AT THE START of the new year, Methodists make a distinctive resolution.
The Covenant Service, often celebrated on the first Sunday of the year, is at the heart of Methodists’ devotion, discipleship, and dedication to social justice. In the service the Church joyfully celebrates God’s offer of loving relationship.
Last January I began attending a Methodist Church, where I experienced the Covenant Service for the first time, and found it deeply moving. The closest I have found to this in other churches is in the renewal of baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil in many Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches. There are also echoes of it in the prayer of receiving from St Ignatius of Loyola, and the prayer of abandon by St Charles de Foucauld, both of which have influenced my faith journey. It affirmed my decision to join the Methodist Church in May 2022.
So this year, I decided to look into it more deeply. This is what I found, summarised from the Methodist Church website:
The Covenant is not a contract in which God and human beings agree to provide particular goods and services for each other! It is not something that we have to do to create a relationship with God. God has freely and graciously already made it possible. Rather, the Covenant is the means by which we accept the relationship, then seek to sustain it.
God’s gracious offer to us is also a challenge. If God is committed to us, are we prepared to accept that as reality and commit ourselves in return to God? If we choose to accept it, how can we manage to live out our commitment adequately?
Origins of the Covenant Service
This idea of Covenant was basic to the understanding of Christian discipleship of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other. His original Covenant Prayer echoed traditional Christian marriage vows, taking Christ as
‘my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death’.
This understanding of covenant particularly interested me, as my husband and I were the first couple in the UK to register a civil partnership in a place of worship, in May 2012. We wrote our own service and, as it was not legally possible for a same-gender couple to marry in the UK at that time, we were careful not to use any language associated with traditional marriage in our service. We made promises, not vows, and made a covenant to one another, based on ancient rites of adelphopoiesis or ‘brother-making’, dating back to the early Christian church.
Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly prompts and seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love. Wesley gradually saw the need for a regular ceremony to help people to hear God’s offer and challenge ever more deeply, and to allow God to prompt and enable them to respond.
In 1755 Wesley created a service adapted from the Puritan tradition of pastoral and spiritual guidance. Wesley insisted that the Covenant Service be within a framework of pastoral care, preaching and guidance, linking personal devotion with collective worship, caring for the needs of a particular community of Christians, and the needs of individuals within that community.
The service was originally offered after a day’s retreat for people to prepare themselves, and during a Communion Service, commemorating the Last Supper, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he was crucified. Wesley thought that the Sacrament of Communion made real all that was said in the Covenant. He urged Methodists to put Communion at the centre of their spiritual life and to share in it frequently.
The process did not end with the Covenant Service. People were encouraged to continue to work out the implications for their lives of the fact that their relationship with God had been renewed. It was accepted that people might find this difficult to do without help, so pastoral guidance was offered to both groups and individuals in the weeks that followed the service.
The Covenant Prayer:
The Covenant Prayer, which is at the heart of a Covenant Service, was first used in 1755, in London, with 1800 people present. Since then, the Covenant Prayer has often been used in Methodist services around the world, usually on the first Sunday of the year. The prayer points to deep surrender of ourselves in complete trust to God. At first, the words of the prayer can seem jarring and demanding. The language of the original prayer has been updated – here is the version used by the Methodist Church in Britain:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,The Covenant Service, Methodist Worship Book 2022
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Hard words to pray with a full understanding of what they might mean in practice. But then, the same could be said for marriage vows. There is something to be said for reflectively renewing this commitment each year.