As readers of this blog and other pieces I have written are aware, I see the early Methodist class meeting as not only an ancient relic of days or yore, but as a practice that can and should be reclaimed by Wesleyans (and so does the seminary where I teach, where all students participate in a class meeting during their first year). There is one piece of this that comes up frequently in conversations about reclaiming the class meeting that I have not yet directly addressed – the relationship between the early Methodist class meeting and Covenant Discipleship (CD). I believe that there are some important differences between the class meeting and CD. Yet, I have been hesitant to speak directly to the similarities and differences between the class meeting and CD for several reasons.
First, I am a big fan of David Lowes Watson’s work. In many ways, I am standing on his shoulders. The renewed interest in the class meeting is largely a product of the time and energy he has invested as a scholar and a churchman in describing the class meeting, and in seeking to find ways to help contemporary Wesleyans reclaim this practice. His Early Methodist Class Meeting remains the standard book on the class meeting in early Methodism. And his vision for CD groups remains the most constructive proposal for how people can be equipped to return to a form of accountable discipleship (Steve Manskar also has a great book by that name and is doing wonderful things to keep Wesleyan discipleship before the broader UMC). In countless conversations I have had about the class meeting, people have spoken of their participation in CD groups and the valuable role they have played in their lives.
I am also hesitant to critique CD, because I think it is valuable. I am not interested in being seen as someone who is an opponent of CD. The differences that I see between CD and the class meeting are not serious objections or major flaws to CD itself. In other words, I am glad that people participate in CD groups. Further, I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing nothing because it isn’t perfect or exactly the way that I would do it.
CD almost always comes up in conversations about reclaiming the class meeting, particularly in several recent conversations I have had. I do have some concerns about how easily people assume that the two are synonymous. Because of my interest in reclaiming the classing meeting, I have decided it is time to spell out my concerns about CD as a contemporary version of the class meeting. Nevertheless, I want to stress that I offer this as a sympathetic critique.
I attended Wesley Theological Seminary in from 2002 – 2005. During my first year as a student at Wesley, we were required to participate in a weekly CD group. We were also required to form a weekly CD group as a part of our field education/internship experience in our second and third years. These experiences were generally positive for me, particularly the group that I was a part of during my internship. However, as I began to study the class meeting in its own rite, I increasingly began to feel a sense of unease about the assumption that CD was the same thing as the class meeting.
My sense is that a major assumption that went into the development of CD was that the General Rules functioned as a clear structure or guideline for the time that was spent in the class meeting. In other words, the content of the class meeting looked something like each person in the meeting being asked whether they had avoided doing harm, had done all the good that they could, and had practiced the means of grace. If this were the primary activity of the class meeting, CD would be a fantastic translation of the class meeting that provides a practical acknowledgment that the contemporary UMC is so diverse theologically that there is no longer an agreed upon list of sins that should be avoided (i.e., we no longer agree on what should be included under the first General Rule). A major positive of CD is that it allows individual groups to create a customized list of General Rules. It helps groups to reclaim a rule of life. And this is a valuable thing to reclaim!
However, I do not believe that the General Rules provided the major structure for the early Methodist class meeting. My sense is that they were in the background and that people were clearly expected to keep them, and would be called out if they were clearly violating one of the General Rules. But I do not think the major activity of the class meeting was giving an account of how you had kept the General Rules in the past week, which I take to be the main function of CD. Rather, I think the major activity of the class meeting was answering the question that is listed in the General Rules itself, to talk about one’s experience of God, how one’s “soul prospers.”
The General Rules begin with a description of people who came to John Wesley “deeply convinced of sin” and “earnestly groaning for redemption.” As Wesley began to meet with this group, and it began to grow, the first “United Society” was formed in London. These societies consisted of people “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united… that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”
The class meeting, according to Wesley in the General Rules, arose in order to “more easily” keep track of whether people in the societies “are indeed working out their own salvation.” And class leaders, again, according to the General Rules, were to meet with the people in their classes each week in order to do three key things:
“1. To inquire how their souls prosper.
2. To advise, reprove, comfort or exhort, as occasion may require.
3. To receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.”
This list suggests to me that the primary activity of the class meeting was conversation about the state of each person’s life with God. Wesley’s narration of the beginnings of the United Societies is filled with language that points to the search for a direct experience of God being one of the key emphases of early Methodism in general, and of the class meeting in particular.
To put this differently, I think CD can much more plausibly be viewed as a contemporary adaptation of the Anglican Religious Societies for the 21st century, than the Methodist class meetings. The Religious Societies would come up with a list of rules that they would commit to keep and be accountable to, just as in CD. In the class meeting, one was accountable to the General Rules, but this was in the background and only came to the foreground if there was a pressing reason for this to happen (like someone violating one of the rules).
I became more convinced of the difference between CD and the early Methodist class meeting when I began formally studying the popular Methodist experience of communal formation as a PhD student. To the best of my memory, I do not recall ever reading an account of a class meeting that stated explicitly, or suggested that the rhythm of the class meeting was taking turns discussing the member’s faithfulness to the General Rules. There were examples of people being asked if they were keeping the means of grace, etc. However, these questions were part of a broader conversation that centered on the search for an experience of justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit of one’s adoption as a child of God. The overwhelming sense I had after reading popular Methodist accounts at the Methodist Archives was that people were desperately seeking an encounter with the living God.
Ultimately, I think there is a serious mistake that comes in equating CD with the class meeting. CD is focused on a covenant that you and the group are held accountable to. Unless my experience in these groups was a complete aberration, (and my reading of texts about CD was way off base), a person who is involved in a CD group will not necessarily ever be asked about how they are doing in their walk with God. Based on the way it is conceived, it would seem that CD itself could become yet another way of insulating ourselves from asking difficult questions about what is actually happening in our lives with God. (I’m not saying that this is what typically, or even frequently, actually happens in CD groups.) Based on the way CD is designed, it would seem to be possible to do all of the things in a CD covenant and not grow in your love and knowledge of God, or even have someone ask you about this vital aspect of your life.
Someone recently said to me that it is very difficult for many contemporary Methodists to know where to start in answering a question like, “How is it with your soul?” I think this person is right. We have largely lost the language for speaking of a living breathing relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was suggested that CD could be a way of backing into these kinds of conversations. I think that is possible, and I know many people who would testify that their relationship with God is stronger because of their involvement in CD. However, I think most people avoid conversations that are uncomfortable or feel risky, rather than accidentally stumbling into them.
Ultimately, I think Covenant Discipleship does more work than is necessary. It is more complicated than it needs to be. I do not see a reason why the class meeting cannot be picked back up as it was generally left off (well, historians could do some needed quibbling here). There is no reason why people who want to be faithful Christians cannot begin to gather together in small groups to talk about how things are going in their lives as followers of Jesus Christ, to support each other and to encourage each other to grow in grace.
I think the best way to reclaim the language of a lived experience of God is by trying to speak it, even if by fits and starts. Ultimately, reclaiming the early Methodist class meeting may be scary and intimidating, but it does not need to be complicated.
What do you think?