The Sunday Service: Worship as a Means of Grace

“Wesley’s vision of the sanctified life was not a universalized or abstract vision, it assumed the specific liturgical, communal, and devotional contexts within which he framed it,” Maddox explains.[1] A holy person was formed by holy habits of worship and service and shaped by their friendships and study.  These aspects of the believer’s life, according to Wesley, worked together to form him or her into a faithful disciple by the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  For Wesley, the justification of the believer before God at baptism was instantaneous. [2] Following this justification, however, the believer’s salvation progressed over time as the he or she matured and interacted with the grace bestowed by God.[3] Wesley termed these points of interaction with God’s grace moving the Christian through a process of salvation the means of grace.[4] By heartfelt engagement with the means of grace, which included The Lord’s Supper and practices of communal worship, and accountability to the society’s rules, as well as private practices such as prayer, scripture reading, works of mercy, and private prayer, the disciple not only received the grace of God, but gained an outlet for response to God’s grace.  Thus, these means are not works done to “earn” salvation, but to participate in salvation, the continual transformation of the Christians life into the image of Christ.[5]

Henry Knight helpfully points to a two fold concern of Wesley that through the means of grace, Wesley’s followers, “experience not only the Presence of God (which empowers them) but also the identity or character of God (which provides the pattern for their lives.”[6] Wesley believed these means were not only efficacious for opening the channel of God’s grace for participation by Methodists, but were effective in provoking a response on the part of the believer.  More traditional practices may convey the experience of the presence of God, which Wesley continued to hold as important. However, Wesley added characteristically Methodist practices with the conviction that these new practices would inspire Methodists to open their lives more fully toward the reception, or imprint, of the character of God along with the reception of the presence of God.  In essence, Wesley sought to encourage Anglicans (and later Methodists) to continue living out their thanksgiving by using the means of grace, generally, to be transformed from glory to glory.[7]

We see this understanding of grace conveyed most clearly in Wesley’s thought concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Maddox points out that Wesley denied any system substituting “spiritual” communion for the understanding of Christ’s grace mediated to us through the Lord’s Supper.  For Wesley, the meretricious grace provided by Christ through the Lord’s Supper is made effective by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Though the Lord’s Supper is considered a special, extraordinary means of grace for Wesley, this understanding of Eucharist sheds light on Wesley’s understanding of all the means of grace, in so far as the Lord’s Supper opens a channel for the Christians participation in Christ’s meretricious grace by way of the Holy Spirit.  With this understanding, we turn to examine corporate worship as a means of grace.

Considered along side the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is the corporate worship of Christians.  Wesley emphasizes the specific liturgical framework of worshiping as a provision that sustains a life of continually growing holiness and discipleship.  Even while the Methodist movement existed within the Anglican Church, we see Wesley’s stringent requirement that the people called Methodists worship as regularly as possible within their Anglican parishes in addition to attending class meetings, bands, and services conducted at preaching houses.  The communal work of worship provided spiritual nutrients and sustenance that Wesley believed Christian believers could not spiritually live without.[8] Far from being a formal, but non-formative act, Wesley considers the worship of the community to be an act of liturgical catechesis and Christian formation.

Similarly, Henry Knight and Stephen Land point out that worship, as a means of grace and as a practice of spiritual discipline, continually turns the Christian toward the love of God they found in the Christian story.  This story shapes the affections and therefore the dispositions of the Christian toward more faithful discipleship.[9] Within the structure and story of the liturgy, as well as through the other means of grace, Wesley believed that the Christian story was enacted and thereby imprinted onto the worshiper. Thus, as Land and Knight point out, Wesley believed that corporate worship as a means of grace equipped Christian disciples to grow in holiness as witnesses to that story of love and faithfulness.  Through this formational participation in the revelation of Christ found in scripture by the means of grace, “the affections were formed and shaped as one worshiped over time.”[10]

