In praise of the Covenant Service

by Richard on January 14, 2008

Today’s Guardian leader column

Hymns rich in workaday yet powerful images are usually ranked as Methodism’s main contribution to literature, but yesterday witnessed another example of this small but hugely influential church’s power of inspirational writing. Many Methodists across the country celebrated their annual covenant service, a renewal of faith comparable to new year resolutions, but one that impressively emphasises the importance of doing as much as believing. The heart of the occasion is a passage that includes the words: “Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you.” It should not be misinterpreted as a sort of fatalism, for many Methodists have held eminent positions, espoused radical politics, and gone to prison for opposing injustice and war. Its nobility is the recognition of the accretion of great good through small deeds. There are other fine examples of this in English literature, including George Herbert’s The Elixir, with its celebrated reference to making drudgery divine, and the magnificent concluding passage of Middlemarch. In the latter George Eliot does not honour those “who lived faithfully a hidden life” out of sentiment, but because of their robust contribution to the growing good of the world. The same may be said for those who say the Methodist covenant and try not to forget it, until the second Sunday in the new year comes round once again.

Excellent stuff, via Pam BG. The fact that many Methodists will have celebrated the renewal of the Covenant on the first Sunday of the year doesn’t detract from the column’s point.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 01.14.08 at 6:52 pm

I occasionally use the closing passage of Middlemarch (in anybody’s top five great English novels) in funeral services, and the character Dinah in Adam Bede is a finely observed and sympathetically drawn “Methody” - her conversations with the imprisoned Hetty go to the heart of the dynamics of confession and forgiveness.

But beware the subtext of the Guardian leader writer. Eliot became an atheist (burial in Westminster Abbey was denied), and her scandal-causing unconventional lifestyle would have excluded her from any self-respecting 19th century Methodist church anyway. “The growing good of the world” (which should be in quotation marks) speaks not of the Christian hope but of the Victorian cult of progress, and as for the Covenant Service’s concluding “let it be ratified in heaven”, for Eliot that would be wishful thinking, a fantastic projection (she was a translator of Feuerbach, as well as D.F. Strauss). Add the contextless reference to Herbert - for the editor, unlike the poet, “divine” is merely rhetorical - and you have a bricolage on modernist optimism and justification by works - evidently sanctioned by Methodists!

Sorry to rain on your parade, but (to thoroughly mix my metaphors - oops, and to split an infinitive!) when you sup with a Guardian writer and the table-talk is religion, you’d better have a long spoon.

PS: Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us! :)


Richard 01.14.08 at 8:41 pm

There’s a great deal in what you say, Kim. For of course the leader writer is quite wrong to suggest of the Covenant Service that “Its nobility is the recognition of the accretion of great good through small deeds”. The ‘nobility’, if that’s the right word here, is entirely in its clear statement of the grace of God which welcomes human failure and frailty and empowers the believer to turn from self-interest and towards the world.

I suppose I was carried away by the pleasure of reading something positive about Methodism, especially in the Guardian.


PamBG 01.14.08 at 9:24 pm

Huh? I didn’t understand a word Kim said and I’m not a quietist and I do believe there is value in small deeds.

When someone outside of Christianity finds a bit of meaning in what we say rather than discarding it completely out of hand, I’m afraid I’m not going to say ‘But you haven’t got it quite right.’

I shall remain cheered.


Beth 01.14.08 at 9:36 pm

But Pam, surely we have a duty to speak out when someone has made a hash of understanding our faith? What’s the point of allowing someone to praise or to derive meaning from a false premise? It’s like lying to a child - it may keep them quiet and make them like you, but it’ll only damage them in the long run.


Kim 01.14.08 at 9:51 pm

Hi Pam,

“Huh?” Huh?

I too “believe there is value in small deeds” - and whoever does them (for example, I would deny, against much Christian tradition, that pagan virtues are only apparently virtuous). But do you really believe that the world is growing in goodness? The evidence for such moral progress is not very persuasive; besides, that is certainly not the biblical vision (check out its apocalyptic).

As for the “someone” in your second paragraph, it all depends on who the “someone” is. The “someone” may cheer me too, but when it is a Guardian leader writer, I am suspicious, because the Guardian has form not only for not getting things “quite right” when it comes to Christianity but for getting things egregiously wrong, form for being not only “outside of Christianity” but for being against Christianity.

I shall remain jeered.


PamBG 01.14.08 at 11:05 pm

I think we’re disagreeing on the interpretation of one phrase. I don’t think the article’s main point is that the world is getting better. And I had to read the article four times to even see the phrase that might have given that impression.

Anyway, I’m not going to argue because I know that Kim is always right.


Richard 01.14.08 at 11:16 pm

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both right. I’m with Pam - I’m cheered too that the leader writer for a national newspaper should even give a mention to the Covenant Service. After all, how many of the readers will have been aware of it before today? But I think Kim has a point (though I had to go online for the meaning of bricolage*. It’s not in my concise Oxford). We do need to be careful not to allow words of apparent praise to overwhelm us.

But even the mistakes have value, and at the very least have prompted a few Methodist bloggers to add their thoughts about the value of the Covenant Service. So, on balance, I want to remain cheered.

*the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things which happen to be available; a work created by such a process.


Kim 01.14.08 at 11:40 pm

That’s exactly what my wife says, Pam - just before she tells me, “You’re full of s**t!” If I were a Mormon I’d ask you to marry me!


PamBG 01.15.08 at 9:25 am

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both right.

It’s interesting how we interpret different things.

What cheered me wasn’t so much the ‘publicity,’ as it were, but the fact that the author could look at the prayer and find a connection that spoke to him/her (I don’t know who writes the leaders) in a meaningful way. So often we hear that there isn’t anything about Christianity that connects with real life and could possibly be of interest to anyone.

I’m totally cynical about the secular press’ coverage of religion in general and especially of Christianity. (I just saw Elaine Storkey described as a ‘liberal feminist’ which must make me some kind of extreme communist on the same scale.)

That a meaningful connection to this prayer was found by a secular writer truly cheers me. To say ‘Well, technically this is not theologically correct’ (I’d say splitting a split hair in order to say that - but my opinion) is just to continue that myth of ‘there is no connection between Christianity and real life.’


Richard 01.15.08 at 10:00 am

“..the author could look at the prayer and find a connection that spoke to him/her … in a meaningful way.”

I’m with you there.


Beth 01.15.08 at 12:26 pm

Pam, if you don’t understand what someone’s saying, use a dictionary, or ask them to clarify. Being snide is a poor way to argue.


PamBG 01.15.08 at 12:32 pm

I give up.


PamBG 01.15.08 at 1:01 pm

Sorry, that was churlish; I’ve been having a hard time communicating on the internet recently (explanation, not excuse).

I apologise if I offended you, Beth. I’m not sure what I said to you that was snide but I certainly didn’t mean to be.

Some times on the internet I think there is a point where a person should give up trying to communicate as they only dig themselves in deeper.

I think I’ve reached that point here.


Beth 01.15.08 at 1:09 pm

And I was being priggish. Sorry in return. I get protective over Kim (God knows why, he doesn’t deserve it ;) ) And sorry also to hear that you’re not having a good time of it. And sorry if I made it worse - I had no right. In fact, imagine a great big cake made out of sorries, and imagine that I just baked it for you!


PamBG 01.15.08 at 1:12 pm

That’s very gracious of you, thank you. You’re right, I probably did mean to be snide to Kim and I apologise in return. Now, I’m going to sign off this thread.

(I see the password’s now changed from ‘butter’ to ‘coffee’)


Kim 01.15.08 at 2:55 pm

Lovely! And everyone had prizes! :)

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