The current issue of Circuit Rider is focused entirely on the most recent Ministry Study, which addressed how United Methodism conceptualizes clergy. Among the issues that it addresses are the administration of the sacraments by licensed local pastors.
Circuit Rider is filled with alarmist, Chicken Little-style articles that suggest that the UMC is in a shattering crisis because of the sacramental authority of licensed local pastors. In fact, Jerome King Del Pino calls it an "identity crisis". Thomas Edward Frank even calls into question the legitimacy of the denomination with an article ominously titled "Is United Methodism Even A Church?" Frank writes:
We cannot afford to go on like this; a movement that is "playing church."
The most agitated Elder writing is Robert F. Kohler, who blames the UMC's numerical decline on licensed local pastors:
Although the numerical decline in elders is well documented and parallels the decline in the number of church members, these statistics do not tell the whole story. It is not the decline in numbers but the erosion of leadership and a sense of purpose that is at the heart of the decline.
Kohler misses the old days, when elders were revered and their authority unquestioned:
When I was ordained as an elder in 1967, I was welcomed into conference membership by the assistant to the bishop who said to me, "You are now a part of the greatest community of church leaders you will ever know."
Kohler laments the decline of elder privilege:
Elders do sense a loss of uniqueness, if not authority, within the annual conference. Local pastors outnumber elders in an increasing number of annual conferences. Deacons increasingly are assuming the sacramental roles of elders and licensed local pastors in the local church and in extension ministry. Increasingly elders are asking why.
Puh-leeze! Sacramental leadership by licensed local pastors is among the least of our problems. It can be credibly argued from a theological perspective that only ordained elders in full connection should administer the sacraments. But these articles aren't arguing on that basis (none of the three quote the Bible even once). These elders are lamenting a loss of prestige.
If the Order of Elders wants to have sole authority to administer the sacraments, you're welcome to it. By the way, my church has Holy Communion on the first Sunday of every month. And we're about to start a midweek Communion service on Tuesday nights. I expect you to be there, Dr. Kohler, to offer my people Holy Communion. As I wrote a while back:
If the General Conference considers legislation that restricts sacramental authority to Elders, I have no objection so as long as that same legislation also places the responsibility of providing the sacraments entirely on the Order of Elders.
Absent such explicit responsibility on Elders, we shall see more degradation of Holy Communion as Kurt relates. His experiences include having the elements blessed retroactively, having them blessed over the telephone, and having them blessed after being left on an elder's doorstep. How, I ask, is this somehow more reverent treatment of Holy Communion than Dan Trabue's experience of laypeople leading the Eucharist? How is God honored by a blessing of this sort?
I further ask the Elders who think that only they should serve the sacraments: are you willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that everyone who wants them has access? Because if not, then we should not move forward with this proposal.
UPDATE: Related thoughts from John Meunier and Brian Vinson. The latter writes:
Am I allowed to use my blog to call someone a pompous windbag?