Warning: this is a very “insider” post. If you aren’t particularly interested in issues facing the United Methodist Church, go ahead and skip this.
I wrote my Master’s thesis on some historical issues with ordained ministry in American Methodism, specifically the problem of having unordained clergy preside at Holy Communion. I won’t go into all the details (I have 70 pages on it if anyone is dying to know), but the short version is this: we have a very strange, almost nonsensical theology of ordination. It arose out of missional necessity, which is in the DNA of Methodism. But the way we do it now just really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let me try to break it down. Here are the common categories of clergy (or people who function effectively like clergy) that we currently have in the United Methodist Church:
Ordained Elders in Full Connection
Ordained Deacons in Full Connection
Licensed Local Pastors (I serve in this category)
Certified Lay Ministers
Ordained elders can preside at Holy Communion in all circumstances, unless they have been honorably located, in which case there are certain restrictions. Ordained deacons can preside at Holy Communion only if the bishop gives them specific permission to do so within their ministry setting. Licensed Local Pastors can preside at Holy Communion within their ministry context, which, depending on how your Conference interprets it, means your church building, the community you serve, or anytime you’re ministering to someone who might become part of your church or whom you consider your community. Provisional elders are issued a local pastor’s license when they are “commissioned,” which is a service sort of like an ordination, but not quite, so provisional elders can serve communion with the same restrictions as licensed local pastors. Provisional deacons are issued a “license for the ministry of the deacon” at their commissioning, which confers no authority and from what I can tell, most annual conferences don’t issue a paper certificate at all. Certified Lay Ministers and Supply Pastors can never preside at Holy Communion, though at times there are cases where the elements are “pre-consecrated” by an ordained elder; however, this practice is not sanctioned by our official teaching document on Holy Communion.
Confused yet? You should be – this strange tiered system of clergy and sacramental privileges is really not theologically grounded, but really about practical realities arising out of the history of our church. Originally, only traveling preachers were ordained and were the only ones with sacramental authority, and they didn’t really pastor churches, but instead went from community to community preaching and teaching and serving Communion – the quarterly conference (what morphed into today’s charge conference) was a revival more than the business meeting and found its apex around the Communion service led by the presiding elder, the predecessor office to today’s district superintendent. The local communities would be led by the laity of that community, rather than ordained clergy. Eventually, though, the traveling preachers started settling into a less strenuous life and itinerancy meant you moved every few years instead of every few weeks and morphed into the office of pastor much as we think of it today.
But we’ve never had enough ordained clergy to serve all of our churches. So, the local preacher filled that gap by serving as the pseudo-clergy leader of a local community. Each church would be visited at least four times a year by an ordained presiding elder. But some churches wanted Communion more often, and it was becoming difficult for the PE to visit each church quarterly, so local preachers were given the right to preside at Communion and baptism. The ordained deacon as we have it today arose in its present form in 1996, as did the provisional elder and deacon office – I won’t go into detail on those but they also have a complicated history.
Since the mid-1950s, the UMC has commissioned 15 studies of ministry to try to sort all this out, and in the end, we’ve been left with ministry that is, as one of John Wesley’s preachers wrote, “neither Episcopal nor Presbyterian, but a mere hodge-podge of inconsistencies.” The problem is, our theology of ordination is an odd mixture of hierarchical, episcopal orders like that of the Anglican or Catholic church, and more low-church impulses driven by an understanding of the priesthood of all believers. What we end up doing is creating confusion among laity and clergy about when one can and can’t serve the sacraments. And the problem that we end up with is that it weakens how we see the sacraments. We say sacraments are something God does, but then we say licensed local pastors can only do it in certain circumstances, in effect, saying that God can’t leave the bounds of the community where someone is appointed. And then we have very strange links between appointment by a bishop and sacramental authority. So how is sacramental authority mediated? Through the Church universal? A particular bishop? The episcopal office? Ordination? We have no meaningful way of articulating this, and that’s unfortunate since we have articulated much more robust thinking about the sacraments over the past few decades.
So what’s the solution? As I see it, we have a few options:
1) Say that there is no distinction between laity and clergy other than function, and thus sacraments can be served by anyone with appropriate training.
2) Limit sacramental authority to ordained elders in full connection, and raise the expectations for ordained elders that they will have to travel to churches served by licensed clergy to offer the sacraments
3) If we’re going to appoint someone as the pastor of a local church, ordain them, and eliminate the link we have right now between ordination and full connection membership in an annual conference.
I personally like option 3, because option 1 would not be true to our Anglican heritage and I think has some theological issues I’ll explore in a later post, and option 2 has practical difficulties, because there are tens of thousands of our churches served (and served well and faithfully) by licensed local pastors; in This Holy Mystery, we recommend weekly Communion to all churches, and so we shouldn’t make it harder for churches to do this. So, option 3: If we think ordination is something that matters, we should be sending ordained clergy to our churches. It would mean greatly expanding how many people we ordain, and so perhaps the standards for licensing would need to be looked at more closely. But ordination is a gift of God to the church, and we should find ways to make sure that as many of our local churches as possible benefit from this gift.