If too many churches have relinquished their focus on forming Christian disciples—forgetting a tenet of Methodism championed by 18th century founders John and Charles Wesley—Duke Divinity School is assembling a formidable force for 21st century renewal.
“The United Methodist Church has lost its memory,” says Bishop Kenneth Carder, who spent 45 years in church ministry and was an active bishop before coming to Duke last year as a professor and director of the Center of Excellence in Ministry. “We’re a community with amnesia.”
The need, he says, is for a church that forms Christians who know and live the core doctrines of the faith and engage in disciplines and practices that enable them to love God and neighbor. Yet many churches, argues Carder, have become consumer-oriented, once-per-week destinations that offer entertainment and verbal comfort food without requiring commitment or real Christian community.
In spite of that—or, arguably, because of it—average weekly attendance at United Methodist churches is down in the United States, slipping from about 3.6 million in 1980 to below 3.5 million in 2002, according to the United Methodist information service. The answer, Carder believes, is for the church to return to its Wesleyan roots of transformation, discipleship and mission.
The recent addition of three leading Wesleyan scholars to the divinity school faculty, long known for its preeminence in the field, positions Duke at the forefront of Methodism’s call for a return to its Wesleyan roots.
Newcomers Randy Maddox, L. Edward Phillips, and Paul Chilcote will work side-by-side with fellow Wesleyan experts Richard Heitzenrater, Teresa Berger, Kenneth Carder, Warren Smith, Geoffrey Wainwright, Laceye Warner, and others with expertise in Methodism. They’ll also have easy access to the Divinity School Library, home of the largest collection of Wesleyana in the United States, including the extensive collection gathered by the late Frank Baker.
“These are new stars coming into an already rich constellation of Wesleyan scholars,” says Dean L. Gregory Jones. In addition to continuing the tradition of forming gifted new pastors at Duke, where enrollment is typically 55-60 percent United Methodist, “We look forward to new synergies and intellectual energy that will serve the church, the academy and the world,” Jones says.
The new faculty members acknowledge their eagerness to join the current faculty in carrying on the work of such celebrated scholars as Baker, Albert Outler and Robert Cushman. In addition to bringing to Duke expertise in teaching and research, the three professors also are ordained elders in the United Methodist Church.
“They have strong relationships with the ongoing work of the church,” says Richard Heitzenrater, who is credited with deciphering the coded personal diaries of John Wesley and is himself among the world’s premier Wesley scholars. “They’re committed to the church and to providing pro-active assistance. It’s not about telling the church what to do, but about communicating…and being involved with…people in the church.”
William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference and a former dean of Duke Chapel, is eager to see that work begin. Willimon, also a former Duke Divinity School professor, taught Chilcote at Duke some 25 years ago.
“United Methodism is at a time where we’re rethinking our identity,” says Willimon, who also has worked with Carder on meeting various challenges the church faces. “We’ve got to do a better job of articulating, of drawing from and of being energized by our uniquely Wesleyan heritage. Duke is marvelously positioned to lead in that effort.”
The church could benefit from a fuller appropriation of the unique Wesleyan gifts of grace and discipline, says Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of Mississippi, a 1978 divinity school alumna. “The presence of Randy Maddox, Ed Phillips and Paul Chilcote enriches Duke for its expanding mission.”
Carder hopes that Methodism will shift its gaze toward unifying questions,
such as how to best focus on forming Christians for the transformation
of the world. He also hopes that Duke will play a significant part in
making that shift. “We can play a strategic role in helping the
church define what it means to be 21st century disciples of Jesus Christ.”
For Paul Chilcote, the appointment as visiting professor of the practice of evangelism at Duke is a homecoming. He earned a Ph.D. in church history and historical theology at Duke in 1984. (He was Frank Baker’s last doctoral student in Wesleyan studies). He also earned his master of divinity degree at the school, and he was a research scholar at Duke in 2001.
“It’s such a rich experience for me to come back,” said Chilcote, previously professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies, and associate dean of the school of theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Florida.
“Not only do I have good friends on the faculty from before I arrived here, but I’m also close with Ed Phillips and Randy Maddox.” Chilcote has worked with Maddox on two volumes of the Wesley Works Editorial Project.
