I have been United Methodist all my life, and I have participated in several United Methodist Watch Night services. However, it wasn’t until a very recent conversation that I learned there is more to the Watch Night service than simply welcoming in a new year.
Watch Night is also called Freedom’s Eve. It’s traditionally held on New Year’s Eve in African American churches as a celebration and commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was enacted January 1, 1863, and served to free slaves in the Confederate states during the American Civil War. On December 31, 1862, slaves were said to have gathered in churches to await confirmation that President Abraham Lincoln was in fact setting them free. The tradition of gathering on December 31 has continued through the years.
So, while I grew up thinking Watch Night was all about gathering with Christian sisters and brothers to usher out the old, welcome in the new, and eat a lot of food, I learned something very important that will forever change how I think about that special service of worship. I would have never learned the real story unless I had been in a conversation with someone from a different racial history who had different knowledge from mine.
It makes me wonder how much more we could be learning from each other. And it makes me excited and hopeful about the potential of an emerging United Methodist Church. Those of us who choose to remain United Methodist in a new, emerging church have the blessed possibility of both holding on to the history of who we are, and at the same time refocusing our present and our future in order to hear everyone’s stories. It's a rare opportunity to celebrate the beautiful diversity of gifts that everyone brings to the table, to write a new, more inclusive history.
One of the most exciting things about an emerging United Methodist Church is the determination that diversity within our unity is foundational to the plan. When limiting language is removed from our Book of Discipline, the powerful statement will be made that United Methodists want to honor and elevate our diversity. We want to claim boldly that God created all of us just as we are, and that we all have gifts to be celebrated. We want to declare that we believe Jesus welcomes all people, celebrates all people, and calls all people. If we allow that foundational theological and ecclesiological belief to be one of our guiding lights, then we have the potential to learn so much more and become so much richer in our church life and our faith understandings.
My current ministry is with the Council of Bishops as one of their Ecumenical Staff Officers. That means I get to help our episcopal leaders stay connected with other faith communions around the world through formal, ecumenical relationships. So much of what we do is to help The United Methodist Church stay connected with other Christian communions who often are very different from us. We do that because we believe all Christian groups have something to bring to a shared table, and together, all those gifts, placed on the ecumenical table, create a banquet that can transport us near to the divine.
For example, Lutherans bring theological prowess and a firm foundation in God’s grace. The historically Black Methodist churches in the U.S. bring a reminder of the truth of history and a passion for social justice. African-Indigenous churches bring to the table the strength of self-determination and contextualization as an expression of free will in Christ.
My point is that when all these amazing gifts are shared at a common table of unity, the universal Body of Christ becomes stronger and more powerfully full of the Spirit.
It can be the same for an emerging United Methodist Church. When we proclaim that all United Methodist Christians bring holiness to the table, and when we bring our diverse gifts to the table, we can expect to experience a joyful overflowing of the Spirit as we come closer to that divine banquet.
Be forewarned: This is not an easy thing to do. It requires humility, patience, and the Golden Rule of Ecumenism—a desire to understand others as we wish to be understood.
When I served as the pastor of an incredibly diverse congregation in downtown Louisville, our diversity was both beautiful and challenging. I remember my first Sunday, when I stood in front of the congregation inviting them to come forward to receive Holy Communion. Harold came dressed like a clown—it was National Clown Sunday—with big, floppy shoes and a red nose. Fade came gently in his African traditional dress. Richard came purposefully in his suit and tie. José and his family came and knelt together, as did Gil, the radical racial justice leader, Jimmy, the retired Navy cook, and Marvin and Margaret, the couple who had been married in the church just after he returned from World War II.
It was beautiful—until we had to decide what kind of music we wanted to sing as a congregation. The young people said they weren’t being fed by the traditional choir. The people of color said they wanted more music to which they could relate. The members who had been loving the church for 70+ years especially appreciated the organ and the hymns they grew up singing. It was a challenging time, full of thought-provoking conversations.
But we worked through the disagreements and came up with a solution that functioned for years. We intentionally expanded the table. Pews were filled with The Songs of Zion, The Faith We Sing, and The United Methodist Hymnal. Three music groups were formed, and they took turns leading worship music in the styles of a traditional choir, a contemporary band, and a gospel chorus.
An emerging church can celebrate with lots of different music. We can welcome all gifts. The result will be a beautiful-but-messy diversity, and expected disagreements. But if we are prepared for them as we head into our emerging renewal, then we can watch something amazing happen. We can learn from each other and appreciate each other. We can grow deeper and more mature in our faith. And the Body of Christ can be as strong, unified, and powerful as it ever has been.
In 1740, John Wesley borrowed the idea of a “Covenant Renewal Service” from the Moravian Church. For Moravians, these services happened monthly on full moon nights. They were times of reflection, repentance, and gratitude. They were also opportunities for Christians to move forward with clean hearts full of prayer for whatever would come next. Wesley liked the idea of offering these opportunities for the people called Methodists, and eventually the Covenant Renewal Service became important in the Methodist movement.
Whether they be through Covenant Renewal Services or Watch Night services, times to renew the covenant and start again with a clean slate are gifts to us as children of God. The emerging of a new United Methodist Church is just like that. It is a time to reflect, repent, give thanks, and look forward.
May we walk into this new time together, clinging to the declaration that all are welcome at the table. We are better when we elevate each other’s gifts, and the beautiful, messy diversity in which we will live is nothing short of a reflection of God’s creative power, alive and well in the Creation.
With that in mind, I offer the following prayer, written in 2018 by the ecumenical and interreligious staff of the Council of Bishops during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Eternal Creator; immortal, invisible, God only wise:
With these words, we quiet ourselves before you again with awe and reverence.
We thank you for this day, a day that is new and fresh, a day we do not deserve, but a day you have given us. We praise you for your graciousness and your steadfast and generous love.
We confess we have not always used the days you have given us to further your Kingdom. We have been selfish, focusing on our own needs and our own advancements. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience to walk in your ways and to further your love in this world.
This day we thank you for our sister and brother Christians within our own faith community and throughout your world. In your creative genius, you have made all of us with different gifts to bring to your table, and your Spirit has given us the unity to appreciate and celebrate all those gifts. Thank you for that unity in the midst of beautiful, challenging diversity. Thank you for the many expressions of following your son’s Way that are making a difference around your world.
Today, we pray for your universal church. We pray for our shared mission to your world. We pray for open eyes and open hearts for those who need to hear your message of grace. We pray for kindness among our faith communions, even when we disagree with each other's theology or opinions. We pray for wisdom and insight to maintain unity without demanding uniformity; to celebrate our diversity instead of making it a cause for division, to claim that diversity as a part of your gracious gift to us.
Grant that we may speak, and act, and live, so that the world may see in us the promise of your will, and so that the world may be challenged to move toward that vision, in and through the Christ, who is our source and our goal.
— The Rev. Dr. Jean G. Hawxhurst has served as an Ecumenical Staff Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops for more than five years. Her responsibilities include general ecumenical engagement with organizations and groups, and leadership development. Dr. Hawxhurst holds a BA in mathematics and education, an MDiv in theology, and a DMin with a focus on theological diversity. She is an ordained elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference.
Content originally published August 5, 2020 by Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism, an online forum sponsored by the Connectional Table.