When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, O Lord, have mercy if you please
The irony of this wonderfully composed Eucharistic hymn is that the pastor leading it has no intention of doing either (falling on their knees or facing liturgical east). An equally great irony is that it was introduced into our hymnal the same year that our Book of Worship instructed us to stop doing these things. Perhaps, if the words were changed to fit our actions, “As I stand on my feet to praise the ones with whom I eat,” then it would add more import to the next clause: “O Lord, have mercy…”
Cardinal Sarah’s instructions for Catholic priests to return to the ad orientem posture beginning in Advent also includes the statement, “Where kneeling and genuflection have disappeared from the liturgy, they need to be restored, in particular for our reception of our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion.” In two later posts (or three) I will address the benefits of ad orientem, kneeling, and the mediaeval based liturgy that was with us until about 1990. However, I think it best to begin with a reflection on the unique aspect of Wesleyan faith and practice that is currently preserved only in the United Methodist Church and a very few of our cousins.
We are both evangelical and sacramental. We are not (as more than a few of our clergy seem to believe) evangelical or sacramental. This latter view has been a source of some consternation to our pews as they have endured schizophrenic pulpits. They will continue a few years with a pastor who makes an altar call every Sunday but reserves the sacraments for occasional services when it will not intrude on anything important. Then, they will be appointed a pastor who never opens the altar but celebrates the Eucharist at every worship service, Bible study, and family night bingo game (often using the short form omitting any prayer of confession). I submit to you that this is not good.
These are the two extremes. The great majority of United Methodists seem to have sought to avoid their schizophrenic migraines by settling on a great “middle way.” This is better termed the muddled way because it diminishes both evangelicalism and sacramentalism by disassembling, redefining, and reordering them in such a way that nobody knows what they are doing. The muddled way is possibly the worst of the accommodation because if a person chooses either evangelical worship or sacramental worship then at least they get the benefit of half of Wesleyan theology. The muddled way provides neither.
We have allowed the definition of evangelical to be framed as a concession to those who are offended by evangelicalism and even belittle it. Likewise, we have permitted the value of the sacraments to be stated in conciliatory terms for those who lack respect for or appreciation of the sacraments. We put a lot of effort into this journey, and the place at which we have arrived is a woefully inadequate landscape. I am reminded of the penguins of the animated film Madagascar who after escaping from the zoo and making the arduous trek to their ancestral home of Antarctica, gaze for the first time on the unbroken expanse of empty whiteness and say, “This sucks.” When we muddle our liturgy we consequently diminish our order, discipline, and spiritual lives until they become a flat, monotone wasteland that no amount of rainbow stoles and dancing multi-colored flags can hide. This is not the religion that brought about two international revivals and spread the Gospel across the world.
For the sacramentalist and the muddled wayer: This is what it means to be a Wesleyan evangelical. It really is most of those things that you associate with the King James toting, Bible-believing, rube that you so disdain. It is, “one who loves the souls of men, and is grieved that any of them should perish.” It is, “having nothing to do but save souls.’” It is, “Was you devoted to God at eight days old, and have you been all these years devoting yourself to the devil… Be you baptized or unbaptized, ‘you must be born again;’” It is much more as well, but any religion that does not go at least this far is not evangelical, and it certainly isn’t Methodist.
For the evangelical and the muddled wayer: This is what it means to be Wesleyan sacramental. It really is most of the things that you associate with that “Romish doctrine” and those superstitious mystics whom you deplore. Remember, before we were given one word of New Testament scripture, Christ, while he was still with the Apostles, gave us two things: The Church and the sacraments. We do not baptize and celebrate the Eucharist because we believe the Bible tells us to. We believe the Bible because the Church that celebrates the sacraments tells us to. Do you believe in the primacy of Scripture and all the commands of God? So do I. The Scripture says of the Eucharist, “Do this.” That is as clear a command as we will find. How often? How often should one obey the command, “Do not commit adultery?” At every opportunity. The sacraments are not to be set aside or delayed because of “more important stuff.”
Do you believe there is a plain sense of Scripture? So do I. Christ says of the bread and cup, “This is my body…this is my blood.” These are not mere tokens. Somehow, and he does not tell us how, Christ is present in the elements–conferring grace. Through them, “we obtain forgiveness of sins and all other benefits of his passion.” Just as many looked on his earthly body and saw only a human body, and yet others looked upon him and said, “Thou art the Christ,” though his body had not changed form; so it is that we see only bread and a cup which have not changed form, but that does not mean that Christ is any less present. You pray over the elements, “Let this be for us the body and the blood of Christ.” If words were to match your actions then ought you to pray, “Do not let this be for us the body and blood of Christ because we do not understand how that could happen.” The sacraments are much more than this as well, but any religion that does not go at least this far is not sacramental, and it certainly isn’t Methodist.
We say we are both evangelical and sacramental. We have the right language. The problem is we have become accustomed to saying things in our liturgy which we have no intention of acting upon. This is true in our liturgy, in our order, in our discipline, and in our lives. We say we are evangelical but have no intention of acting upon that if it offends anyone. We say we are sacramental but have no intention of letting that get in the way of the important stuff. We say we will, “visit from house to house,” but not really. We say we will uphold the doctrinal standards of the church, yet have never bothered to read the Wesley Standards. Maybe it is reflected in and exacerbated by the singing of those hymns Sunday after Sunday like, “When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,” and we have no intention of doing either.
We can reclaim the vitality of our faith without waiting for General Conference action, or approval of bishops, or re-formation of the denomination. We already have permission. We can reclaim the vitality of our faith by practicing evangelism as understood by those who are fervent evangelists. We can celebrate the sacraments as those who are passionate about the sacraments. Perhaps a good place to start is the call of one as devoted to the sacraments as Cardinal Sarah. Conceivably, a good beginning is as simple as doing what we are already singing. Let us fall on our knees and face the rising sun.
(Next post: The value of Ad Orientem—Actions that match our words)