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Table Etiquette: Means and Manners

If Miss Manners were asked to give advice about the proper way for John Wesley's spiritual descendants to gather at the Lord's table, she would probably throw up her hands in frustration. Because what she would find in doing her research is that contemporary Methodists and Wesleyans of all denominations interpret the Supper in a variety of ways, some even contradictory, and that each interpretation and its related practice is claimed to represent the authentic "Wesleyan tradition." And when she examined the "Wesleyan tradition" in order to determine the definitive method, she would find that much contemporary thinking and practice has little connection to what Wesley said on the matter of the Lord's Supper or what Methodists did in John Wesley's day. The only clear linkage she might see is that Methodists of the past and of the present both "do this remembrance," though even the term "remembrance" often means different things.

To make some sense out of the current potpourri of interpretations, I propose now to "go back to Wesley" to see what he had to say about two matters in regard to the Lord's Supper: as it is a means of grace and as it is a converting ordinance. These two aspects of "means and manners" are not unrelated, as we shall see.

The Means of Grace

Why do we come to the Lord's Supper? To remember what Jesus did so long ago? Because Jesus said we should share this meal? Certainly, but is there more to it than these things? Do we receive anything besides a piece of bread and a sip of the fruit of the vine or a warm feeling on occasion?

If you were to look today at one of the Disciplines of a Wesleyan or Methodist denomination, you would think not — unless you ventured into the section on the Articles of Religion. In these Articles, which replicate or adapt John Wesley's revision of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles, you would see the Supper identified as a "means of grace." But rarely do you find the phrase "means of grace" elsewhere in the Discipline. It is certainly not elsewhere in the Discipline of my own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Surprisingly to me, the same is true of the current Free Methodist Discipline, though the phrase was present in the section on membership covenant in Disciplines from the 1970s. What did Wesley mean by the phrase "means of grace"?

Early in 1743, Wesley issued "General Rules" to serve as the basic discipline for the young Methodist movement and its small group organization in London, Bristol, Kingswood, and Newcastle upon Tyne. Though the Rules were quite brief, they were demanding. Persons who expected to remain in good standing within the Methodist societies were to give evidence of their desire for salvation by conforming to three principles "taught by God": doing no harm and avoiding evil; doing good; and attending upon all the ordinances of God.1 Under this third principle, the Rules mention six ordinances by name:

The public worship of God;
The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded;
The Supper of the Lord;
Family and private prayer;
Searching the Scriptures; and
Fasting, or abstinence.

Two years later in 1745, at a meeting of Methodist leaders in Bristol, these ordinances were identified as the "general means which God hath ordained for our receiving his sanctifying grace."2 By the practice of these divinely instituted ordinances or means of grace, Methodists, like all real Christians, were to be Christians "not in name only, but in heart and in life."3

The phrase "means of grace" was not original to John Wesley. Wesley acknowledges his indebtedness to older and wider church usage in a sermon entitled "The Means of Grace."4 Herein he gives a basic definition of "means of grace":

By "means of grace" I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end — to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.
I use this expression, "means of grace," because I know none better, and because it has been generally used in the Christian church for many ages: in particular by our own church [here he means the Church of England], which directs us to bless God both for the "means of grace and hope of glory"; and teaches us that a sacrament is "an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same." (II.1)

By borrowing phrases from official documents of the Church of England for his definition, Wesley indicates that he is staying within the Anglican stream of thought. The first phrase comes from the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer,5 and taken in the wider context of the prayer, it provides for Wesley a theological and doxological locus for developing his understanding of the means of grace. The prayer reads, in part:

We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days.

Thus the means of grace are given out of the abundant love of God the Father thanks to the redemptive work of Christ, and applied by the Spirit to transform the life of a receptive person into one of praise, service, and holy living. Obviously, then, the two Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are examples of means of grace. Possibly for this reason, Wesley chose as the other Anglican proof text — that which the Church teaches — the Church's statement on the sacraments that is found in the Catechism. (The Catechism was the document drawn up by the Church to prepare the baptized for confirmation.) In reply to a general question about sacraments, the response in the Catechism is that they are "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof."6 Why does Wesley not include baptism on his list of means of grace instituted by God? Because whereas the other "means" on the list can be repeated, baptism is a one-time event.

