The Identity, Liturgy, and Praxis of the
African Methodist Episcopal Church
By Jason O. Evans
African Episcopal Methodism was forged in the crucible of American slavery and segregation. The early pioneers of the movement proved to be resilient and courageous men and women in the face of adversity. These pioneers embraced the vision of the eighteenth-century Anglican priest and Oxford don John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and sang jubilantly the hymns and anthems of John’s brother Charles despite the fact that many of Wesley’s white American Methodist forebears did not fully embrace black Methodists as brothers and sisters in the family of God. Nevertheless, men like Richard Allen, Daniel Alexander Payne, Henry McNeal Turner, and women like Jarena Lee envisioned a Church where all God’s children are welcomed to pray and commune together as one Body in Christ. Thus African Episcopal Methodism began as a protest against the predominantly white Methodist Episcopal Church for its collusion with slavery and segregation. Moreover, African Episcopal Methodism is a protest for right worship (orthodoxy) of the triune God and right relations (orthopraxis) between one another ashumans living before God in solidarity with the poor and oppressed in all the nations of the world. The motto of the African Methodist Episcopal Church summarizes this ethos: “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit our Comforter, Humankind our Family.”
Worship, as for all Christians, is integral for the life and witness of African Methodists. Worship is the vein from which all Christians receive life from the triune God.In other words, the church of Jesus Christ distinguishes itself as a worshiping community shaped by the presence of the blessed Trinity. Since its founding, the Church catholic has gathered together on Sunday to confess their allegiance to the God of Israel and the risen Christ Jesus of Nazareth in the power of the Spirit over against the princes of the world.The revelation of the Trinity in the economy of salvation attested in the Holy Scriptures shapes the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, Christian worship is the response of a people to what the triune God has done for us in Christ Jesus.
James B. Torrance reminds us, “Christian worship is….our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father.” Worship is both an invitation from God and a response from God’s people.
Encountering the Holy in worship also connects Christians with that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. The triune God encounters the people of God in history, in a particular context, and at an appointed time when all Christians gather together for worship, namely Sunday morning.
Liturgy provides the framework for worship. Therefore it is not to any surprise that African Methodists are a worshiping people. Moreover, Christian worship reorients the affections of the heart (orthopathos). In worship, the Spirit of the Lord sets the hearts aflame with exuberant joy and holy longing and held together by God’s Spirit.” John E. Brandon makes another pertinent point: “Worship in the black religious experience is the visible acting out of what blacks believe about God and the relationship with God. That relationship is with a God who is just and merciful.”
Every Sunday morning offers new mercies for black people because the people meet the risen Savior anew. African Americans celebrate the works of the God who meets them in the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the liberating Spirit.In this essay, I will argue that the liturgy of African Episcopal Methodism cultivates the theological identity and praxis of African Methodists. The liturgy shapes the people of God as a “Liberating and Reconciling People. ”African Methodists draw their self-understanding and the strength to continue their mission to proclaim the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ from their liturgical practices. In other words, worship shapes the identity of African Episcopal Methodism; orthodoxy (right doctrine), orthopathos (right affections), and orthopraxis (right action) intersect in Christian worship. To demonstrate, I will critically engage the doctrine and liturgy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the earliest independent black denomination and the first denomination to spring up from the movement of African Methodism. In this study, I will overview the historical and theological origins of the A. M. E. Church. This analysis will consider how the African American experience critically factors into the forming of the liturgical practices of African Methodism from its inception and in its contemporary contexts, further I will demonstrate how a robust Trinitarian theology forms the liturgical shape for AME Church’s identity and liberating praxis in the world. Moreover, I will also demonstrate that the rise of neo-Pentecostalism within African Episcopal Methodism contributes to the shape of the identity, liturgy and the ethical formation of the A. M. E. Church. First, we must understand the historical origins of this the A. M. E. Church and its liturgy.
