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Matt Sigler ~ Knowing What We Have: The Methodist Liturgical Heritage, Part III

I grew up in a family of Methodist pastors and music ministers. You can imagine that our family gatherings were often filled with conversations about various ongoings within the church. In 1989 I remember there being quite a bit of discussion about the new hymnal and the orders of worship provided in the book. While I didn’t fully understand the conversations—I was only ten years old at the time—it was clear to me that whatever was in the red hymnal was very different from what my family knew.

The 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and the companion 1992 Book of Worship marked the culmination of nearly 20 years of liturgical developments within American Methodism. Many Methodists were suspicious of the changes made in these new resources. They saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament as a step in the wrong direction for Methodist worship. In order to understand the influences behind the ’89 Hymnal and ’92 Book of Worship, it’s helpful to consider the shifts in Methodist worship in the twentieth century that preceded these resources.


The year 1905 marks a drastic change in Methodist worship practice. That year the northern and southern branches of the church published a joint hymnal that included, for the first time, an Order of Worship for the Sunday service. Nearly ten years earlier, the Methodist Episcopal Church had adopted a similar order of service at General Conference. Not only did both branches share a common Order of Worship—something that brought charges of “formalism” by many—but the hymnal included other changes. Bishop Nolan Harmon recalls:

the 1905 Hymnal came to be in full use with the systematic Responsive Readings…the saying of the Apostles Creed as a part of morning worship [and] with the Amen sung at the end of each hymn.

The 1905 Hymnal ushered in a period of aestheticism in Methodist worship that crescendoed into the 1930’s.

As Methodists became more respectable within society there was a growing stress on “enriching worship.” The prevalence of Methodist churches built in the Gothic style is a visual marker of this change. With the architectural shift came other changes. Liturgical scholar James White once remarked that when his home church in Vermont built a new Gothic building in the 1920’s, they also “resolved to discourage shouts of ‘amen’ during the sermon.”

The music used in Methodist worship was also influenced by this change. Increasingly the emphasis was on the “quality” of church music. A growing number of churches hired professional musicians. Choral responses sung by the choir often replaced the voice of the congregation. The 1935 Hymnal represents the high-water mark of growing musical sophistication among Methodists during this period.

Other streams within Methodism were not as entranced by the emphasis on “enriching” worship. They maintained that true Methodist worship was marked by evangelical zeal and freedom. Sung “amens,” processions, and the use of candles were all “pretty nothings carried out with an air of sacred mystery.”


Two World Wars and the emergence of the Cold War brought an end to the period of Aestheticism. The horrors of Nazi death camps and the Atomic bomb shattered the illusion that humankind was on a steady march toward progress. Neo-orthodoxy reminded the Church that original sin was real and could not be overcome simply with education and innovation. The Church, as James White put it, “needed something stronger than aestheticism and found it in historicism.”

Liturgically, mainline churches began returning to their roots in the rites of the Reformation—many (re)discovering creeds and confession. Methodists began examining Wesley’s Sunday Service and its connection to the Book of Common Prayer. Where for years American Methodists had altered the forms of worship inherited from Anglicanism, many of the liturgical resources of the 1950’s and 60’s sought to reclaim this part of their tradition. In 1965, for example, Methodists incorporated into the Book of Worship the penitential preface that Cranmer had added to the service of Morning Prayer in 1552.

Liturgical Renewal(s)

The 1965 Methodist Book of Worship went to press around the same time drastic changes began occurring elsewhere in Christian worship. Writing in 1972, James White—the principle author of what would become Word and Table I—defended why the Commission on Worship published a new communion service “for the second time in eight years.” He writes:

It is because the eight years between the 1964 and the 1972 General Conferences span some of the most rapid changes in Christian worship since the Reformation in the 1500s…The middle ages in Catholic worship lasted until December, 1963 when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated…

In contrast with previous changes to the Methodist communion service, which were primarily revisions within the Anglican pattern, White celebrated that Methodists had finally “broken the habit of simply revising within the Anglican-Methodist pattern and opted for one that reflects the breadth of modern Christianity and the depth of classical practice.”

While some saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament in worship as a deviation from true Methodist worship, White understood this breaking free from the classical Anglican/Methodist pattern to be in harmony with a Wesleyan liturgical piety. As Methodists walked through the periods of Aestheticism and Historicism in the first half of the twentieth century, many in the Roman Catholic Church had been (re)discovering early sources on worship. Among these was On the Apostolic Tradition, credited to Hippolytus. White argued that Wesley was a patristic scholar who, had he been aware of Apostolic Tradition, would have embraced its implications for worship practice. Throughout his life, White would maintain that the work he and others did in reforming Methodist liturgical praxis by incorporating aspects of Apostolic Tradition actually made Methodist worship “more Wesleyan, than Wesley’s [Sunday Service].” Of course, many Methodists saw the changes as “too Catholic” and felt that White and others had moved Methodists away from true Methodist worship.

Just as Methodists did not foresee the liturgical changes that would be brought about by the Second Vatican Council, those who crafted the resources that eventually found their way into the 1989 Hymnal did not anticipate the deep influence of what would become known as “contemporary worship.” The efforts at Methodist liturgical revision that culminated in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and 1992 Book of Worship were often disregarded by those seeking to make their worship services more “contemporary.” As “contemporary worship” became an increasingly viable option for Methodists, many completely rejected the hymnal or anything that appeared to be rooted in the past. While Methodist “contemporary” worship frequently infused life into dry services, it often looked just like the Baptist “contemporary” service down the street. In rejecting the historic forms of their worship, Methodists suffered from an identity crisis in their worship services.

Future Prospects

So let me return to my initial post where I suggested that in our effort to design services that are more faithful to the past, we must be careful not to “cut and paste” the content of our services. As Methodist congregations consider how to be faithful to their own liturgical heritage while being attuned to the particularities of their own context, it might be helpful to consider the following:

First, one must consider if speaking of form versus freedom in Methodist worship is to speak of a false dichotomy. Certainly this is a helpful way to understand the history of the various liturgical trends in Methodist history, yet when one speaks prescriptively about Methodist worship, one might be better served to speak of form and freedom as different sides of the same coin.

Second, and perhaps most important, Methodists need to know their own liturgical history. One wonders how many Methodists today are aware of John Wesley’s Sunday Service. How many understand the history and impact of the liturgical renewal of the second half of the twentieth century? White put it well when he suggested that to be ignorant of one’s own liturgical heritage is to be bound to the status quo.

Finally, knowing about one’s own liturgical heritage is only the starting point. The past must be embodied in the present if it is to have meaning. A distinct Methodist liturgical piety should transcend the various epochs of Methodist liturgical history. With some glaring deviations, Methodists have historically given equal value to the affections and intellect; Scripture and sacrament; and form and freedom in worship. These values, coupled with the rich textual tradition of The Sunday Service and the hymns of Charles Wesley, provide limitless possibilities for the future of Methodist worship.