The Duty of Constant Communion as a Response to the Book of Common Prayer

Considering this as a command of God, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no piety; considering it as a mercy, he that does not communicate as often as he can has no wisdom. 

John Wesley, The Duty of Constant Communion

In 1788 John Wesley published a communion sermon first written 55 years earlier for students at Oxford. “The Duty of Constant Communion” encourage readers to receive the Lord’s Supper as frequently as possible. The sermon has a simple outline: 

Christian should take communion as frequently as possible because:

  1. Christ commands it
  2. There are great benefits to it 

Don’t miss an opportunity to receive communion because:

  1. You don’t believe that you are worthy to receive it.
  2. You don’t have time to prepare.
  3. You might be tempted to treat it less reverently.
  4. You tried it and didn’t get anything out of it.
  5. The church only requires it 3 times each year. 

Several of Wesley’s arguments have a particular focus that is not readily apparent until the sermon is read in the light of the communion ritual in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This was the ritual in effect in the Church of England during Wesley’s life, and the foundation of the ritual that he sent to the American church in 1784 in The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. As I noted in a previous post, Wesley excluded the exhortations addressed to the congregation prior to reception of the sacrament.  The full text of the three exhortations is here: Communion Exhortations in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

The Duty of Constant Communion” takes direct aim at some aspects of the prayerbook and its theology, especially those found in the exhortations and rubrics. Wesley’s purpose is similar to that in the Exhortation to the Negligent, to encourage individuals to take communion more frequently, but his approach is very different.  

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Wesley and the 1662 Communion Exhortations

In his 1784 Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, one of the changes John Wesley made to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer involved the exhortations required before communion. Wesley eliminated them. 

The full text of the exhortations is here: Communion Exhortations in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. As the exhortations demonstrate, the Lord’s Supper was serious business in 18th century England. It was serious business for Wesley, too, but in a different way. 

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The Separatism of Early Methodist Institutions

A short paper from 1982 makes the case that Methodism began separating from the Church of England well before Wesley ordained Whatcoat and Vasey for America in 1784, or British Methodists separated in 1795. In The Separation from the Church of England, British Methodist Nigel Waterfield envisions separation unfolding in 4 institutional categories.

  • Organization
  • Buildings
  • Liturgy
  • Ministry 

In each case, the Methodists set up institutional structures that competed with those of the Church of England. 

Organization

Wesley organized Methodists organized into societies (1739), classes (1742), conferences (1744) and circuits (1748) that competed with the church’s organization into geographical dioceses and parishes. Wesleyan institutions gained enduring legal status through The Model Deed in 1763 and the Deed of Declaration in 1784/1789. 

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The Battle of the Reed Sea

Exodus 14:19-31

You’ve probably heard the cliché, stuck between a rock and a hard place?  The people of Israel found themselves stuck between an army and an ocean, which is an equally impossible situation.

On one side stood the Egyptian army, Pharaoh’s personal guard with hundreds of chariots, chariot drivers, archers, and infantry. The Egyptian army was the superpower of its day. Chariots and horses were the ancient equivalent of tanks and helicopters.

On the other side, the Israelites faced the Reed Sea. You may know it as the Red Sea. That is how most Bibles translate it, but it was almost definitely not body of water between the mainland of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That Red Sea is 220 miles wide, and not exactly on the route from the Nile Delta to Canaan.

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Israel’s Other Opponent at the Reed Sea

The people of Israel faced the might of the Egyptian army at the Battle of the Reed Sea, but that was not the only power that threatened them. Israel was caught between Pharaoh’s army and the sea. It was stuck, if you will, between the empire’s brutal version of law and order on one side and utter chaos and destruction on the other. The sea itself carried mythic connotations throughout the scriptures.

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