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 Issues | Church History | Charles Wesley

 

Great Churchmen (No 8)

Charles Wesley

by Frank Colquhoun

The Poet of the Evangelical Revival

Published by Church Book Room Press

Charles Wesley as a Churchman

The references to the controversies in which he was engaged have reminded us of Wesley’s theological position, and also of his churchmanship. Throughout his life he never deviated from the historic faith of Catholic and Evangelical Christianity and to the end of his days he remained a devout Churchman. Deeply attached as he was to the Anglican communion, he did not for a moment contemplate severing his connection. Indeed, his love for the Church was second only to his love for Christ. To both he was immovably loyal. From an ecclesiastical point of view he might correctly be described as a High Churchman. He was a firm believer in episcopacy and apostolical succession, and his sacramental views were decidedly advanced. Yet it has been pointed out that his robust churchmanship “had no effect on the evangelical character of his doctrines, for the simple reason that those doctrines were the formulated beliefs of the Established Church in this country.”(1) It should be added here that he had as little sympathy with Dissenters as with Romanists. For him the Church of England was the Catholic and Apostolic Church in this country, and all who separated from it were schismatics.

Let us see for a moment how Wesley’s churchmanship is reflected in his hymns. For example, his hymns for the great Christian festivals are eloquent of the value he attached to the observance of the Church’s Year: hymns such as “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” (Advent); “Hark! how all the welkin rings”—or, as it is better known to us, “Hark! the herald angels sing” (Christmas); “Christ the Lord is risen to-day” (Easter); “Hail the day that sees Him rise” and “Rejoice, the Lord is King” (Ascension). Wesley’s Passion hymns are not as widely known as they ought to be. They are magnificent alike in their theological conception and their emotional expression. Wesley has no rivals here. To take but one illustration, it would be difficult to match the deeply-moving verses beginning:

                  O Love divine! what hast Thou done!
                       The immortal God hath died for me!
                  The Father’s co-eternal Son
                       Bore all my sins upon the tree;
                  The immortal God for me hath died!
                   My Lord, my Love is crucified.

Or take Wesley’s Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. His views of the Holy Communion were typically Anglican. While spurning the popish superstition of transubstantiation, he nevertheless saw in the Sacrament more than a bare memorial meal. For him it was a vital means of grace in which the Lord Himself is present, and in which He dispenses His body and blood to the faithful worshipper. For example:

                   The cup of blessing, blessed by Thee,
                        Let it Thy blood impart;
                   The bread Thy mystic body be,
                        And cheer each languid heart.

Or again:


                       Jesu, we thus obey
                       Thy last and kindest word,
                  Here in Thine own appointed way
                       We come to meet our Lord:
                       The way Thou hast enjoined
                       Thou wilt therein appear;
                  We come with confidence to find
                       Thy special presence here.

                      Our hearts we open wide,
                      To make the Saviour room;
                  And lo! the Lamb, the Crucified,
                      The sinner’s Friend, is come!
                      His presence makes the feast;
                      And now our bosoms feel
                 The glory not to be expressed,
                      The joy unspeakable.

Wesley boldly identified the Sacrament of the “altar” (as he commonly called the Lord’s Table) with the very sacrifice of Christ, as the following verse will show; though it is only fair to add that such lines must be interpreted in an entirely evangelical sense:

                 With solemn faith we offer up,
                      And spread before Thy glorious eyes,
                 That only ground of all our hope,
                      That precious, bleeding sacrifice,
                 Which brings Thy grace on sinners down,
                  And perfects all our souls in one.

It was Charles Wesley’s undeviating churchmanship which occasioned his severe disapproval of his brother’s action in ordaining Dr. Coke as General Superintendent of the Methodist Societies in America. In fact, only the strong mutual love of the two brothers prevented an open breach. Satirically Charles wrote:

                How easily are bishops made
                     By man or woman’s whim!
                Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
                     But who laid hands on him?

The fact is that Charles Wesley viewed schism with horror. And here it may be said that it was never his intention that the Methodist Societies should form a separate church or denomination, but that the members should find their spiritual home within the Anglican communion. His hope all along was that the life of the Church of England might be revived and her witness rekindled into a bright flame. In a poem addressed to his brother he reminded him of this, their original purpose:

               When first sent forth to minister the word,
               Say, did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
               Was it our aim disciples to collect,
               To raise a party, or to found a sect?
               No; but to spread the power of Jesu’s name,
               Repair the walls of our Jerusalem,
               Revive the piety of ancient days,
               And fill the earth with our Redeemer’s praise.

Charles Wesley’s feelings on this matter of separating from the Established Church are expressed in the following words: “I am quite clear that it is neither expedient nor lawful for me to separate; and I never had the least inclination and temptation so to do. My affection for the Church is as strong as ever; and I clearly see my calling; which is to live and die in her communion. This, therefore, I am determined to do, the Lord being my helper.”

Wesley’s desire was fulfilled. At the advanced age of eighty-two he died, as he had lived, in the communion of the Church of England and at his own request was buried in the graveyard of his parish church at Marylebone.

Death had no terrors for him. All his hymns on the subject are marked by serene confidence and joyous hope. Moreover his belief in the Communion of Saints enabled him to realize the oneness of the Church militant and triumphant, so that in one of his grandest hymns he sings:

                    Come, let us join our friends above
                         That have obtained the prize,
                    And on the eagle wings of love
                         To joys celestial rise:
                    Let all the saints terrestrial sing,
                         With those to glory gone;
                    For all the servants of our King,
                         In earth and heaven, are one.

                    One family we dwell in Him,
                         One Church, above, beneath,
                    Though now divided by the stream,
                         The narrow stream of death:
                    One army of the living God,
                         To His command we bow;
                    Part of His host have crossed the flood,
                         And part are crossing now.

 

Endnotes:

1) J. E. Rattenbury, The Evangelical Doctrines of Charles Wesley’s Hymns, p. 230.

 

>>Characteristics of the Hymns


                              
                        

 

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Charles Wesley
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