The turn of the year commonly brings with it the declaration or renewal of resolutions, personal and corporate, private and public.
Methodists have a very particular way of renewing their faith commitment known as the Covenant Service. Traditionally held at the beginning of January, some congregations also hold a Covenant Service in September, at the outset of the new Church year.
Created in 1755 by John Wesley, this form of service encapsulates his understanding of Christian discipleship as a relationship with God – something like a marriage; between human beings on the one side (both as a community and as individuals) on the one side and God in Christ on the other (cf. Ephesians 5.21-33). You can read more about the Covenant Service, its origin and implications, on the Methodist Church website. For the lectionary readings suggested for the Covenant Service, see below.
John’s brother, Charles, wrote a number of hymns especially suited for use during the Covenant Service, including Come, let us use the grace divine (StF 549), Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go (StF 550) and Let him to whom we now belong (StF 557), while John himself translated a text by Joachim Lange that includes words central to John’s own Covenant prayer: “Now, O my God, you have my soul, / no longer mine, but yours I am” (StF 562).
Poem reflects covenant prayer
The Covenant prayer is central to the service, and a distinctive gift of Methodism to other traditions. Kirsty Clarke wrote this poem, based closely on the prayer, while undertaking her Church of England ministerial training at the ecumenical Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. It offers an expansion and reflection upon words that, despite their challenge to all who speak them, can be danger of becoming over-familiar.
Two modern hymns that pick up on the words of the Covenant prayer are Barbara Honeyball Young’s setting of the prayer – Covenant of Grace (website only) – and At this time of sitting down (website only) by Rachael Prince. Rachael’s hymn was written with the idea of retiring from active church service in mind, but within it are strong echoes of the sometimes difficult Covenant words:
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you…
Contemporary Covenant hymns
John and Charles Wesley’s hymns remain key and meaningful elements of most Covenant services. Other much-loved hymns, also, speak to the challenges and mood of the service: for example, Take my life, and let it be (StF 566) and Blessed assurance (StF 548).Take time to explore the Covenant, Commitment and Dedication section of Singing the Faith.
In addition, we have published on StF+ a range of more recent hymns suitable for both this service and reflecting the idea of fresh starts and journeys at the beginning of a new year.
Linda Ashford’s hymn, Our God is a God who is faithful and tender, was written with the tune “Laredo” in mind (Youth Praise 2, Church Hymnary or Rejoice and Sing) but also works well with The Road and the Miles to Dundee (StF 604). It emphasises the idea that our love of, and commitment to, God is a reflection of the love and commitment that God has first offered to us.
Gillian Collins’s Listen, my people (which can be sung to “Bunessan”, the same tune as for Morning has broken) explores the implications of the self-giving to which we commit during the Covenant Service. Gillian sets up a dialogue between God and ourselves, during which God poses two questions: “Can you be loving as I love you?” and “Can you forgive as I forgive you?” Gillian has us respond:
Do you mean us, Lord? Can it be done, Lord?
Self-giving love that looks for no gain?
If you’ll stay close we’ll give it a try, Lord,
Showing your mercy, sharing your pain.
In Just as we are, Gillian touches on some of the emotions that not only make many of us ambivalent about marking the turn of the year but also may make the self-giving commitment demanded of us in the Covenant Service a tough call: “Deeply-felt wrongs which long remain, / Chances we know won’t come again”. This is an honestly “human” hymn as well as being a faithful hymn of praise.
You call us, as you called the Twelve (Sue McCoan and Mathew Prevett) also points up the challenges of discipleship;
For a hymn with which to bring in the New Year, try Andrew Pratt’s This day is a day of both prayer and of praising. It is based on Jeremiah 31: 7-14, which touches on the prophet’s vision of inclusion and equality in a world that is truly at one with God’s hopes for creation: “The poor will not stumble, the weak will not fall. / The hungry are feasting, the children are dancing.” (We suggest that Andrew’s words, like Linda Ashby’s above) work well with the sprightly traditional Scottish melody, The road and the miles to Dundee, StF 604.)
Finally, if your Covenant Service is being held in January, take a look at another lovely text by Gillian Collins – Mary, joyful mother, resting from the birth. It reminds us, in the post-Christmas season, of all that is still to come in the life of Mary and of her son – models of discipleship and faithfulness with which we are called to reconnect during the Covenant Service and which serve as inspiration for any New Year’s resolutions.
Suggested lectionary readings for the Covenant Service (all years)
Exodus 24: 3-11 or Deuteronomy 29: 10-15
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
Romans 12: 1-2
John 15: 1-10 or Mark 14: 22-25
Part of Psalm 51 is used in the service as a prayer.