Wesley says that by "means of grace" he understands "outward signs, words, or actions, [that are] ordained of God." God uses things verifiable by the human senses to serve as conduits of God's grace and blessings. God, the creator of all that is, employs creation to suit the design of salvation. But God is not limited to imparting grace only by these means. Wesley indicates that "God is above all means" (II.3; V.4); God can convey grace when and where God sees fit. The means of grace, however, are the "ordinary" channels for God's grace. One can be confident that because God's word is true, God's grace will be present.

Apart from the working of God, these outward signs, words, or actions have no power. The means are not grace themselves or a substitute for grace; neither are they efficacious separate from God's grace. God alone is the giver of every good gift and the author of all grace, says Wesley quoting James 1:17 (II.3). Therefore, to place an emphasis on the sign without seeking and receiving God's heart-renewing power or to see their use as meritorious independent of Christ's meritorious sacrifice is to mistake the means for the end — it is to focus wrongly on the opus operatum, on the outward work done (II.4-6; V.4). There is no merit in practicing the means of grace without an eye to a deeper trust in the mercy and love of God. Those who practice the means without due attention to their conveyance of grace or those who mistakenly regard the means as grace in effect abuse God's gift. Those of us who yawn through worship services or Bible studies ought to heed Wesley's words. We should not "rest content in the form of godliness without the power," says Wesley citing 2 Timothy 3:5 (II.5). We should go to worship and attend Bible studies expecting what God will give to us.

Wesley indicates in his definition that the means of grace are the channels whereby God conveys preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace — whatever kind of grace the individual needs to receive. Preventing or prevenient grace is given that makes it possible for a person to seek God and refrain from sin despite his or her enslavement to original sin. Only by an intentional rejection of this grace, claims Wesley, may it be lost. Justifying grace, procured by the blood of Christ, provides the assurance that sins are forgiven. Sanctifying grace equips a person to continue to be dead to sin and alive to God; to further conform to the image of God in which each person is made. All these saving graces move a person toward perfection which is the culmination, as Wesley describes it, of the via salutis or God's way of salvation. And until entire sanctification or full salvation from all sin, grace upon grace is bountifully given through participation in the means of grace. Thus for those who would think that God may be absent or remote, the gift of the means of grace should be ample evidence that "God is with us."

One of Wesley's motivations for writing his sermon on the "Means of Grace" was that many Methodists and Moravians who were part of London's Fetter Lane Society in 1739 and 1740 were abstaining from the means.7 Under the influence of the German Moravian Philip Henry Molther, persons in the society claimed that they should not partake of the means of grace — they needed to remain "quiet" and wait upon the Lord — until such a time as they had full assurance of faith, or, in the parlance of the time, "conversion." Persons who already had full assurance were also abstaining since they did not believe themselves obligated to use means of grace that were neither mandated in Scripture nor deemed necessary. Wesley countered Molther's position by arguing that those persons with some degree of repentance and faith — even a small amount — should participate in the means of grace even if they did not yet know full assurance. Weak faith was still faith. Precisely because the means of grace can supply various types of grace — preventing, justifying, sanctifying — even a person with full assurance should participate. Abstinence from the means of grace not only denied a person the gift of grace, it in effect called into question God's generosity and love. Wesley gave this advice in his sermon on the "Nature of Enthusiasm":

Beware of imagining you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it. God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason to think he will. Therefore constantly and carefully use all these means which he has appointed to be the ordinary channels of his grace. Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends as conducive (through the free love of God in Christ) either to the obtaining or increasing any of the gifts of God. Thus expect a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which the world always did, and always will, call enthusiasm; but which to all who are saved from real enthusiasm — from merely nominal Christianity — is the wisdom of God and the power of God, the glorious image of the Most High, righteousness and peace, a fountain of living water, springing up into everlasting life."8

