Wesley’s Sunday Service, Part IV

April 22, 2011

Revisions: Wesley’s Major Changes to the BCP Creating the Sunday Service

One significant change already considered, but bearing brief mention here is in the name of the service itself and the implications of this change.[1]  While Wesley revises the Book of Common Prayer’s Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer, Wesley indicates that these orders should be used only on Sundays.  He moves the Great Litany to be celebrated on Wednesdays and Fridays, but places the main emphasis here on gathering of extemporaneous praying at all other weekday gatherings of the congregation.[2]  As we have seen earlier, the orders that would have been offered in homes (i.e. prayers for the sick, or thanksgivings over a mother with a new born child) are removed by Wesley from the Sunday Service.[3]  The implication of this revision is that pastors are encouraged, even forced by Wesley to pray creative relevant prayers within their own contexts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for worship beyond Sunday services and the Great Litany. This would fit nicely with the already free expression of prayer already inhabited by many American Methodists who have already been spiritually formed by and through extemporized praying.

A second significant change Wesley inserted to the order of prayer is a revised declaration of absolution.  Both the instructional rubrics and the pronouncement of absolution itself are changed and replaced by Wesley’s own formulation.  Rather than a declaration of absolution by the pastor, Wesley instead includes a pastoral prayer for the absolution of pastor and congregation alike.[4]  The new formula reads, “O Lord, we beseech thee, absolve thy people from their offences; that, through thy bountiful goodness, we may be delivered from the hands of those sins, which by our frailty we have committed…”[5]  Wesley’s change here seems to reflect his own press away from Catholicism, and align with his changes in wording from “priest,” to minister and Elder.[6] In Wesley’s own sermon Popery Calmly Considered, he writes that the absolution offered by a priest is conditional on the power of God, who alone has the authority to absolve sins.[7]  Wesley’s Sunday Service here reflects that desired emphasis upon the sovereignty of God that would be quite well received in American Methodism.[8]  In a context largely focused on individual freedom and a personal experience of God, Wesley’s changed words offer necessary assurance, but also refrain from setting the pastor too far removed from the congregation, as do his changed titles.

Perhaps the most significant change in Wesley’s Sunday Service is the provision for and emphasis upon celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly and also in two key changes offered by Wesley within the liturgy for celebration.[9]  Wesley’s his main focus in revising[10]  the text of the Sunday Service is providing space for the inclusion of the Lord’s Supper upon every Lord’s Day. This focus on more frequent communication, also seen in Wesley’s sermon, On the Duty of Constant Communion, likely hearkens back to Wesley’s reading of the patristic writers.[11]

First, Wesley provides room following the celebration of the Lord’s Supper for extemporized prayer to be offered by the presiding elder.[12]  In order to provide space for this personal prayer, Wesley drastically shortens the prayer of thanksgiving following the Communion.  Here, we see one of the more spacious concessions made by Wesley to the American form of extemporized worship.  Instead of continuing with the approved thanksgiving, Wesley opens space within even the liturgy of the Eucharist for the extemporized religious expression of the American Methodist elder presiding.[13]

Second, in order to celebrate Eucharist more frequently, Wesley moved the Great Litany from the service of the Lord’s Supper, and suggests that it instead be celebrated during daily prayer on Wednesdays and Fridays.  This was designed to abbreviate the lengthy service, but also to change the tenor of celebration for those using the Sunday Service.[14]  Wesley sought to move the focus of the feast of the Lord’s Supper away from the guilt washed away by the sacrifice and push it toward the joy offered in the celebration God’s loving gift of grace through the elements and the community.  Wesley by no means removed all traces of penitence; we know that Wesley retained the general confession of sin, as well as including a pastoral plea for and statement of confidence in God’s mercy.[15]  Instead, the removing the penitential orders while retaining the general confession served to move beyond the confession toward a more joyful celebration of the Eucharistic feast.

Also, we know that, especially early in his career, Wesley insisted on the examination of Methodists by class leaders on a regular basis prior to their attendance at the Lord’s Supper.  In this way, Wesley hoped to increase the Methodists’ focus on penance, but do so mostly outside of the actual celebration itself.[16]  If Wesley believed this system were already in place, his movement of the penitential orders to the daily prayer meetings seems logical.  If the class leaders were already responsible for leading prayer and examining the communicants prior to the Lord’s Supper there would be very little practical change if the order for penance were moved to the prayer meeting.


[1] Wade, History, 25.

[2] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 17.

[3] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists,  27.

[4] Wade, History, 28-29.

[5] Wesley, Sunday Service, 8.

[6] Wade, History,  29.

[7] Wesley, Popery Calmly Considered.

[8] Wade, History, 35.

[9] Wade, History, 85-86.

[10] White suggests that “revised” is the best term for Wesley’s alteration of the BCP. He does remove some elements, and relegate others to other prayer services apart from the Sunday Service. However, his intention is not to reduce but increase the worship by celebrating the Lords Supper as often as possible. Because of this intention, White suggests that we understand Wesley’s changes as a revision of the Sunday Service instead of an abridging of the service (White, 15).

[11] Wade, History, 86.

[12] Wade, History, 85.

[13] Tews, The Liturgies of John Wesley, 64.

[14] Wade, History, 86.

[15] Wade, History, 28.

[16] Tews, The Liturgies of John Wesley, 32-33.

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