Giving Deacons the Magic Waving Hands

communion

In the United Methodist Church, we have two “orders” or categories by which our ordained clergy fall into:

  • Elders are ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.
  • Deacons are ordained to Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice.

The second item on the Elder’s line means that only Elders can officiate over Sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Deacons cannot officiate and bless the elements of Communion. Or can they?

In 2012, the doctrine was changed such that Deacons became allowed to bless the elements of Communion under particular circumstances:

For the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the church, a pastor-in-charge or DS may request that the bishop grant local sacramental authority to the deacon to administer the sacraments in the absence of an elder, within a deacon’s primary appointment.

para 328 of the Book of Discipline

Really vague, right? Other people thought so too and started asking their Bishops to interpret it for them.  So in 2013, the Florida Annual Conference asked for clarity from their Bishop as to what his interpretation is. Today, he issued his ruling: Bishop Ken Carter’s ruling. It’s a bit long and very theological (not a bad thing!).

To give a short version of Bishop Carter’s ruling, a Facebook commentator interpreted it in this way:

  • IF a deacon is serving outside the local church (but still within their primary appointment and “in the world”)
  • AND IF there is no elder either assigned, otherwise present, or able to pre-consecrate the elements
  • AND IF it extends the mission and ministry of the church
  • AND IF requested by the pastor-in-charge (of what I’m not sure if the deacon is outside the local church) or district superintendent,
  • THEN Bishop Carter will grant extraordinary sacramental authority.

As the commentator concluded:

So this is a “no” to youth ministers out on retreat, a “no” to those leading worship when the pastor is on vacation, a “no” to those who might serve on the International Space Station (definitely not “in the world”), and a “maybe” to those who are chaplains or serve in non-church contexts.

Essentially, the Discipline now allows for Deacons to become temporary local pastors: people given sacramental authority over a limited physical area. Local pastors cannot officiate over communion outside of their appointed area.

I wonder about this ruling. I know some people find it odd that an ordained clergy cannot officiate over communion. I know some people find it odd that an ordained person wouldn’t feel called to officiate communion. I know some people think that people having to be given permission to wave magic hands over bread and juice is just plain weird.

That’s all fine. My only wonder is this.

If I, as an Elder, am not right with God and have fallen short on significant sin, the grace in the act of the Sacrament still flows through me. No blockages, no leaking of my sin on those who take communion from me. And the person receiving the elements receives grace fully, I won’t refuse communion even if they are horrible people, and there are no blockages from God to them no matter how great their sin. Communion is a free channel of God’s grace from those expected by the Church to lead to those who come with willingness to know Jesus in their hearts. No other restrictions. So when a Deacon is granted permission to officiate, what component of a Deacon’s ordination doesn’t allow them to be that channel except with the Bishop’s permission?  What is substantially different in the communion moment when one has the Bishop’s permission?

Any thoughts from the Peanut gallery? Has your bishop given similar rulings or clarifications for your conference? Are they different from Bishop Carter here?

(Photo credit: “Communion” by Weiers, Creative Commons share from Flickr)
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Comments

  1. Margie Van Oostrum says

    I am an ordained Deacon, retired a year ago. I have always felt a call to sacraments, but I knew without a doubt that I was NOT called to administration. So I became a Deacon. I gave up a passion in order to be obedient to the law of the church. I am not complaining. But I am sad that I was not allowed to minister to folks through the sacraments, as I did much with children and children in worship. God blessed me in allowing me to assist on occasion and (don’t tell, officiated with my Sr. Pastors blessings a time or two.) If we really believe that it is God’s action in people and not what we do or do not do, an ordained person (Elder or Deacon) would honor and respect the office of Holy Communion as they administer it. I personally think that Elders have used the exclusion of Deacons as a punishment for not itinerating. If we really are peers in ministry, than lets be peers and recognize that we (elders and deacons) are both called by God to minister God’s grace to God’s people. I guess I really could catch it for this opinion. But I am sticking to it.

    • local pastor says

      That’s an interesting thought about punishment. You’d think the struggle to serve and keep a home without the conference’s or church’s provision would be enough.

      Thank you for your ministry.

