Disagreeing Well: A Lesson from John Wesley

"One day, after Whitefield's [death], John Wesley was timidly approached by one of the godly band of Christian sisters who had been brought under his influences and who loved both Whitefield and himself:

"' Dear Mr. Wesley, may I ask you a question?'

"' Yes, of course, madam, by all means.'

"' But, dear Mr. Wesley, I am very much afraid what the answer will be.'

"' Well, madam, let me hear your question, and then you will know my reply.'

"At last, after not a little hesitation, the inquirer tremblingly asked, ' Dear Mr. Wesley, do you expect to see dear Mr. Whitefield in heaven?'

"A lengthy pause followed, after which John Wesley replied with great seriousness, 'No, madam.' "His inquirer at once exclaimed, 'Ah, I was afraid you would say so.'

"To which John Wesley added, with intense earnestness, ' Do not misunderstand me, madam; George Whitefield was so bright a star in the firmament of God's glory, and will stand so near the throne, that one like me, who am less than the least, will never catch a glimpse of him.'[1] 

John Wesley and George Whitefield were both Methodist preachers during the eighteenth century and perhaps two of the most influential figures of their generation. They were also fierce rivals who had profound disagreements on central matters of Christian doctrine.

To explain it in its very simplest terms, John Wesley was an Arminian: the emphasis in his teaching was on free will – individuals could choose whether they wanted to believe in the Christian faith. George Whitefield, on the other hand, was a Calvinist who believed in predestination – the idea that God chose who would follow Him and He would draw those people to Himself.

These debates continue to rage within the Church more than two hundred years later. They are not inconsequential: they have major implications for how churches are run and how Christians live out their faith. Over the centuries, they have shaped politics and national culture. Are people poor because of their own actions, the actions of others, or were they always destined to be poor? Is climate change a result of man’s irresponsible behaviour towards the planet or is it God’s divine judgment for sin? Is ill health a result of poor lifestyle and public health or does God allow ill health in the lives of the saints in order to allow the opportunity to manifest His glory?

And yet John Wesley could see beyond the gravity of their disagreement to the human dignity of his adversary. He did not simply tolerate Whitefield as a minor irritant with whom he always disagreed. He cherished and celebrated him as someone who had made a major impact for the faith during his lifetime.

Oh that we could see this spirit within today’s Labour Party! Can we not celebrate the richness of our diversity rather than hate people who dare to have a different opinion? Why is the response to dissent so often to seek to drive people out of the party?

I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn in either leadership election, but I recognise that he has done a great deal of good for the party. I celebrate the huge crowds that come and hear him speak. I cherish the diverse range of talented and enthusiastic people who have poured into our local parties. I recognise the brilliance of the election manifesto and I accept that many of the 3.45 million additional people who voted Labour in 2017 did so because of his leadership. When I see Owen Jones mobilising 500 activists to knock on doors in the once-safe Tory seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, few hearts sing louder than mine.

But not everyone who voted Labour did so because they were enthusiastic supporters of our party leader. Strong candidates win votes as well as party leaders, as voters told me on the doorstep. Peter Kyle, who won Hove against the odds in 2015, saw the Labour vote share increase by a massive 21.8% - the biggest swing to Labour anywhere in the country. Peter Kyle nominated Liz Kendall for party leader in 2015 so he is hardly the most ardent Corbyn supporter. Leading moderate Ben Bradshaw is only the second Labour MP to represent the previously safe Tory seat of Exeter. In this election, he secured 62% of the vote. These results should be celebrated, along with the fact that Labour clearly has some outstanding local MPs.

There are many untold stories from the Copeland by-election, but one of my abiding memories was how people described their previous voting intention. Not Labour, not even “Jamie Reed”. Just “Jamie”. A fierce critic of the party leader – a ‘Marmite character’ if ever there was one. However, it was unambiguously clear to me that he had a significant personal vote. He was recognised as being a local lad who could be trusted to stand up for the interests of his remote constituency. The things which made him a bogeyman to party members across the country were the very same things which kept the seat Labour against the national swing in 2010.

Labour’s strength is its diversity. We have been, since our inception, a party of Methodists as well as Marxists, co-operators as well as state socialists, middle class Fabians as well as working class trade unionists. We are more than the sum of our parts. We succeed when every part of our movement is able to play to its strengths. An inspirational leader, hardworking constituency MPs, engaged party members, well-organised campaigns, an effective press operation, successful fundraising and a convincing manifesto.

The tension between the doctrines of Free Will and Predestination was once described to me as like an optical illusion. The mind can’t make sense of it all but – somehow – both are true simultaneously. They have to both be true for either to work. Faith is, after all, a mystery. So it is with the Labour Party. We need both wings to fly and we will win when we start to celebrate that fact.


 [1] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesley-the-methodist/chapter-xi-two-sorts-of-methodists/

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