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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 1

Conference of 1835

page 16

Conference of 1835.

"It is indispensably necessary to the purity of our ministry, and to the spiritual welfare of our societies, to retain, and on all proper occasions to use, the right of fully inquiring into the conduct of its own members, and judicially dealing with them, which the Conference, in its annual assemblies, and (during the periods intervening between its yearly meetings) by means of its District-Committees, has hitherto exercised."

"Q. Is it expedient, on account of recent occurrences, to reassert, by declaratory Resolutions, any of our rules or usages, which individuals have attempted to contradict or pervert?

"A. We think it is expedient; and therefore the Conference unanimously declares as follows; viz.,

"1. That not only the Conference, but all its District-Committees, whether ordinary or special, possess the undoubted right of instituting, in their official and collective character, any inquiry or investigation, which they may deem expedient, into the moral, Christian, or ministerial conduct of the Preachers under their care, even although no formal or regular accusation may have been previously announced on the part of any individual; and that they have also the authority of coming to such decisions thereupon, as to them may seem most conformable to the laws of the New Testament, and to the rules and usages of our Connexion. In the District-Meetings, especially, the Chairman has the official right of originating such inquiries, if he think necessary; because our rule declares that 'the Chairman of each District, in conjunction with his brethren of the Committee, shall be responsible to the Conference for the execution of the laws, as far as his District is concerned.'

"2. That all Preachers who desire to remain in ministerial communion with us are considered as retaining that communion on the distinct condition, that they hold themselves individually pledged to submit, in a peaceable and page 17 Christian spirit, to the usual disciplinary investigations, not only of the Conference, but of all its District-Committees, whether ordinary or special, when summoned according to our rules and usages; and that any Preacher who refuses to submit to the friendly examination of the Chairman and of other brethren, or to take his trial, regularly and formally, before the Preachers either of an ordinary or of a special District-Committee, when duly required so to do, shall be considered as, ipso facto, inclining the penalty of suspension until the ensuing Conference; because no possible security can be found even against the worst forms of moral or ministerial delinquency, if persons charged with any misconduct, and summoned to trial, be allowed to evade with impunity our established modes of investigation."*

These extracts from the printed Minutes of the Methodist Conferences, extending through a period of more than ninety years, suggest the following observations:—

1. That the Wesleyan ministry has been uniformly guarded with singular vigilance and care. All the men who have been admitted into this ministry have from the beginning been subjected to the most searching scrutiny in respect of their personal piety, their knowledge of evangelical truth, their soundness in the faith, their ability to teach, and the purity of their morals. The reason for all this care is obvious. Mr. Wesley regarded the Christian ministry not as a mere profession, but as a divine vocation. He believed, in accordance with the Church to which he belonged, that every true Minister of the Gospel is called of God, and moved by the Holy Ghost, to take upon himself the sacred office which he sustains; and that upon the right discharge of its duties, the actual salvation of men is made to depend. He did not believe that men are made Christians by being born in a Christian country, and by an external conformity to the ordinances of the Gospel; but that, as all men are born in sin, and are by nature

* Minutes, vol. vii., pp. 544, 549, 550.

page 18 children of wrath, so they can only be saved from sin, its guilt and curse, its misery, pollution, and reigning power, by a personal faith in Christ as their Redeemer, and their Advocate with God. Such a faith he believed to be the gift of God, preceded and accompanied by unfeigned repentance, followed by peace of conscience, by purity of heart, and by a holy life. As faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, so Mr. Wesley felt that all this amount of spiritual good is instrumentally produced by an evangelical ministry; but then he saw that, generally speaking, no man can successfully exercise such a ministry unless he himself be a witness of the power of Christianity. For, how can he who is himself unsaved adequately explain the nature and method of salvation to others? and how can an unsanctified man successfully exercise the pastoral charge over a spiritual people, or sympathize with them in all the trials, sorrows, and joys of the divine life? Methodism, as administered by Mr. Wesley, and by the Conference which he constituted, acknowledges no man as a true Minister and Pastor, unless he be personally reconciled to God, and so renewed in the spirit of his mind as to be able explicitly to testify, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