  2. local pastor says

    Yes yes yes.
    Some say it’s about power in the end. Some conferences and their leadership have a big problem with power. Deacons are seen as second-class clergy. Candidates with gifts for the Word are encouraged into the elder track (and extension ministry) even if they are feeling called to service, because we value elders more than deacons. This is a poisonous position. We are the UMC, a missional church. The fact that we try to keep this offering of grace and communion with God in the hands of an elect few often feels really…. Worldly.

    As a local pastor, I got the magic hands permission when I went to licensing school. I am in relationship with many Christians outside of my parish who look to me as a church representative. Would it be faithful of me to say no to them if they asked for Communion?

    Excellent questions. I will ponder them.

    • says

      *shrugs* yeah, but ordination is a shaky biblical topic in the first place. Alan Hirsch has written on the subject in his books, if I recall correctly…

      • says

        Read “Why Priests?” by Garry Wills and it’ll ruin the idea of ordination for you. I now refer to myself as “the stander-in-front.” Even though we all sit. In a circle. In my living room. And serve each other.

  3. says

    To clarify one issue:

    “Preconsecration” is never permitted by our doctrinal statement, “This Holy Mystery.” Either an authorized presider (who may be a deacon in extraordinary cases and with the permission of the resident bishop) is present in real time and in body with the celebrating community, or there is to be no celebration.

    Extension of the table applies only for persons who are unwillingly absent from a regular celebration of the sacrament by the gathered community. This is typically for health reasons. It does not apply to situations such as church camps or retreat, because the retreatants or campers are in such cases willingly absent.

    • says

      When I was a lay missioner serving as a supply pastor in Missouri AC during 2003-2005, either my mentor, college minister, or DS would pre-consecrate the elements. It was taught by Elders of the conference as procedure at lay-missioner school.

      Even though I had little theological training, I felt that pre-consecration was playing at “magic-hands.” So I started to pray the epiclesis myself. It never sat well with me that we could only have communion with the intercession of someone who wasn’t directly participating in our local church community.

  4. says

    My issue is with pre-consecration. It divorces Eucharist from community. I would rather see a lay person pray the epiclesis in the presence of the body of Christ than to have an Elder do it in his or her living room hours or days before communal worship.

  5. local pastor says

    Straightforward question: campers on a church trip are considered willingly absent from the table?

    What if elders were the ones who gave Communion within the church building and deacons were the ones to give it outside?

  6. GDG says

    My experience with sacramental authority is even more complicated:

    1. I served as a local pastor as the sole pastor of congregation. I officiated at baptism and communion.
    2. Next I was commissioned as a provisional elder and appointed Associate Pastor of another congregation. I officiated at baptism and communion.
    3. During this time, I discerned that my calling was to the ministry of the deacon. I transitioned from provisional elder to provisional deacon. At some point I lost the ability to officiate*
    4. I am now an ordained deacon serving beyond the local church. I am not authorized to officiate.

    *No one could tell me when I actually lost the ability to say the magic words. Was it when I met with the committee of the BOOM to seek to transition orders? Was it not until this transition was voted upon & approved at clergy session 9 months later? Even now, I still ask and the answer is always a version of…”errr…ummm…well, as long as you know you can’t now.. you know that, right?”

    Fundamentally, what about me changed that prevented God from continuing to work through me to consecrate the elements and to baptize an individual?

    • says

      Nothing. That’s my vote.

      But the Sacrament of Holy Paperwork might say something else.

      What I don’t get is why when I was a Student Local Pastor and a Provisional Elder I had to have permission from the DS to perform weddings outside my local congregation. That’s not even a UMC sacrament. (Does the UMC secretly wish it was Roman Catholic?)

    • Georgia says

      GDG,
      I transition to from Elder provisional to deacon provisional…same…I can no longer preside over communion either. What has been the most difficult part of the transition is now allowing any of my “elder” time count towards ordination. Not sure why the lable makes the difference in determining if you are “fit” for ministry..but evidently you have to do the time in the label —whatever label you are aspiring towards.

  7. says

    In ancient Israel — I know this is not the parallel — you had different orders who had different roles. Some served at the altar and others provided others services and other functions. I do not see why the idea of having some people ordained to sacrament and others not is a problem.

