Church Times vom 4.7.2003
In Wesley’s tercentenary year, as the Anglican-Methodist Covenant is discussed, many will wish to learn something of Methodism’s founder. Stephen Tomkins’s very readable biography offers a manageable (200 pages in 24 bite-sized chapters), inexpensive, and enjoyable way in. The author, a skilful summariser and presenter with an eye for the interesting and significant, offers useful insights, wise comments, and well drawn thumbnail sketches. Wesley’s logic, and his calm, compelling presence, are contrasted with George Whitefield’s rhetoric and dramatic flamboyance; Wesley’s ordered reason with his brother Charles’s volatile passion. There is a strong sense of historical context. It was an age in which death was ever-present, and the invisible reality of God was as little questioned as that of human rights today. There was a revival led by a multitude of evangelists and societies, on many of whom Wesley, in time, bestowed organisation and »brand identity«. The author is also realistic about the limitations of Wesley’s self-justifying, written-for-publication Journal as a source. The resulting book is no hagiography: Wesley emerges as great and good, venerated in the 1780s as »almost a national treasure«, but too self-centred, self-satisfied and sometimes coldly unsentimental to be entirely likeable. One disappointment is that Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, or »perfect love« (which some would rather call original or distinctive than eccentric), is not explained more fully, with its biblical basis and patristic parallels. Though most Anglicans are happy to sing it (for example in »Love divine«), it has been proved contentious in discussions of the Covenant. It is precisely here that Kenneth Collins’s account of Wesley’s theological journey is strongest, focusing as it does on justification, assurance, sanctification and perfection. Wesley’s theology evolved, and was heavily influenced by, his biography, so a biographical presentation seems promising; but the result is an unsatisfying mixture of genres. Historical narrative of Wesley’s sojourn in Georgia is interrupted by four pretty indigestible pages on his »soteriological status«; and accounts of his views on the Church of England and on predestination are separated by three pages on his (theologically irrelevant) marital difficulties. Unevenness compounds the problem: the theology is weighty, the history and biography are less so. Collins is weak on context (like the Journal, he highlights Wesley while leaving others in obscurity); and his picture of Wesley (for Collins, »one of England greatest saints«) is one-sided. Wesley’s high-church eucharistic theology is ignored; his parents’ Puritan upbringing explored, but not their own high-churchmanship. This is a pity, for it is Wesley’s paradoxes (high-church Tory and Evangelical dissenter; academic and evangelist; man of reason and enthusiast; centralising autocrat who fostered local lay democracy) that make him so fascinating. On all of this, Tomkins is much better. Collins’s book is further limited by its largely American and Methodist bibliography, to which the vast (and relevant) literature on Moravianism is unknown. In many ways, it is shaped by its provenance — the Wesley Studies lecture room of an American Methodist seminary. Wesley’s theological problems have a »right« answer (usually the one Wesley reached in the end), while other writers are »wrong-headed«. Over-explanation, folksiness and malapropisms jar, as do the respectful but anachronistic references to the 18th-century women as »Ms«. Collins makes his contribution to debates within Wesley studies, offering, for example, strong arguments for the Western, Protestant roots of Wesley’s doctrine of salvation. But for all its theological expertise and shafts of insight, his book seems likely to travel no better across the Atlantic than Wesley did in the opposite direction.
Dr Podmore is the Secretary of the House of Clergy, the Dioceses Commission, and the Liturgical Commission