Wesley's Chapel: Soaped & Weathered


I called at Wesley’s Chapel at Finsbury last week, close by the house in which the great man lived when he was not travelling about preaching. Though still a busy place of worship, it is an ornate temple to Methodism, with its rich furnishings and various busts of august Victorian Conference chairmen vying for attention within the sanctuary.

Wesley’s pulpit is still in situ, a remarkable link to the glory days of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Methodism. An interesting museum sits in the basement with a collection of Wesleyana that even Harrop Chapel would envy. In the church’s entrance hall sits a bust of the famous twentieth-century Methodist preacher Donald, later Lord, Soper.

F.W. Thompson, writing in the British Church Newspaper shared his memories of Dr Soper. While commending his enthusiasm and willingness to take his message of socialism and pacifism to the streets using the now unfashionable method of street preaching, he recalls

…the Annual Methodist Conference which was held in Preston in 1976. In the traditional conference open air service, [Soper] had expounded his views on socialism, and then invited questions from the crowd. A young lady said to him "All this talk about socialism is all very well, but what must I do to go to Heaven?"

He parried the question by saying that there were some people who were more interested in getting to know about the furniture of heaven than getting to know their next door neighbour.

She repeated the question; he then said "You’re rather young to be worried about that sort of thing, aren’t you?" When she repeated her question a third time, he said: "Oh, I’d better have a word with you at the end of the meeting".

It was at this point that I realised that Donald Soper could answer just about every question under the sun, except the only one that matters. It was a vivid illustration of Matthew 11:25 [At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes, NKJV].

Donald Soper could not accept that Christ was without sin; nor could he accept the Virgin birth or the fact that the Scriptures were infallibly inspired. He was therefore incapable of preaching the Gospel, and in many ways a forerunner of Dr. David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham.

At the 1958 Newcastle Conference, Soper declared “It would be very hard for a casual visitor in this Conference to deny that he is in the presence of a dying Church.” Although it caused shock and protest, his words proved as prophetially accurate as his theology was terminally inaccurate. Ironically, it was Soper who personally helped to extinguish the old lady who was placed in his care. And yet this neglecter and denier of Christian truth finds himself immortalised in stone, gazing serenely onto the proceedings taking place within Wesley’s own chapel.

Another leading Methodist whose portrait hangs in the premises and whose preaching robes are proudly displayed, is Dr Leslie Weatherhead. Russ Dean, a sympathetic American Baptist, writes:

…As Leslie Weatherhead taught me years ago in his book, The Will of God: It was not God’s intent that Jesus die. God’s intent was that people listen to Jesus, follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus. That was God’s intent. What happened, however (as has too often been the case throughout human history), is that fearful and frail people misunderstood, and in a supreme twist of fate brutally killed an innocent man. Weatherhead understands the crucifixion within the “circumstantial will” of God. Yet, God is always God, which for Weatherhead means love and not power.

There we have it. Another denial of Christ’s atoning work, another downgrading of the Lord Jesus to ethical-teacher status, negating His divinity, and whose death, so fundamental and essential to orthodox Christianity, was just an unfortunate mistake.

It is with some irony that in front of the Chapel there is erected a huge statue of John Wesley himself, while within, it celebrates the lives and contributions of Donald Soper and Leslie Weatherhead, whose views Wesley would have despised and thrown out, their preaching credentials revoked. Their images are displayed, their clothing exhibited, their virtues extolled. My own inclination would be to throw their gowns on the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh, and crush the bust into fresh gravel for the driveway. I am sometimes criticised for my hard tone when I write, especially when dealing with men like Soper and Weatherhead, but these are not fellow believers simply holding different views. They were not teachers of the Christian faith, but deniers, disbelievers and evangelists for doubt, rejecting truth while clad in pious preaching gowns with their intelligent heads and simpering smiles.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves”. Matthew 23:15

‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.’ John Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism, 1786.