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Wesley’s vision of education alive and well today (UM News)

May 31, 2023

Preaching on the education of children, Methodism founder John Wesley began with the familiar Proverbs (22:6) passage, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” 

“Is it not reasonable to suppose,” Wesley asked, “that a Christian education should have no other end but to teach them how to think, and judge, and act according to the strictest rules of Christianity?

“At least one would suppose,” he added, “that in all Christian schools, the teaching them to begin their lives in the spirit of Christianity – in such abstinence, humility, sobriety, and devotion as Christianity requires – should not only be more, but a hundred times more, regarded than any or all things else.”

Those early lessons from Wesley were remembered many times last month as 260 school leaders and representatives gathered in the United Kingdom for the 10th joint international conference of the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges and Universities (IAMSCU) and the Methodist Schools (UK). The multicultural gathering April 25-May 1 focused on “Transforming Lives to Shape a Just Society: Values Based Higher Education” and included educators from Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. The conference was held at three U.K. sites: London, Bath/Bristol and Cambridge, and commemorated Wesley’s founding of the Kingswood School in Bath 275 years ago. 

During opening worship, Bishop Mande Muyombo, Democratic Republic of Congo, urged participants to promote Methodist education in order to address contemporary issues. 

Preaching from Psalm 116:1-4, he invited attendees “to consider the dangers that we as a global community are facing now.” Muyombo expressed particular anguish about conflicts in Sudan and other parts of West Africa, Asia and the Middle East. “Heaviest on my heart,” he said, “are the numerous attacks in the Great Lake region between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my home. This conflict alone has killed over 6 million people and displaced more than 800,000, especially women and children. Questions of global migration are currently dividing nations of the world, as migrants are left in sorrow and distress.”

Our Wesleyan heritage, Muyombo said, “repeatedly reminds us that the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit can work through us, especially when we work together to raise up the leaders we need in such a time as this. 

“In this context, I ask you: Is Methodist education relevant today? Is it responding to the aforementioned needs of the global community? How did the founder of Methodism perceive education? For him, education at its best was a lifelong process guided by the Holy Spirit toward personal and social holiness, and it was the best possible tool for evangelism, for training in godliness and for the betterment of society.”

Acknowledging that the world is rapidly changing, he asked, “How are we as educators adapting? What kind of guidance are our schools offering the younger generations on how to navigate the realities they will face? How are we preparing them to be prophets and peacemakers in an age of viral media?” 

Muyombo called for ensuring “that our pedagogy is based on the best features of Wesleyan education: self-discipline, understanding and wisdom, offering a life-changing encounter with Christ, living according to our needs and not our wants, and a strong work ethic combined with a powerful sense of service to others.

“A sustainable future for all humanity,” Muyombo said, “depends on all nations of the earth to work together.” 

Retired Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Nussloch, Germany, serves as Geneva secretary with the World Methodist Council. In her presentation, she emphasized IAMSCU’s important role.

“I look at education from a human rights perspective based on the conviction that God created human beings in God’s image, so that all live a decent life within the planetary boundaries,” Wenner said. “It is a huge task to create access to education for all children. Wherever possible, I advocate for the right to education, and I highlight initiatives, often offered by local Methodist congregations, to support children who are excluded from quality education.

“IAMSCU,” she said, “is an expression of the broad and lively Methodist connection. People engaged in education on various levels meet, listen to one another, explore ways how to respond to global challenges – based on values that reflect the Methodist tradition and ethos. 

“Visiting the place where Methodist education began and continues helps to refocus on our common heritage,” she added. “Many speakers from diverse contexts offered insights in their work. This was more than pragmatism, although we can learn from the Wesleys that pragmatic actions make a difference in people’s lives. It also helped to hear from many contexts in order to create a network of support.”

Andrew Gordon-Brown, Kingswood School headmaster and Kingswood Foundation principal, paralleled Wenner’s words.

“IAMSCU needs to be the glue that binds global Methodist educational institutions together,” he said, “acting as a catalyst and facilitator for schools and universities to collaborate and work in solidarity with each other.”

The conference, he continued, “was a wonderful way to reconnect to our educational roots and to appreciate the great work of the Spirit in inspiring the creation of over 1,000 institutions on six continents today.”

Asked about the biggest challenges in education today and how the church should address them, Gordon-Brown noted that in the U.K, “education takes place within an aggressively secular national context. Church schools have a role to play in welcoming people of all faiths and none, and encouraging an encounter with Jesus Christ as the model for human existence, regardless of faith.

“What I’ve come to appreciate,” he added, “is that the culture that Wesley set about creating back in 1748 continues to as down the centuries and still influences what we try and do today. Of course, Kingswood School in the academic year 2022-23 is a very different place and not just because we don’t wake the boarders up at 4 a.m. for an hour of prayer before chapel. The information age of the 21st century is very different [from] the preindustrial age of the 18th century.

“Wesley set the bar high when it came to recruiting teachers, insisting that they had both learning and wisdom to guide the formation of pupils in mind, body and spirit. …This remains a key ingredient in our mission to transform lives.”

Methodist students from around the world joined in a conference song, “The World Is My Parish.” 

Created in 1991 by representatives of 20 institutions, IAMSCU today connects more than 1,000 educational institutions in 80 countries and five continents. IAMSCU’s vision is to support a dynamic, worldwide network engaged in effective inter-institutional cooperation and involved in many forms of collaboration. Together, these institutions are forming a new generation of Christian leaders inspired by the Wesleyan and Methodist traditions.