2. The searching examinations to which the Wesleyan Ministers have from the beginning been subjected, have been personal. Candidates for this ministry, and men who were recognised as being in a state of complete union with the Conference, have all been expected to answer questions which were officially proposed to them. Not only have inquiries respecting their general spirit and behaviour been made of their colleagues and other persons, but the men themselves have been required to answer questions especially affecting their religious state, their belief, their regard for the Methodist economy, and their purpose to promote the objects of the Connexion in the page 17 advancement of true religion. These are questions which none but the parties themselves could answer; and answers to them have been both demanded and given, and that as matter of course.

3. These examinations have been annual. Not only have the Methodist Preachers been personally examined when they were admitted upon trial, and when they were received into full ministerial connexion with their brethren; but it has also been their established practice once a year to institute an inquiry into the personal and ministerial character of every one of them, whether he be a Missionary or labour at home. "Are there any objections to any of our Preachers?" is a question which is proposed in every regular District-Meeting, and in every Conference; and the answer which is given in the printed Minutes is, "They were examined one by one." This practice, and the terms in which it is recorded, were both originated by Mr. Wesley. When the question, "Docs he believe and teach our doctrines?" is proposed in the yearly District-Meeting, every individual is expected to answer for himself; and the call is generally responded to with the utmost promptitude and cheerfulness; for what have honest men to conceal? "For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God." (John iii. 20,21.) In respect of this yearly examination of character, the Wesleyan economy differs from that of almost every other community. In the Church of England, and in the Church of Scotland,* for

* The form of examination which is practised in the Church of England may he seen by a reference to the Book of Common Prayer. The following are the questions to which the Church of Scotland requires an answer from each of her Ministers on his appointment to the sacred office:—

"After the sermon, the Minister who hath preached shall, in the face of the congregation, demand of him who is now to be ordained, concerning his faith in Christ Jesus, and his persuasion of the truth of the Reformed religion, according to the Scripture; his sincere intentions and ends in desiring to enter into this calling; his diligence in praying, reading, meditation, preaching, ministering the sacraments, discipline, and doing all ministerial duties towards his charge; his zeal and faithfulness in maintaining the truth of the Gospel, and unity of the church, against error and schism; his care that himself and his family may be unblameable and examples to the flock; his willingness and humility, in meekness of spirit, to submit unto the admonitions of his brethren, and discipline of the church; and his resolution to continue in his duty against all trouble and persecution.

"In all which having declared himself, professed his willingness, and promised his endeavours, by the help of God; the Minister likewise shall demand of the people concerning their willingness to receive and acknowledge him as the Minister of Christ."

page 20 instance, Ministers undergo a close examination at the time of their ordination; but in after-life, unless complaint be preferred against them, it does not appear that inquiries are ordinarily made into their spiritual state, or into the manner in which they discharge their public and official duties. Whereas Mr. Wesley thought that a man might be called of God to preach the Gospel, and afterwards forfeit that call by unfaithfulness; or that he might depart from the truth, lose the spirit of his calling, and so need reproof and godly admonition. The true spirit of the sacred office can only be preserved by incessant vigilance and prayer; so that whatever may be the natural and acquired abilities of a Minister, if he sink into a state of mental indolence, become self-indulgent, worldly in his disposition, vain and trifling in his conversation, ceasing to "watch for souls as they that must give account," he becomes rather a burden than a blessing to the people; and unless he can be roused to a due feeling of his responsibilities, the sooner he is superseded in his office the better. Even men that were disabled by the infirmities of age for the efficient discharge of ministerial duties, Mr. Wesley declined to appoint to the full labours of a Circuit.*

* "In the Large Minutes, Q. 25, it is asked, What is the office of an Helper? It is answered, 'To preach morning and evening.' Therefore none who does not can perform this office.