I. Historical Origins of the AME Church
To understand the strength of the branch, one must examine its roots. African Methodism exists within the larger movement of American Methodism. However, Methodism itself originates from eighteenth-century England. Methodism began as a movement of reform within the Church of England. The Reverend John Wesley (1703-1791), an Anglican priest and Oxford don, along with his brother Charles (1707-1788)were principal members in a society known as the Holy Club which met between 1729 and 1735. These members distinguished themselves at Christ Church, Oxford University, with strong personal piety and conviction. Historical theologian David Buschart observes, It was in this context that the term Methodist was first employed. The term originally was hurled at them by some who ridiculed the Holy Club’s rigorous efforts, but Wesley adapted and adopted it to refer to those who live in accord with the “method” of life set forth in the Bible, and because of the abiding influence of the teachings and practices of Wesley, the term Wesley can to identify those whose beliefs and practices, whatever their denominational affiliation, follow in the spirit of John Wesley. Moreover, Buschart also notes while John Wesley and his associate George Whitefield conducted revivals in America in the 1730s, the earliest American Methodist societies began to form in the colonial America in the 1760s. Six hundred societies were formed by 1769. However, it was under the influence of Francis Asbury (1745-1816) and Thomas Coke (1747-1814) that Methodism became the largest Protestant denomination in the colonies by the 1800s. Consecrated as bishop by Wesley himself, Asbury brought Wesleyan doctrine to the Methodist movement in America. Coke became the first bishop of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Methodist denomination to incorporate in 1784. It was within two years the problem of racism emerged from this nascent movement of Methodism. African Episcopal Methodism materialized as the protest of devout black men and women against the injustice of their white Christian brothers and sisters. In 1786 Richard Allen (1760-1831), a Methodist preacher, was born to slaves in Philadelphia. After his birth, Allen, his three siblings, and his parents were sold to a slaveholder near Dover, Delaware. Under the Methodist evangelist Freeborn Garretson, Allen was converted to the faith at the age of 17. Because of Garretson’s antislavery messages, Allen’s owner became convicted and subsequently allowed his slaves to buy their own freedom, which Allen did and subsequently returned to Philadelphia. Later Richard Allen became a licensed preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen became a popular evangelist and preacher and led prayer meetings for Negroes in the early morning at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Later blacks were segregated to the gallery for Sunday worship. In 1786 Allen, his colleague Absalom Jones (1746-1818), and several other black worshippers walked out of St. George’s Church after Jones was physically removed from the ground floor as they knelt praying. In 1787, these men founded the Free African Society, a Methodist society which promoted the socio-economic welfare of free blacks and promoted religious activities. In 1794 Allen founded acongregation in Philadelphia on the corner of Sixth and Lombard Streets to provide space for black Methodists to worship without hindrance or the mistreatment from their white brothers and sisters. This place called “Bethel” became the historic “Mother” Church of the denomination. Richardson states that Allen and others received harsh criticism from the white elders of the Methodist Episcopal Church; they opposed Allen and others for founding predominantly black Methodist congregations. Nevertheless, Allen and company did not return to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Other black Methodist congregations in Baltimore joined in Allen’s protest.
As the years passed, Absalom Jones left Methodism and joined the Protestant Episcopal Church and was ordained a priest in 1804, though he remained friends with
Richard Allen. Allen remained unapologetically Methodist in theology; however he knew that returning to the Methodist Episcopal Church under segregationist conditions was not an option. On April 9, 1816 Richard Allen and fifteen black Methodist clergy gathered in Philadelphia to incorporate churches from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Delaware as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc. Richard Allen, with the help of his friend Absalom Jones and fifteen others, was consecrated the A.M.E. Church’s first bishop.
Although Richard Allen and many subsequent black Methodist churches broke away from the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, all of these churches maintained a commitment to the legacy of John Wesley. Although Wesley did not leave behind a tome of systematic theology for his Methodist followers, he bequeathed to the movement hundreds of sermons, expository notes on the Two Testaments, a revised service book derived from the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, and a revision of the Anglican Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. John Wesley intended for the Methodists in America to practice “primitive” Christianity according to the Scriptures. In her magisterial work, American Methodist Worship, liturgics scholar Karen B. Westerfield Tucker provides an extensive social, cultural, historical and theological analysis of the worship patterns of American Methodists. Concerning John Wesley’s promotion of worship according to “Scriptural Christianity,” Tucker writes, “Wesley’s adherence to the classic Anglican triad of Scripture, Christian tradition, and reason as normative for doctrine underlay his instruction that Scripture and the primitive church should serve as sources forMethodist liturgical praxis.” Charles Wesley also bequeathed an expansive hymnody for the Methodist movement. The A. M. E. Church adopted the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, The General Rules, Catechism on Faith (based on Wesleyan “Doctrinal Minutes”), and Statement on “Apostolic Succession” and “Religious Formalism.” Therefore, the official doctrines and statements of the African Methodist Episcopal Church remain Methodist. However, the ethos of the Church significantly differs from the predominantly white Methodist denominations that developed from the Methodist Episcopal Church.
