Wesley’s Sunday Service Part 1

October 7, 2010

The next few posts will be portions of a paper written for my History of Methodism course at DDS. I’ll post each successive part of the paper in successive blog posts starting with the introduction and moving on from there to an understanding of a wesleyan liturgical structure. I wrote the paper as an exploration of my own liturgical heritage in the Wesleyan tradition and was pleasantly surprised to find in our Wesleyan tradition real liturgical strengths in the current age. Particularly: our ability to embrace both liturgical structure and spontaneous worship gestures open real possibilities for Methodism in our current context between high church liturgical traditions and less structured nondenominational churches. I hope this is somewhat helpful people- and of course, everybody’s feedback is always valid!  We begin here with the introduction!

The Sunday Service for the Methodists in America 1784:
A Means of Grace For the Hope of Glory
Written as a final exam for Parish 159 under the direction of Dr. Randy Maddox

We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
(General Thanksgiving, Rite I: Book of Common Prayer)

With the success of the American Revolution, the Methodists in America, who had previously existed alongside the Methodists in Britain as reform movement within the Church of England, officially separated to become the Methodist Episcopal Church. Though he died as a priest within the church of England, John Wesley wrote of the American Methodists that through, “a very uncommon train of providences,”[1] the separation from the Church of England set Methodists in America free to pursue holiness and spread the gospel as an independent denomination.[2] As the head of the Methodist movement, Wesley felt himself responsible for guiding the liturgical and catechetical formation of the Methodists in America. While still a priest in Anglican Church, Wesley sought to make provision for the order of life and worship for the fledgling denomination. To this end, he created the Sunday Service of the People Called Methodists in North America) in 1784.

Though little used by the largely frontier church for decades,[3] Methodists continue to trace their liturgical heritage to Wesley’s Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists, along with the prescriptions for worship of Francis Asbury[4] which were largely reflected in the guidelines supported by the General Council of Bishops in December 1789.[5] In fact, it may be possible to suggest that modern Methodist worship draws heavily upon both orders for its current forms of worship.[6] However, before research on Asbury’s less structured model for worship can be conducted or compared with Wesley’s Sunday Service, an in depth understanding of Wesley’s own understanding of worship, his prescribed pattern of worship, and its strengths in the American Colonies must be explored.

One of the strengths of John Wesley’s order for worship in the American context is its openness for extemporizing.  While maintaining a carefully theologically considered and thoughtfully crafted order of worship, Wesley leaves room for improvisation and creativity within his order.  Most of the early liturgical ‘orders’ that prevailed for in the American context were largely extemporized and open to the freedom of the Holy Spirit’s work to make God’s presence known.[7] However these orders lack the theological structure and catechetical aspect of the more ‘formal’ order found in Wesley’s Service. While a strict outline for worship coming from the English BCP would have been much less helpful on the frontier of the newly formed United States, a total lack of structure may have also hindered the newly forming denomination.  In the Sunday Service, we see Wesley’s attempt to hold together the pietistic emphasis on improvisation and the experience of God, with the theologically rich and structured liturgies designed to impress the character of God into the affections and habits of the worshiper.

In this paper, I will begin by examining John Wesley’s understanding of worship as a means of grace.  Wesley’s understanding of worship is central to the life and formation of Christian disciples, and his construction of the order of worship for the people called Methodists in America reflects the central importance of liturgical catechesis.  After exploring Wesley’s understanding of worship as a means of grace, I will turn to examine his Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists and examine three of Wesley’s alterations.  Finally, I will consider how Wesley’s changes hold out a structure for liturgical formation while also offering the possibility for improvisation and freedom to experience the presence of God in new and creative ways.

[1] Letter to Our Brethren in America

[2] Karen Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 4.

[3] White points out that the adoption of the Sunday Service at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784 did not guarantee wide circulation or use of this order of worship. He points to a few copies that continued to circulate until the time of Wesley’s death that it was used by a few churches. However, after Wesley’s death the thoughtfully edited 314 page ordo is largely dropped, excepting the Articles of Religion and the Sacramental Services. (White, Sunday Service, 12).

[4] Wade, History, 137-138.

[5] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 9.

[6] Wade, 87-88.

[7] Westerfield-Tucker, 8-9.

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