DIVINITY Online Edition

Wesley’s Global Parish
By Reed Criswell



Photo by Richard P. Heitzenrater


 Eastern Orthodox Monastery, Moscow, Russia.

Thirty years into the Wesleyan renaissance, Eastern and Northern Europe are catching the spirit. Richard P. Heitzenrater, William Kellon Quick professor of church history and Wesley studies, helped establish that renaissance in the West and is now leading the way for the east-bloc countries.

Heitzenrater is credited with “breaking the code” of John Wesley’s cryptic diaries, beginning in the late 1960s, which contributed to a groundswell of interest in everything connected to the founding family of Methodism.

During the 2003 tercentennial of John Wesley’s birth, Heitzenrater received so many requests to speak and teach that he could not accept them all, even though he was on sabbatical for much of the year. After that whirlwind of activity, he came up with a plan to reach many of the places that he previously had to forgo.

With Dean L. Gregory Jones’ blessing, Heitzenrater traveled during the spring 2005 semester to Russia, Bulgaria, Austria and Sweden. The world became his classroom… a classroom in which he was both instructor and student. Among the things he learned was how closely tied religion is to the surrounding culture, and how flexible Wesleyan theology can be.

In Russia, for instance, he noted that a Methodist church’s practice of burning prayer candles during worship reflected that region’s dominant Eastern Orthodox tradition.

But Heitzenrater believes this practice is well within the Wesleyan theology of conformity (in essential theological categories such as the Trinity) and flexibility (in more peripheral matters within the life of a worshiping congregation).


Photo by Richard P. Heitzenrater


 Sanctuary ceiling, Methodist Church, Gothenburg, Sweden

Translation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline into a variety of languages is one place where various cultures have exercised the fluidity of Wesleyan polity, as well as theology. The Social Principles, for instance, reflect nuanced concerns in each Central Conference.

In many of these countries, Heitzenrater learned that becoming a Methodist minister has costs far beyond the price of tuition and books. His foreign students have to commit considerable perseverance in the face of uncertainties as they pursue the call to ministry.

Among the obstacles is the financial viability of seminaries. During prayer time at chapel services at a Russian seminary, the rector announced that there might not be enough funds to hold classes during the 2005-06 school year. He encouraged students to think about possible alternative arrangements for theological study.

The Methodists in Bulgaria, one of the poorest countries in Europe, spend much of their resources on basic necessities. The congregation Heitzenrater visited at Varna uses its limited funds to feed hundreds of townspeople each week.


Photo by Les Todd


 Richard Heitzenrater,William Kellon Quick Professor of Church History and Wesley Studies

As a result, the church can afford to heat only the rooms that are in use during the winter. The remainder of the building is left unheated.

All of the European conferences are determined to learn more about their Wesleyan heritage, despite the challenges ahead. When Professor Heizenrater himself can’t be there, they rely on his book Wesley and the People Called Methodists.

This text has been translated—or is in the process of translation— into languages of four overseas continents.

And while some of these cultures have shown more than a little hostility to John Wesley’s spiritual descendants in the past, native pastors trained in the Wesleyan tradition are taking up pulpits in increasing numbers.

In some respects, this renaissance brings the Wesleyan tradition back to its beginnings. Twenty-first In some respects, this renaissance brings the Wesleyan tradition back to its beginnings. Twenty-first century Methodists in countries dominated by Eastern Orthodoxy often encounter cultural resistance to their message, not unlike the resistance the Wesleys themselves experienced in 18th Century Anglican England.


Photo by Richard P. Heitzenrater


 Seminary students at Russia United Methodist Theological School, Moscow

However, armed with sound instruction from their own teachers and the expertise of Western scholars such as Heitzenrater, these ministers are spreading God’s word as Wesley intended.


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