An Interview with Karen Westerfield Tucker

Karen Westerfield Tucker grew up in a strong Methodist (later United Methodist) family. At the age of thirteen she began playing the organ and piano for church services, which in turn stimulated an abiding interest in worship. She was active in district and conference denominational functions but never considered a career in the ministry until approached by her pastor. She says, “He saw something I didn’t see in myself, and by the time I went to college, I went as a religion major.”

Tucker's undergraduate interests included the study of ritual, theology, church history, music, and hymnology. In seminary at Duke Divinity School, she realized that the study of liturgy combined all of her interests. Her doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame focused on liturgical studies and musicology. Her advisor, James F. White, a noted liturgical scholar, influenced her decision to focus her dissertation on the Methodist Episcopal Church’s marriage and burial rites from 1784–1939.

Her life’s work is to understand the Methodist worship experience, particularly how early English Methodism migrated and developed on the American scene.
Westerfield Tucker is the noted author of American Methodist Worship (2001; Oxford University Press). She conceived and edited The Sunday Service of the Methodists: Twentieth-Century Worship in Worldwide Methodism (1996).

With Geoffrey Wainwright, she co-edited The Oxford History of Christian Worship (2006). She is a past president (2009–2011) of the international and ecumenical Societas Liturgica, and the former editor-in-chief of the society’s journal, Studia Liturgica. In addition to her scholarly work, Westerfield Tucker has been an associate pastor and campus minister. Those who have seen her in action attest that she is a highly capable worship leader. Grace & Peace Magazine visited her at Boston University, where she has taught for several years, to talk about worship in the Wesleyan tradition.

G&P: What prompted you to study worship in the Wesleyan tradition?

KWT: In graduate school, I discovered there was little research on worship in the Wesleyan tradition. Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and others have official worship books, official liturgical texts, and stated rules for carrying out worship on Sundays and other occasions. While Methodists of various types have always had established orders of worship and sometimes worship books authorized by the various judicatories, their use was not mandated. It’s difficult to study worship in communities that don’t do it “by the book” since it means that one must examine what each congregation is doing.

Methodists in America had freedom of local expression, which could be exercised by the pastor and by church committees and leaders. This feature isn’t unique to Methodism, and is also representative of evangelical worship. John Wesley gave the American Methodists both a book and the freedom, within reason, to depart from it. Thus, American Methodism also inherited a tension between “freedom and form.” Congregations will move toward one type and then go toward the other, similar to a pendulum that swings back and forth.

To be clear, Wesley never intended Methodists to worship totally without prepared forms—leaving everything up to the local community. To Wesley, that represented congregational worship and was not united, or “connectional,” worship. When worship is left completely to the congregation with no connectional expression, we are disconnected from one another as Wesleyans. So it’s helpful to have a manual or discipline or book of worship or hymnal or an agreed-upon list of songs
as a guideline to keep a particular denomination connected internally.

This is an issue we face today in many Wesleyan and Methodist denominations. Many have embraced freedom and are less respectful of form. Form doesn’t mean formalism. Form is what keeps us connected as Wesleyans and Nazarenes and Methodists.

G&P: What comprised John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, which he sent to the American colonies to guide worship? What were some of the main elements, and how did they function?

KWT: Wesley expected Methodists to attend the Church of England’s Sunday worship service. When Methodists worshiped separately, they did so at times that did not conflict with services in the local Anglican parish. Early Methodism was not Anglicanism’s rival but a renewal movement within the Church of England. So in 1784, when Wesley sent a Sunday service for American Methodists to use, he adapted it from the Book of Common Prayer, revising and abbreviating the Anglican service. Wesley’s book included services for morning and evening prayer, preaching and Holy Communion, Communion of the sick, baptism, marriage, burial, and ordination. He also made a few additions, including the option for extemporaneous prayer, and he changed the word priest to minister.

In the United States, this became the Methodist Episcopal Church’s service in 1784. It was also available in a slightly different version to resource Methodists in His Majesty’s Dominions in England or other English colonies. Wesley advised Methodists to use the Anglican Prayer Book on Sunday mornings, either in its 1662 version or in Wesley’s revised form.

In England, Methodists were expected to attend their local Anglican parish on Sunday mornings and other designated times, but they also gathered as Methodists for a different kind of worship, meeting in their own chapels or other venues, both indoors and outdoors. When they met on their own, the services were characterized
by preaching, the public reading of Scripture, the singing of hymns, and prayer. They were very simple services. We sometimes talk about them as “hymn sandwiches” because they began and ended with a hymn and often had another hymn in the middle.