    I can’t figure out if the phrase “magic hands” is a sign of low sacramental views or just a cute turn of phrase.

    • says

      I’ll let you decide if someone who writes an entire series on BaptismFAILS has a low sacramentality. Irreverent humor can be hard to spot sometimes.

    • says

      I don’t believe that Jesus established a priesthood or pastorship that’s supposed to resemble the Jewish priesthood. I think Jesus leveled those hierarchies.

      Paul lists spiritual gifts, but presiding over Eucharist wasn’t one of them. Also, in Acts, deacons baptized people. So there’s that.

      The Didache had prophets offering the Eucharistic prayer…but if we go that route, we’ve equivocated the gift of prophecy with the priesthood. But then again, the Eucharist in the Didache wasn’t a retelling of the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, just a communal act of thanksgiving while sharing a common meal.

  8. says

    Yes. This is a big hole in our theology.

    I’m a local pastor and can’t actually figure out the argument for why I should be able to preside at the table. It is the same issue with deacons a far as I can see.

    In the end, I trust that the the denomination has been guided by the Holy Spirit in this and do what those in positions of authority above me direct me to do.

  9. Greg Nelson says

    So to throw in the typical lay persons point if view: Huh, what? There’s a difference? Isn’t a pastor a pastor?

  10. Marilyn Roberts says

    I am a Local Pastor and served as a campus minister for the Wesley Foundation at a University while I also pastored a church. I could preside over the table at my church but was unable to serve Communion to my students for the five years I was at the school.

  11. Carolyn says

    My mother is an ordained Deacon and she has been asking the same question for years. Near as I can figure, the UMC created the Order of the Deacon without completely figuring out what it is. Who gives communion is the only substantive difference between Deacon and Elder. So when Deacons ask for rights to give communion, Elders seem reluctant to approve it out of fear of losing their identity and lay folk are just plain confused. Perhaps if there weren’t an implicit hierarchy among the orders this wouldn’t be such a big deal.

  12. Rachel says

    I grew up and was confirmed in the Methodist church, and am now worshiping at a Lutheran (ELCA) church, mainly because of geography and community more than theology. We have the same issue of “ordained”/word and sacrament ministers and “consecrated”/diaconal ministers in that the diaconia is not to serve communion except in extenuating circumstances like the ones described here. My understanding (as a lay person who spent a semester in seminary as a diaconal candidate and who has many pastor friends) is that we distinguish by what one feels “called” to. In other words, that many of those called to word and service feel uncomfortable with the idea of consecrating communion because it is so sacred and such a huge responsibility to have to, in essence, serve as Jesus for a community.

    Does it seem like “magic hands”? Sometimes. Was it frustrating that my campus pastor (a deacon in the Lutheran church) couldn’t consecrate communion for us? Sometimes. But I think we ultimately trust that our bishops and clergy (word and sacrament and word and service) will prayerfully discern what defines “extenuating circumstances,” favoring grace whenever possible. My understanding is that permission from the bishop just serves as a form of accountability and a way for bishops to be aware of situations where it might help to have a word/sacrament presence so that word/service leadership can focus on their calling.

    So, in other words, the UMC isn’t the only denomination in this quandary. I’m not, by any means, speaking for the ELCA or saying that we have it together—but I think, especially for lay people, it’s worth questioning and trying to clarify the difference–or the importance of this difference. To make things more confusing, the ELCA is in “full communion” with the UMC and several other denominations. So do the same rules apply?

  13. says

    It is not about magic hands. It is about church order and the role of leadership that one is called to and set aside for. In fact I believe that one of the key aspects of discernment between a call to the order of deacon or the order of elder is sacramental administration. If you feel called and led to gather people around the sacraments then you are called to the order of elders.

    Ordination is not generic but to a particular role. UM did not make this up, we are following a tradition that goes back to the early days of the church.

    There have been Christian denominations that have done away with ordained persons, others who have separated ordination from any sacramental ministry (The Christian Church/Disciples of Christ), and others like UM’s who continue the catholic practice (except of our licensing of local pastors).

    As long as we do not place a burden on people who desire to transfer orders (from deacon to elder) then I am not sure why this is an issue. After all those who seek deacons orders are aware that it does not include sacramental administration.

