Recently I’ve been thinking about the possibility of identifying myself as a “Methodist Catholic.” I’ve never been able to understand why Protestant denominations call themselves “churches”, and I’ve been a Proddy my whole life. Every week (at least in my Methodist church) we recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed which affirms that we believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” not in “many, more or less respectable, sectarian and individually founded churches.” This basically means that we are claiming to represent one part of the ancient Christian Church that comes to us from the Apostles. Why, then, do we care about being “Wesleyan”? Certainly Wesley himself did not want people to become Wesleyans. His point, rather, was that the Anglican Church should reach out to those commonly left on the margins. He wanted to renew the Church of England by preaching to and caring for the poor. Shouldn’t the Church in general care about such “evangelical” practice?
Another emphasis of the Wesleys was the doctrine of sanctification, or holiness, or as the Orthodox put it, deification. In our lifelong quest to be transformed into the likeness of Christ we ought to meet regularly with other Christians to encourage each other and hold each other accountable. Not exactly an idea unique to Methodism. Every Christian is on a journey from sinner to saint.
With most other doctrines Wesley accepted the teaching of the Church of England, and never attempted to start his own “church.” He ought to be viewed as an Anglican who attempted to bring some traditional, but neglected, Christian disciplines back into the attention of his fellow Anglicans.
In the Roman Catholic tradition this would be the role of someone who founds a religious order, someone who encourages a renewal of Christian virtue without declaring the institutional church completely bankrupt and attempting to start another one. Why then are Protestant denominations so fond of calling themselves “churches”? Why not say that we are communities of the one universal church who happen to emphasize a given practice or doctrine, but who nevertheless ascribe to the creed of the church catholic? Why not, in short, call ourselves Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian Catholics?
If we see ourselves as part of the larger body of Christ, rather than focusing on our distinctives, we might have a more influential role in ecumenical discussions. It’s true that to a great extent this has already happened among the leaders of our denominations, but the realization of our catholicity has not impressed itself quite as firmly upon local pastors or their congregations.
This is particularly apparent in our liturgies. Many Methodist “churches,” for example, celebrate the Eucharist only once every three months. We wouldn’t want to commune more frequently for fear that we would be too “Catholic.” But, that is exactly what we are, unless we want to abandon the Creed.
As Protestants we should take seriously the “protest” involved in our name and ask ourselves what exactly we are protesting. Why are we protesting? Are we trying to call the church catholic back to its truest self, or are we just trying not to be “Catholic.” What is the purpose of our distinctives, to remind the Church of the Gospel or simply to be good Methodists?