Wesley’s Sunday Service, Part III

April 22, 2011

The Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists in North America:
Wesley’s Revisions Considered

As we turn to examine the revisions offered by Wesley in the Sunday Service from the form for prayer found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer it is helpful to remember that Wesley offered fairly conservative changes to both the order and content.[1] We must keep in mind that Wesley’s formation as both a Christian and as a priest occurred within the liturgy of the BCP.  He highly esteemed the liturgy of the Anglican Church, and did not take lightly the idea of revision. Wesley himself writes, “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.”[2]  Convicted to the theological and formational soundness of the BCP, we remember that Wesley changed only those things he thought he believed could be improved for the formation of disciples within the American context.[3]

Background for the Sunday Service: Wesley’s Theological and Pastoral Influences

            Wesley’s Sunday Service was formally adopted as the “prayer book of the Methodists in America” at the Christmas Conference in 1784.  Included in the Sunday Service are orders for morning and evening prayer, to be held specifically on Sunday, as well as liturgies for the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and other special services, an abbreviated form of the Psalter, and scriptural sentences appropriate for worship along with the Articles of the Faith and General Rules. Here, I want to focus on a few aspects of the orders for Sunday morning and evening prayer and Wesley’s prescriptions for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  We will return to it later, but it is helpful to note here that Wesley intended that the orders of prayer found in the Sunday Service be used only for Sunday worship, with the possible exception of the Psalter. For prayers during other days of the week, pastors were encouraged to extemporize.[4]

Wesley’s revisions especially show his esteem for and study of patristic texts. During the eighteenth century an increasing number of European theologians and liturgists began turning toward the texts of the patristic era for inspiration as they sought further reformation within the Protestant church.[5]  Wesley was himself liturgically influenced strongly by patristic texts including the writings of Justin Martyr[6] and documents from the early liturgy of the church such as Apostolic Constitutions and Apostolic Canon.[7]  Here we see that Wesley’s instruction for the Methodists in North America to follow scripture and the primitive church actually meant to prescribes certain practices and a theology not unlike Wesley’s own.[8]  Understanding Wesley’s revisions to be informed by his reading of patristic texts, particularly his liturgy for the Lord’s Supper, we realize that such “liberation” is no grounds for complete liturgical freedom.

Instead, he expected the American Methodists to follow a liturgical structure similar to those early Christian texts he had studied.  Therefore, the structure of the Sunday Service aligns fairly closely with the orders for morning and evening prayer in the BCP, and only those things Wesley considered superfluous are revised or removed.  Since Wesley preferred that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper each Sunday, he designed the liturgy to be appended to the order of prayer each Sunday.  On Sundays with no celebration of the Lord’s Supper, an ante-communion would be inserted just prior to the apostolic benediction.

Though a conservative reviser, we note that Wesley did make fairly significant changes to the Book of Common Prayer itself.  Wade points out that at least half the size of the existing prayer book is not included for this version produced by Wesley.[9] If we consider this deletion in light of the Sunday Service’s purpose, which White has pointed out was strictly for Sunday Morning and Evening worship,[10] it seems less striking.  That material deleted by Wesley for the most part included material not properly belong in Sunday worship including prayers for those at sea, and special orders for use at state dinners.[11]

What does seem helpful, however, is the room Wesley’s edition makes for extemporaneous prayer.[12]  By pairing down the material in the orders of prayer for different segments of society and different times, Wesley opens the possibility for a much greater flexibility of practice both in Sunday morning and outside of the Sunday Service. Webb points out that along with the Great Litany, to be celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays, Wesley encouraged pastors to pray extemporaneously.[13]  This focus on extemporizing, along with other alterations, show both Wesley’s emphasis on the formational aspects of the liturgy as well has his provision for experiencing the presence of God through les formalized orders of worship.  Having considered Wesley’s liturgical influences and his understanding of worship, we now turn to examine three key liturgical changes and revisions Wesley offers the American Methodists in his liturgy the Sunday Service.

[1] James White. Sunday Service, 10-11.

[2] John Wesley, “Preface” to The Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America, James White, ed. 3.

[3] White points to a letter by John Wesley in which he writes, “Dr. Coke made two or three little alterations in the Prayer-Book without my knowledge. I took particular care throughout to alter nothing merely for altering’s sake. In religion I am for as few innovations as possible.” We see here clearly Wesley’s hesitation to changing significant portions of the service, and he will even require Coke to change his revisions to re-include the manual acts at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and making the sign of the cross upon a baby at its baptism (White, 11-12).

[4] White, “Introduction” to John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, 9-10.

[5] White, Introduction, 12.

[6] Westerfield Tucker points out the irony in the likeness between Asbury’s service and the liturgy described in Justin Martyr’s first Apology. While Wesley’s education included interaction with and inspired a deep appreciation of texts like Justin Martyr’s it is not Wesley’s Sunday Service, but Asbury’s, that aligns most closely with the style of worship described in the first Apology (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 9).

[7] Wainwright, Our Elder Brethren Join, 6-7.

[8] Westerfield Tucker, 4.

[9] Wade, History of Public Worship, 24. This can, however, be accounted for by Wesley’s provision for extemporaneous prayer during services held other days of the week and for home visits by pastors. A great deal of what Wesley removes is occasional prayers. Wesley expects his ministers to pray extemporaneously under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to a greater extent than provided by the BCP.

[10] White, Introduction, 9.

[11] Wade, History of Public Worship, 24.

[12] White, Întroduction, 19.

[13] Webb, History, 25.

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