    • local pastor says

      Good points, but I’m pondering something related to this: “If you feel called and led to gather people around the sacraments then you are called to the order of elders.”

      We have put the requirement that those who feel called to gather people around the sacraments must be church administrators and itinerant at the whim of the conference. So, we are telling people who do feel called to offer Communion that they need to be itinerant or find another denomination – more or less. This is a dramatic example, but I’m sure someone can help think of another one: It seems silly to me that a physician or nurse or EMT, who may also be a Deacon, cannot offer Communion to someone who seeks that means of grace, particularly in traumatic times. Do they wait for an elder to come by representing a local parish and who will weigh whether or not the person should have it based on her or his relationship to the parish community?

      And: there are important spaces where Communion should be offered – like campus ministries – where no “official” Communion may be offered. These are digits of the body of Christ where disciples are gathered!

      • says

        Holy Communion belongs to the body and elders were set aside by God’s people through the laying on of hands of the Bishop to make sure that what we offer is what the church has “received from the Lord.” A connection to a parish is a connection to the body and holy communion should never exist outside the body.

        Let’s ordain more elders if they are needed! It has been part of our Wesleyan heritage that Elders are itinerant, once again our current leadership has not made this up but just continued the tradition. General Conference could change this (50% lay and 50% clergy and not the whims of bishops) but obviously we have not chosen to change this understanding. Once again we are not playing bait and switch so candidates for ordination both deacons and elders know of this reality. If a candidate feels a call to sacramental administration in the UMC then that call comes with itinerancy. If the candidate does not want to be itinerant they can either go to another denomination or petition General Conference to change this connection.

    • says

      You just stated the way things are as if that was the reason for the way things are. In other words, you said, “the UMC is right because it says that it’s right.”

      You’ve completely discounted the other 1800 years that the church existed before Wesley started the movement.

      And your argument isn’t for sacramentalism as much as its about hierarchy and focusing power and authority in a small group of “especially” called people who have exclusive access to a particular means sharing (or not sharing) Jesus with common lay folk.

  14. says

    Kurt,
    I did not say that the UMC was “right” or “wrong.” I just stated the reasons why we do what we do and a reminder that we can choose to go a different route.

    I have not discounted the other 1800 years in the history of the church, in fact when we read the Didache (late first early second century) speaks to presbyters who gather around table and deacons who extend table to those who are absent, the roles that we have to this day.

    I am unsure how my argument is about hierarchy and focusing of power. Those that know me, know that my main interest is to be a faithful disciple, leader, and pastor. I do take my responsibilities as an ordained person seriously and I am always thankful and honored that God’s people have called me to this way of living out my discipleship.

    We can choose to not ordained, to ordain in different ways, and there are traditions that have done and are doing just that! But I am unsure how our current way of living out our orders of ministry in United Methodism is keeping people from experiencing Jesus through sacramental grace?

    • says

      If there is no Elder present (or someone else given the authority of magic hands) there can be no Eucharist, and thus sharing in the body and blood of Christ.

      If there’s no power dynamic going on there, then I apparently have no idea what power is.

      • says

        Kurt,
        This has been the practice of the church from it’s beginnings, whether you agree with it or not. We could change it (although I am not sure why we would) but to say it’s a power dynamic takes away from the decision that the church made to set aside people for sacramental and apostolic ministry. That was the decision of the church, it is not about magic hands, but about those that we have chosen as God’s people to remind us of the story of our faith and guard what we have received from the Lord.

        There is clericalism that exist but to claim that somehow any set apart ministry is somehow about malicious exercise of power does not reflect the witness of the scriptures, the tradition, and our experience over time. I am thankful for the many pastors and other clergy leaders who have helped me find my way to God. I am thankful that the church has called the Spirit for the work of leadership upon them!

        • says

          The practice of the church has been that of God setting people aside for work according to their gifts. And establishment of a hierarchy is contradictory to the actions and teachings of Jesus. there is no gift for sacramental ministry. To equate orders such as deacons and elders to that of the work apostles is simply wrongheaded and limits who the church can name as “those who are sent.”

