Methodist Worship

Mediating the Wesleyan Liturgical Heritage

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R. Matthew Sigler
Routledge Methodist Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138588721.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The words “Methodist” and “liturgy” should flow together naturally and confidently, yet their pairing has often been met with doubt, suspicion, and even hostility—within and beyond the denomination—and by clergy and laity alike. R. Matthew Sigler’s Methodist Worship: Mediating the Wesleyan Liturgical Heritage is a bold and assertive reminder that Methodism has a rich and complex heritage of liturgy and liturgical scholarship. Focused on Methodism in the US, Sigler employs liturgical biography as a method for exploring the ways in which the Wesleyan heritage has been interpreted and changed since the mid-19th century. The lives and liturgical scholarship and practice of Thomas Osmund Summers, Nolan Bailey Harmon, and James Floyd White provide three temporally distinct and weighty case studies, framed by a brief but stimulating introduction and conclusion. Sigler’s methodology and his three principal subjects allow for a revealing investigation of Methodist attitudes and practices; Summers, Harmon, and White each combined liturgical scholarship and practice, and exhibited a critical engagement with the tradition in which they operated.

The biographical focus is effective in allowing Sigler to tackle the common tensions and doubts that exist about the notion of Methodist liturgy. He establishes the theme of form and freedom in the introduction, arguing that each of his three subjects recognized and promulgated a creative balance between these themes in Methodist practice. Additionally, Sigler shows thatthese factors have too often been seen as incompatible, and that form has sometimes been characterized as a negative, or inauthentic in Methodist contexts. By examining the liturgical texts authored by his three subjects, as well as accounts of their liturgical ministries, the practical coexistence of form and freedom in Methodist worship is highlighted and affirmed. Sigler situates these alongside accounts of each liturgist’s efforts to shape the formal eucharistic orders of Methodism—stories of Summers’s rapturous and extemporary exhortation at the end of a service, Harmon’s attention to the minutiae of liturgical presentation in pastoral services such as funerals, and White’s early experimental use of the arts in worship—to illustrate the balance between regularity and variety that has long been a hallmark of Methodist worship. Other common elements emerge between the three subjects, including their high regard for the sacraments, the importance they placed on the reading and hearing of scripture within public worship, and their recognition of hymnody as a vital liturgical constituent in Methodism. 

The emphasis placed on hymnody by each of the three liturgists, and the space that Sigler himself affords to it, reflects something distinctive about Methodism. The specific importance of Charles Wesley’s hymns unsurprisingly emerges in the work of all three, and Sigler draws attention to the ways in which this influenced their preaching, writing, and their approach to hymnal revision. Often, the significance of hymnody is thought to reside solely in the textual content and its articulation of theology and doctrine. This textual importance is clear here, but so too is the place of music: repertoire, instrumentation, style, and participation. Summers, Harmon, and White were all sensitive to this in their work; Summers’s and Harmon’s willingness to incorporate repertoire from beyond their personal stylistic preferences and White’s experiments with electronic music and jazz combos, are all testament to the importance Methodism has always given to the ways in which worshippers are encouraged and enabled to participate in communal singing, and the spiritual benefits that can be derived from it.

In his conclusion, Sigler draws out a series of characteristics of Methodist liturgy, arguing that his historical and biographical survey indicates that such liturgy is rooted, acculturated, corporate, personal, and sanctifying. These are persuasive and challenging concepts for anyone engaged in any capacity with Methodist liturgy and Sigler’s exploration of them through the lives and work of his subjects should provoke critical reflection. Alongside the fundamental balance between form and freedom, other significant pairings, each with their own tensions, emerge. Denominational distinctiveness and ecumenical openness are recurring themes; each of the liturgists Sigler considers found them a source of personal conflict in different ways, and matters of liturgical practice and preference remain contentious in Methodism’s contemporary ecumenical engagements. The relationship between heritage and innovation also emerges as an issue requiring informed and sensitive analysis. Here, some further reflection on contemporary worship in Methodism would have been welcome; White’s experiments are very much of their time, and, as Sigler acknowledges, much has changed in the ensuing decades. A longer final chapter would have enabled this kind of reflection. At the conclusion of the book, Sigler acknowledges the limits that the liturgical biographies of three white, male subjects brings. He rightly notes that work remains to be done to represent Methodism’s diversity, and while Sigler’s subject choices are clearly justified, there is an equally clear sense that this book can only present part of a larger and even more complex picture.

Overall, Methodist Worship is well written and accessible, albeit with copy-editing flaws, and a welcome addition to this growing series from Routledge. Sigler’s concluding plea for a richer liturgical education at all levels within Methodism is well made, even if its realization seems a distant goal. While liturgical scholars and church historians might be the primary readership for this book, there is much here that should stimulate pastors and others engaged in the leadership of worship within Methodism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin V. Clarke is Lecturer in Music at the Open University.

Date of Review: 
March 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Sigler is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan Studies and United Methodist Liaison at Seattle Pacific University, USA. He is particularly interested in how the faith practices of communities of the past can affect the church today and has published articles on these subjects in journals such as Worship and Liturgy.

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