is something that both Dawn and Brian bring to our worship: (to use a rather well worn expression) a heart for the local community .

Later we will have the opportunity to hear Brian and Dawn give their testimonies, of how they experienced God’s call to preach. Perhaps God is calling you to that same ministry. If you want to know more, speak to me, or Brian or Dawn.

And may God bless and encourage us all, preachers and people, as together we share in the task of proclaiming ‘the glad tidings of salvation.’

Acknowledgements

(1) For Wesley’s Aldersgate experience and subsequent descent into field preaching I am indebted to Rupert E. Davies, Methodism chapter 3.

(2) The story of Thomas Maxfield is based on the account in Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People, chapter 3 ‘The First Local Preachers’.

(3) Quoted in Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People, chapter 4 ‘Women Preachers’.

(4) The following two paragraphs are based on the leaflet Called to Preach (Methodist Church Discipleship and Ministries office)

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
This entry was posted in History, Methodism, Sermon, Worship and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sermon: Called to preach (Aldersgate Sunday/Admission of Local Preachers)

  1. Thanks for this post. Lay preachers have been an important part of church life for most of church history. One resource that can be used to help enhance the skills of lay people to do ministry is the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks.

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