Wesley consistently urged the Methodist people regularly to participate in the means of grace, and this advice was codified in the Methodist Minutes during Wesley's lifetime. What became known as the Large Minutes includes a virtual checklist in order to examine whether the Methodist people were practicing the means of grace: Do you use private prayer every morning and evening? Have you family prayer? Do you constantly read the Scriptures at some part of every day? Do you meditate upon them at set times? Have you a New Testament always about you? Do you attend the Lord's Supper at every opportunity? How do you fast every Friday?9 Such scrupulosity was solely intended toward spiritual growth. Indeed, the Methodist small group bands and classes helped to encourage use of the means. But in general, Methodists in Wesley's day and in subsequent generations have been lax in their observance of the various means — a good look at the Disciplines down to the present certainly indicates such is the case. Thus, as I already mentioned, most Methodist and Wesleyan denominations today preserve the phrase only in their historic doctrinal texts. The Covenant of membership as articulated in the 1999 Free Methodist Church Discipline encourages the active practice of the means though not identifying them as such. In confessing the reverence and worship of God, members state: "We commit ourselves to cultivate habits of Christian devotion, submitting to mutual accountability, practicing private and corporate prayer, studying the Scriptures, attending public worship, and partaking of Holy Communion." It is unfortunate (and I say this as a UM whose own denomination doesn't even use the phrase outside of the historic texts) that the means here are designated simply as "habits of Christian devotion" and not associated explicitly with the grace that God gives through them.

How did "means of grace" become simply "holy habits"? I think there are several explanations that cannot be fully explored here. The decline of Methodist systems of accountability — particularly the meetings of classes — meant that there were no longer mechanisms in place to encourage and enforce the practice of the means of grace. Urbanization, and increases in the number of social diversions such as those gained through developments in transportation and media technology, each played their part in distracting Methodists. Methodist thinking about the means also changed: advances in the sciences helped to promote skepticism since there was no hard, physical evidence to substantiate that the means could convey what they were reputed to transmit. This skepticism was sometimes applied to the Lord's Supper, which led to questions whether the reception of the Supper, in fact, did anything. To address those questions, let us now go back to the Wesleys to see how they viewed the Lord's Supper as a means of grace.

The Lord's Supper as a Means of Grace

Two different hymns in the Wesleys' Hymns on the Lord's Supper (1745)10 identify the Supper as one among the means of grace and make a significant claim. A single stanza of one hymn reads:

The prayer, the fast, the word conveys,
When mix'd with faith, Thy life to me;
In all the channels of Thy grace
I still have fellowship with Thee:
But chiefly here my soul is fed
With fulness of immortal bread. (#54, st. 4)

The other hymn conveys a similar sense and identifies the various kinds of grace available:

Glory to Him who freely spent
His blood, that we might live,
And through this choicest instrument
Doth all His blessings give.

Fasting He doth, and hearing bless,
And prayer can much avail,
Good vessels all to draw the grace
Out of salvation's well.

But none, like this mysterious rite
Which dying mercy gave,
Can draw forth all His promised might
And all His will to save.

This is the richest legacy
Thou hast on man bestow'd:
Here chiefly, Lord, we feed on Thee,
And drink Thy precious blood.

Here all Thy blessings we receive,
Here all Thy gifts are given,
To those that would in Thee believe,
Pardon, grace, and heaven.

Thus may we still in Thee be blest,
Till all from earth remove,
And share with Thee the marriage feast,
And drink the wine above. (#42)

In these two hymns, the Supper is identified as chief among the means of grace, precisely because it is also a sacrament explicitly mandated by Christ himself. So it is not surprising that an entire section in the Hymns on the Lord's Supper is devoted to the sacrament as a sign and means of grace: out of the 166 hymns of the collection divided into six sections, 65 fall under this category.

Herein it is clear that the bread and wine are not bare or empty signs; they are not simply tokens by which we remember the Jesus of long ago. These are not, as some would say, "mere symbols." They are, in the true sense of symbols, dynamic and powerful. As means of grace, they convey what they signify. They are not signa repraesentativa, but rather signa exhibitiva: they are not just reminders of God's grace, but they also convey God's grace. They are, to quote a phrase in another of the hymns, "sacred, true and effectual" (#28, st. 2). In his sermon on the means of grace, Wesley says,

And that this is also an ordinary stated means of receiving the grace of God is evident from those words of the Apostle which occur in the preceding chapter: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (or communication) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" [1 Cor. 10:16] Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us? Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. (III.12)

The same emphasis on instrumentality is found in another hymn:

Draw near, ye blood-besprinkled race,
And take what God vouchsafes to give;
The outward sign of inward grace,
Ordain'd by Christ himself, receive:
The sign transmits the signified,
The grace is by the means applied.

Sure pledges of His dying love,
Receive the sacramental meat,
And feel the virtue from above,
The mystic flesh of Jesus eat,
Drink with the wine His healing blood,
And feast on th'Incarnate God.

And then the third stanza elaborates to say that it is by faith that the grace is received.

