By Bishop Robert Solomon
Methodist churches all over the world have habitually observed the Methodist Covenant Service, typically on the first Sunday of each new year. The practice dates back to John Wesley himself.
Wesley wanted to provide an opportunity for Methodists to renew their covenant with God. Strongly rooted in the biblical notion of a covenant between God and His people, and influenced by Anglican and Puritan devotional writings, Wesley held the first Covenant Service on 11 August 1755 in a church in Spitalfields in England. This service was soon repeated by Methodists everywhere and has since become a regular annual feature in Wesleyan spirituality and worship, linked with the new year.
The words used in the Covenant Service were taken from the writings of the Puritans Richard and Joseph Alleine. Much of the language is still retained today in the Service. The words express a profound sense of commitment to God and a willingness to follow Christ wholeheartedly regardless of circumstances and consequences.
Some facts about the place where the first Methodist Covenant Service (in 1755) was held can help us to reflect on the importance of the Covenant Service. The church building was not far from where John’s mother, Susannah, was born – at Spital Yard. That building still stands today but its use has changed over the centuries. The church was built by French Protestants (Huguenots) in 1743 and used by them. Wesley had borrowed the building for the Covenant Service because of the large number at the service.
A few years after Wesley’s death (1791), the building became a Methodist church and remained as one for nearly a century. Then in 1897 it was taken over by the Jewish immigrant community and used as a synagogue. But in 1976 it changed hands again – to become a mosque for an Indian Muslim community.
It is significant that the place in which the first Methodist Covenant Service took place has seen such major changes and that it is no longer a place of worship used by Methodists, let alone Christians. John Wesley described and reflected on that first Covenant Service in his journal. For several days, he emphasised to the congregation the importance of “joining in a covenant to serve God with all our heart and with all our soul.” Then, many in the congregation fasted and prayed on the Friday. Three days later, the service was held in the evening.
In Wesley’s own words,
“After I had recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, all those who desired to give testimony of their entrance into this covenant stood up, to the number of about 1,800 persons. Such a night I scarce ever saw before. Surely the fruit of it shall remain forever."
That service marked the quality of undivided loyalty and commitment to Christ and an intense self-denial, motivated by a deep love for Jesus, that was found in the early Methodists. Such a commitment needs to be renewed regularly in the midst of changing situations in and around us. The Covenant Service helps us to do this, to renew our baptismal, membership, and other vows and to keep our love for God fresh and alive. It reminds us that we are people of the new covenant, purchased by the blood of Christ (Mt. 26:28).
If our churches are to be lasting congregations of God’s people, we must keep our faith alive and constantly renew our total commitment to Christ. The story of the first venue of the Covenant Service is a lesson for us. Using the words in the Covenant Service, let our prayer be
Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands:
put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
Let us remain faithful to Christ, loving and obeying Him with all our hearts. In the spirit of Josiah the king (2 Kgs. 23), let us renew our covenant with God, ridding our hearts of idols, and living as cross-carrying, self-denying lovers of God.
— Episcopal Letter (January 2005)
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