II. The Theological Identity of the AME Church
Although the people of the A.M.E. Church identify as Methodist Christians, their experience in America as African Methodist Christians shapes their theological identity. The Allen movement did not merely become a black facsimile of the white Methodist Episcopal Church. The African Methodist Episcopal Church became something different. The Church became a liberation movement. In his seminal work entitled Black Religion and Black Radicalism, religious historian Gayraud S. Wilmore convincingly argues that the founders of the African Episcopal Methodism sparked the first black freedom movement within the United States history. Wilmore warns readers against construing the founding of the A.M.E. and A.M.E.Z. (African Methodist Episcopal Zion) Churches as simply blacks seeking the right to worship in more favorable conditions but rather, “it was, in fact, a form of rebellion against the most accessible and vulnerable expression of white oppression and institutional racism in the nation: the American churches.” Moreover, Wilmore contends that Allen both embraced an evangelical piety and a commitment to social and political relevancy. Allen embraced Methodist polity, doctrine, and liturgy; however, as Wilmore observes, Allen saw the creeds and ordinances of an ecclesiastical establishment as irrelevant to the spiritual, moral, and material needs of the community. His vision was of a well-ordered, but flexible, spirit-filled, community-oriented church that could move immediately into the arena of the movement for freedom and equality. Therefore, the founders of the A. M. E. Church committed themselves to the Methodist heritage and “to minister to the social, spiritual, and physical development of all people.” The African Methodist Episcopal Church viewed their commitment to liberating the oppressed as commensurate with the teachings of Jesus Christ and John Wesley.
Furthermore, the motto of the A. M. E. Church embodies this theological identity: “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Holy Spirit our Comforter, Humanity our Family.” James Cone offers a theological interpretation of this motto. Cone reminds us that this phrase coined by 19th century A.M.E. bishop Daniel Alexander Payne refers to the theological confession of the early founders. Furthermore, Cone contends that the founders were making a radical statement in contradistinction to the God which their white Methodist counterparts believed. Rather, Cone argues, the God which the A. M. E. founders confessed was the God who liberates and takes the side of the oppressed.
This God is the universal Father of all human beings unlike the God, Cone contends, whom the white Methodist agitators served. The white Methodist’s God willed slavery as an institution.Richard Allen’s God willed the liberation of black slaves. Moreover, Jesus Christ for the A.M. E. founders is the redeemer of black bodies as well as souls. “One meets [Jesus] in the concreteness of life, in the midst of suffering and through the struggle of liberation. Allen and Payne met Jesus in the contradictions of life, where the ‘load was heavy’ and the ‘way was narrow’.” The ancient Christological questions, Cone believes, were not on the table when Allen, Payne, and others faced the cruelty of their white brothers and sisters. The question that black Methodists asked was Jesus’ relation to the slave. Again Cone,Without diminishing the importance of Luther’s theological concern [regarding the presence of Jesus Christ at the Eucharistic Table] I contend that if he had been born a black slave and had experienced the brutalizing presence of white society in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave,’ I am sure that his first concern would not have been the manner of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Table but the manner of his presence in the slave’s cabin. Could the slaves expect Jesus to be with them as they tried to survive the whip and pistol. To put it succinctly, Cone says, “Christ as our Redeemer means that he is black people’s liberator.” Therefore, because God is the universal Parent, and Christ is the Redeemer of all humankind, then humankind is a family of brothers and sisters. Cone states, “If God is the father of all and is present as a mother for the motherless, then all people are in fact created equal, that is, as brothers and sisters before God and humanity. If Jesus Christ is the redeemer and the liberator of all, then the distinctions between blacks and whites make no sense from the theological or a political standpoint.” For this reason, the early bishops of the A. M. E. Church fought valiantly for the equality of blacks and the abolition of slavery. Cone concurs with Wilmore’s contention that the A.M.E. Church is not merely a Methodist church with a black face but exists as an expression of a biblical Christianity which seeks justice and liberation for the wretched of the earth. The A.M.E. Church’s work to end slavery and oppression provides a witness to the work of the liberating God in the history of black people.
