Why is it that I believe that a solution to the identity crisis of the Holiness movement lies within liturgy?

When correct usage of liturgy is employed, the rules that liturgy employs provide a means of not just solidifying identity but of critiquing and examining the behaviors of the church. This has long been described by the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi or “the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.” This is ignored at some peril, and Steve Hoskins has argued that this is precisely what the Holiness movement has done. Rather than lex orandi, lex credendi, Hoskins has made the case that the Holiness movement has instead operated by lex orandi, lex oblivisci or “the rule of prayer, the rule ignored.” In other words, as the Holiness movement has ignored its roots within the liturgy of the Christian church, it has lost its sense of identity and subsequently its core beliefs.

Charles Hohenstein notes that the “notion of liturgy as an authoritative source for theology is a congenial one for many in the Wesleyan tradition who have attached such significance to the sermons and hymns of the Wesleys that these have served not only as grist for theological reflection, but as a doctrinal standard.” This reinforces the argument that a return to liturgy is a solution to the crisis that has resulted from the tension between a Holiness movement self-defined by a Wesleyan theological model versus self-definition by the alterations of theology that plague a Palmerian model. Liturgy allows individuals to be active participants in the recovery of memory of the developmental events of the Christian faith and of the principles of holiness.

Paul Bradshaw has written as to the relevance of such memory, in which remembrance does not seek the past for its own sake but because of some contemporary interest. Recollection on the part of the community therefore takes place in order to comprehend the present day. Bradshaw was writing specifically in regards to celebration of the Eucharist, yet the principle he is getting at is one that can be broadly applied. Liturgical participation is an act in which Holiness people will be able not only to re-member their lineage as part of the greater Christian church, but also re-member – to draw together as members of a distinct community within the Church. Hoskins cautions, “Such a remembering is dependent on a liturgy which is theologically and historically well-defined and defining, with rubrics and rules and acts which have proved to be appropriate expressions of the faith.”

This concept of appropriate expressions of faith is important to comprehend in terms of how liturgy can resolve the question of identity, particularly when the goal is a return to a pure Wesleyan identity. John Wesley’s teachings on holiness were formed within the crucible of the Anglican Church; as such, concepts of holiness were set in a particular context. This context included not just Scripture, but time-honored traditions of the Church calendar, life-cycle events that defined how one’s faith was to be lived, and the historic creeds and confessions of the Church. All these aspects of liturgy were considered fundamental and indispensable expressions of faith that formed an identity, which placed one clearly in the community of God’s people. For the Holiness movement to re-orient itself into such a context – albeit one that acknowledges that it is not the 18th century, and makes accommodation for the age in which the movement exists – will allow for the establishment of clearly defined theological boundaries while still permitting for spontaneous expressions of faith that are uniquely part of a Holiness heritage.

It should be obvious that what I am arguing for here is not simply that the Holiness movement return to liturgy as a cure for problems with identity, but that it return to liturgy as a means of recovering a specifically Wesleyan Holiness identity. This does not preclude acknowledgement of other influences on the identity of the movement – it would be utter foolishness to deny that Phoebe Palmer and her theology greatly shaped the movement – but allows for those influences to be evaluated through the lens of Wesleyan identity. Examination of these other influences in such a manner permits those within the movement to appraise the merits of such influences in regards to such a Wesleyan identity.

While there may be historical and theological objections to be raised to this choice, the fact remains that a Wesleyan identity intrinsically seeks self-definition (at least in part) through liturgy. The means of grace that Wesley so urged the early Methodists to partake of – such as searching Scripture, prayer, the sacraments, and participation in the life of the Church – found their expression in liturgy, and as Henry Knight observes, “functioned to portray the identity of God and the resulting identity of the Christian.” Knight also cogently notes that while the liturgical tradition was key to John Wesley’s ideas of the growth of holiness in the individual, Wesley was particular in the parts of that tradition he emphasized, especially in regards to theology. One has only to give attention to the material in Wesley’s famous Christian Library and take note of the abridgement of some of the works to realize that Wesley was presenting only the parts of those works that dovetailed with his vision of holiness of heart and life.

In this as well, the choice to concentrate on a Wesleyan genesis can only assist the contemporary Holiness movement in moving towards resolving a crisis of identity via  liturgical renewal. Wesley drew upon a great diversity of sources both ancient and contemporary for his time in order to devise an expression of faith that would be true to the historical faith and life of the Church, and yet address the needs of his own day. The Holiness movement has the opportunity to do the same today. The movement must commit itself to seeking expressions of faith that draw upon the rich and profound treasures represented by the liturgical traditions of the Church universal.

These liturgical traditions must be allowed to establish the boundaries of identity that place the Holiness movement within the long line of Christian faith, while still allowing for a singular expression of the doctrines that make Holiness people a peculiar people within the greater community of God’s people. While not without its difficulties, this is a task made easier by what has been one of the great strengths of the Holiness movement: the unwillingness of most groups of holiness people to castigate other holiness people over differences in theology or doctrine. If we in the Holiness movement can continue to seek such a unity even as we explore liturgical renewal, then there is hope that our movement may become one marked by a well-defined identity rooted in the wealth of the Christian past and truly moving into the future towards the fulfillment of a Wesleyan goal of spreading holiness throughout the land.

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