Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Commissioned Elders Presiding at Communion

On the Commissioned Elder and Provisional Member of the Annual Conference and the Sacrament of Holy Communion in The United Methodist Church

Concern for Sacramental Integrity

A number of incidents while I served three years as a probationary member of the United Methodist clergy covenant as well as since I have been ordained have provoked this response. As I served in campus ministry, I was asked many times to guest preach in local congregations, and on some of those occasions, I was asked to lead the congregation in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion. On each of those occasions, I declined to do so because of my own personal regard for the integrity of the celebration, and to comply with the Discipline of our Church. And yet, that should not have had to be a personal decision. It should be reinforced by clergy colleagues and certainly by superintendents. Unfortunately, my story is not unique: I continue to hear similar stories which deeply disturb me. Many clergy seem unaware of current authorized practice. At the risk of taking something on which is far above my pay scale, let us review...

Disciplinary Provisions

This issue is one which has plagued Methodism from its early days. The official teaching document adopted by the 2004 General Conference, This Holy Mystery, reminds us that:
"[John] Wesley was convinced that there could be no sacramental ministry without ordination as elder. This conviction ultimately determined his decision to perform ‘extraordinary’ ordinations himself...Under the terms of the Book of Discipline, several groups of people are authorized to preside at Eucharist in the charges to which they are appointed.... "
(This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, as recorded in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2008, Resolution #8014, p. 991.)
Among these groups of people will be found the commissioned elder/provisional member, as illustrated by the current Discipline:
"A provisional member preparing for ordination as an elder shall be licensed for pastoral ministry (¶ 315). "
(The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2008, ¶ 326.2.)

"Provisional elders...may be licensed by the bishop to perform all the duties of the pastor (¶ 340), including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion...within and while appointed to a particular charge or extension ministry. For the purposes of these paragraphs the charge or extension ministry will be defined as ‘people within or related to the community or ministry setting being served.’ "
(The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church—2008, ¶ 316.1.)
Theology of Commissioning and Ordination

These two paragraphs indicate the source of authority in a local church that is given to commissioned clergy and provisional elders: it stems from their license for pastoral ministry. Though their identity as clergy stems from the act of commissioning, they function as a licensed local pastor. This dichotomy will not be unified and cemented as a life-long part of their identity until ordination. Ordination is the act of the Spirit which gifts individuals for apostolic ministry; it also confers the authorization and blessing of the Church for a gospel ministry unbound by time or location.

However, licensing in the United Methodist tradition, whether in the transitional state of provisional membership & commissioning or for the long-term as a local pastor, is a recognition that the Spirit is still unfolding the gifts of ministry in an individual. Moreover, licensing for pastoral ministry only recognizes a local and temporary (rather than universal or “catholic,” and life-long) call.

The Limits of Sacramental Responsibility

I cannot find anywhere--neither in the paragraphs relating to the ministry of local pastors & provisional elders nor in the paragraphs relating to the responsibilities of bishops & district superintendents--a place where the current Discipline provides for the administration of the sacraments by those not ordained as an Elder anywhere other than in their appointment. Moreover, regardless of what may have been past practice, the current Discipline does not delegate authority on this matter to a person or group: no bishop, district superintendent, cabinet member, senior pastor, Board of Ordained Ministry, nor District Committee on Ministry may make such an authorization.

In the event that there might be a neglect of the Sacramental life of a congregation or assembly, This Holy Mystery suggests suitable alternatives: celebration by a bishop, district superintendent, elder serving in extension ministries, or retired elder. (cf. This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion, as recorded in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2008, Resolution #8014, p. 992; cf. Discipline ¶ 340.2.b & ¶ 344.3.a.) A desire to further the mission of the church would still have to follow the Disciplinary procedure to begin a new church community; we should treat the celebration of Holy Communion with at least equal regard, even when we desire to "spread scriptural holiness across the land."

There are other reasons—theological, ecclesiological, missional, and practical—why I believe that this continued occurrence is wrong. There may also be reasons to review our current practice and re-open the debate on our orders of ministry and theology of the Eucharist. But I submit that--whether it is in departing from the tradition of the entire Church (without sufficient cause), violating the unity of the Body of Christ by engaging in practices unrecognizable by our ecumenical brothers and sisters, neglecting to be aware of the current requirements in United Methodism, or deliberately refusing to submit to the Discipline--the rogue practice of asking or allowing provisional elders or local pastors to celebrate the Sacraments outside of their appointment is un-collegial, disobedient, and a failure of the Church.


Pastor Ben said...

Josh, I have one question: Did the churches asking you to perform the sacrament know that you were a provisional elder, and not fully ordained? If they did, then they are at fault. But if they didn't (and in my experience, most people simply assume that someone who calls themselves "pastor" is ordained), the the responsibility lies with the pastor to inform (and probably educate) them.

PS - I agree that we should re-open the debate and discussion on this.

Cynthia Thomas Hinson said...

Who educates the congregation, in the first place? I think it is a matter, perhaps, of many elders/deacons/local pastors being uncomfortable with teaching and preaching the differences the church draws between those who are ordained and those who are not. The laity are generally not concerned with such things, and given the opportunity, will often voice that if asked, they would be glad to "do communion." I say this, because I've heard it myself. There is a heartbreaking lack of understanding about the sacramental Presence in communion. After all, how can one explain such a transcendent event in human words, outside of the words of institution, which sound like history to many?

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Josh,

Very interesting post, as I have wondered about this issue in my own ministry. It seems to me though that you are assuming that sacramental authority for local pastors is derived from the Discipline, but I have been under the impression that it is derived from the authority of the bishop. If that were true, would it not stand to reason that the bishop (and by extension the DS) would be perfectly able to "expand" that provisional authority beyond the local charge for the purpose of allowing the local pastor to celebrate sacraments in other places?

Now that whole theory seems crazy to me to begin with - having lay people consecrate "under the authority of the bishop." I've thought about this a while and I think that if the church could simply develope some sort of mechanism for "honorable discharge" from ordained ministry this would solve several problems at once:

We could ordain our new pastors right out of seminary and there would be no ambiguity about their status. We could still have a 3-year provisional membership in the conference that could include extra-close oversight (as is currently the case) and could be ended at any time by "honorable discharge."

This mechanism would also provide a way to amicably get rid of clergy who are not competent to this call, that have perhaps been passed around from one church to another for years, doing damage across the conference.

Finally, it would also shorten the ordination service's length since there would be no need to "comission" the new elders and deacons AND ordain those who are finishing the provisional process at the same Annual Conference. We could ordain the new folks at the ordination service and then have some seperate "graduation to full membership" party for the 3-year people.

This would leave unresolved the issue of local pastors however. I will have to think on that one longer. We run the risk (and indeed may already be there to some extent) of developing two differnt kinds of United Methodism - ordained elder churches with seminary-educated sacramental leadership and all the contours that will come with that; and local pastor churches with a non-sacramental leadership with a different sort of education and style all their own.