In the Ordinal of The United Methodist Church, we ask all candidates for ordination, commissioning, and recognition of orders the following question as part of what we call "The General Examination:
"Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church,
accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and
defending it against all doctrines contrary
to God’s Holy Word,
and committing yourself to be accountable
with those serving with you,
and to the bishop and those who are appointed
to supervise your ministry?"
Asking about order, doctrine and discipline may be expected parts of an ordination question about loyalty to the Church, but why is "liturgy" also in this list? And what does it mean to "accept its liturgy?"
A History Lesson: Article XXII and the Constitution of The United Methodist Church
The reason "liturgy" is on this list goes back to Article XXII of the Articles of Religion, part of the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church. That article locates the authority for setting the "rites and ceremonies" of "each particular church" squarely in the hands of those in it ("the common authority") who have "ordained and approved" it. In the original context of this article, in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England, it was the Crown with Canterbury (and later, parliament) that functioned as "the common authority" in these matters. For United Methodists, it is our General Conference.
Article XVI of the Constitution of the United Methodist Church states, "The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional." It goes on to name among those "distinctively connectional" matters, in subparagraph 6, "To provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship, subject to the limitations of the first and second Restrictive Rules." Those "limitations" mean that whatever ritual or hymnal is approved by General Conference must be compatible with and not contrary to our Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, and Wesley's Standard Sermons and Notes upon the New Testament.
Paragraph 1113.3 of the 2012 Book of Discipline further specifies what the hymnals and ritual of The United Methodist Church are and where they are to be found.
"The hymnals of The United Methodist Church are The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), Mil Voces para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista (1996), and Come, Let Us Worship: The Korean-English United Methodist Hymnal (2000). The ritual of the Church is that contained in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992), Mil Voces para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista (1996), and Come, Let Us Worship: The Korean-English United Methodist Hymnal (2000)"
Taken together with Article XXII, it is clear that General Conference, and General Conference alone, establishes the liturgy of The United Methodist Church. No other individual, agency, conference, or individual (including bishops and pastors!) has independent authority to alter or establish our ritual or hymnal.
In fact, Article XXII contains language that might be described as establishing attempts by anyone but General Conference to do so as the very first "chargeable offense" in our Church.
"Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by the common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, that others may fear to do the like, as one that offendeth against the common order of the church, and woundeth the consciences of weak brethren" (emphasis added).
The ritual of our church, then, according both to our doctrinal standards and our constitution, is established not by our pastors, nor by our congregations, nor even by our bishops, but solely and exclusively by General Conference and the entities it employs to establish and develop it (notably, GBOD, in para 1113.1, 2, 4, though even here it remains up to General Conference itself to approve any such revisions proposed). Based on the doctrinal standard cited, anyone openly and willingly breaking the ritual established by General Conference has committed a serious offense against the order of the Church itself.
That is why "accepting its... liturgy" appears in the same list as "order, doctrine and discipline" in the section of the General Examination addressing the loyalty of candidates for ordination, commissioning or recognition by The United Methodist Church. It is also why this same language appears in the paperwork that local pastors and "Other Denomination" pastors sign as a condition of being appointed to pastoral leadership in this Church. Our liturgy, established by our "common authority" (General Conference), is historically seen as just that essential to our commonlife as a Church.
"But what about the last line of Article XXII?"
Some readers may be surprised by the interpretation of the status of
United Methodist ritual I am offering in this post. Dr. William Abraham would say our ritual has "canonical status" among us, and this reading supports such a view. It may well be news
to some that our ritual is not merely a collection of resources, but
actually stands on a par, doctrinally and constitutionally, with the
order, doctrine and discipline of this Church. Others may feel this is
an unnecessarily constrained reading that, if accurate, is far too
And some might point to the end of Article XXII to make the case that,
indeed, our ritual established by General Conference is actually up for
grabs in every local setting, and that every local congregation or
ministry is authorized by this article to adapt, ignore, or even break
our established ritual at will.
Why? Because the last line of Article XXII says this: "Every particular
church may ordain, change, or abolish rites and ceremonies, so that all
things may be done to edification."
Doesn't that clearly mean that every congregation can do whatever they prefer in worship, so long as they feel it is edifying for them?
Well, actually, no.
At stake in this last line is the interpretation of "every particular church."
