Away from the headlines


Imagine the scene of a small, cross-eyed, theatrical preacher making his way towards a Bristol village in 1739. A village that was infamous for violent protest towards oppressive business practices. Due to the minimal voice of opposition from the established church concerning the treatment of workers, anyone who represented that religious structure was also considered an enemy. 

Depending upon the version of the story we tell, one could create an image of a powerful, spirit-led orator, by the name of George Whitefield, who captivated a mob of protesters with the Gospel message. With each sermon given, the numbers increased. Soon the success of such a mission led to a chapel being built, and a previously unconvinced John Wesley re-evaluating his initial distrust of open air preaching - “Kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy, it is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness… wars and fighting… Peace and love are there”.

As with any narrative, there is another storyline. One I have mentioned a number of times within this blog and book 'Revival’s Symphony'. It is a storyline of unconventional preaching styles that challenged the  accepted ‘way to preach’ and ‘sermon content’. An analysis of these messages delivered by the early Methodist movement, reveals a mixture of political and social commentary, embedded in an holistic declaration of salvation that would make a number of our modern, fresh expression, churches feel old.

In the case of Kingswood? Whitefield’s critique and declaration of an alternative, encouraged a village revolution. This included, distribution of finance towards social services, education support and health care. It was this change, of the internal and external, that grabbed Wesley’s attention.

This movement of unconventional preaching styles and choice of locations, was not unique. 18th century preachers like Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris were part of a growing voice of people who were redefining expectations through the engagement of pain within the land. No more safe pulpits or verbal call for change from a comfortable space. This was about getting your hands dirty, exposing yourself to the pain of injustice, then making your stand upon the very ground that cried out for change.

One of the things that I appreciate about this amazing movement of social change, was their appreciation of the journey that led them there. Like all of us, the excitement of a breakthrough - that moment when your hope finally sees visible substance - is always valued. Whitefield, after his first sermon in Kingswood, wrote “Blessed be God that I have now broken the ice”. On one hand, a straight forward comment about being thankful for a breakthrough. Yet, placed within the context of a preacher who had faced rejection from many quarters of his faith - who had found his calling welcomed with struggles - and you begin to see another dimension to his words. 

Kingswood wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. It was an option considered and shaped by prayer. A consideration fuelled by the experiences of his journey thus far and by the readings he was investing in. These readings included the provocative writings of Richard Baxter. A man who challenged the pursuit of the ‘inner call’, the appreciation of diversity and its role in unity,  and the importance of standing up in word and deed against social injustice. This act of standing including the declaration of an alternative.

Caught within the texts, journals, and letters of this movement, is a value placed upon the highs and lows of pilgrimage. You see a conviction, sometimes shaken, but not lost, of a demand to declare an alternative. And you see an honesty in their weakness - a reality that sometimes the most mundane action, fuelled by questions, can lead to surprising results. 

Appreciation of our steps. Such an important value to hold onto. We may long for those ‘break the ice’ moments, those actions that capture the headlines declaring change is here. Yet I find that the beauty of our pilgrimage is one that speaks of a change that happens during the journey itself.

That is where the alternative first finds voice. In the secret, in the weakness. Away from the headlines.