Gross misconceit be far away!
Through faith we on His body feed;
Faith only doth the Spirit convey,
And fills our souls with living bread,
Th'effects of Jesus' death imparts,
And pours His blood into our hearts. (#71)

Let us be clear: this language of effectiveness is not the language of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is simply one method of explaining the sacrament's effectiveness — and the presence of Christ. John Wesley and his brother Charles carefully steered away from philosophical explanations while at the same time refuting transubstantiation. This hymn illustrates their position:

O the depth of love Divine,
Th' unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread His flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits His blood,
Fills His faithful people's hearts
With all the life of God!

Let the wisest mortal show
How we the grace receive,
Feeble elements bestow
A power not theirs to give,
Who explains the wondrous way,
How through these the virtue came?
These the virtue did convey,
Yet still remain the same.

How can heavenly spirits rise,
By earthly matter fed,
Drink herewith Divine supplies,
And eat immortal bread?
Ask the Father's Wisdom how;
Him that did the means ordain!
Angels round our altars bow
To search it out in vain.

Sure and real is the grace,
The manner be unknown;
Only meet us in Thy ways,
And perfect us in one.
Let us taste the heavenly powers;
Lord, we ask for nothing more:
Thine to bless, 'tis only ours
To wonder and adore. (#57)

Wesley regarded participation in the Lord's Supper to be both an obligation and opportunity. In his sermon on "The Duty of Constant Communion,"11 he put these two points side by side in identifying the reasons why Christians should frequent the table and the excuses (even the ones used today!) that are often given for absence. It is the duty of Christians to receive the sacrament, said Wesley, because Christ specifically commanded that we "do this." But the Christian should also receive as often as he or she can because the benefits are so great: namely, "the forgiveness of our past sins, and the present strengthening and refreshing of our souls" (I.1-2). It is precisely because the means of grace do something that their reception is so important for Christian life and growth. For this reason, among others, John Wesley in 1784 advised the ordained Elders of the newly created Methodist Episcopal Church "to administer the supper of the Lord on every Lord's day."12 And to those who claimed that they refrained from partaking of the Supper because they were unworthy, Wesley replied: none are worthy to "gather up the crumbs"; but one should not risk further disobedience, on the one hand, by ignoring Christ's explicit command to receive, and on the other, by claiming in effect that Christ's mercy is not sufficient (II.7-10). Nevertheless, said Wesley, all persons are to review both their heart and their motive before coming to the table.

Thus, from John Wesley's perspective, we do receive something at the Supper, no matter where we are in our spiritual journey, as long as we come with some modicum of faith. That brings us to the next matter often debated: the Supper as a converting ordinance.

A Converting Ordinance

It is remarkable that contemporary Methodists draw so much attention to Wesley's phrase "converting ordinance," and put so little emphasis on the instituted means of grace, when Wesley himself spoke numerous times on the "means" and very rarely on the "converting ordinance." Because of Wesley's use of the phrase "converting ordinance," some Methodists have taken that as permission to invite all and sundry to receive communion. But is that what Wesley intended?

As was true with the term "means of grace," Wesley did not invent the phrase "converting ordinance." It is found, for example, in 17th century Anglican disputes with Presbyterians and Independents who limited reception of the Supper to those baptized persons who had full assurance of faith and gave evidence of having the fruits of the Spirit. Anglican writers argued that the grace received while partaking of the Supper could bring the unconverted to full assurance of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence the sacrament could be a converting ordinance as well as one that confirmed deeper faith. For example, John Cheyney's words from 1680 are strikingly similar to what Wesley would say almost sixty years later:

Who can tell but that as I am waiting upon God in the use of his own appointed means, sighing forth my soul for converting grace, it may please God to convert me, or to add some further degrees of common preparatory grace to that I have already, and carry it on to sound and perfect conversion in his own time.13

Note that in Cheyney's context — like the situation previously described at Fetter Lane with the dispute between Wesley and Molther — the word "unconverted" refers to those persons baptized as infants who have not yet experienced full assurance. It does not refer to those who stand totally outside the Church and who have no faith at all.14 Wesley used the term "converting ordinance" specifically in the Fetter Lane dispute over the means of grace, and his use of the term continued in much the same way the argument of certain Anglicans from the previous century.