The Church of England in 1563 did not mean by this phrase that every "local congregation"
or "ministry" could alter "rites or ceremonies" at will. Indeed, it
could not have meant that. The Act of Uniformity (1559) required all clergy in
the Church of England to use the ritual provided in the Book of Common
Prayer verbatim, always and everywhere, with little or no tolerance for
variance of any kind. The source of our Article XXII, the Church of England's Article XXXIV, was making the case
that churches in various parts of the world had always and everywhere had a variety of different "traditions and ceremonies" (to quote the C of E version), and that they had also always and everywhere reserved the right
to alter their "traditions and ceremonies" through the channels of the
"common authority" they had established. A "particular church" (the C of E version adds "or national church") was a
church that had created some sort of "common authority" in a particular
time and place for governing its commonlife, including its ritual. In
that original context, then, the Church of England was simply affirming
that it, through its established "common authority" (essentially Crown plus Canterbury) was acting and could legitimately act to
establish or alter its ritual from time to time as the common authority determined such need may arise. This was no warrant for congregational or pastoral license. It was rather warrant for changes to be made from time to time by the "common authority."
If we fast forward to 1784 and Mr Wesley's condensed edition of these Articles
for the Methodists, we see the same pattern emerge. That first General
Conference functioned as the "common authority" for the new "particular
church" called "The Methodist Episcopal Church" and, among its acts, it affirmed Mr.
Wesley's "Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists in North
America" as the official ritual of the Church, along with his Articles of Religion as a doctrinal standard which thereby protected that adopted ritual as the ritual for the church. When it became clear the
new church would be unable to supply elders for every congregation on a
weekly basis, General Conference dramatically revised the ritual
in 1792, streamlining or removing much of the "service of the word" to make it more amenable to what would turn out to be primarily lay leadership, while preserving the communion ritual, baptismal ritual, and
ordinal almost entirely intact. It has been General Conference ever
since that has continued to be the body that establishes
and revises ritual (and official hymnals) in the successor churches leading up to
and including The United Methodist Church today.
In short, at the level of the Discipline, Constitution and Doctrinal Standards of this Church, as well as by ongoing General Conference action, we have understood, interpreted and consistently applied the
term "particular church" in exactly the same way it was used by the
Church of England in 1563, as a referent to the "common authority" of
the body as a whole (the denomination's chief legislative power), and
not as a referent to each pastor, bishop, local congregation or ministry setting.
"Accepting Its Liturgy"
So what does it mean for our commissioned, recognized or ordained leaders to be "accepting its liturgy" in practical terms?
For starters, it means the ritual provided by General Conference is not merely a set of resources from which one might pick and choose or adapt at will, or even ignore, but rather a precious gift entrusted to all of us in this Church by General Conference for regular use in all of our congregations and worshiping communities. Our recognized, commissioned and ordained leaders (and, by the way, our local pastors, too!) are to accept, that is, receive this gift, and use it faithfully as provided in the local settings to which they are appointed as spiritual leaders.
One of the great gifts of the ritual we are pledged to accept-- to receive and use as provided-- is its deep flexibility and adaptability. We are not always required, as were (and are!) our Anglican siblings, to use what is provided verbatim. Rather, the ritual we have provided openly invites contextual adaptation, improvisation and innovation at some points.
A prime example is the Basic Pattern of Worship. The pattern is Entrance, Word and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending Forth. (See The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, p. 2). The pattern itself is expected to be used all the time for Lord's Day worship. But how a congregation or worship planning team develops the elements within the four movements of the Basic Pattern is almost entirely up to the local congregation or team. Even though the very next page (p. 3) provides a more detailed order of service using the Basic Pattern, we read there, "This order... is a guide for those who plan worship, not an order to be followed by the congregation" (p. 3). And, as The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) notes, "Acts of worship that reflect racial, ethnic, regional and local customs and heritages may [also] be used appropriately throughout this order" (p. 15).
So there we have it-- a clear pattern for our weekly Sunday ritual with great flexibility within the each movement of it.
Another example of is Word and Table III (The United Methodist Hymnal, 1989, pp. 15-16). While "This Holy Mystery," our General Conference approved and re-affirmed teaching document on Holy Communion, is clear that "Bishops, pastors, and congregations are expected to use the services of Word and Table in the official United Methodist hymnals and books of worship" (p. 23), this provision includes the use of Word and Table III, a very flexible order indeed. Here, few words are specifically "scripted" for verbatim use by the authorized presider. Instead, rubrics listed in the hymnal (in red italic typeface) provide guidance for the kinds of words the presider should be praying at each point of the prayer, while giving the congregation a more specific "script" they can easily follow and use, words they would have grown accustomed to over time if they had used Word and Table I or II on other occasions. The only absolute guidance about specific words appears on p. 16, where it is noted "The institution of the Lord's Supper is recalled." In other words, whatever is prayed here by the presider needs to include at least a paraphrase of the words of our Savior about the bread and cup (the Verba, to use the technical term).
