African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches
Zion Methodism adheres to the traditional American Methodist liturgy adapted by Francis Asbury. Although its basic ritual pattern has remained unchanged, renewal is having an effect on observance of the Christian year and on music and spirituality.
Traditional. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, over the course of two centuries, has resisted expansion or revision of its worship pattern under the influence of the broad range of possibilities in worship today. There is a tenacious will to retain a staid, European-style African-American church: orthodox, quiet, and reserved.
The rituals of Zion Methodism continue to be the 1792 form of Methodist liturgy revised by Francis Asbury. This continuum of worship experience makes Zion Methodism the purest form of Methodist worship. This is seen not as a hindrance to true worship, but it does maintain constancy throughout the denomination.
New Elements in Worship. An earnest effort has been made during the past ten years to make Zion Methodism more liturgically oriented. A resolution calling for the use of the Christian church year across the denomination was adopted in 1992. A similar resolution was adopted in 1988 to revise and enlarge the hymnal to coincide with the church’s bicentennial celebration in 1996.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper remains the highlight of AME Zion worship. It is not a memorial; rather it is a celebration, as John Williamson Nevin stated, of the mystical presence of Christ. The sanctuary is transformed to demonstrate a different type of worship experience and expression. Everything done points to the belief that the congregation is enacting a tradition of praise and thanksgiving for Christ’s act of at-one-ment.
Traditions such as the kiss of peace and the charismatic praise songs are all but nonexistent in Zion Methodism. There is, in the orthodox mind of Zion, a resistance to clapping (which is deemed applause) in worship. This resistance is fading with the demand for upbeat modern gospel music from both clergy and laity alike. This movement has accompanied the emergence of far more forms of expression in worship than have been historic to Zion Methodism.
Praise and Song. The reality of Zion, in spite of the orthodox hierarchy, is that its main area of strength has been expressive forms of praise. These include the continuation of the common meter form of singing and praise devotional services. The more animated style of the processional “strut” of gospel choirs and the emotional expression now being found throughout Zion are simply the rediscovery of its true worship roots.
Traditionalists, including the present writer, guard against worship being turned into an entertainment hour by maintaining the regular order of worship of Zion Methodism. We have used material in the proposed Book of Worship for African-Methodists, developed by this writer, to provide variety without loss of order. This work includes and fosters more congregational participation through congregational calls to worship, congregational invocations, and congregational seasonal prayers.
Zion Methodists generally have no desire to discontinue the use of the King James Version of the Bible from the pulpit, although other versions are read and are in the pews. Nor do they feel the need to tamper with the Order of Worship or the wording of the rituals. Continuing their heritage as singers of hymns and appreciators of anthems and spirituals, they are making room for gospel music also to take its place in worship. They intend to maintain the tradition of their founders and allow the inclusion of other forms of worship that do not hinder proper reverence in the sanctuary at worship.
Music has been the driving force that has challenged orthodoxy in Zion. The needs of worship for today’s congregation require more than meditations from the pulpit and anthems from the choir. There is a need, encouraged by societal pressures, for more vibrant expressiveness in what is said and done in worship. It seems that where orthodox practice prevails, one finds a declining membership. Where tradition is flexible, one finds the growth of members seeking diverse expression.
African-American Concerns. Ethnic pride in the nineties has greatly increased the desire for a more African-American emphasis in worship. Clerical garb with kente stoles, the use of drums and tambourines, the celebration of historic events and persons, such as Kwanzaa and Malcolm X, which were all but taboo in Zion ten years ago, are taking place regularly. This renewal has brought about a new zeal for capturing the spirit and the accompanying spiritual power of our foreparents that enabled them to overcome difficult times. The hopes of integration and civil rights have not been realized and the people have sought to return to their roots.
Unfortunately, Zion Methodism has not rethought the architecture of the churches being designed and built. Their buildings remain geared only to worship. Development of facilities that are both multi-purpose and practical for daily use has not yet caught fire. They need to move from a praying people to a viable force in local communities addressing the needs of the whole person. This can only take place when their churches become the hub of community life and activity as they were before 1960.