Recently I visited Savannah, Georgia. It is not quite the spiritual home of American methodists, given that Wesley’s trip here was a bust. However, there are several Wesleyan historical markers, such as his statute in Reynold’s Square giving some history of where he lived during the time. He simply did not leave a mark on the city, so much as it became a point of significance once Wesley became who Wesley was.
However, there is at least one living and active connection to John Wesley. It is Christ Church. But here is the kicker. There are two Christ Churches in Savannah, both claiming to be the parish he pastored. There is the building which the Episcopal Church won in litigation, sitting in the historic location where a previous building existed. On this site, both John Wesley and George Whitfield served as rectors to a parish. In 2011, the parish, led by the current rector, left wholesale and bought another building. This is Christ Church Anglican.
When visiting, I had to determine which one I was going to visit. Indeed, which one is actually the parish pastored by Wesley? 87% of the parish that moved to Bull Street, forced out of their historic home, after a protracted fight? Or the new parish that currently inhabits the historic building? I chose Christ Church Anglican.
But, that got me thinking. If The United Methodist Church splits, who gets the bones of John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke? Do the progressives? The evangelicals? Who gets to claim to be the rightful heir to American Wesleyanism?
What is more is the local congregation. How many will split and force those trying to seek a Sunday morning home to choose between two that carry the history? Which one is the authentic one connected to theology, family, or other milestone? I think of my local congregation, formed in 1804. If it splits, who is the real local congregation first formed in 1804? The history cannot be shared too easily. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to some — and some do not recognize proper Wesleyan theology anyway. But to others, maybe many others, the history of the American people called Methodists as well as those of our local congregations do matter.
Most of us have recognized that some sort of schism is coming. Some even believe it is necessary. Someone, somewhere has started to formulate another plan. But I worry is that we will ask congregations to divide. In somewhat, we will also force a division. If we follow the EC’s example, we will cause a lot of suffering and lose a lot of (our) history. I pray that there is a real way forward that seeks to preserve the connection to the local congregation as well as to our history.
As to the rightful heirs of John Wesley, I believe John Wesley himself sums it up: