Later, Bassett’s understanding of worship and the sacraments was enhanced during doctoral studies with Ray C. Petry, who taught church history for many years at Duke Divinity School. “Petry did not do this deliberatively, but by working through the history of Christianity and discussing how the church sustained its faith. He taught me that Christ is there in Communion. Whenever I have served the Lord’s Supper, I have always been very much aware that I was giving people Christ, not in a magical way, but they had to receive Christ on his own terms, and this is why the sacraments are called mysteries.” Grace and Peace Magazine recently interviewed Bassett, who is professor emeritus of the History of Christianity at Nazarene Theological Seminary, to ask him a few questions about worship, the sacraments, and our Wesleyan tradition.
G&P: WHAT MAKES WORSHIP CHRISTIAN?
BASSETT: What makes Christian worship “Christian” is its deliberate focus on the Lord Jesus Christ: his humanity, his divinity, and the fact that he came here, sent by the Heavenly Father, to preach and offer redemption. The biography of Jesus is a constant in worship. Every major portion of the worship service should point to that gracious work of God the Father in sending Christ Jesus for our redemption.
G&P: WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNAL (OR CONGREGATIONAL) WORSHIP?
BASSETT: The importance of communal worship is that we have among us a whole range of understandings that are helpful to us if we will pay attention. When I sing hymns, or when I hear a prayer, or when I listen to a sermon, I sometimes find great joy in understanding that others in the congregation are singing with me, are thinking with me, are listening with me, and this deepens my own understanding of what I am doing and what we are doing together. Christianity is not life on an island, but being part of a family. In worship, we are all concerned to turn the attention of the family to our great elder brother, Christ Jesus.
G&P: AS WE LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF WORSHIP, ONE CONSTANT WE SEE IS CHANGE. RATHER THAN STATIC, WORSHIP IS DYNAMIC. WHAT MAKES THIS SO?
BASSETT: Since worship is not on an island, but in a very real world with other folks, we must make certain adjustments, amendments, and needed alterations, to fit the situation we are in. That can be taken in different directions (sociological, political, psychological, etc.), but what I mean is that in worship we are trying to understand how the redemptive work of Christ applies now as opposed to last week, 15 years ago, or even 500 years ago. In worship, we are responding to the grace of God in Christ, but we must take into account our broader, changing, society along with that response. While worship reflects a historic faith, it is always a new and a fresh word in the here and now.
G&P: HOW DID JOHN WESLEY GRAVITATE BETWEEN THE LITURGICAL WORSHIP OF THE ESTABLISHED CHURCH OF HIS DAY, THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND, AND THE WORSHIP OF THE METHODIST REVIVAL, WHICH INCLUDED FIELD PREACHING?
BASSETT: Wesley balanced these with great effectiveness but not always with great ease. He was attacked for trying to worship outside what people thought were worship’s normal parameters. While he understood the purpose of the Book of Common Prayer and the way in which corporate worship is constructed, he was not a slave to the prayer book. The business of field preaching to miners and others required a different kind of energy and presentation than you would find in a church building. When you get a large crowd, for instance, your gestures have to be larger. Yet, he was still a Church of England clergyman, standing there in his clerical collar, being very Church of England-ish, but in both places—the field or the church—he was clear on one point: that we all need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
G&P: WHY DID WESLEY FEEL COMPELLED TO DO FIELD PREACHING TO MINERS, AND HOW UNIQUE WAS THIS?
BASSETT: He made it clear in his own words and writings that he went to the miners because they were not welcome in the established church, although many of them were probably baptized as babies in a parish church. One of the first things he did with new converts, besides working them into small group settings, was to get them into the parish church. He insisted that the Methodist services were not to be offered at the same time as Church of England services so people could attend and receive the sacraments. He lost that battle as the Methodists grew, and more people came from backgrounds other than Anglican.
Field preaching was rare, especially among university-educated churchmen. Street preaching already existed among the Baptists, the Society of Friends, and the Congregationalists. Various groups from the Puritan tradition picked up street preaching, but for somebody so clearly identified with the state church, as Wesley was, it was rare.
G&P: WHAT DID WESLEY MEAN BY REFERRING TO HIMSELF AS A “HIGH CHURCH ANGLICAN”?
BASSETT: Wesley understood this differently than we might infer today. What Wesley largely meant was that he kept the order of worship as it was in the Book of Common Prayer. He used the prayer book that was compiled in the 1660s, which was more flexible about postures during prayer and what passages needed to be read. There were requirements, but they were not nearly as concerned with “smells” and “bells” as we are inclined to think they were in Wesley’s day.
G&P: WESLEY EDITED A PRAYER BOOK FOR USE IN WORSHIP IN THE METHODIST WORK IN AMERICA. HOW SUCCESSFUL WAS IT?
BASSETT: It was not very successful. Frontier conditions inhibited the patience needed for sitting and reading for long periods of time. Wesley did understand the American character, however, and he took pains to abridge and shorten what would be read in worship. He also knew the fledgling nation was not all English, but had heavy German and even some French populations drawn to Wesleyanism. He took all this into account when adapting the prayer book.
G&P: IN THE AMERICAN CONTEXT, WHAT LED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF CAMP MEETINGS?
BASSETT: Several things contributed to the camp meeting: first was the western movement of people. Back then, it was hard to find a large town on the prairie or even in the foothills of the mountains, yet people sensed their need to come together to worship. The actual membership of various churches was still small in the days of the American Revolution up to the Civil War, which motivated people to get together. That is why the early camp meetings were usually a couple of weeks long and were held in a field where many people could assemble. In addition, people sensed a call for church unity, at least the unity of Christians, and sometimes different groups would gather in one place in solidarity.
G&P: IN THE AMERICAN CONTEXT, WHAT LED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF CAMP MEETINGS?
BASSETT: Several things contributed to the camp meeting: first was the western movement of people. Back then, it was hard to find a large town on the prairie or even in the foothills of the mountains, yet people sensed their need to come together to worship. The actual membership of various churches was still small in the days of the American Revolution up to the Civil War, which motivated people to get together. That is why the early camp meetings were usually a couple of weeks long and were held in a field where many people could assemble. In addition, people sensed a call for church unity, at least the unity of Christians, and sometimes different groups would gather in one place in solidarity. The Methodist minister would be in one place preaching, while the Presbyterian preacher would be in another place, and you could walk from group to group and hear whomever you wanted. People gathered for fellowship and to learn from one another.
Another factor that had to do with the development of the Methodist camp meeting was the Methodist sensitivity to the Spirit. The early years of the republic were heady years. There was excitement about most everything, and there was excitement about what God could do. There is a lot of perfectionism in American Methodism and in the American character, up until the darkness just before the Civil War. In fact, Jesse Truesdell Peck, after he had been elected bishop, wrote a book on the relationship between national perfectionism and perfectionism of the Methodists. There was this sense that the Spirit was calling them together to win the nation to Christ, as Wesley had said of Britain, and to spread scriptural holiness through these lands.
Unlike Methodists, who looked at the camp meeting as a sort of “emergency order,” Nazarenes understood the camp meeting as more central to Protestantism.
G&P: WERE SOME OF THE EARLY CAMP MEETINGS SACRAMENTAL TIMES?
BASSETT: Certainly the holiness camp meetings were that began in the 1860s. Prior to that time, there were sacramental meetings, but not as often. There were enough stoutly-held differences of opinion regarding the sacraments that most ecumenical camp meetings either avoided this, or held several different Communion services going on at the same time.
G&P: IN ADDITION TO CAMP MEETINGS AND THE WESLEYAN-HOLINESS TRADITION, WHAT OTHER THINGS HAVE INFLUENCED NAZARENE WORSHIP?
BASSETT: We need to consider a third alternative, which I would call “popular religion,” the kind of thing you find with Joel Osteen and others preaching a sort of generalized gospel or generic evangelicalism. I am not critical of this, but I would insist you have to go farther; otherwise, people remain babes in Christ and fail to grow up. While we identify with evangelicalism, our tradition also wants to “correct” evangelicalism in certain places. For example, we might sing the hymn, “Come Holy Spirit, I Need Thee.” The last line is, “Come in your own gentle way.” I cannot sing it that way. For one thing, I cannot tell God how to send the Spirit. The Spirit can come as a mighty rushing wind, which does not sound gentle to me. It can come as it did to Elijah. The Spirit can come in a number of ways. Take a line from “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which says “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the Lord I love.” That’s not a Wesleyan verse. The Wesleyan understanding of the gospel is that proneness to wander is remedied by the gift of the Holy Spirit, so we do not sing that verse unless we use somebody else’s hymnal, yet these kind of influences creep into our worship and not always for the better.
