This coming week I will attend my last Spring Synod as a Methodist minister. During the ministerial session each minister affirms three things: 'I believe and teach our doctrines, I obey the discipline, and I am not in debt.'
Now the debt one is a bit strange because mortgages are excluded. It simply means 'my debts are not out of control.' The discipline one is a bit vague because I am not sure we are all aware of what that discipline entails. But it is that 'I believe and teach our doctrines' that I have had a love/hate relationship with.
During my first year in ministry I had something of a shift in my theological views (as can be seen in my wrestlings on the issue of Calvinism and Arminianism). So I used to say, at the Lakelands synod, 'in asmuch as I am an evangelical Christian I believe and teach our doctrines.' Then before my ordination I wrote a letter to the then Secretary of Conference explaining my position. He arranged a meeting between the two of us and the chairperson of the board of examiners. They affirmed that I could say that 'I believe and teach our doctrines' at my ordination. I am not sure that Wesley would have had me as one of his preachers but they gave me their permission for what its worth.
But every year I look around the room and think of all the ministers around the island promising that they believe and teach our doctrines. I wonder if this promise has any value. I believe in a confessional church but I might draw the lines in slightly different places. But given the spectrum of opinion I have heard from ministers, I think that many interpret what it means to believe and teach our doctrines around whatever their particular belief system is. I am sure that I am not the only person that Wesley would have a problem with. Even on the very first of the four alls ('all need to be saved') there are some who interpret that salvation in a way that is far removed from those who devised that formula. If I was a strict Wesleyan I would be hoping mad at the fact that people interpret the church's doctrine in an individualist manner.
So where would you draw the lines? What would you say should be the essential beliefs of the Methodist Church? For me I would go back to what I believe Methodism was all about: an evangelical revival emphasising the need and availability of personal salvation and assurance of faith (I am aware that some would point our that Wesley explained that it was a movement that was raised up to spread Scriptural holiness, I agree, but then I know there are multiple interpretations on what Scriptural holiness means). Personally I would draw the lines around a statement of evangelical essentials (like the Evangelical Alliance confession of faith). My understanding is that Wesley would have had no problem with such a statement of belief. But then he and I might have fallen out over certain particulars beyond that point.