One of significant revisions of the motto, along with the revision of this third article to reflect gender inclusion of women, is its addition of an article concerning the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the Church. This reflects a truly Trinitarian and a liberationist theology. First, it considers that the confession of the Church concerning God is that God is triune. Secondly, the pneumatological statement is crucial for liberation. Cone acknowledges the liberating power of the Spirit in the worshiping community elsewhere. In addition, as the recent work of José Comblin, Michael Welker, Jürgen Moltmann remind us, the Third Person is God’s active and personal Presence in the world that frees people for life and for human flourishing in the face of adversity.
Thirdly, this revision opens up the possibility of African Episcopal Methodism to fully embrace the contributions of neo-Pentecostal movement within it. These three factors contribute to the Church’s understanding of its identity, liturgy and praxis in the world as we will further demonstrate in the theological analysis of the liturgy of African Episcopal Methodism.
III. The Shape of Liturgy for Liberating Praxis
The African Methodist Episcopal Church understands its theological identity is directly tied to its liturgy. The liturgy of African Methodists distinguishes them as Methodist Christians. As aforementioned, the African Methodists continued to worship the triune God after the pattern which Wesley outlined for all of Methodism. However, African Methodists did not become slaves to the pattern, as the worship styles of the slave communities of the Antebellum South at Methodist revivals attest, much to the chagrin of evangelist John Watson and later Bishop Daniel A. Payne. Nevertheless, the liturgy as outlined in the AMEC Book of Worship remains common to most A. M. E. congregations. In order to explicate the shape of the liturgy of the A. M. E. Church and it role in forming the liberating praxis of the denomination, one must first understand the purpose and nature of the liturgy itself. So what does the Church catholic mean by the set of activities and practices which are signified by the word “liturgy?” Liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means the work (ergon) of the people (laós). Liturgy is public or embodied worship. “Liturgy is the drama involving both God and the people, the ‘exchangeof prayers and graces,’ taking place in sacred time and sacred space.” Liturgy consists of activities and practices in which Christians engage in rendering service to God. Another way of defining liturgy: “[Liturgy] is worship expressed through a certain visible order or structure (thus the phrase ‘order of service’).” In his illuminating book Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan reminds us that a shape or deep structure underlies liturgy. This shape, called the ordo, norms the liturgy. Moreover, this normative shape, Chan states, norms the shape of the community’s worldview. It also norms the church’s identity: “Unless our respective orders of service (and there could be many) conform to the basic ordo, we are not being shaped into the community we are meant to be.” Every Sunday morning, African Methodists expect the order of service, printed on their bulletins, to remain consistent throughout the year, with the exception of the first or second Sundays of the months, which are designated for the Service of Holy Communion or the Service of Word and Sacrament. The Sunday liturgy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church takes shape in the following manner:
Order of Morning Worship
The Call to Worship
The Prayer Response
The Preface to the Decalogue
The Gloria Patri
The Choral Selection
The Announcements/Congregational Concerns
The Hymn of Preparation
The Lord’s Prayer (optional)
The Invitation to Christian Discipleship
The Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed
The Closing Hymn/Doxology
The Closing Meditation
The ordo narrates a divine rationality. This rationality, based on the revelation of the incarnate Word in history, invites the Church to participate in the “sacred drama.” In this drama, the Church learns of the God’s revelation as in unfolds in history; God gathers the Church to worship (Call to Worship), the Church sings the praises of God and enter into worship (Hymn of Adoration), the Church confesses their sins and seek God’s grace and mercy (Prayer), it hears the reading and proclaimed Word of God (Scripture reading and Sermon) and the affirms her faith (Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds). On first or second Sunday, the Church gathers to worship the triune God and give thanks at the Table of the Lord (Holy Communion). The people of God not only worship through actions of praise,shouting, singing, and, but their worship shapes them into the eschatological community ofthe Spirit. Moreover, the ordo culminates with God sending the Church into world, newly revived, with a mission to serve and proclaim the good news (Benediction). In the following, several aspects of the liturgy are formative for the identity and ethics of the Church.
