Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Sacramental Authority of Licensed Local Pastors: A Modest Proposal

Previously discussed here, here, and here.

I would like to propose a solution to the dispute about whether or not licensed local pastors in the United Methodist Church should have the authority to offer the sacraments.

This solution is premised upon the notion that sacramental authority should be restricted to those who can understand the sacraments theologically, and not that the Service of Ordination gives a pastor the magical power to preside over effective sacraments. The sacraments are a means of grace, not magic, and are given by God, not by an earthly sorcerer.

Now, with that point prefaced: I can understand the earnest desire of the voices within the United Methodist Church to insist that only those who understand the sacraments should administer them. Elders are trained at great cost and examined carefully to determine if their sacramental theology is sound.

Currently, the Boards of Ordained Ministry vote annually on the fitness of licensed local pastors to serve in their appointments. In my own conference, this does not involve an interview, so I take it that the decision is fairly cursory as the Board moves onto its many other duties.

One of my professors, Dr. Kandace Brooks, argues that no one should offer the sacraments whose sacramental theology has not been examined. This is a sound argument. Therefore let the Boards of Ordained Ministry require that candidates for licensed local ministry write a paper on their understanding of the sacraments. Furthermore, let each candidate for licensed local ministry be interviewed by the Boards on the sole subject of the sacraments.

The benefit is that if this proposal is implemented, no one will offer the sacraments whose sacramental theology has not been examined and been found sound. The trade off is that the workload of the Boards of Ordained Ministry would increase substantially.

What do you think?


Don Yeager said...

I serve on the Committee on Local Pastors in my annual conference and we interview all candidates seeking license and/or approval for appointment as local pastors. Our candidates are required to respond in writing to several questions for the interview, and sacraments are included. We take this sacramental authority very seriously, and are sometimes surprised that some interviewees who are in seminary are not very well-informed about Baptism and Holy Communion.

John said...

I serve on the Committee on Local Pastors in my annual conference

A what?

Stephen Taylor said...

I appreciate your proposal to move us forward on this issue, but I don't agree with you about the primary issue. I don't believe the "authority" to administer the sacraments resides in the "understanding" of the sacraments. Even if the Bd of Min required written statements from Local Pastors, there wouldn't be agreement on them, or we would end up with a lowest common denominator effect.
If proper understanding were the criteria, we would have to be a confessional church, with a pretty clear statement on the meaning, etc. of the sacraments of which we would all "confess." But while we have doctrinal standards, we are not a confessional church (though some would like us to become one.)

I see the authority issue to lie more with the "ordering" of the church. Those who are in the covenantal relationship of the orders of elders have responsibility to see that the sacraments are duly (regularly and properly) administered. THat's not to say others cannot assume some of the job of ordering. But we have to ask, "Should we give this ordering responsibility over to persons whose license to pastor is up for approval yearly?"

Don Yeager said...

Our conference BOM has a Committee on Local Pastors. We meet regularly to interview candidates recommended by the DCOMs for service as local pastors (student, part- & full-time) and to interview LPs after 5 years in service. We administer licensing school and Course of Study.

John said...

Stephen, if theological knowledge is not the prerequisite for sacramental authority, then what justification does a church body have for limiting sacramental authority?

Michael said...

As a licensed local pastor, I would welcome such an opportunity to be examined theologically. To my way of thinking, this lack of examination is evidence of the BOM's lack of concern for the churches we local pastors serve. Heck, I would like the BOM to ask me anything beyond "where's your transcript?"

Michael said...

Correction: "transcript" should have been "forms". As in preprinted. As in name, address, phone, etc. As in, NOTHING theological or doctrinal.

John said...

Stephen wrote:

Even if the Bd of Min required written statements from Local Pastors, there wouldn't be agreement on them, or we would end up with a lowest common denominator effect.

Couldn't this same argument be used against having commissioning and ordination paperwork?

Dan Trabue said...

I wonder if Peter, John, James, etc, would be able to pass the test in order to "legitimately" break bread with those others in the early church? Or would they be grandfathered in?

[Some good-natured ribbing from an anabaptist outsider. And I thought Baptists were bad about over-complication and committee-fication of some simple Good News.]

Keith Taylor said...

Hell has officially frozen over.

Dan and I agree, wholeheartedly!!! LOL.

Show me in the Bible where Jesus restricts these practices to elders, or priests, etc.? The way it reads, Jesus commands all Christians to remember Him in Holy Communion and He commands Christian to preach the gospel to all creatures and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Certainly this should apply to a local pastor.

The way I see it, I yeild this authority to the UMC by my membership, but if I were to leave the UMC and simply be an unaffiliated, nondenominational Christian layman, I'd have this authority on my own. Actually, it isn't authority, it is a commandment from the Lord.

JD said...

