Friday, April 11, 2008

Elders and the "Blessing" of Eucharistic Elements

I've previously written of my disapproval of the practice of elders "blessing" bread and grape juice so that these may be served as the Eucharist by laypeople to others far away from the elder. It treats Holy Communion like magic, not a means of grace, and suggests that the elder is a sorcerer, not a priest.

But while doing my commissioning paperwork over the past two weeks, I noticed that ¶ 340.2.a.5 not only endorses this practice, but requires it from elders. Among the duties of an elder in full connection are:

To select and train deacons and lay members to serve consecrated communion elements.

So it would appear that what I considered bad sacramental practice is, in fact, the official teaching of the United Methodist Church. Hmm.

UPDATE: Follow-up post here.


Matt said...

This is an interesting discussion to say the least.

I have questions about the way probationary elders suddenly receive the ability to consecrate elements outside of their local parish after they're fully ordained.

I'm ready for this to happen. I can't tell you how disappointing it is to leave town and feel the power drain away.

Pastor Blue Jeans said...

this has always been something that has bothered me, not specifically the
sending out the laity with "blessed elements" but something similar. When I was appointed at my first charge, I was sent to licensing school a couple weeks later. After completion of licensing school I was told that I still could not oversee the communion liturgy until I had my license in hand. Now I went to licensing school in July, I received my license on October 1st.

It seemed silly to suggest that this piece of paper had some type of magical power and that without it I was not "worthy" to celebrate the Great Thanksgiving, since I had already completed the school.

In some ways we seemingly try so hard to remove ourselves from anything that even "smells" Catholic and in other ways we are so very Catholic it seems.

willdeuel said...

I agree John. As one who strongly believes in the power of ritual I still struggle with the Disciplinary rules surrounding our sacramental theology. My own beliefs around the Lord's Supper are closer to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and I strongly affirm the Priesthood of all believers.

A mentor and I were shocked when we reviewed the Discipline and realized that as a probationary elder I am essentially a licensed local pastor with a Bible autographed by the Bishop.

Gord said...

In essence this is the REserved Sacrament -- very common in Roman Catholic and Epicopal/ANglican tradition. ANd in some ways it is a very appropriate pastoral practice.

In the UCCan here have been some calling for a similar understanding but our theology holds that the sacrament is an act of the gathered people so a reserved sacrament has less meaning (it is alos why the clergy person takes at least one member of Session/Board with her/him when serving in long-term care homes or to the housebound.

John said...

I support the restriction of sacramental authority to certain persons, but only to ensure that the sacraments are "duly administered" -- not because only certain persons can oversee an effective sacrament.

Art said...

Yes it is the official teaching but my pastor and I both disapprove (shhhh... don't tell anyone). Yet we are very careful to follow the teaching to the letter. Several times I have taken the consecrated elements to homebound members or nursing home residents when the pastor was unable to. Personally, I am uncomfortable doing this but I also realize that it's a way to allow these folks to receive communion when they otherwise would not be able to.

However, I disagree on the "magic" statement. I do not believe that is the intent. When this is covered in Lay Speaking school, it is almost always pointed out that there is nothing "magical" about the consecration of the elements.

John said...

However, I disagree on the "magic" statement. I do not believe that is the intent. When this is covered in Lay Speaking school, it is almost always pointed out that there is nothing "magical" about the consecration of the elements.

Then what happens to the elements when an elder says the words of consecration over them, in your opinion?

TN Rambler said...

One of the dangers of the constant tinkering with the Discipline at each General Conference is how things can get muddled up in the process of clarifying something else. The 2000 Discipline plainly states in para. 331.1b "... All appointed pastors may selesct and train lay members with appropriate words and actions to imediately deliver the consecrated communion elements to members confined at home, in a nursing home, or in the hospital." (emphasis mine). Seems pretty clear to me. Seemed pretty clear to the authors of the official statement of the church on Holy Communion This Holy Mystery, adopted by GC 2004, as referenced in the section on extending the community.

Things evidently were muddled somewhat when what was para. 331 in the 2000 BOD was transformed into para 340 in the 2004 BOD.

In no way was it intended to suggest that we, as a church, support reserving the sacraments. Indeed, such a suggestion would, in my opinion, be at odds with Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion.

United Method said...

When I hear the term "magic" I think of an illusion or something fake.

If I remember correctly, John Wesley was hesitant to say what happened in communion, other than we share in the presence of the Resurrected Christ.

John, I don't hear you disagreeing with the idea of sacraments or even with blessing them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like you have a problem with the pastor(who blesses) being absent from the administration of the sacraments. In this case, I can totally understand that in the same way there might be theological reasons to have communion open to the whole community somehow, the pastor should also be there as part of the community.

The Spirit blows where it wills...who am I to say that God can't use a lay person to bless the elements? But just because God can move beyond our rigid systemic labels doesn't mean we don't need them.

Steven Manskar said...

I suggest you read and study "This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion. You'll find it here:

This will help you understand the sacramental theology of the church.

