A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Francis Asbury-- Bishop Self- Designate

After the American Revolution ended, most of the Anglican priests, who were sympathetic to the Crown, had left the United States and returned to England, leaving a shortage of clergy in the Anglican Church in America. John Wesley asked the Bishop of London to ordain clergy for ministry in America, but the bishop, who was probably none-too-pleased over Britain's loss of the colonies, refused to do so. Wesley, being the good Anglican, believed that only a duly consecrated bishop could ordained priests for the ministry. Nevertheless, to fill the need for clergy in America, and becoming convinced through study that such an action could be theologically and biblically justified, Wesley consecrated Thomas Coke as a General Superintendent, sending him off to America with the authority to ordain clergy.

Father John's brother, Charles strongly disapproved of his brother's action, and put his protest in verse,

How easily are bishops made
By man or woman's whim!
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?

Wesley himself never intended that Thomas Coke or anyone else so consecrated take the title of bishop, but not too long after Coke consecrated Francis Asbury as a General Superintendent, Asbury was being referred to and soon referred to himself as bishop. This prompted a letter from Wesley to Asbury:
LONDON, September 20, 1788.
[MY DEAR BROTHER], -- There is, indeed, a wide difference between the relation wherein you stand to the Americans and the relation wherein I stand to all the Methodists. You are the elder brother of the American Methodists: I am under God the father of the whole family. Therefore I naturally care for you all in a manner no other persons can do. Therefore I in a measure provide for you all; for the supplies which Dr. Coke provides for you, he could not provide were it not for me, were it not that I not only permit him to collect but also support him in so doing. 
But in one point, my dear brother, I am a little afraid both the Doctor and you differ from me. I study to be little: you study to be great. I creep: you strut along. I found a school: you a college! [Cokesbury College, so called after its founders Coke and Asbury, was twice burnt down.] nay, and call it after your own names! O beware, do not seek to be something! Let me be nothing, and 'Christ be all in all!' 
One instance of this, of your greatness, has given me great concern. How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called Bishop I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a feel, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me Bishop! For my sake, for God's sake, for Christ's sake put a full end to this! Let the Presbyterians do what they please, but let the Methodists know their calling better. 
Thus, my dear Franky, I have told you all that is in my heart. And let this, when I am no more seen, bear witness how sincerely I am 
Your affectionate friend and brother.
What I find interesting is that Wesley is OK with being called names by others, and perhaps sees such derision as a sign of faithfulness to the gospel, but warns against the "study to become great." Of course, one could chide Wesley at this point for starting the whole process in the first place with his decision to go around the church law he covenanted to obey by consecrating people he had no authority to consecrate. But Wesley, who said he would do everything in his power to save as many souls as possible before his death, believed that to be somehow beside the point.

Thus, while Wesley's act of insubordination to the church seemed to stem from his passion for the gospel, Asbury's acceptance of the title of bishop perhaps came from lesser and more vain motives. That does not mean that Bishop Asbury was not himself committed to his calling. He was deeply committed. One cannot conclude otherwise from his way of life; but one does wonder where the acceptance of the title of bishop fit into his calling, his mission. It's not that there is anything wrong with being a bishop; it's the motivation for why one should be a bishop, or a district superintendent, or a pastor, in the first place.

Like John Wesley, do we bishops, district superintendents, and pastors study and work to be little? Or is it about our own greatness? Jesus himself had a few warnings on this matter.

1 comment:

Al DeFilippo said...

Hello Alan. Thank you for this post. In my book, Black Country, I think you will find a clue to why Asbury chose for himself the title of Bishop. As a young man and preacher in England before leaving for the colonies in 1771, Asbury viewed the outright lunacy of the Anglican Bishophood. Only a handful were receptive to the success of the Methodist movement, a movement within the Anglican Church. And only a handful were honest evangelicals. In my 25 years of researching and writing about Asbury, it is my opinion that Asbury chose this title as a slight toward the politically-motivated and corrupt English Anglican Bishops, many of whom were making salaries 10,000 times the standard salary for an Anglican priest. Not long after taking the title of Bishop, Asbury would refer to himself as a Beggar Bishop. This humble opinion of himself is actually the title I have chosen for the second book in my Asbury Triptych series. Again, thank you for this post. I hope some of this reply is helpful. Much of the Anglican hierarchy in the late 18th-century was more politically focused than kingdom focused. But that is another topic for another day. Have fun and bless someone.