by Gill Newton.
“I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose.”
Covenant Prayer, Methodist Worship Book
Although some Methodist congregations celebrate their Covenant service at the beginning of the Connexional year in September, for many, this month of January, provides the opportunity for a renewal of our commitment. Having served in churches where both options have been explored, it has always struck me that, whilst any opportunity to renew our commitment is wonderful, there is something timely about holding this service at the beginning of the calendar year.
The commercial Christmas season with all its glitzy advertisements and tempting offers encourages us to focus on what we want and to spend more than we have in order to obtain it. So, it’s perhaps no bad thing, early in the New Year to have this opportunity to place things back in perspective and for us to be reminded of the sacrificial nature of our commitment as followers of Jesus. After all, it is the time of resolutions, so here’s the chance to include some spiritual resolution at the beginning of the New Year.
This Covenant Service is treasured and valued by many Methodists, coveted by many of our ecumenical colleagues. However, like me, you may have observed that many seem to consciously avoid this annual opportunity to renew commitment. Why? And what does this say to us about the nature, language, context and value of this service each year?
It was back in 1755 that John Wesley originally created a service which has evolved into the Covenant Service as we know it today. He based the words of the Covenant prayer, which is at the heart of the service, on words from the Puritan tradition which had been so important in the lives of his parents Samuel and Susanna. He included in his original covenant prayer phrases that we would recognise from our marriage service, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions ….” suggesting that Wesley saw this covenant relationship between God and his people as being like a marriage, an image reflected in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. (1)
Wesley seems to be suggesting that through this covenant relationship, we are, both individually and corporately, partners together with God in his mission in the world. The words of this prayer, in both its traditional and modern forms, offer us a clear description of what it might really mean for us to be disciples of Jesus. We could suggest that it offers a practical description of what Jesus was suggesting when he said, ““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (2) So, sharing in this prayer helps us to remember what living as Jesus calls us to live really looks like!
There is no doubt that this is demanding stuff, so perhaps people avoid the Covenant service for fear of failure? However, as I reflect upon the words of the covenant prayer in preparation for a Covenant service that I will lead this week I am reminded of the context in which Wesley developed this service. When he and the other early Methodists prayed this prayer, there would have been an expectation that they were all part of a class meeting or band. In that way they were supporting one another and holding one another to account for this challenging way of living and loving – a way of life that is surely only possible in a community where you know you are loved, supported and being upheld in prayer.
Research also suggests that the Covenant service was not some stand-alone event that came around once a year. A whole series of gatherings were held in the run up to the Covenant service so that through study, prayer and sermons, everyone could understand more fully what the Covenant was all about. Then after a day of prayer and fasting, those who chose to, would participate in the Covenant Service, but that certainly wasn’t the end of the matter for another year! From then on, everyone was encouraged to think about what the implications of having prayed that prayer might be in their own situation, and through their class meetings were given all the help and encouragement that they needed to sustain this way of life.
How much of that kind of nurture and support is really being offered in our churches today I wonder? Is the lack of gathering together regularly for support and accountability one of the reasons why so many people find this prayer so difficult to say? What difference might it make to our individual and corporate sense of identity and vocation if we really helped each other to live out this prayer?
The Covenant prayer is an extremely important part of our Methodist tradition. It helps us to know who we are and to whom we belong. It reminds us that being a Christian is a way of life which demands much of us, but only in response to the self-giving love of God in Christ. As we share in this prayer again this year, perhaps we could reflect not only on what living out the prayer might demand of us individually, but what it might demand of us as a church, if we are to really help one another to truly share in this covenant.
- Ephesians 5 v 21-33
- Luke 9 v 23