Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Zeal and Patience, Part IV

Originally published on Covenant, 19 July, 2017
A similar uncertainty surrounds the affirmations about our essential unity of belief regarding the Holy Eucharist. It is true that This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion affirms “the real, personal, and living presence of Jesus” in the sacramental elements (though “in temporal and relational terms”). However, assorted practices surrounding the celebration and administration of Holy Communion in United Methodist Churches stand at some tension with this claim, as they deviate so seriously from historical norms.
Much of the online discussion has centered on whether the Methodist requirement that Holy Communion be celebrated with “the pure, unfermented juice of the grape” can be squared with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s that the Holy Communion be “ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.” More serious is the nearly universal United Methodist practice of admitting the unbaptized to Communion and the widespread authorization for celebrating Holy Communion by licensed local (unordained) pastors.

Ironically, in adopting these practices, 19th and 20th century pastors outdid Wesley, who rejected all of them in his ministry. Indeed, Wesley’s stated intention behind sending Coke to America to set up an ordained Methodist ministry was to preserve the ancient practice that restricted eucharistic celebration to presbyters. The Methodist practice of “open communion” has been justified since the late 19th century by an appeal to Wesley’s belief that Holy Communion was a “converting ordinance.” However, Methodist liturgical scholar Karen Westerfield-Tucker has conclusively demonstrated that Wesley never communed an unbaptized person and was merely restating common Anglican pastoral wisdom: baptized persons who lacked a strong certainty of God’s grace should seek it in the Sacrament, not drawing back because of their supposed unworthiness.
To return to the theme of my first post, I would like to point out that all three actions I have considered — dispensing with episcopacy, the uncertain status of the historic creeds, and irregular Communion practices — reveal in different ways a foundational Wesleyan willingness to dispense with historic and canonical practice for the sake of a perceived evangelistic need. Each was, in its own time, a zealous undertaking, and firmly resisted by the more patient of Methodist church leaders.
These topics have been treated at some length in the bilateral dialogue’s 2010 document, Theological Foundations for Full Communion. Some “Ways Forward” are suggested there that could bring resolution between the two churches by requiring some adjustment of United Methodist practice. These do not appear to have been taken up in A Gift to the World.
Theological Foundations notably placed significant hopes in the prospect that the United Methodist Church might ordain all lay pastors as elders at its 2012 General Conference, addressing the pastoral need of small parishes while preserving ancient canonical practice (p. 33). Such a move would be similar to the Episcopal Church’s earlier decision to drop the practice of Canon Nine ordinations. That course, however, was not taken in 2012, in part because the practice of lay presidency is highly praised among some United Methodists. Likewise, there is no indication from A Gift to the World that any action has been taken on the “way forward” direction that United Methodist leaders should strive “to make clearer to laity as well as clergy the extraordinary nature of the possibility of communion of the unbaptized” (pp. 26-27).
Full-communion agreements are serious matters in ecumenical work, one step short of church merger. A Gift to the World’s outlining of a process for United Methodists receiving the historic episcopate is a serious step that befits the significance of the arrangement, and is modeled closely on the Called to Common Mission agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has proved fruitful in many ways for both churches.
A similar seriousness and a willingness to accept substantial change for the sake of unity should also be required in creedal affirmation, and there should be a clarification of the implications of historically irregular practices surrounding the administration of Holy Communion. Specifically, before moving to full communion, the Episcopal Church should insist that the United Methodist Church identify the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. United Methodist local lay pastors should also be ordained as elders, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist should be restricted to ordained elders.  A formal clarification of the relationship between Baptism and Holy Communion is also important, if enforcing the ancient canonical rule about restricting communion to the baptized has, in fact, become impossible among Methodists.
We should also be open to making similar concrete affirmations and changes that are consistent with historic priorities of Methodism. In his 1784 meeting with two Anglican priests in Maryland, Francis Asbury said “that he believed the difference between us lay not so much in doctrines and in forms of worship as in experience and practice.” A canonical requirement for personal evangelistic witness might be desirable to Methodists, or a binding church-wide policy about the use of alcohol, in the aftermath of a scandal surrounding yet another intemperate Maryland bishop.
These kinds of concessions are necessary to preserve the clear meaning and intention of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The next chapter for ecumenical engagement will almost certainly be more extensive dialogue and cooperation with evangelical and Pentecostal churches. This kind of engagement is exciting precisely because such churches have great zeal to share with us as we work together in service of the gospel. But in important respects, they have closely followed the trajectory pioneered by Wesley, departing significantly from inherited practices and institutions for the sake of mission. Our manner of engagement with this larger and more complex group of believers will be significantly shaped by the way in which we handle the ecumenical challenges presented by Methodism.
The reconciliation of the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church through a careful and unambiguous full-communion agreement would be a good and holy thing, an obedient response to our Lord’s command that we all be one. Our troubled history has blessed us with distinct charisms, which allow us to enrich the ministries that both churches undertake in response to Christ’s grace and for his glory. We will be stronger as churches more deeply filled with both zeal and patience, but only after we have honestly dealt with the full impact of that troubled history.

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