Call to Worship
As the congregation gathers for worship, the organist offers the Prelude to prepare the hearts’ for worship. During this time, congregants meditate before the introit and the Processional of the choir. This time offers a decentering of the self. The self acknowledges one God who is worthy of worship when other false gods seem to compete for the position of the throne of the human heart. During the Processional, the congregation stands and sings along with the choir as they sing the processional hymn together. Then the minister or liturgist stands at the podium to give the Call to Worship, which consist of opening sentences from the Scriptures which remind all of the reason why the assembly has gathered, namely to worship the living God. The Call to Worship is also a call to holiness. When the people gather, they gather in the name of the One who alone is holy. The Holy One invites the people to sanctify themselves, presenting their bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1-2). This self-giving action of the people of God signifies their submission to God’s will. In so doing, the worshiping community prepares itself to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Ps. 96:9) Prayer. After the Hymn, a minister or an appointed person offers the Prayer. The Prayer offered may include an invocation, a request to God to be present among the assembly by the power of the Spirit, a confession, the priestly act of acknowledging the presence of the Holy One and acknowledging the sinfulness and unworthiness of the congregation to come before the Divine Presence (cf. Is 6:5), and supplication, the act of lifting up humble petitions before God on behalf of the congregation, the nation, and the poor and afflicted, and the whole world. After the liturgist or minister offers the prayer, a Response follows. The Response is a short acclamation or affirmation the choir or congregation offers to what the minister said. This ranges from a simple “Amen”or choral response set to music. Prayer in the liturgy provides a time of self-examination. As sinful creatures, prayer offers Christians the way to repent of their sinful ways in which they have committed against their neighbors over the course of the past week. Although, prayer is very personal, this time in the liturgy signifies the corporate repentance of the people and their petition for God’s grace and mercy (cf. 2 Chr. 7:14). Humble submission leads to the freedom to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Another aspect of the liturgy highlights the drama of salvation history, is namely the reading of the Decalogue. Before the minister begins to read the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17), the Church sings an Isaac Watts-penned hymn, “From All That Dwell Below the Skies” as the Preface to the Decalogue. The first verse reads,
“From all that dwell below the skies,
Let the Creator’s praise arise;
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land and every tongue.”
African Methodists recite the Decalogue as part of their Sunday morning worship. Since the time of Augustine of Hippo (c. 5th century C.E.), the Church has used the Decalogue in catechesis and in various parts of the liturgy. Wesley included the Decalogue in theliturgy of Methodism. The three black Methodists communions, A.M.E., AMEZ, and C.M.E.,continue this long held tradition of the Church. The Decalogue serves two purposes within the liturgy: first, it reveals the grace of God. Written by “the finger of God,” the Ten Commandments remind the people of God of God’s grace revealed in the deliverance of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. “God’s commandments are a gracious provision for which the redeemed must be ever thankful, because they are the means by which the redeemed life finds its concrete expression.” This leads to the second point: in the reciting of the Decalogue, the Church responds to God’s grace by committing themselves to keep the commandments of the Lord:
“Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.”
This response signifies thankfulness for God’s grace, rather cold adherence to an impersonal law. The Church responds as a people redeemed by God in Christ, and liberated from the powers of sin and death. In so doing, the Church stands with Israel in remembering the deliverance which God wrought in Egypt. “Israel is reminded that is was a slave in Egypt, but now it is truly free. To live under the commandments is to be free.” At the end of the responsive reading of the Decalogue, the Church sings the Gloria Patri, an ancient (c. 4th century) hymn of praise to the triune God,
"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen."
In singing this hymn, the Church gives praises to the One who delivered Israel from slavery, the incarnate Son who saves us from the bondage of sin and death, and to the eschatological Spirit whom the Father offers through the Son as the gift of adoption and the One who gives freedom (2 Cor 3:17). As the Church gives glory to God, it is both sanctified and liberated; the Church is set apart and set free by the power of the Spirit.