Heck, even in the Catholic church, a deacon can administer some of the sacraments. The only thing that a deacon cannot do, from a sacramental aspect, is perform the Eucharistic prayer, reconciliation, confirmation, and ordain priests. Otherwise, if I remember my schooling correctly, they can baptism, perform weddings, and distribute communion (with the tabernacle in every church, there is always a supply of consecrated bread so the "over the phone" blessings do not occur).

For those that are unfamiliar, Catholic church practices 7 sacraments:

Sacraments of Christian initiation

1 Baptism
2 Confirmation
3 Eucharist

Sacraments of Healing

1 Penance and Reconciliation
2 Anointing of the Sick

Sacraments of Vocation

1 Holy Orders
2 Matrimony

So in a church as structured as the Roman Catholic Church, it is interesting that there is more readily available access to consecrated communion than in the Methodist church.

Oh, and I echo Keith's sentiments and agree with Dan too. :-)


John said...

I won't go that far, Keith, but elders have to come up with a better argument for restricting sacramental authority than "We like to be in control".

DrTony said...

Some of what I am writing here may repeat what others say but I think it is important that those things be repeated.

First, I am a certified lay speaker who has served in a number of long-term positions. In effect, I was a lay pastor when there was no such definition in the Discipline. As such, I had no authority to offer, let alone serve, communion. In addition, if a member of the congregation wanted to have a child or themselves baptized, I had to schedule it so that an elder could preside. Fortunately, there were a number of retired elders who were available for such situations.

When it came to communion, I had an agreement with the pastor of my own church (who was an elder) and we could get the elements consecrated in advance. Now, that is not possible. When I take a lay speaking assignment that coincides with my own church's communion service, I am able to take consecrated elements with me. But that communion must be that day and cannot be delayed.

But there was the one visit from the bishop who blessed a gallon of juice that we could freeze and thaw as needed. Today, that would not be possible.

It was made very clear to me what I could and could not say in the liturgy of communion and I have held to those "orders". But one Sunday, as I was assisting an elder, he allowed me to say the words of consecration that I normally would not say. His argument was that his presence and participation were sufficient.

The issue of whether or not local pastors can offer communion is not one of theology but rather one of merger. My reading of the report on the ordained ministry (which I wrote about in "The Future of the Methodist Church")is that the church wants only elders to be able to "do" the sacraments so that merger talks with the Episcopal church may proceed.

The elimination of local pastors is part of that situation. There is also evidence to suggest that some local pastors are quite content with that designation and do not wish to advance in mind or title. I don't think that is a good idea but I also don't think that eliminating the position as an incentive to study is a good idea either.

Should pastors at any level be required to prepare a position paper illustrating their understanding of the theology of the church?

I think that can do more harm than good. First of all, one would think that one's position gives some insight into one's understanding of the theology. And since we already have an established document on the church's position on Communion ("This Holy Mystery"; it is this document that set the standards for communion that we use today), it would seem so easy to simply paraphrase or review that document as a completion of any assignment.

If a local pastor writes something which is theologically unsound or incorrect, then what happens then? Are they simply denied the opportunity to offer communion (or the other sacraments of the church) until such time that they have the proper insight? Or are they going to find the path to leave the ministry is shorter than the the path to complete ordination?

And what if the paper is truly theologically correct and sound but the reviewers do not have the appropriate background for a complete understanding? What will happen then? There have been too many cases where that has happened as well.

It is not so much that anyone can do communion or baptism anytime or anywhere. But it would seem to me that you better understand what it is you are asked to do before you do it or the whole task is meaningless.

John said...

Thank you for your long and insightful comment, Tony. It is a great blessing to the Church that we have dedicated and thoughtful laypeople such as yourself who engage ecclesiological issues seriously.

I only have time to address one of your concerns this morning:

When it came to communion, I had an agreement with the pastor of my own church (who was an elder) and we could get the elements consecrated in advance. Now, that is not possible. When I take a lay speaking assignment that coincides with my own church's communion service, I am able to take consecrated elements with me. But that communion must be that day and cannot be delayed.

But there was the one visit from the bishop who blessed a gallon of juice that we could freeze and thaw as needed. Today, that would not be possible.

This "blessing" of the elements is a common and, I think, very bad practice of the Church.

I agree that only training, examined people should administer the sacraments in order to ensure that they are duly administered. That is a good reason for restricting sacramental authority. But the practice of blessing elements and sending them forth is not in keeping with this concern. This practice treats the sacraments as magic and the priest as sorcerer. That is not a Christian understanding of the sacraments.

S. Hypocrite said...

This is all a bit beyond my pay grade, so I speak subject to correction. From the pew, I listen and respond as the preacher tells about the last supper, and watch him break the bread. He prays, "Make it be for us the body of Christ..." It's not clear to me why this sincere prayer is different from any other Christian's sincere prayer.

DrTony said...

Thanks for the support.

Let me clarify what I wrote concerning the prior blessing of the elements.

