Public Worship

John Wesley declared that he believed there to be 'no liturgy in the World ... which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational Piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England' and, though he early came to accept extempore prayer alongside it, he strove to make the Anglican liturgy the foundation of Methodist worship. He urged his followers to attend their parish church for both worship and the Sacrament and resisted grassroots pressure for Methodist services to be held in 'church hours'. In 1784 he revised and abridged the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for use as The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. This was less widely used in England than the full order, though the latter was used only in a minority of leading chapels. It often became reduced to Morning Prayer as the staple. In furnishing the preaching-houses Wesley was still insisting as late as the 1780s that men and women should sit separately.

Contrary to his wishes, Wesley's 5 a.m. preaching service became the distinctive Sunday order (though there was resistence to its timing even during his lifetime, e.g. at Stroud). In this the sermon was supplemented by elements of confession, praise and intercession, which could be sparse fare unless enlivened by hymn-singing and by preaching for conversions, particularly on Sunday evenings. Though hymn-singing brought inspiration, warmth and a sense of unity, John Wesley himself realised that it had its dangers, could be half-hearted or unthinking and he prescribed rules for it. The Methodist tradition of combining liturgical and free prayer is recognized in the Preface to the 1936 Book of Offices.

Methodism's contributions to worship, apart from 'our hymns', were the Covenant Service, the Watchnight and the Love-feast, all borrowed by Wesley from elsewhere, but given new significance. The non-Wesleyan branches of Methodism eschewed set forms, until they came to realise that there were certain solemn occasions which should not be left entirely to the discretion of the worship leader. For a survey by John C. Bowmer of non-Wesleyan service books, see his articles in the Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vols. 32 (September 1960) pp.145-52 and 33 (March 1961) pp.1-3.

In the 1950s there was a feeling that Methodist worship had become 'slovenly'. A Conference commission was appointed and resulted in a revision of the Book of Offices and the authorization of the Methodist Service Book (1975), replaced in 1999 by the Methodist Worship Book. In recent years all-age worship has been introduced in many places. Some are unhappy with this as replacing liturgy by gimmicks, Wesley hymns by choruses, and as lacking a sense of the numinous. Methodism has never provided for Children's Eucharists as in Roman Catholicism and the Church of Scotland.

See also Guild of Divine Service; Methodist Sacramental Fellowship; Sacraments


'As I have made a beginning, as the men and women are already separated in the chapel at Manchester, I beg that Brother Brocklehurst and you will resolutely continue that separation. This is a Methodist rule, not grounded on caprice, but on plain, solid reason; and it has bee observed at Manchester for several years: neither upon the whole have we lost anything thereby. By admitting the contrary practice, by jumbling men and women together, you would shut me out of the house; for if I should come into a Methodist preaching when this is the case, I must immediately go out again.'

John Wesley, letter to John Valton, April 9, 1781

'At the Circuit Chapel, Lambeth, the old London Methodist traditions of worship were maintained, and along with them the old bad habit of coming late on the part of a large number of the congregation to whom the prayers did not appeal. They aimed at being on time for the sermon, which was due at about ten minutes to twelve. But on one occasion the late-comers were taken aback by discovering that Mr. Stephenson had preached the sermon first, and was now about to read prayers. Nobody took offence, and some at any rate took the broad hint that had been given them.'

William Bradfield, Life of T.B. Stephenson, 1913, pp.77-8

  • J.E. Rattenbury, Vital Elements of Public Worship (1936)
  • Leslie F. Church, More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp. 210-88
  • John Bishop, Methodist Worship in Relation to Free Church Worship (1950)
  • Horton Davies, Worship and theology in England: from Watts and Wesley to Maurice, 1690-1850 (Princeton, 1961) pp.184-209
  • Trevor Dearing, Wesleyan and Tractarian Worship (1966)
  • Raymond J. Billington, The Liturgical Movement and Methodism (1969)
  • Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: the Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (1980)
  • C. Norman R. Wallwork, 'Wesley's Legacy in Worship', in John Stacey (ed.), John Wesley: Contemporary Perspectives (1988) pp.83-98
  • Timothy S.A. Macquiban, 'Changing Patterns of Worship in British Wesleyan Methodism, 1780-1828', in Proceedings of the Charles Wesley Society, vol. 1 (1994) pp.47-65
  • A. Raymond George, 'From The Sunday Service to 'the Sunday service: Sunday morning worship in British Methodism' [especially 1932-1975], in Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (ed.), The Sunday Service of the Methodists... (Nashville, 1996) pp.31-52
  • Gordon S. Wakefield, An Outline of Christian Worship (1998)
  • David Blackley, 'An audit of Worship at a Methodist Church', in Epworth Review , 30:4, pp.45-52
  • David M. Chapman, Born in Song: Methodist Worship in Britain (Buxton, 2006)
  • John M. Haley and Leslie J. Francis, British Methodism: What Circuit Ministers Really Think (2006), pp.81-88
  • Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, in T&T Clark Companion to Methodism (2010), pp.240-56
  • Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, 'Wesley's emphasis on worship and the means of grace', in Randy L Maddox and Jason E. Vickers (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley (2010) pp.225-41
  • Normal Wallwork, The Gospel Church Secure: the official history of the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship (2013)
  • Methodist Recorder, 15 February 2019