UMC Re-examines Sacramental Authority and Ordained Ministry

( [email protected] ) Jan 28, 2004 12:16 PM EST

"Sacramental authority is not to be construed as endowing certain persons with the ability to dispense grace”

The United Methodist Church addressed issues of sacramental authority within the denomination during their annual January symposium.

"Sacramental authority is not to be construed as endowing certain persons with the ability to dispense grace," said Sarah Heaner Lancaster, a professor at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Currently, the UMC has two types of clergy – elders and permanent deacons, and two sacraments – baptism and Holy Communion. Questions over who should administer those sacraments arose in the 1996 conference. Since then, the administration wrestled over the issue and has struggled to address the clear meaning of ordination.

"Even though we will always need to have ordained people, we do not yet have a clear understanding of how these orders relate to one another," said the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, top staff executive at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville. "One of the tensions is in who is authorized to do what." Do deacons and local pastors have authority to administer the sacraments as elders do?

Referring to the Book of Discipline, Lancaster said the church has structured itself to give elders the specific responsibility of administering the sacraments while deacons may assist at the request of the elder.

Lancaster stressed that the roles of deacons and elders are "overlapping, distinct and complementary." They overlap because all Christians are called to proclaim and teach the gospel in some way and to perform acts of service, she said.

Deacons, she said, represent the denomination through a lifetime of service to the world. Elders do the same but with added responsibilities, including administering the sacraments.

Other issues discussed during the symposium included characteristics of ordination, focusing on authority relating to word, service, sacrament and order. The group also briefly discussed the need to be vital for the future and faithful to the past, and the relationship between the church's understanding of its ordered ministry and its understanding as a part of the body of Christ.

Throughout the symposium, speakers emphasized that the church has undergone a significant change over the years in its understanding of ordained ministry and who is eligible to serve as a pastor in the church.

Setting apart people for ordained ministry in American Methodism has always been controversial, said Richard Heitzenrater, a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C. The debate about ordination reflects the differences in opinion about the nature of the church, he said.

Heitzenrater also asserted that a new model must be created to answer the questions of today’s ministry.

"We must constantly adapt to new situations while we hold fast to the basic principles that define us as a part of the body of Christ,” said Heitzenrater.

The Rev. M. Douglas Meeks, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said discussions about the past, present and future of ordained ministry have been ongoing for nearly 25 years.

"What we are trying to do with the symposiums and upcoming conversations is take seriously what ordination has meant in the tradition and what it means today,” said Meeks.

The Rev. Mary Ann Moman, staff executive in the denomination's Division of Ordained Ministry, expressed optimism about the future of ordained ministry.

"I am hopeful," she said, "because the church is longing for leaders who will ask the questions of faith, who are not afraid of the ambiguity that exists in our living, who desire to live in community, who trust their colleagues to hold them accountable, and who can leave room for the spirit to blow through the church."

The January symposium was the first of a series of such events planned by the UMC board of administration to address the issue of ordination and sacraments.