What a glorious privilege it was to spend last week in Cambridge, England as part of a training around Reflective Supervision. There were nineteen of us, including five bishops; our Iowa Director of Clergy Excellence, Lanette Plambeck; leaders from several conferences in the US.; and staff from the British Methodist Church and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
The training took place at Wesley House, which was founded in 1921 as a Methodist theological college at the campus of the University of Cambridge on none other than Jesus Lane!
Wesley House is a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation, which is a consortium of eleven theological institutions, comprising over three hundred students from twenty-five countries, with the University of Cambridge conferring the degrees.
Today Wesley House is a “gateway to theological scholarship” for clergy from around the world in the Wesleyan tradition. It was a joy to be immersed in the theology and practice of reflective supervision, which, in the Methodist Church in Britain, is an “exploratory and reflective process in which a ministry practitioner meets together with a trained, resourced and approved supervisor to reflect on their vocation and practice.”[i] We were led by Dr. Jane Leach, principal of Wesley House.
Our hope was to learn from our Methodist brothers and sisters in Britain a different way of supervision of clergy that is a collaborative process between supervisor and supervisee. Reflective supervision is a means of grace that includes both support and accountability. This sacred conversation is directed toward the well-being of clergy, the good of those they serve, and the health of the Church as the body of Christ.
Last Tuesday evening, our group had the privilege of eating dinner at nearby Westminster College, which was founded in 1899 as a theological college for the Presbyterian Church of England and is also part of Cambridge University. What a joy it was to share in this Advent time with our ecumenical friends. As we explored the chapel of Westminster College, we were led to a stained-glass window of none other than John Wesley, a beautiful symbol of the ecumenical relationship we have with our Presbyterian friends.
At the entrance to the chapel we also found a small prayer room with chairs in a circle and seven sheets of paper on the floor with these phrases: Quiet Our Hearts; Make Room for His Word; Come Clean; Invite Our Saviour to Come In; Ask God to Heal Our Broken Places; Remember What He Has Done; and Ask God To Renew Our Hearts. An accompanying handout explained each of these Advent spiritual practices in more detail. It was deeply moving to know that this holy space was making room for all who wished to “come clean” and deepen their walk with God during Advent.
After a wonderful banquet, which included foods uniquely British, Dr. Andrew Stobart, who is the Director of Research for Wesley House, gave a talk about John Wesley’s sermon, “On Zeal.” Wesley begins the sermon with a scripture from Galatians 4:18, “It is good to be always zealously affected in a good thing.” Zeal is usually described as a passion or enthusiasm for something. When we are zealous, we are motivated, energized, or committed to a particular cause.
Then Wesley sets the stage, “There are few subjects in the whole compass of religion, that are of greater importance than this. For without zeal it is impossible, either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves, or to do any considerable service to our neighbour, whether in temporal or spiritual things. And yet nothing has done more disservice to religion, or more mischief to mankind, than a sort of zeal which has for several ages prevailed, both in Pagan, Mahometan, and Christian nations. Insomuch that it may truly be said, pride, covetousness, ambition, revenge, have in all parts of the world slain their thousands; but zeal its ten thousands.”
How interesting that John Wesley clearly differentiates between zeal that does great good and zeal that can cause great harm. It is misplaced zeal for the wrong things that has resulted in untold suffering and grief in our world over the centuries. Wesley called it “inhuman persecution.”
Dr. Stobart focused his remarks on Wesley’s phrase, “comparative divinity,” which Wesley uses to describe how we can best live with zeal in love of God and neighbor. Comparative divinity helps us to differentiate how we practice the Christian life. Stobart called it a “topographical map of grace.”
- The outer ring of the circle is a zeal for “the Church” and the communities in which we live and practice our faith. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle keeps ever growing, enlarging its borders to embrace more and more of God’s world.
- The next ring consists of what Wesley calls “works of piety,” means of grace which include prayer, fasting, scripture reading, and the Lord’s Supper.
- The third ring toward the center of the circle is “works of mercy,” acts of kindness and generosity that are even closer to the heart of God. Wesley writes, “Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, ‘at charity’s almighty call’; when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.”
- The fourth ring Wesley calls holy tempers, which include “lowliness of mind, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering, contentedness, resignation unto the will of God, deadness to the world and the things of the world, as the only means of being truly alive to God. For these proofs and fruits of living faith we cannot be too zealous.”
- In the fifth and final ring, we arrive at the heart of our zeal as followers of Jesus Christ, which is nothing more than love. Wesley writes, “It is most sure, that if you give all your goods to feed the poor, yea, and your body to be burned, and have not humble, gentle, patient love, it profiteth you nothing. O let this be deep engraved upon your heart: ‘All is nothing without love!’”
In Romans 12:11, the apostle Paul writes, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (NIV) During this season of Advent, I yearn for a deep personal faith that is zealous to “come clean” about my failure to perfectly reflect the grace of Jesus Christ in my words and actions. I also pray that this zeal will be reflected in my giving as well as my loving and serving. As we prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again, may there be a zeal deep in our all of our hearts for sharing Christ’s love, saving souls, and coming clean through acts of justice, mercy, and love.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
[i] Grace and Responsibility Course Materials, Wesley House Cambridge, 2019.