It is not surprising that Wesley should take the position that the Supper can be a converting ordinance for those who have not "received the Holy Spirit" as well as be a confirming ordinance for the assured. His own mother, when receiving the sacrament a few years before her death, "knew God for Christ's sake had forgiven all [her] sins."15 This significant event was put into verse by Charles Wesley and eventually engraved on their mother's tombstone: "The Father then revealed his Son,/Him in the broken bread made known./She knew and felt her sins forgiven,/And found the earnest of her heaven."16 In addition to observing the experience of his mother and others, Wesley also knew from his reading of Scripture that the unconverted — also designated "unbelievers" — could receive the sacrament. The disciples themselves partook at the institution of the Lord's Supper, yet by Wesley's definition they were unbelievers since they had not received the power of the Spirit that would for the first time be given at Pentecost.17 Likewise, Wesley could also claim Cornelius to be an unbeliever (Acts 10:4).18 Believers — altogether Christians and not almost Christians — are for Wesley those who have the fruits of the Spirit of Christ.19

Essential to Wesley's argument about the converting power of the Lord's Supper (as with the reception of the other means of grace) was his recognition of degrees of faith. Faith needed to be present in order to receive and appropriate grace, but it might only be miniscule, like a seed. In a 1755 letter, Wesley noted "that a man who is not assured that his sins are forgiven may yet have a kind or degree of faith which distinguishes him not only from a devil, but from an heathen; and on which I may admit him to the Lord's Supper."20 It is the desire to receive what God pleases to give and a sense of helplessness before God that properly admit a person to the table.21 For this reason, Methodists were expected to give testimony of their spiritual state — and receive a ticket or token as proof of having done so — before receiving the sacrament. Certainly, persons were denied admission.22 Even so, Scots Presbyterians and others perceived that Wesley and the Methodists were lax in their discipline by allowing "all promiscuously to come to the Lord's table."23

In Wesley's view, as long as a person had faith he or she was welcome at the table. But did the person need to be baptized? The question would not have been asked in Wesley's day: he himself observed that "the people of England, generally speaking, have been christened or baptized."24 As a good Anglican priest, he probably assumed a person was already baptized unless a Baptist, a Quaker, or a yet unbaptized Dissenter — and there are plenty of examples in Wesley's Journal of his baptizing persons of those former affiliations. He expected that every person who had the opportunity should be baptized since he regarded it as a means for salvation, an act of obedience to Christ, and an obligation for admission into the Church and thus membership in the body of Christ.25 And he noted that in the early church those who were baptized received communion daily.26 Nowhere does he mention that he ever gave communion to an unbaptized person. But it is likely that he gave communion to those who had not received confirmation — which would have been a departure (though not an unusual one) from official Anglican practice.

Wesley believed that the rite of confirmation was not substantiated either in Scripture or in the practice of the early church. He later would not include it in his revision of the Prayer Book. Wesley instead regarded baptism as sufficient for church membership and admission to communion. Yet Wesley kept the essence of confirmation as presented in the final question of the Church of England's Catechism:

Question: What is required of them who come to the Lord's Supper?
Answer: To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life, have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death, and be in charity with all men.
27

How did he do this? First, by reliance upon the invitation in the communion rite, which is a virtual restatement of the Catechism's final question:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; draw near with faith ....

And second, as has already been mentioned, by setting up mechanisms for spiritual examination on the content of the invitation within the Methodist bands, classes, and societies. Being able to answer the final question of the Catechism — and the invitation to the table — presupposed baptism, with its act of repentance, and a current state of repentance. For this reason, Wesley was inclined to admit to the table those young children who, upon examination, could honestly answer positively the requisite conditions.

Having a sense of one's spiritual state prior to reception of the Supper was key for Wesley. For those baptized as infants — who had not with their own lips repented at their baptism — honest confession of sin prior to communion both claimed and renewed the vows that had been promised earlier.

Wesley never intended that all and sundry would be invited to the table. Why then have some contemporary Methodists and Wesleyans taken this position? I think there are several reasons that I will mention briefly here.