Worship may be carried forward in a number of ways; the problem is people who confuse a momentary flash in the mind with the voice of the Spirit. Wesley called this “wildfire” rather than the worship of God. Some of the old Puritan churches had a notice at the entrance to the sanctuary which read, “God is in heaven, and thou upon Earth. Therefore, let thy words be few.” It was a warning not to let any scrap of religiosity that satisfies you to substitute for genuine worship. It made no difference whether you liked the sermon or thought the preacher was dull. You went back if the preacher was preaching truth.
G&P: FOR NAZARENES, WHAT SHOULD BE THE CENTER OF WORSHIP?
BASSETT: The center of worship should not lie in a “what” but a “whom”: that “whom” is the triune God, and the celebration of worship, whether it is in sermon, or song, or prayer, should focus on God. The distinctive about Nazarene worship should be what is distinctive of Protestant worship, and that is opening ourselves to the grace of God and understanding that we are here in a particular time and place intending to live it out and carry it on to others. In this endeavor, I hope we are never satisfied, but would be open to the various ways in which God gets in touch with us, and the various ways in which we can come to know and meet God. It says in 2 Peter 3:18 that we are to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” We have different understandings of what spiritual growth means and how it is accomplished, but worship fundamentally is about God and the redemption of humankind.
G&P: HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE TERM “LITURGY,” AND IS IT A USEFUL WORD FOR WHAT GOES ON IN WORSHIP?
BASSETT: Liturgy simply denotes the people’s work in worship—what the people are doing and how they are doing it. And the more ordered it is, the more likely it will be called liturgy. It is important to understand that liturgy was created out of the practice of worship in the Church. Christians expressed their love for God and their gratitude for salvation and the gift of the Spirit among them. They would get together and express this one way or another, and that became the liturgy. Originally, there was no desire to standardize everything. Standardization eventually came in the Church because the people of God recognized that they had one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and they did not want to be different from each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. If the word “liturgy” is contentious for some, maybe we need to let it go and talk about worship, just worship, and think about the goal of worship and how that goal is met.
G&P: WITH REGARD TO THE SACRAMENTS AND THEIR PRACTICE, WHAT SUGGESTIONS DO YOU HAVE FOR NAZARENES?
BASSETT: In the last 20 years, I have seen a rekindling of interest in the sacraments, but we need to ensure we do not revive them on the veneer of faith. One area we need to improve is connecting preaching with the sacraments. Historically, the Church and its great theologians have insisted that the Word must be read and preached, along with the Word in action in the sacraments; consequently, you cannot have Communion without at least a short homily, and it should be pointed and connected to the offering of the sacrament itself. You do not want to set aside or minimize a sacrament. Baptism is often done in a corner of the worship service, partly because we do not believe in baptismal regeneration (i.e., that baptism saves us), but we fail to make clear that baptism is commanded by Christ.
As Nazarenes, we need to look deeply at the basic elements of the Eucharist, which will take some historical study. We need to ask, “What kinds of prayers are necessary?” “Do we consecrate the bread and the wine?” “How do we express our unity as we go forward to the table?” Perhaps reciting the Apostles’ Creed would be a way in which we could express our unity in doctrine. We need to do much more thinking about all the dimensions of Communion, so that people know what they are getting into when they come forward. These are grand declarations the Church has given to us to say. As Wesleyans, we need to understand that Communion, because it is a means of grace for those who are committed to the faith, is a converting and a sanctifying ordinance. The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is an invitation to meet the Lord. For that reason, Communion can bestow sanctifying grace, evangelical faith, and evangelical love. Such love is transforming love because of transforming grace. Such grace enables us to apprehend the God who sanctifies us.
Baptism is God’s gift to us, and it is the Church’s gift to say, “This person belongs to us. This person belongs to God, and, therefore, to us.” Even in infant baptism, that is what we are supposed to be saying—that this child belongs to us. It is an act of the Church, and thus, is not primarily an act of the parents. As an act of the Church, the Church must think about its authority in this declaration. That is why when we baptize we use the name of the person because we are baptizing them into the whole Church, not just our congregation, and for that reason, we do not want a ritual that departs from the historical liturgies. We want people to understand that they are becoming part of the great work of God. And in Communion, we need to understand that we are at a very, very large table with the body of Christ through time, and Christ himself is the host.