The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992)   11 comments

Above:  Logo of The United Methodist Church

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The United Methodist Church (1968-) descends immediately from The Methodist Church (1939-1968) and The Evangelical United Brethren Church (1946-1968), both products of mergers of older denominations with roots in the 1700s.  Methodism began as a revival movement within The Church of England, and so inherited part of the Prayer Book tradition.  John Wesley, a lifelong member of the See of Canterbury, abridged the 1662 Book of Common Prayer into the Sunday Service, which the first U.S. General Conference adopted in 1784.  Yet the General Conference of 1792 all but threw away the Sunday Service, under the pressures of revivalism and frontier realities.  And Holy Communion, which Wesley advised taking as often as possible, even daily, became in infrequent practice–perhaps once every three months.

The history of U.S. Methodism tells of increasing gentility during the Victorian Era, hence the proliferation of impressive church buildings in towns and cities.  (Presbyterians did much the same, by the way.)  And more formality in worship followed within such structures.  Yet the old ways persisted in many quarters.  Nevertheless, there was enough support for reclaiming a measure of Methodism’s Anglican heritage to warrant the beginning of the process of creating (in 1940-1944) The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1945).  Just in case one was especially livid and/or oblivious to disclaimers, the title page contained the phrase,

FOR VOLUNTARY AND OPTIONAL USE.

Meanwhile, the new Evangelical United Brethren Church published its first Book of Ritual in 1952.  Subsequent editions followed in 1955 and 1959.  And the church’s 1957 Hymnal contained prayers for various topics and occasions.  These special prayers did not replicate material from any edition of The Book of Ritual.  (I have copies of all four books, by the way.)

As the two denominations neared their 1968 merger The Methodist Church, with EUB input, prepared its 1965 Book of Worship for Church and Home (this time without any disclaimer on the title page) and Methodist Hymnal (later The Book of Hymns.)  [The United Methodist Church, by the way, had two official hymnals during its earliest years; the EUB Hymnal was only eleven years old in 1968.  And I have early 1970s official United Methodist magazines which refer to the two official hymnals.]  The 1965 Methodist Hymnal/Book of Hymns, like its 1905 and 1935 predecessors, contained communion rituals based on the one from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  Any practicing Episcopalian of the time would have known, based on the 1928 Prayer Book in use at the time, what to do next.  I recall that, when I first encountered Holy Eucharist Rite I from the 1979 Prayer Book, I knew what to do next because of the old Methodist rituals.

All that said, I had the misfortune to grow up in United Methodist congregations which followed the old frontier pattern, including quarterly Holy Communion.  This did not satisfy me, for I was developing a form of piety centered on that sacrament.  By the time I had joined the See of Canterbury The United Methodist Church was trying to reclaim its

strong Wesleyan eucharistic tradition.

–Andy Langford, Blueprints for Worship:  A User’s Guide for United Methodist Congregations (Abingdon Press, 1993, page 42)

That word seems not to have reached the United Methodist congregations in the South Georgia Conference with which I had contact through late 2010, however.

The United Methodist Hymnal:  Book of United Methodist Worship (1989) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) stress the centrality of Holy Communion, but the language of the modern rite is sadly uninspiring.  It has all the lack of appeal of too-old bread.  Although both volumes–companions, for the Book of Worship refers one to the Hymnal frequently–introduce forms for morning and evening prayer, the language there is likewise unsatisfactory.  And the less I write about the Compline analog in the Book of Worship, the better.  Modern English liturgies can be graceful; witness The Book of Common Prayer (1979) and A New Zealand Prayer Book (1989).  I also find the Irish Book of Common Prayer (2004) quite impressive and poetic.  So there is no excuse for the bad modern English of these United Methodist rituals.

On the other hand, the 1992 Book of Worship contains much that is useful.  One finds, for example, resources for Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday and for a Quinceanara; the denomination has become more diverse and racially progressive since 1965.  The healing prayers seem as if they would be helpful in the presence of another person–such as a member of the clergy–or alone.  The topics of these prayers range from AIDS to divorce to addiction.  Of course, one would have to remove the Book of Worship from the church office for that to happen.

Therein lies the main problem:  the Book of Worship is not in the pews, except perhaps here and there.  Almost all United Methodists to whom I have mentioned the book learned of its existence from me.  Low Church inertia has been the rule in U.S. Methodism since the late 1700s, and I do not know that this fact will ever change.  When, in 1792, the General Conference all but threw away Wesley’s Sunday Service, it set a bad pattern into motion.  As Frederick A. Norwood wrote in The Story of American Methodism (Abingdon Press, 1974, page 229):

Although forms were later provided, the damage was done.

The editions of The Book of Worship and The Book of Ritual  have been noble attempts to do liturgy properly, but, if nobody follows one, one is not a leader; one is merely taking a walk.  And, if relatively few people follow….

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 28, 2012 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS PLUTARCH, MARCELLA, POTANOMINAENA, AND BASILIDES OF ALEXANDRIA, MARTYRS

THE FEAST OF SAINT IRANAEUS OF LYONS, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF RANDOLPH ROYALL CLAIBORNE, JR., EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF ATLANTA

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