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.