Chilcote’s roots in ministry and the United Methodist Church run deep. His father was a United Methodist pastor in Illinois, and his mother was a home missionary with the church, playing piano and organ and teaching music to the children of miners in small Pennsylvania towns. Chilcote jokes about the fact that he was born during the Rock River (now Northern Illinois) Annual Conference in 1954.
“I’ll always be a pastor at heart,” he says, noting that he already has arranged to lead a study series at Orange United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., on recapturing Wesley’s vision of vital Christianity.
“My primary passion is applied Wesleyan studies,” he says. “It’s about how our heritage applies directly to the lives of individual believers and communities of faith, how it forms, shapes and engages the lives of ordinary Christians.”
That means placing an emphasis on the early church, small-group meetings within congregations, involvement in ministry with the poor and other disenfranchised people, and attention to the sacraments.
Chilcote has long focused on evangelism in his published work, his teaching and his life in the church. His work in Africa, where he became a founding faculty member at Africa University in Zimbabwe, was an important formative step in his understanding of the church and its mission.
“After that experience, it is absolutely impossible for me to have a parochial view of the church,” he says. “My vision of Christianity is a global vision, and that’s something I hope to carry with me everywhere.”
Chilcote’s emphasis on missionary work (he taught at African colleges from 1987-90 and from 1992-94) will be instructive to current and future ministers, especially in the United Methodist Church, says William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference and a former dean of Duke Chapel. “Wesleyanism at its best is about reaching out.”
The arrival of Randy Maddox as professor of theology and Wesleyan studies brings together the lead editors of the Wesley Works Editorial Project, a key effort to produce a critical edition of approximately 35 volumes (discussion on the total number persists) of the works of John Wesley.
Maddox, who was Paul T. Walls professor of Wesleyan Theology at Seattle Pacific University, is associate general editor of the project, which began at Duke in 1959.
The general editor is Richard Heitzenrater, William Kellon Quick professor of church history and Wesley studies at the divinity school. The project is nearly half done now, and the two hope an additional volume will be published each year.
In much of his scholarship, Maddox seeks to apply Wesleyan thought and wisdom to modern disciplines and concerns, such as neuroscience, bioethics, medical issues, psychology, and animal rights. He notes that John Wesley himself was interested in all of these subjects, or at least their precursors in his day. So it isn’t such a stretch to draw on Wesley’s preaching and teaching nearly three centuries ago for insights into addressing many of today’s debates.
“Careful study of tradition and concern for contemporary issues are often mutually enlightening,” says Maddox.
One example of creative interchange concerns research in neuroscience which is revealing how human emotions, self-awareness and the like are integrally related to brain functions that cease at death—findings that challenge popular Christian belief in the immorality of the soul and a purely spiritual afterlife.
Maddox notes that John Wesley, drawing insight from the early church, came to stress the resurrection of both body and soul, rejecting the dualistic dismissal of the body common in his day.
“Wesley had an increasing emphasis on soul-body holism,” Maddox says. “His precedent could encourage us to reclaim the more biblical model in our dialogue with the neurosciences, appreciating anew what the Bible says about resurrection.”
An expert in the history of practical and pastoral aspects of the church, L. Edward Phillips joins the divinity school from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he was associate professor of historical theology.
His work has centered on such topics as how the church over time conducted worship, initiated Christians and organized ministries.
He chaired a major study of Holy Communion for the United Methodist Church, which led to an official teaching document of the church in 2004. That study, the first of its kind for the church, led him across the United States and through other countries including England, Germany, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo as he researched United Methodist practices and beliefs regarding the Lord’s Supper.
As associate professor of the practice of Christian worship at the divinity school, Phillips hopes to build on that work and underscore the important role of Eucharist in the Wesleyan tradition.
“Charles and John believed strongly that there is a real presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” he says. “They didn’t try to define it; yet they taught that Christ’s presence is real.”
As a teacher, Phillips is committed to helping form students who thoroughly understand the fundamental skills of Christian worship, from gestures to liturgy to the rhythms of a service. For the new pastor, he says, it’s important to learn the basics of worship before attempting improvisation.
“I hope we’ll do an even better job of helping pastors be good liturgical leaders,” he says. “There’s nothing that’s more important for pastors to be able to do.”
Duke Divinity School’s efforts to form students and others as disciples, combined with a deep commitment to the intellectual life of the church, are rare, says Phillips. “You don’t find all of that in many schools.”
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