Methodists who came to or were brought up in the United States were already used to the informal service of hymns, Scripture, prayer, and preaching, which remained their Sunday service in most places despite Wesley’s preparation of the revised prayer book. Consequently, early American Methodist worship was largely
preaching with extended times of prayer and singing and, on occasion, the Eucharist. Wesley wanted the ordained elders in the new Methodist Episcopal Church to celebrate the sacrament of Communion every Lord’s Day. When you think about how the colonies expanded and how few Methodists there were in this part of the world, you realize it would be difficult for them actually to receive Communion every Sunday. But if Wesley’s instructions meant that ordained elders were to perform the sacraments every Sunday, that gives us a slightly different picture, since Methodist preachers traveled.

It’s clear from the record that Communion wasn’t celebrated every Sunday even in a single station or place or by the ordained elders each week. Even in the Church of England, there were only three normal Sundays for receiving Communion. So the quarterly Communion that Methodists offered was actually a more frequent
Communion than you would have found in the Church of England or in early American Anglicanism. The quarterly practice was taken up to ensure that Methodists received the sacrament at least four times each year; it was never intended to be the maximum, though it became that in many places.

G&P: How did early Methodists understand the function and purpose of preaching?

KWT: The Methodist rules on preaching were simple—to convince those who had not heard the gospel, to offer Christ that others might believe, and to build up those on the journey of faith, “moving toward perfection,” as Wesley would say.

And for the preacher, it’s hard to do all of those things—to speak effectively both to the newcomer who may not have any clue who God is or what worship is about
and also to those who have known the truth of Christ since childhood. It’s difficult to plan worship that speaks to all of those constituencies authentically. That’s one of the reasons the hymns were so important to the Wesleys— because they did that work; they were evangelical in the sense of bringing the newcomer on board, but they also proclaimed and deepened the truth to the faithful who had been on the journey for some time.

G&P: Can you discuss Wesley’s understanding of the role of Communion as a converting ordinance?

KWT: I speak to this in American Methodist Worship because of the popular misconceptions of the origin of Methodist practices. Wesley used the term “converting
ordinance” only in one context—that of the Fetter Lane controversy on the means of grace. Philip Henry Molther, a German Moravian, started attending the Fetter Lane society in London, a society in which both Moravians and Methodists participated. He expressed a view that a person should abstain from any means of grace and wait for God to convert you to a full assurance of faith. He held that anything one does to prepare for conversion would be a “work” and therefore condemnable.

He believed that you needed to be still and wait upon God to work upon your heart, and there find conversion. This notion of converting ordinance was common language in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglicanism. Wesley’s point in the Fetter Lane controversy was to say, “No, we know from experience, we know from the literature of the ancients that, in fact, Communion could bring a person who was weak in faith to full assurance of faith.” It is important to remember that in Wesley’s context most people in England were baptized as infants, so he was speaking here to those already baptized who had not fully engaged Christian faith and life.

For Wesley, the converting ordinance language was understood in terms that there already was some degree of faith present in the person, who then may find a full assurance of faith by receiving the sacrament. This was not somebody who had no experience of Christ, no inkling of who God is, who could receive the sacrament and thereby, remarkably, was miraculously converted. Of course, that can happen, but that was not what Wesley intended by a converting ordinance, though some have interpreted it that way.

G&P: How did Charles Wesley’s contribution as a hymn writer aid the Wesleyan movement?

KWT: Some say the Wesleyan movement succeeded because of Charles Wesley’s hymns. Charles published hymns for praise of the triune God as well as for inspiration and instruction. Charles Wesley produced thousands of texts, and it is remarkable that they had particular functions in spiritual life and also in public

During the Wesleys’ day, hymn singing was not permitted during worship in the Church of England. There could be hymn singing before and after the liturgy, but canon law forbade hymns to be sung during the liturgy, since it was not stipulated in the Book of Common Prayer.

Even so, Charles Wesley produced hymns that indicated his Anglican affiliation—hymns for the church year, the nativity, the resurrection, Pentecost, and so on. There are also hymns that address various stages of spiritual life—as one comes near to God, accepts God’s love in Jesus Christ, and then moves more deeply into faith. The number of Wesley hymns in today’s hymnals is extremely limited compared to his total output.

Hymns have remained a hallmark of the Methodist and Wesleyan movements, and some of these hymn texts are now found in the hymn and song collections of other
traditions. Roman Catholics include Wesley hymns in some of their collections, and many hymns have been translated into other languages. There is even a Korean version of the 166 Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, co-published by John and Charles Wesley.

The Wesley brothers wanted to make sure that people sang their hymns because they were concerned about the theology found in other hymns. They wanted Methodists to sing hymns that were authentic to Christian faith. Sometimes we forget that hymns are theological statements that reflect what we believe about our faith.

