Can the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer be tweaked to fit today’s context and theological sensibilities?
The Covenant Prayer, 1780ish
In United Methodist churches, the first worship service of a new year often includes a Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service. This service reaffirms the Covenant between the Christian worshippers and God, and names the ways how we affirm and deny that relationship.
One part of the service is reciting the Covenant Prayer, attributed to Wesley but the original has been lost, a version of which is this:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
A Contractual Relationship…for whom?
While writing the worship service for my church in the None Zone, it struck me that the Covenant Prayer’s Pre-Christian language makes some theological claims that I find problematic for my Post-Christian context:
It is clearly commendable to begin the year with renewed commitment and dedication regardless of what the future may have in store. But the Methodist liturgy goes much further. Taken at face value in traditional form it strongly implies that our misfortunes may arise at the divine behest (‘Put me to what thou wilt, put me to suffering’ etc.) Would we suggest that to a friend in distress or to someone entrusted to us for counselling? I hope not. Rather our conviction is that God is our comforter in time of trouble rather than the author of life’s woes.
Indeed we may legitimately ask whether the essential concept of covenant as a mutually binding contract (‘now you are mine and I am yours’) has been inappropriate from the very outset as a symbol of divine grace. By definition covenant goes beyond simple promise, conferring rights on an injured party in the breach. It stems from our fickle human nature, demanding guarantees and imposing conditions. Witness contemporary covenant practice legal and commercial.
While I am a Wesleyan Christian and embrace our multiple Covenants, I push back against the determinism aspects of Wesley’s theology. To that topic, the whole Prayer smacks a bit of “everything that happens is God’s will and we should give ourselves over to it.”
As a colleague wrote to me on this topic:
I don’t think God gives people cancer or puts people in car accidents or makes them not get on the plane that eventually crashes, and the people are hearing this from almost every other “Christian” resource. [Wesleyans] walk a tightrope between “I have no agency” and “God is just an accessory in my totally independent life.”
I wonder if the ancient language could be revised and the theology tweaked to better bring Wesleyanism again to a generation and context that needs a robust counter to Purpose-Driven Best Life Now Lifeway theology.
Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, revised
To address these concerns for my congregation and for post-Christian or non-Christian newcomers, this is my revision of the short version of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. It’s more in the spirit of the Message translation of the Bible: it’s a paraphrase in common language, not a word-for-word replacement. Here it is:
I am not my own self-made, self-reliant human being.
In truth, O God, I am Yours.
Make me into what You will.
Make me a neighbor with those whom You will.
Guide me on the easy path for You.
Guide me on the rocky road for You.
Whether I am to step up for You or step aside for You;
Whether I am to be lifted high for You or brought low for You;
Whether I become full or empty, with all things or with nothing;
I give all that I have and all that I am for You.
So be it.
And may I always remember that you, O God, and I belong to each other. Amen.
(Note: as with everything on the site, you are welcome to use this without permission but with attribution .)
Revising ancient language is always tricky, so feel free to comment if you see sentiments that do not make the translation well. This blog has done similar work previously that shows the clash between ancient language and current Missional contexts:
- Seeing Communion again for the first time
- A Dr. Seuss Communion
- Why Creeds are not Useful in Worship
- Reversing Wesley: Wesleyanism in an Upside-Down World?
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