There is nothing magic about the practice of laity bringing consecrated bread and juice to home bound, hospitalized, and imprisoned members of the congregation. It is a historic practice of extending the Lord's table to the entire community of faith, which includes those who are not able to attend worship.

John said...

United Method, what, in your opinion, happens to the elements when the elder has "blessed" them?

John said...

I've read it, Steven. In fact, I've read it within the past two weeks.

If it's in the Discipline, I'll do it. Period. But I think that we need to provide justification for "blessing" and explain exactly what we think that means.

revjfletcher said...

It's always been my belief that using elements for those homebound members (etc) blessed with those that are used by the gathered congregation extends the fellowship and celebration of the communion experience.

Real magic would be to transform it into a slice of supreme pizza and a Dr. Pepper.

Stay blessed...john

PamBG said...

As a British Methodist minister, I don't think it smacks of magic at all.

'Here is food from the Lord's Table that the community shared together and is now sharing with you'.

I'm actually all for authorising lots more lay presidents of communion, but I'd point out that me celebrating communion with one elderly person in her home is actually a different act than sharing the community with her.

Extended communion is only 'magical' if you think that you have to stand against a 'magical' understanding of Holy Communion. (And, although I do not believe in the Real Presence, I actually think that 'magic' is a bit of Protestant straw-man)

By the way, I suspect that the US Church will get to where the UK church is today: lots of elderly members and a shortage of ministers. There are more people who would like communion at home than ministers can actually serve. In the UK we need to stop being precious about only ministers presiding and I don't think anyone can afford to be precious about banning extended communion either.

willdeuel said...

I can't answer for anyone else here, but at my core I truly believe that what happens to the elements when they are consecrated is.....nothing.

I believe that God's transforming, healing power was already in there. The consecration of the elements heightens the congregation's (and the pastor's) awareness of God's holy presence in the elements. It opens our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our souls to God's transforming power and prepares us to receive and embrace it.

Part of my own confession is that elements consecrated elsewhere then delivered do need to be prayed over, for the simple reason that the person receiving those elements knows with confidence that those prayers have been spoken.

Art said...

John - to answer your question to me - I do not know. But I don't believe it is magic in any way that I understand the word.

Don Yeager said...

The paragraph you reference doesn't necesarily mean that the trained dedacons and/or lay members arer taking the consecrated communion elements outside the church, does it? Could it not mean that they are trained to serve the elements along with the pastor at the church? We have several laypersons in our church who help serve communion every first Sunday. If I were the only one serving, it would take a long time! Plus, I think their service affirms the ministry of the laity.
I tend to agree with tn rambler that this statement is probably a mangling of the 2000 reference to training laypeople to serve communion to homebound members the same day it is celebrated at church, which we also do and affirm.
I think it stretches our understanding of communion for the pastor to consecrate elements which are then taken on, say, a youth retreat and served a day or two later by a layperson.

decaf owl said...

It seems to me that part of what you are dealing with here is that sacramental theology is embedded in eccelsiology. There is a "high" view of the Church in which the Church exists and acts above and beyond the individual members, and the Grace made available through the sacrament is in some real sense made avialable though the Church. Under this understanding, the question here can be viewed as whether the Eucharist is something that the Church does, or something that the individual minister does on behalf of the Church. If it is something that the Church does, then the minister is acting as an authorized agent of the Church, and his authority to consecrate the elements arises through his authorization by the Church.

This view seems to blunt your questions. Why do we not allow laypeople to consecrate? They aren't authorized by the Church. Why are licensed local pastors allowed to consecrate? Because they are, through their licensing, authorized.

You argue that ordination, and with it the authorization to act in the name of the Church to preside over the Eucharist, needs to be based upon sound sacramental theology. Sound theology is, of course, a good thing; but the ability to duly administer the sacrament comes from the authoization, not from the possession of the proper theology.

An analogy could be issuing patents. At the patent office there are individuals, examiners, who look at aplications and issue patents if they decide the application warrents the patent. But is is the patent office that issues the patent, the exmainer merely is an authorized agent of the patent office. The examiner does not issue patents on his own authority as an individual or as a citizen, but only as an authorized agent of the patent office. It is of course a good thing if the patent office makes sure that a person knows the technology and the law before they grant the authorizization to someone, but while they are authorized, they can issue patents even if they don't know the technology or the law.

Pator Blue Jeans, in his comment above, opines that the requirement of being actually authorized by the Church is "silly"; but the theology at this point does not seem to be not based upon some alleged "magical power" or "worthiness", but upon authorization by the Church to act under the authority of the Church, and, like with the patent examiner in the analogy above, it is not the completion of the courses in technology and patent law that gives the examiner the ability to issue patents, but the authorization by the patent office to do so. Patent examiners cannot issue patents until they have their authorizations in hand, regardless of whether they have completed the course-work or not.

From what I can tell, though of course I don't know for sure, you have a very low-church theology. But , as I understand it, Methodist theology is not entirely low-church, but flows out of Anglicanism, which can be high-church. It may be that your low-church theology is encountering practices that flow out of, and make sense in, a higher-church theology.