Wesley Pilgrimage inspires today’s leaders
United Methodist Communications staffers Joe Iovino and Kathleen Barry joined 35 other clergy and laity from Liberia, Nigeria and across the United States on a July 11-21 Wesley Pilgrimage in England. This is the first of a series of articles based on their experiences. See the event captured in a series of photographs by Barry.
At first glance, the Wesley Pilgrimage to England looks to be an exciting way to learn the history of The United Methodist Church. Pilgrims visit the childhood homes of John and Charles Wesley and Francis Asbury, Christ Church in Oxford where a group of students gathered and earned the name Methodist, and the New Room where the Methodist movement began to take hold.
Ultimately, however, the pilgrimage is not about the Wesleys, but the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God that empowered the early Methodists calls us to follow where Jesus leads still today.
From a small group of students in Oxford who encouraged one another to live out their Christian faith every day to the current mission statement of The United Methodist Church, "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world," the Methodist movement has always been about making and shaping disciples of Jesus Christ.
Families of Methodism
While more than 250 years and thousands of miles separate us from the early Methodists, they really were not very different from us. Like many of us, John and Charles Wesley were raised in the church.
When pilgrims visit Epworth, they enter the home where Samuel and Susanna raised John, Charles and their brothers and sisters. They stand in the kitchen where young John and Charles saw their mother lead small groups. They go inside St. Andrew's Church where Samuel served as rector (lead pastor). They see the font he used to baptize his children and the chalice from which they would have received communion for the first time.
Pilgrims also visit the childhood home of Francis Asbury, leader of the Methodist movement in America. Asbury grew up in a working class town and apprenticed as a metalworker before becoming a local preacher.
Standing in the room where Asbury told his parents he was called to go to America, pilgrims imagine the emotions the family experienced. "Though it was grievous to flesh and blood," he would write in his journal, "they consented to let me go."
Visiting the homes of these families makes pilgrims feel so close. The joys and struggles of raising our children to know Jesus and to let them go to serve him are not so different today.
The Methodist movement
When the time came, John and Charles Wesley each attended university in Oxford. As a student at Christ Church, Charles brought together a group of students to support one another in their spiritual journeys. He enlisted the help of his brother John, a recent alumnus of Christ Church who was working as a fellow at nearby Lincoln College. They prayed, worshipped and served together earning the name Holy Club and later Methodists.
When pilgrims visit Oxford, their bus drops them off near Oxford Castle, the prison where Holy Club members visited inmates regularly.
While serving at Lincoln College, John Wesley struggled with a call to travel to Georgia as a missionary. Pilgrims visit the chapel at Lincoln College and see a stained glass window depicting the Jonah story. There Wesley wrestled with this decision to travel across the sea.
Leaders in the faith are often characterized as making decisions that change the world. In Oxford, pilgrims remember that these journeys started from humble beginnings: a group of students seeking to grow in their faith and struggling to understand God's call.
Soon after Wesley's return from Georgia, a Methodist preacher invited him to continue his ministry of open air preaching in Bristol. Wesley's preaching and organizational skills were so effective that within months of arriving, the Methodist societies began building a meetinghouse called the New Room.
Pilgrims visit the New Room and stand in the pulpit where John Wesley and other early Methodist preachers boldly called people to follow Jesus in every part of their lives. They notice the New Room has no first floor windows to protect those who attended the meetings there. They learn that the pews in the building today were not part of the original plan, because the chapel was also used as a schoolhouse for poor children and a mission station to serve the people of Bristol. Above the chapel are rooms where Wesley and early Methodist preachers gathered for renewal, study and rest. This is holy ground.
Sitting in the New Room in Bristol or St. Mary's Church in Oxford where Wesley also preached, pilgrims sense what it must have been like to be part of this new movement of the Holy Spirit, and how they might continue that ministry today.
This is the real power of the Wesley Pilgrimage to England. Pilgrims touch the past to continue the ministry of being disciples of Jesus Christ who make more disciples for the transformation of the world.
The Wesley Pilgrimage is sponsored annually by Discipleship Ministries, the General Commission on Archives and History and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Leading it are the Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan Studies for Discipleship Ministries, and the Rev. Paul Chilcote, professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.