Matt Sigler ~ Catechesis, Worship, and the Hymnal

 

The 19th century Methodist liturgist and theologian, Thomas O. Summers, contended that Methodists have “the best catechetical literature, at least in the English language.” [1] While I won’t spend much time defending his assertion, his claim is worth considering. For many, the word “catechesis” (if it is familiar at all) is merely a synonym for “confirmation.” Sadly, this perspective has contributed to the crisis in our church today. I find Summers’ writings about the topic helpful in thinking about the true nature of catechesis.

A Baptismal Life

Because the vast majority of baptisms in Summers’ context were those of infants or children, his catechetical focus was naturally on the young. His view of baptism was robust and he often referred to newly baptized children as being “placed in the school of Christ.”[2] For Summers, the responsibility of the faithful to the newly baptized begins, not ends, with baptism. This challenges the, at least implicit, belief that the culmination of the spiritual formation of children is “Confirmation Sunday.” Summers envisioned a much more robust, intentional, and extended process—one that begins, not ends, with baptism.

Not Merely Didactic

Summers understood catechesis to be a continuation of baptism; a process established and nourished within the context of worship. Catechesis is not simply a matter of teaching information about the faith. At its most essential level, catechesis functions to prepare the newly baptized for faithful participation in the worshipping community. Summers accurately notes:

The catechetical instructions of the ancients consisted chiefly of expositions of the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, and some creed or confession of faith. [3]

For much of the history of Church, these three elements—“The Creed,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” and “The Ten Commandments”—comprised the primary elements of congregational participation in worship. It was crucial that the newly baptized be prepared to actively participate in worship with a deep appreciation for the mystery of faith that is celebrated every Sunday.

In my experience little, if any, preparation is given to the newly baptized to equip them for active involvement in worship. Too often we simply assume that because a person has been present on Sundays, there is nothing the Church can or should do to deepen her participation in worship. “The ancients,” as Summers reminds us, understood that our engagement in worship is enhanced as we explore the richness of the prayers we pray, the songs we sing, the words we hear, and the bread we taste.

Catechesis, then, is not a matter of simply inputting spiritual or biblical concepts into the newly baptized, rather it is a process by which individuals are equipped to fully participate in the life of the worshipping community. When catechesis becomes divorced from full, conscious, and active participation in worship, the process becomes little more than rote memorization. On the other hand, when catechesis is understood as the way in which the newly baptized are integrated into the worshipping body, it becomes a much more dynamic concept. Catechesis is a continuation of the baptismal life, a process that is established and nourished within the context of worship.

A Clear Telos

As a Methodist Summers understood that catechesis played a central role in the process of Christian perfection. In his commentary on the Ritual of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Summers writes that in baptism “all of its [the Church’s] members are pledged to holiness.”[4] When we witness a person, young or old, being baptized we all renew our commitment to holiness. Baptism begins the journey, catechesis equips the newly baptized to pursue Christian perfection through the means of grace, and the entire congregation shares in that mutual pledge.

Lyrical Catechesis

Let’s return to Summer’s claim about Methodist catechetical sources. A primary catechetical source that Summers consistently upheld was the Methodist hymnal—particularly the hymns of Charles Wesley. Summers understood that, more often than not, our beliefs are most shaped by what we sing. As a Methodist, Summers turned to the rich tradition of the Wesleyan hymns as a primary resource for catechesis.

I am convinced that Wesley’s hymns can still have significant impact in our contemporary contexts, but they require the work of a catechist to (re)introduce them to many of our congregations. No other protestant denomination has such a treasury of hymns covering a range of topics like the nature of God (the Trinity, etc.), the way of salvation (personal and cosmic), and sacramental theology—just to name a few. In light of this rich and often untapped resource, Summers’ claim seems to be in order.

If contemporary Methodists are serious about robust catechesis, we must broaden our concept of the term. We must understand that baptism is a moment that shapes our entire life—a journey in holiness. We must break free from an approach to catechesis that is merely didactic and understand that the process of catechesis is anchored in the worshipping community. And we need look no further than our own tradition for what is, perhaps, the preeminent Wesleyan catechetical resource: the Wesleyan hymns.

 

[1]“Brief Reviews,” Methodist Quarterly Review 14 (October 1860): 600.

[2]Commentary on the Ritual, 34.

[3]The Sunday-school Teacher; Or, The Catechetical Office (Richmond/Louisville: John Early for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1853), 10.

[4]Commentary, 51

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article. I understand what you are saying. Growing up, it was the hymns and liturgy of worship that gave me a sense of God. My more recent exposure to hymns of Charles Wesley that I had never seen before took things to a whole other level. But it was engaging the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it that opened up the Bible for me and gave me a sense of the over-arching story from creation, through ascension, to Pentecost and the final judgment. And most importantly, I finally had an understanding of my place in that story; God’s plan of salvation did most certainly include me. In his book about the Heidelberg, The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung identified my problem with trying to get a grasp of Christianity simply from the Bible: it was “like trying to discover America on foot”.

    Although I have not delved much into other catechisms, I sense that the Heidelberg is unique in that it goes way beyond simply being a list of theological points; it is not a product of any one church nailing down its particular set of beliefs. It was written by a set of clergy from differing Protestant factions discovering the high points of Christianity they had in common. A well-written catechism as a teaching tool can have significant impact; especially since the story/message has become so fragmented and diluted.

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