Monday, April 14, 2014

Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Incarnation: Scandal and Foolishness, or Power and Wisdom?

"But we proclaim Messiah crucified, a scandal to Jewish people, foolishness to the goyim, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Messiah, the power of God and the wisdom of God"  I Corinthians 1:23-24

I have to admire Paul's gutsy honesty here. He takes standard Jewish and Greek understandings with utter seriousness, and does not misrepresent or twist them to make them fit the gospel he proclaims. 

The Christian doctrine of incarnation, that, as the gospel of John puts it, "The Logos became flesh and pitched tent among us" (John 1:14) simply was sheer foolishness, something completely incoherent in the standard Heraclitian/Platonic ontologies of the day. How? Because the entire ur-narrative of these Greek ontologies depends on Logos/Reason/Word/Wisdom remaining at a remove from the ephemerality, instability, and chaotic nature of material reality. Only at such a remove could the Logos become an informing, constraining principle of such material chaos. Communication was possible between the two, but any actual communion or intermingling was inconceivable. It was simply obvious, in this ur-narrative, that if the Logos were to become material, even worse, to become flesh, the most unstable and ephemeral of all material realities, all hope of order, civilization, even coherence itself would be lost.

Likewise, within the very narrative in Genesis from which we derived the biblical ontology we began to unpack in the previous post, there is a very significant additional agenda in place, one which likewise sees the co-mingling of human and divine realities as a source of chaos and destruction. Creation happens in Genesis 1 precisely because the God keeps dividing one thing from another, creating boundaries which give room for each differentiated thing to have its place. The "Fall" in Genesis 2 happens in large part because humans have grasped after the knowledge of the Deity. The flood narrative beginning in Genesis 6 identifies a major cause of the contagion of violence ruining all creation as the "Sons of God" having offspring with "human daughters" generating the Nephilim, a race of superior warriors (Genesis 6:1-5). Later, God takes decisive action to end the efforts of humans to build a tower to reach heaven. Story after story, this message rings clear: God is God and humans are not and cannot ever expect to be God. Any notion of a human becoming God or God becoming human is therefore not simply foolish (Greek), but blasphemous. Calling Christian notions of incarnation a scandal to mainstream Jewish theology informed by the Torah may, indeed, be an understatement.

Of course, Paul isn't even addressing incarnation, per se, in the quote taken above. He is rather dealing with the heart of his proclamation in Corinth: Messiah crucified. Corinth was the active capitol of Greek culture and economic and political power in Paul's day. Athens was more of a cultural heritage site at that point. Corinth was also home to a significant Jewish diaspora community. Following an executed man, an ephemeral man judged not worthy of continuing life by his peers, was thus, indeed, foolishness to the Greeks. And it was sheer scandal in mainstream Jewish interpretation to claim Messiah, one of their own, had or could have been been crucified, for "cursed is anyone hanged on a tree" (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Paul makes a very different claim. Messiah crucified is "Messiah the power of God (Jewish) and the wisdom of God (Greek)." The gospel is the announcement of the paradoxical reversal of expectations that actually fulfills the true hopes of both cultures, Jewish and Gentile, which is to say, of the whole world, the cosmos.

Christians, with John and Paul, do proclaim Jesus as Word made flesh, God incarnate, and as Messiah crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. Both were and are foolishness and scandal when our earliest Christian ancestors declared them. Both still are. We, with Paul, still need to own this.

But in owning this, we need not retreat from the claims of incarnation or Christ crucified, raised and returning one iota. Because our ur-narrative is not a narrative of an ordering principle that must remain at some remove lest chaos ensure, and whose core work of ordering is the work of differentiation. Our ur-narrative is that narrative's reversal, the undoing of entropy, not by remove or further differentiation but by fully-restored fellowship. Our ur-narrative, starting with the birth of the church at Pentecost, is of the full restoration of all things in all their variety, variability and even ephemerality, reading backwards from the undoing of Babel toward the ultimate undoing of the Fall. That which was set apart into isolation as a check against chaos is brought back into full communion, a communion that reflects the full diversity within the original creation but no more of the hostility set loose at the Fall. Our ur-narrative leads back to the possibility of God looking upon all things in all their ephemerality, fleshliness and variety, and delighting, as they delight, completely, announcing an eternal "Tov meod!"

