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Commentary: American Methodist worship

Commentary: American Methodist worship

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: American Methodist worship

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | May 14, 2009 {1017}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, the author of “American Methodist Worship” (Oxford, 2001), has produced the definitive study of worship practiced by most of the Methodist churches in America. It describes the history of the rites and practices of the Methodist churches on the Lord’s Day and in the great festivals (the Love Feast, the Watch Night, the Quarterly Meeting, the Camp Meeting and Revivals), including baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It also includes the history of family worship, the prayer meeting and visitation of the sick. Special attention is also given to music, architecture and the roles of leaders of worship. The history of the rites and practices for marriage and funerals is also included.

“American Methodist Worship” is deserving of the adjective “authoritative” because of the scope of the historical research and the deep, but disciplined, theological comment offered by Dr. Tucker. I believe it should be required reading for everyone who is ordained in The United Methodist Church and who serves on a group in the general church studying any of the rites of the church, hymnody and ministry. I also recommend all clergy read it, as well as many of the laity.

Tina Cannon, a liturgical dancer from New Life Community United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, helps lead worship at the 2008 “Passionate Worship: Divine Inbreaking” event at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville. File photo by Erik J. Alsgaard. Photo #08-0817. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0836, 04/23/08.

In recent decades there has been rich research into the life and ministry of John and Charles Wesley. This research has provoked a longing to connect to the distinctive Wesleyan practices of worship, spirituality and discipleship. However, this longing often fails to take into account the ways in which Wesleyan practices were received and modified in the America experience, which was also propagated beyond America in missions in many other places around the world. There is continuity, but also distinction, between Wesleyan and American Methodist traditions. Until Dr. Tucker wrote “American Methodist Worship,” there was no one book that provided a comprehensive historical survey of the American Methodist tradition of worship. This book can be used as the source of information for creative reflection on the identity and mission of The United Methodist Church today.

As the one who originally suggested the phrase “the Methodist Way” to describe the distinctive Methodist practice of Christian discipleship, I believe there is much in this book that could inspire and challenge us in developing our mission today of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Dr. Tucker states that by 1785 there were “three authoritative and distinctively different sources for worship” used by American Methodists — John Wesley’s “Sunday Service,” which was an abridgment of the Anglican prayer book; his permission for Methodists to worship according to “scripture-guided conscience and Spirit-inspired piety”; and a book of law and discipline that contained prescriptions, prohibitions and recommendations in different ways from the late 18th century until today.

As a result, American Methodist worship has been marked by a creative, but sometimes ineffective, tension between form and freedom, uniformity and diversity, and catholic substance and evangelical spirit. The inference one is compelled to draw from this tradition is that worship today should honor both poles in this tradition. Those of us concerned with maintaining a common identity in our worship so that it has ecclesiological integrity should pay attention to means of allowing spontaneity of experience, and those of us enthusiastic in the exercise of our freedom should pay attention to the substance and form of the official rites of the church. As Dr. Tucker summarized in the study of American Methodist worship on Sunday, it is “both simple and complex, informal and formal, free and fixed, evangelical and doxological.”

Photo by Greg Moore.

The challenge of maintaining this tension can be observed in the history of the administration of the Lord’s Supper. American Methodists received Wesley’s revision of the rite of the Anglican Church, but in 1792 the Methodist Episcopal Church added a rubric, “If the Elder be straitened for time, he many omit any part of the service except the prayer of Consecration.” This rubric invited “a lack of ritual uniformity” in the administration of the Lord’s Supper, even to the drastic extent of elders substituting their own prayer for the prayer of consecration. Over time, Methodist churches have attempted to reign in clerical abuses while, at the same time, revising their rites to accommodate genuine pastoral and evangelical concerns.

Of immense value in this volume is the discussion of the various means of grace Methodists developed to make disciples of Christ. Dr. Tucker’s discussion of the Love Feast, Watch Night service and prayer meeting should provoke contemporary Methodists to reclaim these services and make sure that the value of the prayer meeting (which was itself a substitute for the waning class meeting) is retained in new forms.
Her history of the Quarterly Meeting, which Dr. Tucker describes as one of the Great Festivals of Methodism, should inspire us in designing group charge conferences. The Quarterly Meeting itself was “a system of oversight whereby clusters or circuits of Methodist societies would join together four times a year to transact business,” and it usually included a Love Feast, preaching, the Lord’s Supper and a fast on the preceding Friday. Dr. Russell Ritchey has said that it was at the Quarterly Meeting where “Methodism was distinctively itself, most fully church.”

The history of Methodist funerals provides much insight not only in changes in funeral services, but also in the evolution of theological trends in our church. Dr. Tucker categorizes these changes under three headings — “conversion,” “consolation” and “conformity to Christ.” In telling the story of funeral practices, she covers the way our theology evolved from original fiery evangelical zeal to a therapeutic form of pastoral care undergirded by a liberal theology accommodated to middle class American values. Her discussion of the “Service of Death and Resurrection,” which is in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal under the heading of “conformity to Christ,” may provide a paradigm for thinking about how all United Methodist worship today should be directed.

At the end of her study, Dr. Tucker summarizes her own constructive theological critique of American Methodist worship. She states that our worship needs to find the right balance between “memory and modernization.”

Bayshore United Methodist Church member Bob Trotter prays during a prayer service. File photo by Reneé Kincaid. Photo #09-1094. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0968, 1/30/09.

On the one hand, we have demonstrated a need to maintain the integrity and identity of our church as apostolic, primitive Christian, Wesleyan and Methodist. On the other hand, we are committed to serving the present age. To relate to the present age, a certain amount of acculturation is inevitable, but it contains the danger of taking a consumerist approach. Dr. Tucker expresses deep concern about the tendency toward a consumerist approach today. She observes, “Perhaps it was no coincidence that as Methodist denominations began to accommodate to the larger society and shed their denominational peculiarities, the general percentage of Methodists among the declared church members in the nation’s population began to decline.”

She concludes by warning that “American Methodism risks becoming more American than Methodist” and that “the summons therefore may be … to become more countercultural … .”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.