by Roger Walton.
The Covenant Service is surely the heart of Methodist Spirituality. As a service following close on the heels of Christmas, and often in or around Epiphany, it is perhaps the best expression of our response to the love of God made known in the Christ-child. Like the Magi, we open our treasures and lay everything at the feet of the one who has come among us in vulnerable love. We give ourselves totally, we hold nothing back, we submit everything to the God who has gently and lovingly placed His divinity into our hands. It was suggested to me some years ago, that before you say the covenant prayer you should imagine the words on the lips of Jesus speaking to God for the sake of the world he enters. “I am no longer my own but yours, put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put be to doing, put me to suffering…” takes on a new depth of meaning, if you hear these words as the self-surrender of God’s Son to the task before him. Then, when we say the covenant prayer, we are mirroring what God has done. ‘We love because he first loved us’.
What is striking in the liturgy, however, is the sudden switch from third person language to the first person at the point of the covenant prayer. Up to that point, ‘we’, and ‘our’ are the norm and worshippers are reminded of the covenant God made with the people of Israel. Even at the invitation to make the covenant prayer, the words are ‘we are no longer our own but yours.’ Yet as we make the prayer, it is unambiguously in the first person. Although the words are said together, we say them each for himself or herself.
This can be both understood and justified. Wesley took the basic idea from the Puritans, Joseph and Richard Alleine, who penned the words for individual, personal response to God. Interestingly, in the Wesleyan liturgy of 1897 there were three forms of the covenant service, one of which was for individuals making a private covenant, not in corporate worship. It is not surprising that this individual orientation survives. Moreover, the theological justification of first person language may be that we each need to own the response. It is an expression of the (grace enabled) freewill for all, for which the Wesleys battled against Calvinists. To take our place in the covenant people of God, we each express our individual desire and willingness and thus step up alongside others. Just as communion received in individual glasses – a practice with an odd ancestry – can express both individual response, as we eat the bread and drink the wine put into our hands, and solidarity in Christ as we stand together as a table awaiting dismissal, so first person covenant prayer language does not necessarily undermine our corporate identity as the body of Christ. Indeed, it might strengthen it, provided we see that our solidarity with each other is concomitant with our covenant with God. The covenant prayer binds us together with God and with each other for the work of God, for which we are to watch over one other in love.
We use covenant language in many parts of our church’s life but one of the most remarkable is that we have Covenants of Care for convicted sex offenders who wish to remain part of a worshipping community. Recognizing the way that we have failed those who have been abused in the church and seeking to make a safer church, it is surprising that we allow for this possibility. Most institutions would not entertain it. In order for it to succeed, it requires the individual to own the danger he or she poses to others; and a pledge to abide by a set of rules that will keep the person out of temptation and others safe, as well as the commitment of the group to be vigilant in guarding all involved. Oddly, this may speak to us of the individual and corporate nature of the covenant we are about to enter into this January.
 Chapman, D. M. (2006). Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britian. Warrington, Church in the Market Place, p176-177.
4 thoughts on “I am no longer my own but yours…”
Your reminder of the importance of Covenant and the wonders of the Methodist Covenant prayer are timely for the new year! I am reminded however of the difficulty of the language of ‘surrender’ is for many who have experienced abuse. ‘I am no longer my own but yours’ takes on quite a different resonance if a person is battling to find the self that has been shattered by the actions of another. I am also reminded of our conversation at the Survivor Reference Group (following the Past Cases Review) where the word ‘covenant’ is used for the Church’s care of abusers but not for survivors – the suggestion being that this should be replaced by a ‘Contract of care’ and a new commitment to listening and learning from the expressed needs of survivors, who struggle to find Church a safe place to flourish.
Of course, none of these thoughts should undermined the intrinsic beauty and commitment of our Methodist Covenant which helps us all to know we are held and nurtured by God’s grace alone – a truth for all Creation. My comment is simply about language and how we use it well to help us thrive, individually and as a Church.
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I cannot comment on the issues surrounding abuse, so I leave that to those who are of more experience and expertise, such as Barbara above. Rather, I comment on the matter of linking Covenant so clearly with Epiphany – you do it well, Roger, better than I’ve sometimes seen or heard it done, but as a liturgist and liturgiolost I query the link. Firstly I do so on the practical nature that while the post assumes that Covenant is always done in January it is the case that a growing number of churches and chapels hold it in September, at the start of the Connexional year, so both enabling it to be linked to our Connexional nature and so highlighting further the communal function of the Covenant, and also enabling Christmas and Epiphany to be fully celebrated as a complete season in its own right.
Furthermore, the liturgy as we have it in the Methodist Worship Book (and I fully accept that as a Methodist people we do not commit ourselves to necessarily using the liturgical text as it is, unlike our Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters) is a-seasonal, or even, possibly, non-seasonal. The notes at the start suggest it should be used in its entirety, meaning the readings are to be used as set – no space, therefore, for continuing Christmas or Epiphany readings, and the wording of the wider liturgy, including its propers during the Lord’s Supper, alludes to and includes sources that cover a much larger picture of the divine Covenant than the liturgical scripts offered elsewhere in MWB for Christmas & Epiphany (whether the Order for Holy Communion or resources offered in other sections). It seems to me that, as given, the Covenant service does not actually sit well in the Christmas and Epiphany-tide, nor in any particular season – rather it is best set outside of seasonal time, in the ordinary, not simply because it is in living out the Covenant in the ordinary that we enable it to be extraordinary, but because our joing into the Covenant is, in part, a reaction to the whole story, the whole incarnation, rather than simply a part of it – the Covenant is made possible and entered into because of birth, life, death and resurrection, because of all that happens between annunciation and ascension, because of the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. I dare to suggest that actually, ordinary time is the best time to remember of covenantal commitment, as an offering to God not just because of a birth but because of all that God has done for us in and through Jesus – and that means reminding ourselves of the whole story first.
Thank you, Roger, for a typically thoughtful and thought- provoking piece. I especially valued the sense of the covenant prayer echoing the Son’s covenant with the Father, so that it draws us into the very nature and action of the triune God. It reminded me that just before Christmas the Parliament choir recorded a piece commissioned in memory of Jo Cox: This Light Of Reason. It takes its words from a sermon by John Donne which invites us into a revealing and transforming solidarity with Christ, from his humble birth, through his sharing in exile, to his passion and death. Donne’s repeated phrase ‘if thou canst….’ is like a series of hammer blows – passionate, challenging, but ulmately reassuring. Here’s the URL for the text and score:
Click to access jo-cox-this-light-of-reason-score-1481558163.pdf