Now, this vision of restoration, of ultimate Shalom, of Tikkun Olam (the healing of the world) is not and never has been foreign to all forms of Jewish philosophy or religion, then or, perhaps, especially now. Incarnation and our proclamation as Christians of Jesus as crucified Messiah remain scandalous. But the ur-narrative of the restoration of all things by God with us is one in which Christians and at least some Jewish denominations may be increasingly able to collaborate.

The Outpouring of the Spirit and Christian Biblical Ontology

There are three moments in United Methodist ritual where we especially embody our theology of incarnation, grounded in our biblical ontology. These are baptism, Holy Communion, and ordination.

In all three, our collective prayer, led by an authorized presider, says "Pour out your Spirit on X, that X may be Y."

At Holy Communion we pray "Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here and upon these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood."

At ordination or consecration we pray, "Almighty God, pour upon Name the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/an elder/a bishop in Christ's holy church."

And at baptism, which lie beneath and grounds the life of the whole church, and so grounds both Holy Communion and ordination, we pray, "Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that, dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory."

Always at these pivotal moments we call upon the action of the Holy Spirit, the one ever-moving over the face of ever-moving waters, the Spirit whose breath and whose outpouring of gifts never ceases.

And in all of these pivotal moments, what we seek is for the Spirit to start something new or afresh in us, to initiate a flow the Spirit will ever sustain, but we may or may not continue to abide in.

Starting, though not completed, at baptism.

In none of these cases in our theology as United Methodists, including baptism, does the Spirit's action begun absolutely guarantee the outcome desired. Neither baptism nor ordination conveys any sort of "indelible mark" or "permanent alteration of character" in our lives or conduct.

Likewise, with many other Protestants and Anglicans, we deny transubstantiation, not because of any ongoing rebellion against Roman Catholic theology per se, nor any longer out of any proximity to the actions of the Council of Trent that led our Anglican forebears (and Wesley, copying them) to take such a strident stand against it as a doctrine that "overthroweth the nature of a sacrament" (Articles of Religion XVIII). Rather, we deny transubstantiation because our biblical ontology has no need of any "essences" or "substances" as a hedge against the contingencies and ephemeralities of our own material, fleshly state, or that of the bread and wine on which we also seek the Spirit's blessing. Instead, we are assured by Jesus, God in our flesh, that the living God in whom we trust pours out the Spirit freely and abundantly to all who ask (Luke 11:13).

Next: Ordination and "Sacramental Authority"

Friday, April 11, 2014

Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 1

by Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources, GBOD
Convener, The Ordinal Task Force, and Editor of the Ordinal for The United Methodist Church

Big, big words.

Especially the second, one, "pneumatology," right? I mean, unless your into systematic theology, when's the last time you ever used that term? And unless you're a philosopher, theologian, organizational theorist or liturgy geek, when's the last time you ever used the word "ontology?" And when you used either one, did anyone else in the room understand what you were talking about? Did you, really?

And to put ordination and pneumatology and ontology into the same phrase-- isn't that what Roman Catholics and Orthodox would do? Why in the world would a Protestant, much less a United Methodist, try to do that?

Well, let me tell you why this United Methodist does that.

It's all about the middle term-- pneumatology-- the study of the work of the Holy Spirit-- and how that informs what I think is a biblical ontology, as opposed to a Greek philosophical ontology, that does begin to enable even United Methodists to make ontological claims, and not just functional claims, about the nature of the Christian life and of the church, and consequently about what is at stake in ordination.

And, by the way, all of this is already present in our current ritual of ordination, and pretty much has been since we inherited its underlying form and function from the Church of England via John  Wesley and the actions of the 1784 Christmas Conference.

We'll get to all of that later in the series.

But right now I want to get actually to the third term-- ontology.

