Wesley on Lent: "At Present Answering No Valuable End"

Cover of The Sunday Service,
ed. James White.
Today millions of Christians around the world have begun a season marked by a more intense time of fasting, prayer, searching the scriptures, participating in public worship, and personal and group reflection, confession of sin, and penitence.

United Methodists are among these millions.

But it was not always so for Methodists, at least not in America.

John Wesley, who gave American Methodists their first prayer book and ritual, chose to leave Lent out of the book.

He didn't alter the readings for the season from the Book of Common Prayer. He didn't even alter the prayers (collects) intended for each Sunday. But he did change what the Sundays were called. The First Sunday in Lent was called "The Eleventh Sunday after Christmas." "Sundays after Christmas" continued until what his fellow Anglicans then and most of us now would now call the fifth Sunday in Lent, followed by the "Sunday next before Easter," Good Friday, and then Easter Day. Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were deleted as well.

An obvious question is, "Why?"

John Wesley never gave a complete explanation for all of his editorial changes of the Book of Common Prayer. But in his introduction to the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, he did give a general explanation that may apply. "Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end."

We are left to conjecture what valuable end Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought not to answer.

So let me try.

Keep in mind the core practices of early Methodists.

The third General Rule called all Methodist both to practice and commend others to practice "abstinence or fasting" on a regular, ongoing basis.

Those Methodists who were part of "bands" were meeting to confess their sins to each and pray for one other every week, week in and week out.

Love feasts, full of testimonies of the love of God shed abroad in the hearts of people and changing their lives, were a regular staple of the Society meetings year round.

Formation in living out the vow of baptism was happening every week in the "trial bands" and class meetings in which all Methodists (or aspiring Methodists) were expected to participate. And special watch nights and covenant renewal ceremonies throughout the year gathered hundreds of Methodists in a time of intense prayer, self-examination and re-dedication to live out the baptismal covenant.

In short, nearly everything that Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought to do or promote was in fact being accomplished by other means by Methodists on a much more regular and frequent basis, not as a bracketed off "special time" of 40 or so days in the year, but deeply woven into the fabric of their lives throughout the whole year.

So why would Lent-- or Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday-- be needed at all, when what these times were supposed to promote was being accomplished better and more frequently by other means already in active use by Methodists at the time?

And if Wesley thought they "at present" answered "no valuable end," why would we return to them now?

Perhaps the key phrase is "at present."

And perhaps we might first apply that key phrase back to the earliest Methodists. Most of them had been Anglican, after all. So in point of fact, until 1784, most Methodists never had to rely solely on their own systems for accomplishing what Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were designed to do. Their own third General Rule also required them to attend public worship, and for most of them that was in Anglican parishes, where Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were also celebrated, year after year.

So perhaps John Wesley over-estimated the value and staying power of the Methodist practices apart from the mutual reinforcement they may have received because most early Methodists were also keeping Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday with their fellow Anglicans. Perhaps the Methodist baby still needed a bit more of that Anglican ritual bath water to stay on the path toward entire holiness.

At present, there are no Methodist Societies in the US. Class meetings hardly exist at all, or are confused with bands, and so the very idea of class meetings when presented that way tends to scare people off. Few of the class meetings (so called) that do exist actually continue in the practices of the early Methodist class meetings. (Most "small groups" are not class meetings!). Love Feasts now are typically an antiquarian exercise, or a strange replacement for Holy Communion, not something the local Methodist society (which no longer exists) needs to do from time to time to give expression to the testimonies of transforming love. And a Covenant Renewal service has hardly a chance to accomplish much more than stir up religious fervor for an evening without a community such as a class meeting or the society that actively helps people take that stirred up fervor and channel it into ongoing change.

At present, then, we live in a United Methodist context generally devoid of the complementary practices that accomplished everything Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were created for. 

So at present, perhaps we United Methodists may find ourselves actually needing Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday again so the valuable ends they were created for have some way of taking root in our lives.

And perhaps, at present, we may also become more diligent about developing such complementary practices, as did our early Methodist forebears, that, if not making Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday answer "no valuable end," will at least similarly and more richly extend the valuable ends of these days and seasons into daily discipleship and growth in holiness of heart and life.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Ash Wednesday, 2014