Wednesday, 8 August 2007

holistic holiness

I guess I will have busier weeks over this year, but if you can't be a bit more chilled in August then it's never going to happen. I did two 'official' engagements last week. The first was to go to Summer Fire, the new branding for the Southport Holiness Convention - a Methodist gathering since the later 19th century - where I preached at the evening celebration event. The second was to go to Yelverton, near Plymouth to join in the centenary celebrations of the Methodist chapel, and its lovely folk there. The rest of the time I've been writing, doing admin and preparing for the onslaught of September.

Holiness interests me. My Presidential address picked up on the idea of certain characteristics, 'charisms', strands of DNA, being linked to certain Christian traditions. Some will think it romantic nonsense, but I don't. I didn't identify holiness as part of the Methodist DNA in that address, focussing more on mission, evangelism and renewal, but it surely is part of our tradition. And it is most surely part of the Southport Holiness and Cliff College traditions.

Holiness in Christian history has taken different forms, it seems to me. The origins of the monastic movement lie in part with a rejection of the version of Christianity that arose in the wake of it being adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The folk we cam to call monks took themselves off, out of 'civilization', and went into the desert. Whether alone, or in communities, or through travelling, they sought a deeper, more real Christian faith. They sought a holy life.

The Celtic/Christian monastic tradition similarly. In one of his books Andrew Walls, the Methodist mission historian, presents a great picture of the Celtic monk living alone in a cave by the sea, eating seaweed, and rising at dawn to stand waist deep in the freezing water, arms outstretched to welcome the rising sun and say prayers. Well, whatever it takes!

Medieval Christianity closely associated holiness with the sacramental life of the Church. The Church was the location of holy things, and the broad ministry of the western Catholic Church was intrinsically connected with the forgiving of sins and bestowing God's grace which brought about a state of 'holiness'. Indeed it is the overly 'mechanical' way in which these sacraments were understood to work that so aggravated some Protestant Reformers, causing them to stress 'Godly Discipline' and the captivity of the heart and mind to the Word of God, as key to the proper Christian life, a life of holiness.

By the 19th century holiness is more associated with reading the bible and a devout moral life (in Victorian 'Christian' England) manifest in various cultural ways.

And a century earlier are the early Methodists, who seem to associate holiness with a whole mixture of things. Supremely God's saving grace in Christ, which is for all, and offered to all who ask and seek. But then also a resolve to co-operate with God in seeking Perfection, Perfect Love. But it also involved prayer, good works - the 'means of grace' - and in time, for many, temperance and the like.

I am no expert - as anyone who knows about this stuff will have already realised! But it does seem to me that Methodism sought to hold together a combination of 'internal' and 'external' demonstrations of 'holiness'. That is, you couldn't simply do the personal piety bit and treat others like dogs, and be holy. Or, conversely, you couldn't be holy by being a perfect philanthropist or neighbour, while ignoring configuring your life around the Scriptures, prayer, meeting together in fellowhip, bread and wine, etc. The 'inside' and the 'outside' belong together. That is why the Wesleys prayed early and hard, were devoted to the Word of God, made rules which marked out members of Methodist Societies, while visiting prisoners, raising and giving money away as a regular thing, and taking active part in almost every major political issue of their day - not least, much in our minds at the moment, that of slavery.

'Personal' and 'social' holiness. Each requiring the other to bring about a holy life.

I think that kind of holistic holiness is still evident in contemporary Methodism. Some of the big issues with which we wrestle are resourced by a combination of proper expressions of personal and social holiness. And we agree to differ by the relative priority we place on different expressions of personal and social holiness. But what we seem unable to do - and I for one am glad about that - is opt for either expressions of personal or social holiness.

All this said, such holiness does not come easy - certainly not to me. I am desperate not to appear a boring pious prude of the worst kind, but I do want to be a good disciple of Jesus, now, today, here in this time and place. I wrestle with both personal and social aspects of holiness, and how they relate together to produce the real thing. But I may be alone in this?

Anyone any suggestions about the way to go?


David said...

I suppose you can tie yourself in knots trying to strike the right balance, and thinking too much makes it harder.

Maybe the chap was in similar state when he asked Jesus for simplification - ie what is the first commandment of all.

Jesus's response:
1) Love the Lord your God etc...
2) Love your neighbour as yourself.

These two commandments seem to mirror your 'inward' and 'outward' holiness of Methodism.

But I think in a way they are really one commandment. I think the words 'as yourself' are key in this because they say something vital about our relationship with others.

It is possible to do good for our neighbour while still somehow being divided from them. But we are not to see other people as 'objects' to which we can do good. This is not what God wants - God wants all things to be unified in God.

We are to experience others in a way that means we are somehow, mysteriously, unified with them ('as yourself'). This can only happen when we are unified with them in God, in Love, as God's children.

So 1) 'Love the Lord your God' comes first, because only in God can you truly love your neighbour and do him the best good - which is to love him/her in as brother or sister in God.

PamBG said...

We - and I don't just mean Methodists - need a culture in church where we can try our best, fail and be forgiven.

Many human groupings seem to work on the basis that 'She who tries her best and fails gets all the blame'.

Wouldn't it be great if church congregations could model a forgiving community?

Sally said...

I guess I'd echo Pams thoughts on the need for forgiving and loving communities. When I take time to read back through some of the old class miniutes from my circuit I am often horrified at the way grace was pushed aside and holiness became a brittle thing.

I suspect that true holiness is full of grace- we have a God who desires mercy over sacrifice- and yet we need to balance our graciousness with a call to holy living...


I can only think that prayer and encouraging affirming fellowships are the key.

Simon Barrow said...

Great to see you on here, Martyn. It's a good initiative. And so refreshing to see posts really written by the people concerned. (It is a depressing trend in organisational PR for minions to write leaders' blogs for them). Excellent stuff on holiness, of course. Thanks. See:

Btw (and as a sinner myself), don't forget that very short blogs can work well too. Just a quick thought, so to speak. That makes it more manageable. Posting more often (rather than longer) builds up a better dialogue.