          I’m not arguing against deacons and elders and bishops and the like. These responsibilities are clearly set forth in scripture. I’m arguing against what the UMC and other denominations have made these things to be.

          You are putting words in my mouth when you accuse me of claiming that clericalism is malicious. But to think that creating hierarchies within the church doesn’t create an opportunity for the abuse of power in naive. Once any group of people, be it the church or otherwise, starts defining who is allowed to do a particular work in the church, then the church has also defined who cannot do that work. Worse yet, if the church uses the justification of these practices that reflect more the structure of the government or magistrates, while calling it tradition, then it moves away from the original idea behind it all–that is, that God gives gifts to the laos of the church for the work of the church.

          I think you may be mistaken in thinking that I hate the church. I do not. I too have a long list of clergy persons who have helped me grow closer to Christ. However, I have been deeply hurt by elders, deacons, a bishop, district superintendents, and lay people in positions of power that have alienated me from the UMC after years of membership and service.

          Maybe clerical defensiveness in the face of criticism and claims of hurt should be replaced with words like, “maybe we’re wrong,” or “I’m sorry,” or even “I love you.” All I received from the UMC when I chose to turn in my credentials was a chewing out by a DS over the phone, snubbed at AC by another DS, and a form letter from the bishop’s secretary. If that’s what comes with magic hands, you can keep it.

  15. Judy Hall says

    I am a UMC deacon and my husband is a UMC elder. We are both pastoral counselors. Neither of us itinerates. He can administer sacraments and I cannot. He served churches, then became a chaplain supervisor, then a pastoral counselor before the order of deacon existed in the UMC. If he had felt the call to chaplaincy or pastoral counseling more recently would he have been required to leave the order of elders and join the order of deacons?

    • says

      Technically he still itinerates. In general, such Elders tend to be left alone (where they are) by Bishops/Cabinets/Conferences. Similar to Elders who pastor at our largest or most powerful churches. At least that’s the way I read the BoD

      My wife and I are int eh same pattern as you are. We enjoy these discussions!

    • says

      It doesn’t. The tradition comes from a complicated extrapolation of the formation of a new Christian priesthood out of the book of Hebrews. The Didache only offers prayers of praise and thanksgiving to open and close communal table fellowship. In the earliest church traditions of which we have record, there is no prayer of epicesis as sacramental church communities employ it today.

      • John P. says

        The term it doesn’t seems to close the door on further discussion. Unless you seem to think the book of discipline trumps The Word.

  16. says

    Thanks for posting about this! I do not believe we (UMC) handle this very well. Call me cynical, but I think it is a turf (or power) issue for many Elders. Full disclosure: I am an Elder, 20+ years in, and fight to keep from making or allowing power or turf to direct my ministry or understanding.

    • LostDog says

      Thank you for your insight and self-examination, and vigilance against taking power trips. If only more would do so…focus on the ministry and not on titles and privileges. “We’ve always done it this way” is a disingenuous argument, and sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear people rush to that defense. So again, tip of the hat to you, sir.

  17. Diane Quantic says

    Doesn’t this question date back to the roots of Methodism in the Church of England/Catholic church? The idea that there is a succession from one [Elder] to the next? When I took a course on church history, I seem to remember that Wesley and the rest of the leaders had a conundrum when the church began to spread through the colonies, since they believed that only Wesley or another ordained (Church of England) person could ordain new pastors–far away from any ordained person. Isn’t the root of the Elder/Deacon/Word question similar? Just wondering.
    I’m a Lay Speaker, but not versed in Methodist theology.

  18. John P. says

    After reading the thoughtful discussion going on about the subject. My question, why does the UMC make things so difficult?

  19. Dave Z says

    As the spouse (M.Div., not ordained) of a lay delegate (D.Min. student) to the 2013 Florida Annual Conference Event: it was asked that Bishop Carter consider putting into more frequent practice allowing Deacons the blessing of administering the Sacrament of Holy Communion per paragraph 328 of the BOD.
    I approve.