Why "Ontology" Weirds Us Protestants Out

Ontology, the study of being, weirds out Protestants in large part because pretty much all of our roots as Protestants (including our Anglican heritage) has been about separating ourselves from what we perceived to be an over-commitment to Greek philosophy in the theology and practices of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Now let me say this. We were not wrong. Rome really had wedded itself to Plato and Aristotle at that time, and ended up doing that even more explicitly and profoundly in some of the final documents and decisions issued by the Council of Trent (mid-16th century). Transubstantion was one of those. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Anabaptists alike cried foul on making this a doctrinal necessity precisely because the very structure of the argument was utterly Aristotelian (with, as we shall see, a Heraclitan and Platonic background), and nowhere to be found in scripture. Anglicans, and Methodists (who adopted much of the Anglican Articles of Religion) went so far as to say, "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions" ("Of The Lord's Supper," Anglican Article 28, Methodist Article 18). \

The heart of the objection to transubstantiation is ontological. The claim in the Roman Catholic doctrine was that the substance, the very being (hence, ontology!) of the bread and wine was changed in or by the celebration of this ritual. Since our Anglican and Methodist forebears could find no support for this idea in scripture, they threw out that claim wholesale.

The problem is they thereby, though perhaps unintentionally, tended to throw out any and all ontological claims the church could make about itself, if not as a matter of official policy, at least as a matter of "guilt by association." The association was something like this: Rome is bad for insisting on a Greek philosophical grounding of core doctrine. And the kind of Greek philosophical argument used in transubstantiation is an ontological one. Therefore it's all bad-- Rome, Greek philosophy, transubstantiation, and, with it, ontology.

What I'd like to posit is that the Bible actually has very robust and rich ontological traditions that aren't Greek, and that actually could and (I will suggest in this series) should inform our conversations about sacraments, ecclesiology, and especially within the latter, ordination. In other words, rather than taking simply a "we don't talk about ontology and ordination in the same sentence except to deny any connection between them," what I want to take on in this series is how a recovery of biblical images of being/Being may not only enable us to talk ontologically about these things again, but indeed to re-invest them with far richer theological imagination.

But to get there, I recognize it's probably important to start with the foundations of the Greek tradition we're (rightly!) weirded out about.

Heraclitus, Plato, and Anxiety about Ephemerality

I wish to start by making a claim I expect to be challenged on a bit by lovers of the Greek tradition, but I will make it anyway. At the heart of the Greek philosophical tradition lies a persistent and deeply rooted anxiety about ephemerality.

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus is "Twice into the same river one cannot step." In asserting this, Heraclitus was not simply talking about rivers and the fact they were constantly changing. He was really talking about the nature of reality itself. He was saying there was in fact no constancy, no stability, not even an illusory stability in anything we can see or experience in the material world. And for him, this was a huge problem, the most dreadful sort of problem. Because without stability, there could be no real order, and without order, we were left to nothing but chaos.

This is certainly an anxiety-producing conclusion, if the the material reality, as we observe it, were all that existed. But, he says, since we also observe some kind of order in this constantly changing material world, that implies there must be some ordering principle, some Reason that gives coherence to all of this. And that Reason he called Logos (in Greek, logos can mean word or reason). Still, since the material world is only and always flux, despite the presence of the Logos, we cannot rely on the material world for true knowledge (i.e., knowledge of that which actually enables life and civilization) unless we know the Logos. If we know the Logos, we have true and worthy knowledge available to us. Even if we do not know the Logos, though, it remains the case that the Logos is what gives us an "indelible character" and establishes our fate as material beings in an ever-changing material existence.

Already in this account of Heraclitus's philosophy, we see the framing of the terms and some of the language that will subsequently inform the ontology of Plato and through him Aristotle and much of the rest of the classic philosophical Western tradition. We see already here the outlines of an ontology grounded in what Plato and Aristotle will call "substance" or "essence" (Being) as the source of the Ideal (Plato) or Real (Aristotle), an ontology in which materiality and changeability are marginalized as shadow (Plato, Parable of the Cave) or "accident" (Aristotle). The only thing that matters is what matters eternally, and the only thing that is eternal is Logos or Being itself.

Nephesh Hayah and the Delight of God

Biblical ontology starts in a very different place. There is no anxiety at all about ephemerality. Rather, there is delight in it! In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, God keeps calling these "living beings" (nephesh hayah) into existence, and saying about them, "This is good!' This word "living" (nephesh) both in Hebrew usage and especially in the context given in the first creation story is precisely focused on what keeps moving around, squirming, teeming, changing. And God keeps saying about all of this, "This is good!"

Finally, at the creation of human beings, among a number of other forms of "nephesh hayah," at the end, when all is created, God's affirmation of all of this, including all of this intrinsically material and changeable stuff, is "This is very good!" (tov meod!) All of it. Everything. Every thing. Every nephesh hayah, including but not limited to humans, and everything else, too. And humans, given the image of God whether male or female, they were included.

