Serving up a Wesleyan liturgical spirituality

April 4th, 2023

You are what you eat, the old saying goes. 

We celebrate worship, but we also consume and internalize it. It shapes who we are and charts what we might become. We become who we are in large part because of how we worship.

Christians have known this for a long time. The formula lex orandi-lex credendi—out of prayer comes belief, or worshipping shapes believing—has not only offered a way to think about worship as the wellspring of doctrine (and not the other way around) but also how liturgy has the power to shape our souls and our desires. Like food, it follows that the specific acts and experiences we have in the worship we celebrate nourish our souls in particular ways. Nutritionists advise us to fill our plates with a broad array of wholesome, colorful food, being judicious about helping ourselves to tantalizing food of other sorts like sweets and carbonated beverages. Wesleyans would want to expand what’s on the credendi plate to include not only our believing but our living—lex vivendi! This series on liturgical spirituality will explore the liturgy-life connection, looking first at some of our liturgies and asking how they might shape our spiritual sensibilities when we are elsewhere than together in worship.

It’s hard to get our arms around United Methodist worship in general because worship practices in our denomination are so diverse and localized. Though we can name many expressions of unity—connectionalism, the Discipline, conferences, appointments, and apportionments—worship is not likely to be among them. We are a church with a liturgy, but not a liturgical church, one that derives its identity from shared liturgical forms. However, despite the array of worship practices in Methodism, there have been, since Wesley, official liturgies that connect us to the wider tradition. It is these that I want to explore in this series, to consider their capacity to shape believing and living in ways that are all too often overlooked or underappreciated. If nutritionists disclose the created goodness vitamins and minerals give to our broccoli or chicken soup, and how to prepare them to maximize their exuberant flavor, then perhaps liturgists can do something similar for worship. That will mean looking at some of the texts themselves to unlock their rich and deep theological “nutrients.” 

But worship is not text alone. It is the action and spirit of celebration,[1] too, and the relationships among the gathered and the presider(s), including musicians and artists. Sight and sound, silence and sentience all form our souls as much as words, and we Protestants especially need to be on guard against our longstanding tendency toward the didactic, as though the Word’s incarnation was incidental and not the center around which we gather. In these reflections we will savor the actions and words of the assembly gathered for worship. 

Ancient Christians knew this type of commentary as mystagogy–an entering into the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus by way of exploring what we do together when we gather around Word and sacrament week by week. Those preparing for baptism, called catechumens (literally “those who hear”) were instructed in the basics of the faith, typically using the creed, the decalog, and the Lord’s Prayer (formation of the mind, the will, and the heart). Baptized on Easter Eve, they attended a final series of instructions during Easter Week in which the rites they had just participated in for the first time (the orandi) were explained (the credendi). As one catechist, Cyril of Jerusalem, told the newly baptized:

It has long been my wish, true-born and long-desired children of the Church, to discourse to you upon these spiritual, heavenly mysteries. On the principle, however, that seeing is believing, I delayed until the present occasion, calculating that after what you saw that night I should find you a readier audience now when I am to be your guide to the brighter and more fragrant meadows of this second Eden.[2]

This series will be a contemporary mystagogy with a Wesleyan flavoring. How might a Wesleyan savor the divine presence in worship? We will look for clues along the way. For starters, worship’s divine-human encounter is central to God’s redeeming activity in Jesus Christ. It is a means of grace, that is, something God does in our midst, before it is something we do. Wesley followed the classic Protestant definition of the church, enshrined in the Anglican Articles of Religion, that the church is where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, i.e., where God acts! (To be sure, not the only place God acts, but where God uniquely acts on our behalf.) And the grace with which God acts is prevenient: perpetually calling and drawing us; it is justifying: forgiving and renewing; and it is sanctifying: empowering us for participation in God’s redemption of us and the cosmos God loves. Wesleyans will recognize that as “going on to perfection,” God’s desire to make of us a royal priesthood, a holy nation, saints. Worship is central to God’s hallowing activity. 

There is a flow to Wesley’s account of grace that offers a particular way of participating in worship with body, heart, and mind. We will unpack it further in the essays to follow on Word and Table. Grace is wholistic, that is, restorative and transformative, and thus, teleological: a reintegration of the dissipated self with God and therefore with neighbor, beginning with the church. How transforming grace encounters us in Word and Table, and where it takes us on the journey from Entrance to Sending Forth, will occupy the next several essays in this series. 

Maybe most of all, our official liturgies reflect Wesleyan particularity in that they suggest to us that holiness is finally joy, communion with God in one another’s company as the gathered assembly. I’ve titled this series using a beautiful line from the Preface of the Great Thanksgiving that speaks of the wonder of worship: It is right, and a good and joyful thing.We will explore why that’s the case. 

Combine these theological distinctives with participation in the catholicity served to us by our orders of worship and we have the ingredients for a Wesleyan liturgical spirituality. Notoriously hard to define, let’s think of spirituality here in sensory terms, as a way of hearing, seeing, and being present in the world and our communities, with heart and mind nurtured by worship. Liturgical spirituality names a way of being in the world shaped by liturgical participation. The key question becomes: Does participation in the Sunday liturgy touch how we experience the Monday-Saturday world we inhabit? What happens after the Postlude is as important for such a liturgical spirituality as what happens after the Prelude. That’s where lex orandilex vivendi (a way of living) hits the road. It’s where every benedictory Amen points us, to our lives in the world. It’s there our series will take us. 

We will look specifically at the orders of worship in the front of The United Methodist Hymnal—Word and Table and Baptismal Covenant. As in the Great Tradition, those central means of grace are the church’s liturgical main course. Orders for Daily Praise and Prayer, Christian Marriage, Service of Death and Resurrection, and Ordination, among others, derive their structure and meaning from the Word, Table, and Bath at the center. They are, in effect, “meals for special occasions.” We will consider how the words and acts of some of these orders can shape a spiritual life for us in surprising ways.

Our official resources provide a calendar for the Christian Year, but not a sanctoral cycle as such, that is, a commemorative calendar of saints, disciples, and holy people from all times and places, treasured in the church’s memory. Imagine combining the universal festivals of, say, the apostles and early church saints with even a fraction of the long parade of Wesleyans whose lives and witness should be remembered! We will make a case why a tradition concerned with holiness of heart and life could learn anew what that might mean by remembering the saints year-round. 

One last housekeeping note. The entries to follow are in the style of a liturgical travelogue: a participant’s journey through worship. This fictitious worshipper—“you”—shares an inner dialog about the service along the way during the exterior account of the experience. It’s a fun way of getting at what goes on in worship and its spiritually formative power, but this isn’t the first time it’s been done that way. There may be others, but I know of Martin Marty’s trilogy, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, and The Word, and Will Willimon’s With Glad and Generous Hearts. In doing so, they have created space to put Wesley in dialog with worship, to ask some different questions, and to imagine a different “you” sitting in the pew. I hope, whoever you are, that it makes you hunger for a liturgical spirituality. If it does, it will be a right, and a good and joyful thing indeed. 

[1] Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy. Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979): 148. 

[2] Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catechesis, in Thomas M. Finn, ed., Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: West and East Syria(Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 1992): 43-4.

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