First, with the revival of interest in the writings of John Wesley at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was rediscovered that Wesley spoke of communion as a converting ordinance. The term was rarely used in Methodist literature prior to the 20th century. When used after that time, the phrase was taken up generally without relating it precisely to the original context of its use: the controversy with Molther on the means of grace and "stillness." In addition, by the time of this rediscovery, the language of evangelism had changed. "Unconverted" or "unbeliever" generally no longer referred principally to the "unassured of faith," but to those altogether without religion. Different conclusions were reached when Wesley's writings were read without an eye to their original context and time period. The converting ordinance was thus reinterpreted to mean a remedy for those totally without faith. Compounding this was a shift from Wesley's understanding of preventing or prevenient grace. In his theology of prevenient grace, Wesley affirmed God's desire for universal salvation but also humanity's original guilt. Some later interpreters would pay less attention to human sinfulness in favor of a more optimistic view of the human condition and the human will. Thus an acknowledgment of sin or even of God's grace was not seen by some Methodists as requisite before reception of communion.

Second, we've already drawn attention to the fact that over the generations, Methodist and Wesleyan denominations reduced the number of references to the means of grace found in their Disciplines. The one place where the phrase tended to be retained was in relation to the Lord's Supper, mostly because of the statement on the sacraments present in Wesley's Articles of Religion. The other means — reading, hearing and meditating upon Scripture, public worship, prayer, fasting, Christian conference — remained important activities, but were increasingly seen to be in a different category from the Supper. The demeaning of the other classic means of grace thus cast a greater burden on the Supper to be the means of grace.

Third, the communion rite that Wesley gave to the Methodist people included the invitation to the table that, as we have seen, parallels material in the Catechism and carries strong baptismal references. But stripped away from the Prayer Book and its supporting canons, the invitation's baptismal connection was lost in many Wesleyan denominations. Efforts during the mid-nineteenth century to establish a disciplinary rule delineating baptism as a precondition for communion failed in all of the larger Methodist denominations. Why? Primarily because Methodists, in polemical debates with the Baptists at that time, were reluctant to concede the Baptist position of either the absolute necessity of baptism prior to communion or the validity of a restricted, "close" communion. Baptists insisted that only those who had been immersed or were of a specific fellowship could receive, and Methodists did not want to be regarded as so exclusive. Thus the invitation to communion and its call to repentance came to speak to the present state of heart and not to any prior sacramental commitment. Related to this was a decline in a theology of baptismal regeneration in favor of evangelical conversion, but that is another story.

Fourth, the twentieth century was marked from its beginning by a theological liberalism by which "Christian cordiality" and "Christian hospitality" in some quarters came to refer to an indiscriminate admission to the table. Coupled with this were concerns, from the developing field of psychology, about the damage rendered to people by excluding them from an activity of the rest of the assembly and from limiting their access to the "altar rail" — the customary place of prayer, repentance, and surrender.

Fifth and finally must be named the panic of the Methodist denominations regarding their perceived (and actual) institutional decline. John Bowmer, in identifying the "open table" as a peculiar development of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Methodism, commented that the practice "belongs to a Methodism which had become unsure of itself and its doctrines, in which former disciplines were breaking down, and where there was developing an anxiety to get people in 'with no strings attached.'"28

Wesleyan Worship — Today?

Have Methodists today so departed from the theology and practices espoused by John Wesley that to say they engage in Wesleyan worship is a misnomer? I don't think so. Miss Manners's frustrations aside, I believe that Methodists today strive on balance to worship in a manner that they believe is consonant with Wesley's models even though it may look different in different places. That, in fact, is a position consistent with Wesley: flexibility, but also dependence on a standard. Methodists like to claim to be part of the tradition of the Wesleys, though sometimes without truly understanding what it is. And perhaps that is part of the problem: we have not done our homework; or we have chosen not to do our homework and instead make Wesley the proof text for our own wishes. Certainly Methodists have invited the unbaptized to the communion table, but they cannot justify it on the basis of Wesley's understanding of the converting ordinance.

Investigation of Wesley's theology and practices related to worship is not the road to nostalgia, but it is, in my opinion, the road to better, and more faithful, worship. Wesley's emphasis on preaching and teaching the word of God charges us to look seriously at the words we use in worship. Our words may reinforce the narcissism that is rampant in our culture; or our words may be those that praise God and form us in the Christian faith. And because worship is not only a gift from God to us, but is also a means of grace, Wesley reminds us that we should come honestly and expectantly: acknowledging our need of God and anticipating the grace that God has promised. Those who hunger will always be satisfied, but perhaps in ways not immediately perceptible.