So what is the image of God? What can we learn about it in Genesis 1? What does God look like that could be passed on to us? We never see the Creator who speaks, but we do see the Spirit of the Creator from the very beginning. And what is the Spirit doing? Moving-- hovering-- ever-flowing over the face of the ever-moving, ever-stirring, ever-changing waters. So if we are to infer anything about the meaning of imago Dei from the story in which it occurs, what we must infer is that God is known precisely in change and creative interaction. Change, ephemerality, is not a bug-- but perhaps one of the most prominent features of God and creation, and perhaps the feature that gives it so much of its exceeding goodness.

Biblical ontology then, this notion of living being that bears the image of Being (God), is thus as far from anxiety and as close to delight in movement, variety, flux, change and the variations of matter and flesh as it can possibly be. Our very life from God's breath-- Spirit ever-moving over the ever-moving waters-- even our contingency-- all delight!

Next: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Monday, March 10, 2014

United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 3: Closing the Last Mile

-- by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, GBOD

As we have seen in Part I and Part II of this series, the findings of the 2013 United Methodist Baptism study show the majority of our US congregations use our established ritual as provided (58.1%) and teach something about our baptismal vows in connection with preparing them or the congregation to celebrate services of the baptismal covenant (71.2%). 

However, a substantial minority (16.7%) reports materially altering our ritual in ways that may misrepresent our understandings of the sacrament and the roles of laity, deacon, elder and pastor in the sacrament. 28.8% apparently do not teach the vows even in connection with confirmation or membership processes. And it appears few of our congregations or clergy intentionally teach the vows of the baptismal covenant as norms for ongoing, accountable Christian discipleship in any setting other than baptismal or membership preparation.

Given that we do not typically "police" the use of our ritual, that our ritual is only 25 years, that our official teaching document on baptism is only 18 years on, and that the majority of our active clergy were trained at a time prior to our current ritual and teaching, I'd like to think these statistics may point to more of a "last mile problem" than any more basic failure of communication of our doctrine and practice, on the one hand, or any willful attempt to avoid or reject our doctrine and practice on the other.

Still, when we have so tightly identified our mission as a denomination with discipleship, and when baptismal vows (including the basic affirmations of the creed) are understood to be the basis for growing in discipleship as well as professing membership, we cannot dismiss these rates of variance nor the need to "close the last mile."

So how might we do that?

Teaching Interventions

Clergy and Leadership Formation
All of our United Methodist seminaries already include the meaning and practice of our baptismal ritual and "By Water and the Spirit" as part of the required curriculum for United Methodist students taking required worship courses. These are also included in the standards document for United Methodist worship courses created and approved by worship professors at UM and University Senate approved seminaries and housed with the Office of Clergy Formation and Theological Education at GBHEM.

Greater attention to these matters in a more uniform way is also needed for those preparing to function as clergy in licensing schools and Course of Study. And since these persons are often tapped as supply pastors as well, attention should also be given to Lay Servant Ministry training programs, particularly on the Certified Lay Speaker track, Certified Lay Ministry programs, and the training provided as part of the Lay Church Planting Network. For each of these a required course linking baptismal vows and discipleship may be designed and implemented.

Lay Formation
Based on the findings above, the primary place where laity encounter the baptismal vows is in the context of preparation for baptism or professing membership and in the services of the baptismal covenant themselves. Curriculum supporting membership and confirmation classes would thus be a significant leverage point for teaching and encouraging baptismal living. New materials could be created, or such curriculum currently in use could be revised to call much greater attention to the fundamental relationship between the baptismal vows and our own discipleship.

However, simply "front-loading" the relationship between baptism and discipleship (and thus the mission of our Church) into baptism or membership preparation classes does not ensure ongoing growth in living as disciples of Jesus Christ. The relationship between the vows of the baptismal covenant and discipleship needs to be woven into the fabric of the worship, mission and education/formation ministries of every congregation.