The reading and hearing of the Word of God in Scripture and preaching have been essential for the worship of the people of God since centuries past. The Word of God remains essential, perhaps central, for the life of African Methodists. As the minister reads the Scriptures, the people are attentive to the voice of God. Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid aptly observes, “Preaching is central in the black church.” The proclamation of the Word marks the climax of the worship event in the black church traditions. Like their black Baptist and Pentecostal brothers and sisters, African Methodists ask the same question every Sunday morning, “Is there a word from the Lord?” The preacher’s task in the worship event is to deliver God’s message, and with power! The preacher must proclaim the Word that is relevant to the socio-historical context of the hearers. This does not suggest that the preacher doesn’t have a responsibility to dispense the faith, but rather the preacher must prepare to relate the faith to the lives of the people. The Word must become “flesh” in the lives of the hearers. Maynard-Reid writes, Although the great African-American preachers can present significant philosophical and theological arguments and cite the likes of Brunner, Barth, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, black churchgoers prefer the word to be less discursive and more human. They want it to relate to life. They desire it to inspire and move them emotively. The preacher must be able to “tell the story”; that is, he or she must communicate ‘in language, symbols, and symbolic mannerisms that speak directly to the needs of worshipers’ in a wholistic way. Moreover, the content of black preaching is not only didactic but prophetic. Black preachers unapologetically stand in the tradition of the prophets in the Old Testament. Like Moses, Amos, and Ezekiel before them, black preachers proclaim God’s word of liberation, justice, and liberation of the oppressed. Since the time of chattel slavery in the United States, black preachers, both slave and free, prophesied judgment to the nation, calling for repentance and the end of slavery and racial oppression. Empowered by the Spirit, black preaching boldly proclaims the Word with urgency. The preacher calls for a response to the truth of God’s Word: “Can I get a witness?!!” The people of God respond with “Amen,” “Preach, Preacher!” and “Hallelujahs!” Further, the Word calls for celebration and, in other times, lamentation. The Sermon is a dialogical event; the people of God participate in their interaction with the preacher and the Spirit. Thus, the church enters into a holy conversation: Spirit, the proclaimed Word, and the community of faith. The congregation turns towards God as God meets them in worship through the Word and Spirit. To say that the liturgy of African Methodists shapes the praxis of the Church is to say that the liturgy forms or provides the reflective framework from which African Methodists engage the world.
Praxis is reflective action oriented toward an ultimate purpose ortelos. It is value-laden and meaningful. Moreover, praxis is the embodied theology of a faith community and, as Robert Smith argues, praxis includes worship. “Underlying the act of worship are modes, methods, and styles that are full of meaning which may be hidden.” Worship has the ultimate end in God. The ecclesial praxis of the African Methodist Episcopal Church orients believers toward the kingdom of God. It is a liberating praxis because the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the core message of the A.M.E., liberates. This is not to say that all African Methodists understand this; perhaps some even neglect to understand this important insight. Further, liturgy as praxis has a social end. Riggins R. Earl argues that for African American Christians worship contains ethical objectives which distinguish them from white Christians. Earl argues that the black church historically did not separate their spiritual understanding of brotherhood and sisterhood from their social practice of brotherhood and sisterhood. This means that worship compelled black Christians to “represent God before unneighborly others as God’s agents of forgiveness and reconciliation.” Thus, liturgy as praxis reinforces African Methodists identity as a “Liberating and Reconciling People”.
With a diversity of experiences within this liturgical community, the rise of neo-Pentecostalism has caused some within the A. M. E. Church offense which led to a codification of the liturgy of African Episcopal Methodism. Such offense need not be as we will review the rise of this movement and the some vital contributions to the worship,identity, and praxis of the denomination.
Neo-Pentecostal Contributions to A. M. E. Identity, Liturgy and Praxis The liturgical practices of African Methodists have remained flexible over the years.However, explicit liturgical patterns remain. As aforementioned, the liturgy finds its root sin the Anglican liturgy of Methodism’s founder. However, Wesley took the liberty to make revisions to the liturgy of the Church of England in order to accommodate for the cultural context of American Methodists. With the exception of the several additions to its Sunday worship service such as the responsive reading of the Decalogue, A. M. E. liturgy remained common to all American Methodists. However, the A. M. E. Church did not produce a Book of Worship until 1984. Although the African Methodist Episcopal Church rejected rigid ritualism and formalism of any sort, recent changes within the denomination prompted the founding of the Commission on Worship and Liturgy in the early 1980s.
Retired A.M.E. Bishop Vinton R. Anderson, then Chairperson of the Commission on Worship and Liturgy, remarked, [The Book of Worship], comes at a unique, as well as a critical, period in the life of our church. It is critical in that, there appears to be an assault on what has been essential form in Methodist worship. It is unique because African Methodism faces the third century as a “Liberating and Reconciling People;” and, therefore, must be open to explore new styles without dismantling all that is old. The retired bishop does not name the threat to African Methodist worship.
