Dr. Ashley Boggan: Change Only Comes From the Inside

Mark Lambert
June 16, 2023

Today’s debate over human sexuality and its role in the church is the same theological argument about grace and predestination that was raging 280 years ago, delegates to the 2023 Louisiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church were told Friday.

“It is the very debate that John Wesley and George Whitefield were having,” said Dr. Ashley Boggan, the UMC General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History and guest speaker at the 2023 Louisiana Annual Conference.

Wesley and Whitefield were fellow priests and colleagues, but their arguments about free will, grace, and predestination led to a “complicated relationship,” Boggan said. Today, the two priests would be described as “frienemies,” she said.

Wesley believed humans had a role in achieving holiness, particularly by doing good works. Whitefield’s belief was more in line with the Fetter Lane Society’s stance that God picked certain persons to receive grace, and the only thing people could do was to “attain stillness.”

Boggan’s remarks were made in the context of how the Methodist standard of “connectionalism” was created by Wesley when he founded what eventually became the United Methodist Church, with gathering places in London and Bristol. The two “houses” – they technically were not “churches” because they did not have sacraments – shared preachers and joined together in missions, Boggan said.

Soon, more places were established, and when churches were established in the American colonies, “Methodism was connected to England, missionally, financially, and politically,” she said. “Wesley was able to conceive a connectionalism in a world turned upside down by industrialization.”

Consistent with his beliefs about free will and grace, Wesley saw Christianity as “a social religion” that cannot exist in solitude. The Church of England believed that the only way to achieve salvation was to wait in “stillness” and be prepared should God decide to parcel out grace.

Wesley “continually criticized the Church of England for not meeting the needs of those outside their walls,” Boggan said, likening Wesley’s crusades to today’s movement inside the United Methodist Church to extend full rights to all LGBTQI+ members. “Change,” Boggan said, “only comes from the inside.”

While Wesley strongly believed that ”all persons are worthy of God’s love, no exceptions,”  he always sought common ground and urged groups that disagreed “to walk together in Christ,” Boggan said. Wesley is even cited by some historians as the first person to ever publish the phrase “agree to disagree.”

Another example of connectionalism is the United Methodist Church's practice of not having ministers spend their entire careers at one church and by moving bishops from one conference to another, Boggan said. This is in the tradition of the circuit preachers of the 19th Century, who traveled from church to church and “gave people a sense of connection."

“Our church wasn’t built brick-by-brick, dollar-by-dollar,” Boggan said. “It was built hand-in-hand.”

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