The practice of blessing/consecrating the elements is, at least in my understanding, no longer possible. So any juice that may have been blessed and then frozen for later use cannot be used for that purpose.

Any juice or bread that is blessed for the purpose of communion must be used the day it was blessed. Elders are strongly discouraged from blessing elements for communion outside the normal church service.

The critical point with this regard is how do you celebrate communion with the homebound? If the elements have been blessed, then it should be permissible for any member of the church to take communion to a home-bound or hospitalized visitor, provided that the visit is on the day of the consecration.

But not every lay person can assist the minister in this regard. As you said, unless you have an understanding of what is happening, it becomes a mindless ritual with no meaning for those involved.

If I did not understand what communion was about, it would not be possible for me to administer communion as part of the service. I have understood that from the very day that I was assigned to a church and when I take communion with me to the church I may be preaching at on any Sunday.

JD said...

Dr. Tony's thoughts were very insightful. The comments that scared me the most were those that alluded to this practice being outlined as it is due to "merger" talks with the Episcopal church. That scares me on 2 levels. The first is that we limit sacramental authority due to a "business" reason, and second, the Methodist church and Episcopal church have some very different beliefs that cannot be resolved in a business deal.


RERC said...

Interesting that several posts mentioned not wanting to be perceived as there being "magic" involved in consecrating the elements.

Growing up in the UMC it never occurred to me to think about that interpretation. Yet, as an adult active in ministry, ordained but not through the UMC (so it doesn't count for communion), the UMC interpretation looks more and more like that to me as time goes on.

There are other circumstances beyond home/hospital visitation where non-elders serve and are frustrated by the inability to serve communion. Disciple Bible Study is one of them. I've led various Disciple studies for years, and at the end, you're supposed to have a communion service--which in the UMC you can't do without the pastor.

Years ago I had the experience where when this time came the pastor was out of sorts with his congregation to the extent that one way he could punish them was by refusing to come to this one evening so communion could take place. We were stuck, couldn't do the communion, and so did not end the study appropriately.

I've since thought that there really must be something to the "magic" aspect in the UMC, no matter how much this is denied. If you need the special person to ask God in that certain part of the liturgy to make the elements suitable or else it's not real communion, you're really skirting the magic issue. I haven't been comfortable with the UMC interpretation ever since.

Dale Tedder said...

John wrote...

"The trade off is that the workload of the Boards of Ordained Ministry would increase substantially"

I'll remember that the next time you're before me.


DogBlogger said...

So glad this dicussion went in a reasonable direction. From the Jonathan Swift reference in the title of your post, I was expecting you to suggest that we start eating babies for Communion (only after they've been properly baptized, of course).


Don Yeager said...

To respond to rerc's comments:
I know it can be frustrating to some people not to be able to serve Communion at certain times. Disciple Bible study can be one of those, as well as some retreats, the Walk to Emmaus, camps, etc. But I don't think it's a matter of having a "magical" view of the sacraments. It's that the UMC, along with some other churches, have decided to reserve some limited acts to people who have been trained and/or set apart for those duties. These include not just Communion, but also baptism, weddings, and most funerals.
By the way I am not opposed to local pastors having sacramental authority in their appointment.

jimmorrow said...

I'm a little late here, but I wanted to chime in on this thought:

Keith (and Dan) writes: "Show me in the Bible where Jesus restricts these practices to elders, or priests, etc.?"

The "show me in the Bible" thing doesn't really work as a justification for much. Show me in the Bible where anyone in the NT church went to the bathroom, dealt with crying babies, worried about trans fats, or the stock market.


Your proposal is a sound one. I still favor the early report on ministry: separate ordination and admission into full connection. That solves alot.


Anonymous said...

I think this goes to a deeper problem -- why the obsession with seminary? I think that ordained clergy, of which I am included, often have to justify their own positions. They tremble that a non-seminary trained person or even a group of people could do their jobs just as effectively.

It smacks of apartheid that churches have to work so diligently to create titles like "elder" and "lay/licensed pastor" to somehow protect seemingly unsuspecting people from an "uneducated" person. Hopefully, as seminaries become less populated and with rising costs, education can return to the local church or licensed pastors will become more accepted.

Anonymous said...

This discussion is enlightening. I know of lay speakers who have gotten around the rules by haqving the retirement home residents "vote" as would a number of protestant denominations for him or her to dedicate the elements. One person I know in particular, when denied the use of an UMC elder for communion sunday, had to decide to either refuse the residents the opportunity of forgiveness that goes with communion; or to accept the calling and read the appropiate parts of the service and accept that Methodist Communion is more than just giving bread and wine. The service is to allow the people to request of God forgiveness through a form of confession. A small group of ministers are just reading the service without proper use of this clause. If I was faced with the choice, I would rather have a dedicated layman provide the leadership as to participate in a farce that a elder provided as a quick read over. The service is about spiritual growth not eldership.