A commentary

By Michael G. Cartwright

Members of the family have been summoned to gather at the old house where their great-grandparents once lived. The old house had survived for generations and each had added to the boxes and piles of papers in the attic.

The day comes when the cousins gather in the attic to sort out what will be kept and what will be thrown away before the house is renovated for use by another family. The work begins and three piles emerge: "keepers," "throw-aways" and "yet to be decided." Conversations, laughter and sweat abound and the piles grow when suddenly someone pries loose the lid of an old wooden chest. Inside is "the heirloom" - one that the cousins barely remembered.

In fact, it appears that this family treasure had been purposefully set aside, apparently for safe keeping. Now it is up to the cousin descendants to discover how to be good stewards of this gift from the past. They aren't sure what to do, but they discover that their collective memory is stronger than they realized. Eventually, they become the proud recipients of the heritage that others have passed on to them.

The storyline is familiar. Indeed it is as old as the Gospel. Jesus urged his disciples to be "scribes of the kingdom," - those who know how to bring forth from the storehouse "treasures old and new" (Matthew 13:52). For United Methodists, I suggest this is a good way to think about the positive reception that Rueben Job's little book Three Simple Rules (Abingdon, Nashville) has enjoyed since its publication earlier this year. This is the first commentary on The General Rules of the United Societies to appear in almost a century.

For the most part, I found Three Simple Rules to be winsome and wise. I celebrate the way Bishop Job has called us to reengage a text of spiritual wisdom that developed between 1739 and 1743. Thanks to him, we have an opportunity to consider how we can "do no harm" and "do good" in our own time and place. Like other students of the writings of John and Charles Wesley, I bristled a bit at the way Job changed the third part of the General Rules, which originally enjoined Methodists to "keep the ordinances" of the Methodist movement. I worry that "stay in love with God" is all too easily misread in a culture of self-indulgent consumerism.

At the same time, I appreciate the wisdom of Job's reminder that the Christian practices known as the "ordinances" were in fact "means of grace," intended to enable people to grow in their relationship with God. I am not too worried that we are going to lose sight of the substance of the third part of the General Rules because I know that the folks at the General Board of Discipleship have already developed some wonderful print and video resources on the "Means of Grace." I do hope that United Methodists do not stop with Job's book. There is much to be learned from engaging the original text and from the history of how this relic of our forbears has and has not been passed down to us.

That history includes the fact that few United Methodists have given attention to the General Rules during the past 100 years. Suffice it to say that this text is closely associated with a very painful history. With the Rules' specific prohibition of the buying and selling of slaves, the General Rules was at the heart of the intractable regional struggles over the practice of slavery and the issues of ecclesial authority. Leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church attempted to protect the Rules by making it a constitutional document that could not be altered as per the 5th Restrictive Rule of 1808, but while that move succeeded in preventing the church from altering the text, it did not solve the problem of Methodist identity over against the growing divisions of American society.

Amid decades-long wrangles over what did and did not constitute true "Scriptural holiness," the text was put on a shelf by Methodists who had come to think of themselves as "mainline American Protestants." For many, the set of social principles associated with Our Social Creed (1908) provided a more contemporary language for describing the kinds of social problems that the church needed to engage. The net result has been that the General Rules became less and less familiar even though we continued to ask our candidates for ordination if they are ready, willing, and able to follow this rule of life in their ministries.

It is a bit ironic that the General Rules became a fixed text because that was hardly the intention of the founders. As John Wesley explained in "A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists" (1748), the General Rules was best understood as a set of Christian practices that required ongoing adjustment. As odd as it may sound, members of the Methodist family choosing to reengage this relic of our common past have the opportunity to reconsider one of the "peculiar advantages" that our forbears enjoyed - namely, "to change whatever we can change for the better" sometimes involves rediscovering a treasure in our denominational attic.

I for one am glad that generations of our Methodist forbears had the good sense to save the text that we know as the General Rules. I also am encouraged to learn that United Methodists are engaging this Methodist heirloom in new ways. Some United Methodist congregations are even beginning to adopt the practice of using the General Rules as a basis for thinking about whether their meetings are fruitful and faithful. At the end of our meetings and at the end of all of our days, can we say to ourselves that we followed three simple rules? Namely, for whatever time we came together, we did no harm, did much that was good, and stayed in love with God? May it be so for us and for generations of United Methodists yet to come.

Michael G. Cartwright serves as Dean of Ecumenical & Interfaith Programs at the United Methodist-related University of Indianapolis.