AN EXPLORATION INTO AFFINITIES OF SPIRIT (1) BETWEEN METHODISM AND A MUSLIM SECT
AND (2) BETWEEN ISLAM AND SOME OF TODAY’S FREE CHURCHES
- I have written an article about some affinities between 19th century British Nonconformists, which you may read here: https://instituti.org/non-comformist-evangelicals-of-england-and-bektashis/. The original comment was almost certainly intended to refer mainly to Methodists.
- It has however struck me conversely that there is room for an article exploring some similarity of overlap of spirit the other way round: an Islamic ethos breathed among some British Nonconformists today.
Let me begin with the opening line of hymn 97 in Wesley’s Hymns: “Thou great mysterious God unknown.” The greatness and mystery of God seems to be the emphasis in some Free Church preaching, praying and writing now popular in some circles – but not as Wesley goes on in the immediately following lines of his hymn, as we shall see. A different spirit pervades Wesley’s hymns, whether those of Charles or those of John.
Here are three related ways in which I feel I identify a spirit akin to that of Islam some of today’s in today’s churches.
God: glorious, sovereign
In some preaching, God’s grandeur, glory, sovereignty, irresistible will, and right to worship are stressed, but in such a way that the impression the hearer receives is of a remote, inscrutable deity to be revered and glorified by his creation, both angels and mankind. He is to be exalted in their worship as they contemplate him with due honour and reverence. You will also hear a lot in such churches about “the glory of Christ in his Person and work”.
Now I am not saying that all this is not true; nor am I suggesting it ought not to be preached, appreciated and acted on. But I am saying that this swathe of revealed truth does, in some of its promoters and hearers, lack the balance of an awareness of another swathe of revealed truth, namely about that God who, for love of the world, sent his only Son to rescue helpless and hopeless ruined miscreants – the God who, through Hosea, discloses the love of his heart as like that of an abandoned husband taking back his adulterous wife, and himself in both Testaments as a Father, like that of the Prodigal Son who fell low in folly and disgrace, yet was welcomed home with ring and robe.
It has become common among some Free Church circles to hear the viewpoint that God does not speak personally to his children in prompting, call, urging or restraint. Rather, he has given them a book from which they must learn his will, and by which they make their decisions, but they are not personally guided. He has become, one might say, a Father who communicates with his children only in writing; as if we followed a Lord who had said, “My sheep read my book.”
And of course, once again, we do believe the Bible to be given by God, and that we should read it for growth in wisdom and character and for knowledge of the God we serve.
God’s Word: detached from history, society and life
The Bible as originally given is believed to be inerrant and infallible, but it is said to be illicit to read its prophecies of the Jews being scattered to the four corners of earth and later regathered to the land of Israel and to see in the events of the last 140 years or so, as fulfilments of a divine scriptures by divine action; and to read descriptions of the last days, when the Gospel has been preached throughout the world as a testimony to all nations in a time characterised by pestilence, war, famine, persecution of Christians, the rise of false religions, Jerusalem returned to Jewish control, and the earth growing hotter (Revelation 16:8-9) and to see these things as signs of the approaching Eschaton, for the phrase “the last days” must (it is taught) mean only and always the church age from Pentecost to the Parousia. And so the Bible has nothing particular to say about the age we live in or the events we witness.
* * *
This is all so different from the spirit I believe I imbibed in churches in the past, when I worshipped in congregation or pulpit in the Church of England, a house group formed by people who had left the Exclusive Brethren, in Strict Baptist chapels and independent evangelical churches. Yes, that was all in the 1960s and 1970s, and yes it was in Kent and Sussex, not where I live now. But this other spirit, akin I believe to Islam, is one I have encountered in some of the churches as I visited many churches from the North-East of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall in my work to promote a missionary society. And I find (a) that I recoil from it, and (b) that it feels to me that it is in ethos if not in doctrine akin to what I see in Islam.
Back to Wesley’s hymn where we began! After calling upon “Thou great mysterious God unknown”, the hymn immediately continues thus:
Thou great mysterious God unknown,
Whose love hath gently led me on,
Even from my infant days,
Mine inmost soul expose to view,
And tell me, if I ever knew
Thy justifying grace.
Here we have a gentle love and a hymn in which Wesley asks for God to be at work in his “inmost soul”, and goes on to speak of “Thy sweet forgiving love”, “A sense of sin forgiven”, “the inward witness”, “That antepast of heaven”, “The secret of thy love”. The hymn closes:
The secret of thy love reveal,
And by thine hallowing Spirit dwell
For ever in my heart!
He is writing as one who believes in the Christians’ God as revealed in the Bible but who is not yet sure he knows this God: but he knows what it would be like to be a real Christian, to know God personally, and he prays for the faith and experience to be such a believer. This is far from the “great mysterious God” one hears of in Islam (I believe) and in some Nonconformist preaching today (I know).
If, as my article to which a link is given a few paragraphs above argues, there were some Muslims who moved in outlook and aspiration towards a religion akin in some ways to the religion experienced among nineteenth century British Nonconformists, so I believe there are some Nonconformists in Britain today who have imbibed a spirit akin to that of Islam and are passing it on to their adherents. Personally, I recoil from it.
I seek rather a warm, ardent religion in (as Wesley put it) “my inmost soul”, the faith I have found in a Church of England church, in a house church formed by people who seceded from the Exclusive Brethren, in some Strict Baptist and independent chapels – the faith preached among Methodists by William Sangster who wrote of: “The stain of sin, the wonder of forgiveness, the rapture of religion, the way to an intimate and personal experience of God” (p. 78 in Methodism: her unfinished task (London: The Epworth Press, 1947)).
The faith, perhaps, of which Lewis Browning wrote in 1906 in his A Brief History of Blaenavon Monmouthshire (Abergavenny: Owen brothers, 1906) the “Wesleyans of those days appeared to live in a warmer climate religiously than those of more modern days: there was more fervour and apparent earnestness in the services.”
visiting the Bektashi kryegjysh, Tirana
Hadlow: where I attempted to preach a religion of the warmed heart
Prizren (“Little Istanbul”) has 32 mosques