"'But he cannot: Perhaps so. Then he cannot undertake this office.

"'I did this for many years. But I cannot do it any longer.' Then you can no longer undertake this office. But you may be a Supernumerary, as John Furz and Richard Seed are." (Minutes of Conference, vol. i., p. 160.)

page 21

4. These strict examinations are indispensably necessary in order that the Conference may be able to fulfil its trusts with conscientiousness and fidelity. We have seen that upon the Conference devolves the task of appointing Ministers to the different chapels of the Connexion, and to the pastoral oversight of the societies. Who can estimate the amount of responsibility which this task involves! How can this trust be fulfilled, so that its great object may be realized in the conversion and salvation of men, that the approval of the Lord Jesus may be secured, and that the parties who execute it may have a conscience void of offence? The answer is, By a strict adherence to first principles; by selecting spiritual men, duly qualified; men of faith and holy zeal, who will give themselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word; men who love the souls of their fellow-creatures, perishing in ignorance and sin, with a passion like that which brought the Son of God from heaven to die for our guilty race. But in order that the Conference may faithfully fulfil this most solemn trust, it must satisfy itself, by strict examinations, and every other available means, that the Ministers whom it yearly sends forth and sanctions are not only outwardly blameless, but that they also "live in the Spirit, and walk in the Spirit."

5. The Methodist societies and congregations generally are interested in this part of our economy, and are bound to maintain it. The Conference exists not for its own benefit merely, but for the benefit of the Connexion, with whose best and dearest interests it is intrusted; and hence Mr. Wesley denominated it, "The Conference of the people called Methodists." It is bound to regard the people's spiritual benefit, to the utmost limit of its power, by providing for them a holy, enlightened, and efficient page 22 ministry. To most of the congregations and societies, the Preachers, when they are first sent, are entire strangers; but they are found to preach the same doctrines, breathe the same spirit, pursue the same objects, and adopt the same plans of operation, that their predecessors did; so that the ministerial succession is perceived and felt to be unbroken. Wesleyan Ministers all walk by the same rule, and mind the same thing. They are therefore received into the houses of our people with a cordial welcome; and the congregations confess that, although their Pastors change and itinerate, the Gospel trumpet, as it is heard from their pulpits, never gives an uncertain sound. The same truth is preached; the same divine influence is invoked and obtained; the same results follow, in the conversion of sinners, and the establishment of believers. But these objects could never be obtained, were it not for the kind fidelity with which the Methodist Preachers watch over each other, and the care which is taken by the Conference, that the men whom it appoints understand the Gospel of God, and are imbued with its spirit.

6. The Wesleyan Ministers stand in a near and peculiar relation to one another; and this is an additional reason for those faithful examinations to which they voluntarily submit. In the national Churches of England and Scotland, the Ministers express their assent to the same creed, use the same forms of public worship, and acknowledge the same ecclesiastical order and government; but as each Minister has his own distinct and separate charge, and seldom occupies any pulpit but his own, there is not among them the very close and intimate union which subsists among the Ministers of the Wesleyan body; who succeed each other in the different Circuits, sustain the pastoral relation to the same people, and hold precisely the same views of divine truth: for the Wesleyan Ministers have never tolerated among themselves that diversity of theological opinion which prevails in the two national Churches just mentioned. Unless, therefore, the Minis- page 23 ters belonging to the Wesleyan community have an entire confidence in one another, accompanied by a tender and cordial affection, their very union is to them a constant source of irritation, and they can never co-operate with satisfaction and comfort for the advancement of their common object, the spread of Christian holiness throughout the world. With the necessity of this mutual confidence and affection among his Preachers, Mr. Wesley was early impressed; and hence many touching and instructive references are made to the subject in the Conference Minutes. The following are examples:—