However, the rise of neo-Pentecostalism may have provoked a response from A.M.E. Church leadership.In their magisterial work, The Black Church in the African American Experience, Lincoln and Mamiya observe the rise of neo-Pentecostalism among A.M.E. churches within ten years of the Book of Worship’s publication. Senior Bishop John Bryant, Jr., the Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake, and the Rev. Dr. (now Bishop) Frank M. Reid III led other A.M.E. pastors and churches into a more charismatic direction. This renewal sparked a surge in church growth and revitalization within the A.M.E. Church. Lincoln and Mamiya observe, The membership of most of these neo-Pentecostal churches consists of a mix of middle-income working-class and middle-class blacks, who make up the majority of traditional A.M.E. membership and some of the black urban poor, the latter tending to be attracted by the informal, less structured, and highly spirited worship services. Neo-Pentecostalism in black churches tends to draw upon the reservoir of the black folk religious tradition which stressed enthusiastic worship and Spirit filled experiences. Moreover, Lincoln and Mamiya note that, although this renewal movement produced massive growth within the A. M. E. Church, many traditional African Methodists viewed the movement as a threat to traditional Methodist worship. The neo-Pentecostal movement to some has proved to be a formidable exception to the liturgical practices of the whole denomination; nevertheless, the formal worship patterns of most A.M.E. congregation shave remained virtually unchanged. Yet Lincoln and Mamiya noted that African Methodists in South Carolina have carried an enthusiastic worship pattern which parallels the neo-Pentecostals. In actuality, both traditional and neo-Pentecostal styles of worship are commensurate with Richard Allen’s legacy of encouraging flexible and simplicity of Methodist worship. Moreover, neo-Pentecostalism springs forth from African Episcopal Methodism’s theological foundations. Wesley’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit and sanctification provided the roots from which all of the Wesleyan traditions i.e. Methodism,Wesleyan-Holiness, and classical Pentecostalism grew. All of these traditions emphasize the need of a holistic spirituality which integrates right affections (orthopathos), right doctrine (orthodoxy), and right action (orthopraxis).
In the same way, the neo-Pentecostal movement has contributed to the mission and praxis of the Church as an agent of liberation. Lincoln and Mamiya have observed that neo- Pentecostal movement in the A.M.E. Church does not slack in doing liberating praxis within African American communities. For instance, the scholars note the progressive leadership of several neo-Pentecostal pastors, including the now Bishop John Bryant. Today, neo-Pentecostalism still thrives within the A.M.E. Church through the leadership of Bishop John Bryant and his son, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple of Baltimore, Floyd and M. Elaine Flake of Greater Allen Cathedral in Queens, NY, Grainger and Jo Ann Browning of Ebenezer Church in Fort Washington, MD, and Frank M. Reid III, the former pastor of Bethel Church in Baltimore, MD among others. Several of these leaders have been instrumental in the founding of schools, apartment buildings, and other social initiatives for the economically disadvantaged.
The embrace of neo-Pentecostalism need not suggest that the Holy Spirit prefers spontaneous worship patterns over formalized liturgy. All worship has order that the Spirit gives. As liturgics scholar Constance Cherry reminds us, the triune God is a God of order God planned creation and the work of redemption. Even services in Free Church traditions have a deep structure (ordo) which governs their worship. The manifestation of the Spirit’s presence in the charismata need not diminish the importance of reciting the Decalogue and the Apostles’ Creed. The Spirit is present in all worship which centers on Jesus Christ. Neo-Pentecostalism continues in the life of the African Methodist Episcopal Church under the influence of these major leaders. However, the proliferation of the so-called “prosperity gospel” has infiltrated many of halls of African Methodism. Many revered preachers have incorporated a gospel of greed and American individualism into their messages, which lie in direct contradiction, as some rigorously argued, against the gospel of liberation. Furthermore, an excessive preoccupation with spiritual gifts, spiritual authority of the preacher (tantamount to abuse), and a gospel removed from the material conditions in which many Christian people daily face requires the ongoing discernment of church leadership. The liturgy of the A.M.E. Church provides a theological corrective to the excesses found within its ranks. The liturgy recalls to African Methodists’ mind the God who shares in solidarity with the poor and the wretched of the earth and opposes the proud and those who oppress the poor.
For two hundred twenty-five years, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has led the charge for all independent black denominations to practice a liberating and biblically faithful Christianity. This involved proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, making disciples,and leading the faithful in worshiping the triune God of their salvation. Moreover, African Episcopal Methodism continues the follow the Wesleyan legacy of practicing social holiness and pursuing justice for the afflicted and the oppressed. The liturgy continues to form their identity as African Methodists, cultivate holy affections, and right action. With the contribution of neo-Pentecostalism, the A. M. E. Church may continue to serve as an agent of liberation in God’s world, leading both oppressor and oppressed to the mercy seat.