On 23 May, the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome hosted a reception to celebrate the 285th anniversary of the conversions of early Methodist leaders and brothers Charles and John Wesley. Over 60 guests attended the reception on the roof terrace of St. Andrew’s Presybterian Church of Scotland in Rome. Among the guests were Methodist clergy, senior Vatican officials, senior leaders from other Christian confessions, diplomats, faculty from Roman universities, and MEOR supporters. Guests sang two Charles Wesley hymns – “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” and “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” – to commemorate the musical legacy of Charles Wesley.
The Rev. Matthew A. Laferty addressed the guests during the reception, saying
Today we commemorate the 285th anniversary of the conversions of Charles and John Wesley, two brothers who were instrumental in establishing the Methodist movement in the Church of England. This movement would eventually grow into the Methodist Church. Our Methodist communion – the World Methodist Council – counts nearly 80 million members worldwide who often remember the 24th of May as Wesley Day or Aldersgate Day. According to history, John Wesley reluctantly attended a Moravian prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738, during a period of despair in his ministry. John who was starting the second decade of his ministry as an Anglican priest had returned to England a few months earlier after a failed ministry in the British North American colony of Georgia. His time in Georgia was such a failure that he left Savannah by night because an arrest warrant had been issued for his arrest, stemming from his refusal to serve Eucharist to a scorned love interest whose new father-in-law was a wealthy and influential Savannah citizen. In his melancholy, John attend a prayer meeting where he hears the Moravians reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. In those moments, John experienced a strong evangelical conversion, not a conversion to Christ as John was already an ordained priest, but rather a deep and profound experience of the assurance of salvation. John noted in his diary around 8:45 in the evening: “while [the prayer leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This indwelling of the Holy Spirit led John to seek spiritual renewal in Britain and Ireland by spreading, what he described, as Scriptural holiness across the land.
We celebrate today John’s conversion alongside John’s brother Charles who had a similar Spirit-filled encounter in London on the May 21, a few days before John. While John was the organizing figure of the Methodists, I believe that Charles is the more famous brother as Charles put Methodist theology into song. Charles remains today one of the most important hymn writers of Anglophone church music, having written over 7,000 hymns during his lifetime.
Rev. Laferty turned to the legacy of the Wesleys on other Christian confessions.
I must acknowledge too that Methodists cannot exclusively claim the Wesley brothers as our own. The then-Methodist preacher William Booth established the Salvation Army in 1865 in the legacy and theological heritage of the Wesley brothers. Our siblings within the Anglican Communion also are inheritors of the Wesley brothers’ legacy. Tomorrow [on May 24], the Church of England officially celebrates the feast of John and Charles Wesley.
Reflecting on the relationship with Methodists and Catholics, Rev. Laferty noted
While Methodists would eventually be separated from the Anglican Church, contemporary Methodists are also committed to seeking the unity of the Church, so, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, that the world may believe. In May 2022, the World Methodist Council with the Holy See published its 11th comprehensive theological dialogue report, focusing on the theme of reconciliation. On the cover of the report, there is a photograph of a statue at Duke University, a Methodist university in the United States, of the return of the prodigal son. When our joint Methodist-Catholic theological commission met Pope Francis in October 2022 to present to him the report, Pope Francis took the opportunity to speak off-the-cuff about reconciliation. He sat for a few moments rubbing the report’s cover image and reflecting silently on the story, eventually, reminding us that both Catholics and Methodists are like the son who has run away from the Father’s house. Pope Francis called us as Methodists and Catholics to walk together and work together with joy as we return to the Father’s house. I thank all of you for your companionship on this pilgrim journey as Catholics and Methodists on our way to full communion in faith, sacraments, and mission.