A somewhat more scripted example is in our Services of the Baptismal Covenant. Here, it is essential to use the vows provided verbatim-- for baptism proper, as well as for reception into The United Methodist Church and the local congregation-- as these vows are the basis of both baptized and professing membership in our Church (See 2008 Book of Discipline, para's. 217 and 225, Judicial Council decision 811 and the revision of Article IV of the Constitution that followed that and currently appears). Much of the language of this service is also "as is," at least in terms of the kinds of things each part of the liturgy does. Still, we see in the rubrics that we are also given some flexibility about how parts of the service may be arranged (the Thanksgiving over the Water may precede the Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith), as well as multiple options for actions immediately after baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith.
At the far end of the "flexibility spectrum" in our ritual is our ordinal. Here, since services of ordination, recognition and commissioning are services of the whole global church, the Discipline requires that "texts and rubrics shall be used in the form approved by the General Conference" (emphasis added, Book of Discipline 2008, Para. 415.6). Even here, however, flexibility is offered in the form of multiple options for scriptures, hymns, and other acts of worship that may be incorporated in the service, while its order, texts and rubrics are expected to be used exactly as provided.
So, how may we accept our liturgy and adapt it at the same time?
The way for pastors and other worship planners to discern what is adaptable and what is not is to pay careful attention not only to the words in "regular" print in our official ritual resources, but just as much or more to the guidelines (rubrics is the technical term) in red italic both in The United Methodist Hymnal and, in more extensive form, in The United Methodist Book of Worship. It is these rubrics in our official ritual that provide both the authorization for adaptation in particular instances and the guidelines for making such adaptations.
It is also important to note that the rubrics generally (with some notable exceptions) refer far more to the kind of ritual action intended, rather than to specific words to be used to help embody those actions. That our rubrics give us so much clarity and flexibility at once, form with freedom, enables us to adapt our ritual faithfully in ways that allow us to make it both fully indigenous and fully recognizable to other United Methodists and other Christians as being in continuity with our own doctrine and the historic faith of the ecumenical Church.
It is this same "form with freedom" along with Disciplinary authorization (see Book of Discipline 2012, Para 1113.1-2) that also enables GBOD to work with indigenous communities around the globe and in the US to form new liturgical texts that do what our established ritual does in ways that are at once identifiably United Methodist and authentic expressions of the life and experience of those indigenous communities. Some of the fruits of this work can be seen in the Open Source Liturgy Project section of the GBOD website. Many of these new texts, developed by indigenous communities themselves with support from GBOD staff, were used in our daily services of Holy Communion at General Conference 2012, including the Native American Celebration of Holy Communion on the day of our Act of Repentance to Indigenous Peoples. While multiple elements of this service are very different in wording from those in our official books, all of the actions present in our official ritual are also present here.
The Freedom of Form
And so, we are all invited to join our recognized, commissioned, ordained or appointed clergy leaders in offering ourselves to God in worship through the United Methodist church, "accepting its... liturgy."
We are all invited to receive what our General Conference has given us, and what it has authorized GBOD to continue to offer, as a gift to be faithfully used and appropriately adapted wherever we may be.
And in receiving our liturgy as a gift, we are invited to experience the freedom that this "gift of form" offers us.
Improvisation and creativity never happen in a vacuum, but always in relationship to mastery of the basic forms of any discipline. It is form that gives improvisation its possibility, power and depth. It is because we know the basic tune that we are then able to "play" with it and to create new tunes faithfully inspired by what came before. Even in "riffing," we riff off of something that is already well-known, a gift already given and widely received. Whether the musical genre is baroque "theme and variations," or classical symphony or sonata, or Karen folk song from Thailand, or the latest, most innovative Afro-Cuban jazz-fusion, the basic form of the composition is almost always the introduction of a theme (often a familiar one, or one simple enough to become familiar quickly), then a period of riffs or variations on the theme or related or contrasting subthemes, culminating in a restatement of the original theme. It is the underlying form and the familiarity of the received theme that frees up composers to delight, disturb, inspire or challenge their audiences to experience that which has been familiar in multiple new ways. Likewise, in worship, it is the deep practice of given and received familiar forms that frees up a congregation to offer itself fully to God in ever new and faithful ways.
And so it is in truly accepting our liturgy that we as worshiping communities are set free to "Sing to the Lord a new song."
How will you help your worshiping community live into the freedom that "accepting our liturgy" can offer them?