Wesley’s Calendar Had no Lent

Back in 2014, Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote an interesting article about John Wesley’s rejection of the season of Lent. In the prayer book Wesley adapted from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for use among American Methodists, he changed the names of the Sundays in Lent to Sundays after Christmas. Palm Sunday became “the Sunday next before Easter.” Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were completely omitted. The only thing Wesley had to say by way of explanation was this:

Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end.

Burton-Edwards conjectures, and this makes sense to me, that the disciplined Wesleyan way already contained elements of Lent as permanent practices. The General Rules required fasting and deeds of mercy. The bands practiced confession, forgiveness and prayer. Love feasts featured testimonies of lives changed through Christ. Watch nights and covenant renewal services focused on honest self-examination and renewed commitment. He summarizes his point with this:

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.

These practices are largely absent in the United Methodist Church. If they exist by name, they are vastly different than practiced in 18th century Methodism.

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.

Left unsaid is the implication that our church is no longer producing in its members the intended effects of either Lent or Wesleyan Methodism.

Burton-Edwards thinks Wesley may have underestimated the importance of Lent, even for early Methodists. He points out that the General Rules also required society members to attend worship. In England in 1784 that generally meant Anglican worship.

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.

He closes with this observation:

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.

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