G&P: What were the purposes of love feasts, watch night services, and services of covenant renewal in early American Methodism?

KWT: The love feast had three principle components: collecting money for the poor, testimonies, and sharing food (the Moravians had sweet biscuits and sugared coffee, while the Methodists used water and plain bread).

For Methodists, love feasts were often segregated, given the strong cultural pressure on women not to speak in public, especially in mixed company. So in one community there could be a men’s love feast and a women’s love feast.

Watch night services were held at night after most people had completed their work and on nights with a full moon to enable people to see their way home. As was typical of most Methodist services, these services included prayer, singing, the hearing of Scripture, and preaching and/or exhortation. Gradually, these services were associated with greeting the new year, either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Covenant services were also associated with the end of the year and beginning of a new year, and might draw for their content upon John Wesley’s published service for the renewal of the covenant with God. Some communities began their watch night as darkness fell on the eve of the new year, and at midnight concluded with a covenant service. That was a common practice into the late nineteenth century.

Love feasts could have a place today, given the emphasis in many Wesleyan communities on small groups, the opportunity to share testimony and food, and the recognition that part of the Christian witness is to care for the poor and needy.

G&P: What concerns do you have about communal worship in the Wesleyan tradition?

KWT: Going back to the tension between freedom and form, the freedom aspect is flourishing. I would say there needs to be more balance with form. For example, in a Church of the Nazarene congregation, would the Communion service celebrated there have similarities with the Communion services celebrated in other Nazarene churches? Would a visitor recognize a sacramental service, even a baptism service, as consistent from church to church?

Today there is much freedom of expression. Congregations and pastors may feel free to alter words, to add new components and innovations. It’s good to have freedom of expression in order to speak to different generations and to inculturate: if you have people who speak non-English languages and come from other cultures, to include songs and parts of the liturgy in those languages. But where are the places of connection across a specific denomination? Where are the denominational touchpoints that speak about identity in particular confessional communities?

This is not a uniquely Nazarene issue; it’s found across many churches and denominations. What makes Wesleyan worship Wesleyan? One might say, “Well, it’s the hymns of Charles Wesley.” Unfortunately, those aren’t sung so much anymore. And particularly now, with Internet resources available, are music and liturgy able to define or convey a denomination’s identity as was the case when a congregation followed closely the denomination’s hymnal and approved worship texts?
We do not have to go in the other direction and follow particular forms all the time. That would not be worship in the Wesleyan tradition. But it seems that we have gone too far in the way of freedom. We practice our freedom well, but we do so at the expense of denominational unity and identity.

GP: Your book, American Methodist Worship,is considered to be the most comprehensive history of worship among John Wesley’s various American spiritual descendants. What motivated you to write this book, and how can it aid pastors?

KWT: One reason I wrote the book was to clarify some misinterpretations in the Wesleyan tradition. Certain practices, like the open Communion table, won’t be changed because of its current practice in many churches. However, it can’t be supported from John Wesley’s own practice. If Wesley had
practiced indiscriminate Communion, there would have been a lot of bad press about it. There was already publicity about the fact that Wesley didn’t require people to go through a long preparation period before they received Communion. If he had given Communion intentionally to the unbaptized, that would
have created a scandal.

So I wanted to get a big picture, as holistic as I could, across the denominations. There are so many different approaches within the Wesleyan-Methodist denominations that it was hard to see what was there—to see the commonalities, to search the roots, to see how things have changed, but also to correct misconceptions.

“What does it mean to be Wesleyan?” is a loaded question because it depends on which Wesleyan you talk to. I would say that to be Wesleyan is to approach worship recognizing that God gives us the gifts of faith and worship, and expecting to give something to God through praise and thanksgiving. Wesleyans come to worship knowing that the triune God will be encountered there. Because worship is understood to be a means of grace, in worship something will be received from
God even though it may not be immediately recognized. Wesleyans come to worship with the expectation of having the heart “strangely warmed” and changed in some way to enable further growth in holiness and in works of piety and mercy.

Wesley was influenced by the practices of the early church—by how one worships on Sunday morning and how one behaves the rest of the week. Wesleyans approach worship with an openness to the world that God so loves, and that says something about how a Wesleyan treats the world—hence, one’s neighbor. So, to be Wesleyan is to be concerned for issues of the neighbor and issues of the world, whether that translates into eco-awareness or social justice. Worship compels us to go into the world, to be better people, to be disciples of Christ, to make disciples for Christ, and to grow in our walk with God. To be Wesleyan is to be conscious of both the inner faith and the outward expressions of faith, both of which should be addressed in the context of Christian

KAREN B. WESTERFIELD TUCKER is Professor of Worship at Boston University School of Theology.