Methodist Heritage and Identity

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Brian E. Beck
Routledge Methodist Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2017.
     198 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138636194.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Brian Beck has offered decades of wisdom and much insight into the complex history and development of Methodism in this new publication. A collection of eighteen essays, the reflections in this book have been developed over Beck’s fifty years of participation in both British and international Methodism. As a former principal of Wesley House in Cambridge, Secretary and President of the Methodist Conference in Britain, and leader of the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, Beck is well placed to offer his thoughts on the history and future of Methodism. 

Divided into two parts, on heritage and identity, the book begins by re-investigating the roots of Methodism in the 18th century. Key features of Methodism are highlighted: its flexibility; adaptability; and its emphasis on grace, social action, and salvation through Christ for all people. Beck examines these key features and challenges the modern reader to ask if the church is losing its grip on its vocation to be holy (14). This question becomes a thread that holds these essays together. In each reflection, Beck wants the reader to reflect on whether or not today’s Methodism has “lost its grip” not just on what it means to be holy, but on what it means to be Methodist. 

Two essays are dedicated to the hymns of Charles Wesley and the work of Ernest Rattenbury. Beck laments the decreasing prevalence of Wesley’s hymns in Methodist hymn books through the centuries. Attempts to recover these have taken place at different points in history, most notably in the mid-20th century by Ernest Rattenbury. Rattenbury sought to recover the eucharistic hymns of John and Charles Wesley, a collection of over one hundred and sixty hymns dedicated to the lord’s supper. In doing this, he re-published John Wesley’s abridgement of Daniel Brevint’s work and highlighted the often suppressed emphasis the Wesley brothers placed on the sacrament. These two chapters are a must-read for anyone in the Methodist tradition who wishes to keep a “grip on its vocation” (14). 

Beck states that “if Wesley failed to offer the Methodist people a satisfactory doctrine of the church, he certainly gave them an experience of the church—meeting in small groups together, sustaining one another—in which the Eucharist took on new significance” (71). This message captures the essence of the problems proposed by this book and observed in Methodism today. Methodism, by design, was never intended to be a denomination, an autonomous church. This is a key reason, if not the key reason, that the Methodist tradition has consistently struggled for identity. On this issue, Beck is direct and transparent. 

As helpful as this book may be to those who have been in the Methodist tradition for decades, is not a helpful insight into Methodism for someone outside of the tradition. It is filled with internal church jargon with very little by way of explanation. Much is assumed of the reader. This is natural, as the intended audience of each chapter is the faithful Methodist reader. As a book, it offers much criticism, but little constructive hope for the future. Beck’s final chapter on the purpose of  the divinity school seems disconnected from the rest of the book, but could be read as a constructive way forward. 

For the scholar, pastor, or enthusiast interested in the challenges plaguing Methodism in Britain today, Beck’s collection of essays offers valuable insight into the inner workings of a complex ecclesiological tradition in the struggle for identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph Wood is Lecturer in Church History and Wesleyan Studies at the Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian E. Beck is a fellow and former Principal of Wesley House in Cambridge, UK. He was the secretary of the Methodist Conference in Britain from 1984 to 1998 and president from 1993 to 1994, and from 1969 to 2007 he shared in the leadership of the international Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies.

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