As the Methodist movement in both Britain and America began to splinter away from the Anglican Church, we see Wesley making a concerted effort to provide means of corporate worship for the people called Methodists.  The Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists in America is the most obvious example of such a provision.  Many Methodists in America had grown away from the Church of England prior to the Revolutionary War.  This resulted in a distinctly American style of worship centered on freedom, personal piety, and the presence of God.[11] For the Methodists in America, the separation of the colonies from Britain cemented and formalized the already present division between the Methodists in America and the Church of England.[12] Wesley still wanted to provide a resource offering the nutrients of the liturgical tradition to those Methodists now separated from the Church of England.  In the Sunday Service we see Wesley holding together both the liturgical tradition and a less formal, but no less formational, style of the Methodists in North America.[13]

[1] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 192.

[2] We see this contained in Article IX of the Sunday Service, Of the Justification of Man. Through the justification of Christ Christians are justified before God immediately upon receiving Christ’s grace.

[3] In Wesley’s revised Article XVII, On Baptism the language of regeneration and new birth is used. Such language will be preferred by Wesley when referring to sanctification and he will emphasize the language of ‘maturity’ with regards to growth in grace.

[4] I say certain here simply because Wesley would affirm God’s grace working in the lives of believers in many ways. However, the believer can be certain of the means of grace as points of participation in God’s transforming love. The specificity of the means of grace is not meant to close off access to God’s gracious gifts or love, but meant to point Christians toward those practices and locations where they would most certainly receive and be able to respond to God’s grace. (Maddox, Responsible Grace, 195)

[5] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 194.

[6] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 194.

[7] In the General Thanksgiving offered in the Book of Common Prayer, used by Wesley, thanks is given for the means of grace in correlation with the hope of glory. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that they are being transformed “from glory to glory,” through lives of Christian discipleship (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace, we see his formula for believers living out that same maturation encouraged both in scripture and emphasized the early church. Westerfield Tucker points out that Wesley expected this General Thanksgiving to be included in every day prayer services. (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 6).  And we can see how the language of such a prayer shaped Wesley and those who received these words thoughtfully.

[8] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 205.

[9] Knight and Land, On Being a Witness, 80.

[10] Knight and Land, On Being a Witness, 86.

[11] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 9.

[12] Wesley acknowledges that the providence of God has seen fit to separate the American Methodists from the Church of England in his Letter to Our American Brethren sent with the Sunday Service in 1784. Likewise, Wesley ordains priests and superintendents for the American colonies who are now officially without the hierarchical structure and Episcopal oversight of the Church of England.

[13] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 206-207.


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.

Summer 2010

May 29, 2010

Ok, it’s summer, and I’m going to renew my efforts to blog my liturgical thoughts and tidbits. Some things to look forward to on Eucharistia for Summer 2010:

1. The Jonah Liturgy is coming! In one of my courses this past semester I put together a Triduum order of worship (both contemporary and traditional) allowing Jonah to serve as a lens to engage the death and resurrection of Christ. I stole this idea from the early Fathers.  I’m currently cleaning them up, etc: but they are coming! Disclaimer: You are welcome to use these in your parish but please don’t publish or claim these as your own, they aren’t. I worked really hard on them. Also- All music and artists will be linked with their webpages so that you can find them easily and buy their wonderful worship music to use with your own congregation.

2. “We Believe” : Evangelism sermon series & prayers for mission explicating and engaging the Apostles’ Creed and reclaiming it for evangelicals! I should go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I’m an evangelical… But if we’re going to proclaim the faith (which we’re all up for), we have to know and responsibly share the content of the faith. The early Fathers and Mothers of the Church devised just such a content of faith: the Apostles Creed! The Creeds were never meant to be recited: they should be affirmed and proclaimed. That’s what they’re for.

3. Thoughts on John Wesley and Worship: for all you Methodists out there! What’s in John Wesley’s Sunday Service? What did he find indispensable? What did he cut out? And for heavens’ sake why to all of the above. A few answers and a few more questions to come.

4. New Books! I’ll be sharing my summer of novels with y’all via their connection to the liturgy and worship.

5. It’s Summer: adventures and pictures to come!!