Education in the Wesleyan Spirit

Sam McBratney, Methodist minister and Susanna Wesley Foundation Research Officer, reflects on what is distinctive about education in the tradition of Wesley.

August normally sees the campus of Roehampton University as an oasis of calm around the lake, with only the occasional reminder of the presence of language school students. However, one particular weekend was abuzz with activity and the sounds of Methodists deep in fellowship. Southlands College hosted the meetings of the Forum of the Methodist-related Theological Schools in Europe (MTSE) and the Board of the International Association of the Methodist Schools, Colleges and Universities (IAMSCU). This drew together Wesleyan and Methodist educators from across the globe to share news of progress, plan new initiatives and discuss collaborations for the future.

It doesn’t take much to get Methodists talking – often harder to get them to stop – but these were not merely talking-shops. MTSE and IAMSCU are both made up of professionals and practitioners who are far too busy to waste their time gathering simply for a chat. Rather they sacrifice their time because of the importance they recognise in fostering international and intercultural relationships for education in the Wesleyan spirit.

IAMSCU now has over one thousand member institutions – schools, colleges, universities, and theological seminaries – stretching from the Caribbean to the Pacific, the product, for the most part, of Methodist missionary activity over the past two centuries. MTSE, as of this meeting, has twenty members across Europe, from Belfast in the west to Moscow in the east, and from Stockholm to Rome. It is a reminder that education has been central to the understanding of Methodist mission since John Wesley established Kingswood School. Because of the particular history of schools in Great Britain and Ireland, most British and Irish Methodists are unaware of this, and so it is good to be reminded by fellow Methodists and Wesleyans from other parts of the world.

So, what makes an education ‘in the Wesleyan spirit’? It is certainly more than a name on a building or who has the right to sit on the governing body. A truly Wesleyan education needs to be nurtured in the ethos of what is offered rather than the ‘branding’ of the provider, and can therefore be offered as easily under an acacia tree as in purpose-built classrooms. Values sit at the heart of any Methodist enterprise and are the reason that Methodists get involved in education in the first place.

A cursory glance at any Methodist-related institution such as Southlands College reveals that most of our staff and students are non-Methodists. For some familiar with a faith-based education being offered within, or to, a particular community, this seems strange, but it is underpinned by a theology that is grounded in inclusion and not identity. We are not here to provide an education for our own, or to use education to reinforce a certain faith identity, but to bring the best of what we have and are to the service of the world. Some schools from other traditions talk about serving their parish, and so do we: except that, like John Wesley, we consider the whole world our parish!

In a performance-driven society, it is easy for education to become commodified or measured solely in economic terms. The outcome of an education in the Wesleyan spirit is not grades and results, but people: globally-engaged citizens ready to make a difference in the world. We believe that education should be as much about character as curriculum and assessment and we are about shaping individuals who will:

‘do all the good you can,

by all the means you can,

in all the ways you can,

in all the places you can,

as long as ever you can’. (John Wesley)

Above all, Methodists and Wesleyans across the world believe that transformation lies at the heart of the education process. For places like Southlands, this means that a large proportion of our students are the first members of their families to attend university. Our service, as Wesley reminded his early preachers, is to those who need us most!

It is summed up for me in a conversation I had a number of years ago with a colleague in the university department where I worked, who had long since left the Church. She was interested that I was a Methodist minister and told me that she had been educated in a Methodist school in the African country where she grew up. ‘Every day,’ she said, ‘We were told that we were able to change the world. And because we can, we must.’