  20. says

    As an elder in the UMC for 24 years, I see this whole issue as being centered on power – who has it and who doesn’t. There is nothing biblical about the way we currently administer Holy Communion, and I flat out refuse to “pre-consecrate” elements. Magic hands and words (and clericalism) indeed! My job, as I see it, is to make sure the sacraments are administered properly in my congregation, and that may (in my opinion) be done by elders, deacons, and lay people. Call me a heretic, but that’s my ever so humble opinion. :^)

  21. says

    This is a very interesting post and interesting discussion. What it suggests is that we need to do more substantive work around our theology of ministry–that is, our understanding of clerical callings and roles. From a theological standpoint, the various claims here that something or other about clergy or sacramental authority is “not in the bible” isn’t very convincing. We are not a biblicist church, and those kinds of suggestions bespeak a weird sort of fundamentalism that you only see from Methodists on very particular kinds of issues. The church’s theology of ministry is something that is based in Scripture but was worked out in the early centuries of the church–and with us, of course, also includes historical contributions both from the Reformation period and the early Methodist movement. There’s nothing wrong with having distinct church offices called to different functions of ministry. (The best way to think about it is that, if a person has a call to a sacramental ministry, then from the church’s standpoint that person is being called to the ministry of an elder.) Where we become incoherent in our theology of ministry is with the entire category of the licensed local pastor. The limited sacramental authority of such ministers must be seen as exercised as a proxy of the bishop for it to make any sense at all, and even here, it is a stretch. The best thing to do would be to simply ordain such people and allow the distinctions of education, training, willingness to itinerate, etc., be represented by conference membership (full, associate, etc.). But again, all of this points to the need for us to do more rigorous theological work around our understanding of the dynamics of ordained ministry.

  22. says

    I’m a Deacon who attended a Disciples of Christ seminary. If I wasn’t so Wesleyan in my theology, I’d have gladly become a DoC clergy person as they actually allow lay people to consecrate the elements! What a novel concept in the “priesthood of all believers.”

    The other thing that surprises me is Catholicism. I did one unit of CPE in a children’s hospital where I learned that even though I was a lay person at the time, if a Catholic family came to me needing baptism for an unbaptized dying child I could do it, and it would be legitimate – even if the child wound up living.

    I certainly believe sacraments are important in the life of the church, but luckily, I was clear in my calling that it was not important for me to do the Sacraments. Likewise, I’m clear I’m not called to administration. That all being said, I’m not sure we get much right in the UMC with sacraments or ordination. The answers, however, are beyond my time or thinking ability right at this moment, so I’ll save those thoughts for another time!

    Oh, one point of clarification: Our DOCTRINE did not change; our polity did. That’s a big difference.

  23. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    The Waldensians believed any righteous Christian could consecrate the elements. I have a theory I like to adhere to regarding correct theology, called the Ecclesiology of Blood, that states that the validity of a church’s theological positions are largely a factor of the number of martyrs it has suffered versus the number of deaths it has caused through persecution and religious war. According to this scale, the winners are the Oriental Orthodox, the Assyrians, and the Waldensians, who were almost entirely wiped out in the horrible event of the Piedmont Easter (the losers, the churches with the most blood on their hands, are predictably the RCC and the Calvinists; everyone else is in the middle, with the Eastern Orthodox recently moving into positive territory due to the mass-murder of Christians by the USSR). Based on this metric, it would seem by virtue of the crown of martyrdom, the Waldensians had some merit, and the idea that any righteous Christian can consecrate the sacraments is one aspect of their theology.

    I am not prepared to accept Waldensian theology in its entirety; I reject their argument that the immorality of a priest invalidates the sacraments they perform, and insist instead upon the principle of ex opere operato, otherwise, laity would be unduly burdened with the impossible task of finding unblemished clergy. For that matter, I feel it is important that where possible, apostolic succession be maintained (to the extent that it still exists; I believe it does exist but it certainly has been compromised relative to the Patristic era), as well as the normal church hierarchy. I would say that in the situation of need, any Christian layperson, including women, have the right to perform the sacraments, even including ordination, but under normal conditions, in normal worship, ordination should be performed only by the celibate male episcopate, and the sacraments should be performed by male clergy with the assistance of male and female members of the diaconate and minor orders. However, using the contrived scenario of a plane full of nuns and unordained female missionaries crashing on a desert island, there is an obvious need for flexibility.

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