Wesley’s Sunday Service, Part V, or Thank Goodness She Finally Got to the Conclusion

April 22, 2011

Order and Improvisation: Wesley’s Service and the American Context

            Though he conservatively revised the orders of worship in the Book of Common Prayer, Wesley maintained a fairly conservative ordinary[1] pattern of worship.  Wesley preserved the basic pattern of worship from the Church of England, and modified only that which he had not witnessed as formational as he faithfully practiced the liturgy of that church through out his life.  Wesley obviously followed the prescription by the Church of England to offer and receive communion as frequently as possible, and even pressed the people called Methodists to receive communion continually, as we find in his sermon, On The Duty of Constant Communion.[2]

In her comparison of Eucharistic texts Tews points out that Wesley’s pattern for Eucharist found in the Sunday Service aligns almost perfectly with the order found in the Book of Common Prayer. [3]  Both she and White agree that Wesley changed very little of significance within the order of the Lord’s Supper, with the exception of the penitential rites of the Great Litany.  This change also reflects not a theological shift or a liturgical shift but a focus on brevity within the two services to be held each Sunday.  Just as we find Wesley rigorous in his early enforcement of the rubrics for the Lord’s Supper, his revisions to those rubrics are remarkably scant, especially considering the changes he offers to the orders of Morning and Evening prayer.[4]

Even in his changes to the Order of Worship found in the Book of Common Prayer, Wesley argues that he bases his alterations on what is to be found in scripture and on the models of the patristic texts and documents from the early life of the church.[5]  In her article “Form and Freedom,” Westerfield-Tucker argues that Wesley’s structure, though in places different from the BCP continues to maintain an ordinary form for the worship and subsequent shaping of Methodists.  Because Wesley considered the liturgy of the Church of England to be the most scripturally based and closely connected to the apostolic practice, Wesley continued to encourage the Methodists to practice a very similar order. Hence, those changes made by Wesley reflect only those things he believed went expressly against scripture.[6]

Wesley saw worship as a means of impressing the image of Christ, who is worshiped, upon the disciple, and he continued to emphasize the importance of the liturgy in the life of Christian disciples.  Wesley genuinely believed that his 1784 order of worship served this end and reflected practices that were, “truly primitive and apostolical.”[7]  Westerfield- Tucker points out that for Wesley worship, and indeed all the means of grace, had an inherently ethical aspect: the liturgy existed as a means of creating servants.  Leitourgia, the work of prayer and praise then, should be best expressed in diakonia, service to the church and world.[8]  Through the order of worship, the liturgy, Wesley sought not only to allow the Methodists to experience God’s presence but to transform them more into the image of that God with whom they interacted.

To this end, however, we also see the critical changed in the order of worship offered by John Wesley.  By including extemporaneous prayers, while still retaining the structure for carrying out the services and patterns of proclamation and prayer that offer regular communication with God each week, Wesley attempts to encourage believers to worship more simply “in spirit and in truth.”[9]  Because North American Methodism began with traveling lay preachers the vast experience of most Methodists had been extemporaneous prayer and worship with an emphasis on preaching.[10]  While this order does put a much heavier emphasis on Eucharist, it remains open to be merged with the style of worship that organically developed in the North American Context.[11]  We even see provision made by Wesley for extemporizing some of the prayers used within the Eucharistic service itself.  That space with the liturgical practice of Wesley’s Sunday Service offers those using the service in the North American context the possibility to enact the liturgy in their own manner.  Likewise, for gatherings on all other days Wesley encourages the pastor to use extemporary prayer, and on Wednesday and Friday combine extemporary prayer with the great litany.[12]

Karen Westerfield Tucker points out that even before the Methodists in America decided to alter the Sunday Service in favor of Francis Asbury’s general order, tension existed between order and more improvised extemporaneous forms of prayer.[13]  She points to the revision of Article 22, “Of the Rites and Ceremonies of Churches,” from the Articles of Religion edited by John Wesley himself.  The revision recognizes the validity of differences in orders of worship found across time and space.  While Wesley himself meant for worship within the Methodist societies and later the Methodist church to maintain a somewhat uniform order, here we see the tension between order and improvisation carefully navigated.[14]

Westerfield Tucker notes the radical significance of Wesley’s inclusion of extemporaneous prayer in the service of worship.  Though practiced for many years in North America and on the frontier prior to Wesley’s sending the Sunday Service, extemporaneous prayer, Wesley reinforces the practice by including extemporary prayer in the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper.  Westerfield Tucker points out that Wesley himself was known for intertwining formal prayers with extemporary portions.[15]  We will consider in the conclusion how this connection of extemporaneous prayer within a more formal service of worship worked well in the North American Methodist context.

Perhaps less significant, but still important, we should note here that Wesley also changed a great deal of the language used in the Book of Common Prayer to more contemporary words and idioms.  Though a careful revisionist and conservative editor, Wesley believed that people should pray in the same tongue they worked and spoke in so that the language of their prayers might carry over to their working and speaking outside of the worshiping community.[16]  If worship was to be a means of grace changing the life of the believer, the change should be comprehensible to the worshiping congregation. Wesley’s altered language both protects the ritual from becoming antiquated and helps people take the formation of the ritual into every day life.  Though space is not adequate for discussion here, Wesley’s understanding and use of liturgical language is a point for further research.