Wesley observed that there are many means of grace; that the God who desires our salvation has given us many opportunities to receive the gifts that are offered. Why have Methodists chosen to disregard them? I would hope that Methodists (and others) would begin to look at all the instituted means with new eyes. And particularly so the Lord's Supper, where not only we receive the grace to supply our need, but we meet the Saviour face to face through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I close now with a stanza from one of the Hymns on the Lord's Supper, which I think speaks to the dedication and commitment that arise from our worship of God and are marks of our ongoing spiritual journey:

Take my soul and body's powers,
Take my memory, mind, and will,
All my goods, and all my hours,
All I know, and all I feel,
All I think, and speak, and do;
Take my heart — but make it new. (#155, st. 4)


1"The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies," in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 9, ed. Rubert E. Davies (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989) 73. Hereafter, Works.
2Question 9, Conversation II, "Minutes of Some Late Conversations," in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 8 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978) 286. Hereafter, The Works of John Wesley[J].
3"The Character of a Methodist," para. 17, Works, 9:41.
4John Wesley, "The Means of Grace," in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 1, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984) 378-97.
5Cited from F. E. Brightman, The English Rite, 2d ed. rev., 2 vols. (London: Rivingtons, 1921) 1:195.
6Ibid., 2:787.
7See John Wesley, Journal entries for November 1-7, 1739 and June 22-28, 1740, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990) 119-20; 154-58; and "An Answer to the Rev. Mr. Church's Remarks on the Rev. Mr. John Wesley's Last Journal," Works, 9:82-84.
8John Wesley, "The Nature of Enthusiasm," in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985) 59-60.
9Question 48, "Large Minutes," The Works of John Wesley [J], 8:322-23.
10John Wesley and Charles Wesley, Hymns on the Lord's Supper (Bristol: Printed by Felix Farley, 1745).
11John Wesley, "The Duty of Constant Communion," in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 3, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986) 428-39.
12Letter to Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury, and our Brethren in North-America, September 10, 1784. Cited from John Wesley's Prayer Book: The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (Akron, Ohio: OSL Publications, 1995) n.p.
13J[ohn] C[heyney], Some Arguments: to prove I. The certain salvation of the christened infants of ungodly ... II. That unconverted Christians are to receive the Lord's Supper ... III. That ministers may not repel those of their own parish ... IV. That the common sort of sinners are not to be excommunicated, V. With an enquiry into Mr. Baxter's doctrine of particular churches (London: Printed for J. Robinson, 1680) 17. See also William Prynne, The Lord's Supper briefly vindicated: and clearly demonstrated by Scripture and other authorities, to be a grace-begetting, soul-converting (as well as confirming) ordinance (London: Printed and are to be sold by Edward Thomas, 1657).
14See, for example, Journal entry for January 25, 1739, Works, 19:32.
15Journal entry for September 3, 1739, Works, 19:93.
16Journal entry for August 1, 1742, Works, 19:283-84.
17Journal entry for June 17, 1740, Works, 19:158; and Question 5, Conversation IV, "Minutes of Some Late Conversations," The Works of John Wesley [J], 8:291.
18John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament, Acts 10:4.
19See John Wesley, "The Almost Christian," Works, 1:131-41; and Journal entry for January 4, 1739, Works, 19:30.
20John Wesley, Letter to Richard Tompson ("P. V."), July 25, 1755, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 26, ed. Frank Baker (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982) 575.
21Journal entry for June 28, 1740, Works, 19:159; see also "The Almost Christian," II.7, Works, 1:134.
22See, for example, John Bennet's Copy of the Minutes of the Conferences of 1744, 1745, 1747 and 1748; with Wesley's Copy for those for 1746, Publications of the Wesley Historical Society, no. 1 (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1896) 49.
23Letter from the Revd. Ralph Erskine, January 31, 1741, Works 26:48.
24"The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explain'd," Works, 9:225.
25See Wesley's "Treatise on Baptism." I.1; II.1-5; III.1, 3; IV.2, 10, in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 10 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978) 188, 190-93, 198.
26Journal entry for June 27, 1740, Works, 19:158.
27Brightman, 2:791.
28John C. Bowmer, "A Converting Ordinance and the Open Table," Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 34 (1964) 113.


Copyright © 2002 by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker. Used on Discipleship Ministries' website with permission of the author. The article may be cited or reproduced in whole or in part for a one-time educational use as long as the copyright notice is included.

Karen B. Westerfield Tucker is a professor of worship at Boston School of Theology.

Categories: Wesleyan Leadership, Means of Grace, Holy Communion, Holy Communion - Articles and Papers