What Are We To Do About The 44 Sermons?
Geoffrey P Chapman
The Forty Four sermons comprise 43 by John and one by Charles Wesley and are held to have special significance for the Methodist Church. They are written in an English style, elegant in its way but hardly congenial nowadays. They do of course predate the insights of modern economics, science, politics and most Biblical ‘Higher Criticism’. While we might require trainee preachers to have some awareness of one or two of these sermons, the fact is that, whether lay or ordained, for most preachers, most of the time, the volume containing them remains unopened and only rarely do small parts find their way into the main preoccupations of modern Methodism. If, officially, they are held to have a value, of what does that consist and how is it to be more widely appreciated?
As with many of my fellow preachers I have been expected to know something about these sermons but unlike many of my contemporaries, I have to say ‘not unwillingly’. Indeed, it is possible to find them absorbing and stimulating although, when I have sought to communicate my enthusiasm, few have risen to share it. This eventually prompted me to see if, by a different approach, interest could be generated more widely.( I have to say, at the outset, I do not mean having recourse to some updated version but working with the original, unmodernised sermons just as one would with Shakespeare’s plays, for example.) It might be asked by what right I would presume to such an undertaking to which I would reply that I have been a local preacher for many years, am familiar with the New Testament particularly, together with the appropriate spread of technical commentaries and also Wesley’s own translation of it along with his Expository Notes. I consult his journal from time to time and confront, as others have done, the fact that this Oxford academic was moved to forsake academia for a ministry both so unusual in its practice and so remarkable in its long lasting, world wide outcome. At the very least, I ask, have I nothing to learn from trying to attend closely to what he said? Beyond that, if I disagree with him, upon what basis do I do so?
The Frame of ReferenceL~
Only incidentally is my interest in any way antiquarian. The primary thrust is how these sermons have relevance here and now. In probing the subject, two significant considerations have attended this. These are:
How might experienced fellow preachers become involved?
How can the approach to these sermons be simplified and facilitated for trainee preachers?
I stress that my intention is to produce no ‘official’ document but, rather, to offer a fresh perspective leaving the choice to individual tutors as to whether or not they judge this to be worthwhile material to put before their charges.
By taking the ‘Forty Four’ referred to from now on as the ‘Collection’ the aim is to produce a 21st Century ‘Companion’ to it. This, it should be emphasized, is not a ‘digest’ nor is it a ‘commentary’, both of which imply that these Wesley sermons are being examined and explained in depth and that no stone would be left unturned. By contrast, as with our own companions we reserve the right to disagree, focus upon what interests us and hopefully, in the process, retain friendship, respect and a willingness to see somebody else’s point of view. It is in this sense that the aim is to produce a ‘Companion’ to the sermons. While I might be the author of the project, I see myself only as editor of the finished result. This will be explained below.
For each sermon, following its number and title, there is set out its scriptural text, a one paragraph summary and the outline. The outline is where both Wesleys come to our aid since each constructs a sermon to a standard pattern having an introduction and several numbered sections. Those sections are divided into numbered subsections. Unlike the original Collection, however, taking the model in Expository Notes a sentence will be added to define the content of each section and subsection. The reader has, thus, at a glance, a bird’s eye view of the whole sermon. .There is no intention to include any entire sermon since these are already available in published form. There then follows the ‘Comment’ part where ‘companionship’, in the sense intended here, finds it expression. This last part amounts to between two and ten paragraphs for each sermon where its contemporary value (or lack of it) is explored. Behind this is a consideration from my own observation and experience, that when a trainee preacher is examined the emphasis tends to be on what Wesley said and not on whether or not one agrees with him. To some extent, this part of the format is a reaction against that.
The Editorial ProcessL~
Having set out the format, the intention is to recruit a group of preachers, both lay and ordained, who would each take, in the format as laid out, one or, possibly, two of these ‘sermon treatments’, and set these against the original sermon and see to what extent they wished to amend the comments made about it. It should thus become ‘the John Wesley Sermon Project’ with a wide participation. Subsequently, gathering up the various reactions, it should be possible to produce in edited form, the Companion which will be both a contemporary and a collective response to the Wesley sermons.
The Time ScaleL~
The aim is to have material circulated and returned for 3Oth April 2007 for editing thereafter. It would then be available as a publication for purchase by 1st September of this year. It is worth explaining why this time scale has been adopted.
The John Wesley Primary School, Singleton, Ashford, Kent.L~
In a previous issue of Headline, details were set out of a major new development in the Ashford Circuit. Here the Circuit has co sponsored, with the Diocese of Canterbury, an environmentally ‘state of the art’ voluntary aided primary school intended to be a landmark development in the provision of education for children in this age group. During 2003, the year of his tercentenary, the Circuit and the Diocese took the decision to name the school after John Wesley. The school opens in September 2007 and publication of the book which this article describes is, it is hoped, to be but one of the various celebrations of this auspicious development and one very much in the spirit of the Anglican /Methodist Covenant.
For those wishing to be involved in this project, they should contact me by email or at Mistral, 3 Oxenturn Road, Wye, Ashford, Kent, TN25 5BH. If you would like to join in, please provide the name and address of a Superintendent Minister who would provide support for your intention to do so.
Geoffrey P Chapman ois a Local preacher in the Ashford Circuit, Kent.
Headline Spring 2007 pp. 23-24