Conclusion: Improvisation and Order in the American Context

The interplay between these two features of liturgy, order and improvisation allow corporate worship and the Lord’s Supper in the American context to continue offering the two-fold grace pointed to by Knight and Maddox.  That is to say, corporate worship offered both a personal experience of God to believers, particularly through the extemporaneous elements contained in Wesley’s Sunday Service.  However, Wesley’s Sunday Service also emphasized the importance of repeated order so that the believer could receive the image and identity of Christ into their own character.

More can and should be examined as regards this topic in further research, especially the use of hymnody, psalms, and music within the service of the Methodists. Hymns and spiritual songs held a prominent place in the early Methodist movement and continue to be important in the worship of Methodists around the world.  Likewise, this research should lead to a more in depth understanding of Francis’ Asbury’s understanding on worship, due to his significant influence of the worship life of preachers and congregations in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Understanding how the tradition has integrated both Wesley and Asbury could also be helpful for modern day Methodists who study and preside over the liturgy.  I hope to explore both these avenues in subsequent papers.  However, we have been able to see from the changes examined in light of Wesley’s understanding of corporate worship that in the Sunday Service he attempted to intertwine extemporaneous worship in the presence of God with the liturgical formation offered in a structured order of worship.

Wesley offers American Methodists space to experience God in worship through extemporaneous spiritual expression, and to some extent styles of worship within the Sunday liturgy sent over by Wesley.  Even the service of The Lord’s Supper leaves room for organic prayers to be offered by the pastor following the celebration.[17]  As we have seen, Methodism in America offered traveling ministers significant freedom in styles and orders of worship because of the lack of prayer book prior to 1784.[18]  While the Book of Common Prayer was widely used in Britain, by both the people called Methodists and those in the Church of England, access to such books was much more limited in the North American context.  From the earliest beginnings of Methodism in the America, we see an emphasis placed on experiencing the Holy Spirit and the grace of God through improvised forms of worship.

That personal experience of God is mediated, however, by the fairly structured service offered by to the American Methodists.  A strong proponent of the Book of Common Prayer, Wesley argued that liturgically thoughtful worship shaped believers as they interacted with scripture and tradition. Though his Letter to our Brethren in America seems to liberate American Methodists from “order,” when it admonishes them to follow the scriptures and the primitive church, this is to misread Wesley.  As a reader of patristic texts, Wesley expected the church in America to follow orders somewhat similar to those found in Justin Martyr’s Apology or the Apostolic Constitutions.[19]

Wesley strongly discouraged “vain repetitions,” but believed that the ordinaries of liturgy offered grace that shaped the believer’s affections and character to be more like that of Christ.  Therefore, though he left room for improvisation and innovation, Wesley discouraged “change for change’s sake” within the worship service of the Methodists in America.  Instead, he offered a structured and liturgically thoughtful service so that his followers in America could continue to benefit not only from the experience of the Grace of God but also from the shaping of their affections for the living of more Godly lives.  To this end, Wesley integrated both improvisation and order within the Sunday Service for the Methodists in America.  Or, as Karen Westerfield-Tucker writes, Wesley offered both “form and freedom” to the worship of the American Methodists.


[1] By ‘ordinary’ we mean the “invariable liturgical texts or acts of worship that are repeated each time the people gather.” (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 31) In her description of the worship held on the Lord’s Day, Westerfield Tucker helpfully distinguishes between the ordinaries, or those aspects of worship that form the people through repetition week after week, and the ‘propers,’ or those prayer and actions that correspond to the liturgical calendar (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 31).

[2] Wesley, On The Duty of Constant Communion.

[3] Tews, Liturgies of John Wesley, 35,

[4] Tews, Liturgies of John Wesley, 32.

[5] Westerfield-Tucker, Form and Freedom, 18.

[6] Westerfield- Tucker, Form and Freedom, 26.

[7] Westerfield Tucker, Form and Freedom, 21.

[8] Westerfield Tucker, Form and Freedom, 26.

[9] Westerfield Tucker, Form and Freedom, 27.

[10] Tews, The Liturgies of John Wesley, 61, 64.

[11] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 8-9.

[12] Wade, 25.

[13] Westerfield Tucker notes that through out the history of the Methodist church extemporaneous prayer on the part of preachers is common and celebrated. Ideally, Westerfield Tucker points out that such prayer could be, “sincere, heartfelt, comprehensive, clear, effective, but unaffected and brief.” (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 33). Such genuine prayers were considered the equivalent of worshiping “in spirit and in truth” by many Methodists. (Westerifeld Tucker, Sunday Service, 25).

[14] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists. 10.

[15] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 32.

[16] White, Introduction. 16.

[17] Wade, History, 83.

[18] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 24.

[19] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 4.

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