It appears the worship life of our congregations does generally include such teaching and modeling, at least around occasions of baptism and reception of new members. Some UMW curriculum has effectively drawn attention to the relationship between mission, outreach and the baptismal vows, but more could be done in this regard to ensure the baptismal vows and mission education and activities are directly linked to each other and to basic Christian discipleship. Other education and formation ministries may need substantially more attention. Perhaps the Curriculum Resources Committee may be asked  to include in its Scope and Sequence an identification of age- appropriate processes for guiding teaching and modeling of living the baptismal covenant. Perhaps the CRC may also be asked to evaluate proposed new curriculum items in part on the basis of how well they support helping persons grow in faithfulness to the baptismal vows.

Leadership/Communications Interventions
How has the mission statement of The United Methodist Church become so well known by so many United Methodists? It is because leaders at every level of denominational life have communicated it consistently and repeatedly since its adoption in 1996. Bishops have built sermons around it. Annual Conferences repeat it together. DSes remind congregations of it at charge conference. DCMs and other annual conference leaders make constant reference to it. United Methodist Women promote it as actively as they do their own mission statement. Lay leaders and pastors in local congregations teach it to their congregations and use it as a tool for both determining and talking about the ministries the congregation undertakes and often as part of annual stewardship campaigns. The words "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" have thus gone viral and become ingrained in many United Methodists.

But the content of those words, what "make disciples" points to, what disciples look like, and how this is intimately related to the baptismal vows has not yet been communicated in nearly so pervasive a way.

So perhaps its time for leaders at every level to take up an active communication campaign linking discipleship to the vows of the baptismal covenant, as the Discipline (Para's 122, 216, 217 and 221.1) and "By Water and the Spirit" already do. Adding a few words to the way we communicate the mission statement may be one effective way to do that. After all, that was how "for the transformation of the world" was actually added to the mission statement in 2008.

So let me take a stab at what those words might be. "To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Any other ideas? Please add them in the comments.

If enough leaders in enough places start adding these four words or something like them  to the mission statement we now have every time they said it, or even a lot of times they said it, we will have created the basic link between discipleship, baptism and mission that we already have "on the books"-- but not yet in our lips or in our hearts.

And once we get it in our lips and in our hearts, I think we'll find lots of ways to get our "heads around" how to get living the baptismal covenant more into our systems for worship, mission, education, formation and leadership at every level.

So say it with me: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

Again: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

One more time: "The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world."

And now-- ask your pastor (or if you're the pastor, ask yourself!), your lay leader, your worship leader, your church music leaders, your Christian Education director, your deacon (if you have one), your SPRC chair, your Church Council Chair, your DS, your DCM and your bishop to start saying this is worship, in meetings, in strategy sessions, at Annual Conference, in newsletters, newspapers, in print and online, whenever they cite the mission of the church. Let's make this thing go viral! Then maybe by 2020, if not by 2016, we can get it into the Discipline as well.

Organizational Interventions

Truly centering the life of a community on living out the vows of the baptismal covenant would be fairly disruptive for the life of most congregations. As I've written many times and in a variety of ways over the years on the emergingumc blog, congregations really haven't been set up for the level of discipling and discipleship these vows actually demand of us, for over 1600 years. But discipling groups, such as the early Methodist Societies with their class meetings and bands, actually were.

So if we're going to look at changing the overall culture of the Church to be more focused on actual discipling and discipleship, congregations may not be the first place to start. Experimental small groups that are Accountable, Connected, Missional and Embodied (ACME) about living out the vows with each other might be a better place to start. These groups might be like Covenant Discipleship groups, 5-7 people whose covenant is to ask and help each other grow in positively answering the questions of the baptismal covenant: Will you:

1) Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedess,
2) Reject the evil powers of this world
3) Repent of your sin
4) Accept the freedom and power Christ gives you
to resist evil, injustice and oppression in every form they present themselves
5) Confess Jesus as your Savior
6) Put your whole trust in his grace
7) Serve him as Lord
8) All of the above in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races
9) According to the grace given you,  remain faithful members of Christ's holy church, and
10) Serve as Christ's representatives in the world;
11) As you join together with the whole church in professing the Christian faith in
a) God, the Father Almighty
b) Jesus Christ, his only Son, or Lord, and
c) The Holy Spirit;

12) Be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and
13) Participate in the ministries of the local congregation with your prayers, presence gifts, service and witness.

Such a small group or set of small groups could be one way by which a congregation or a group of congregations in an area could pro-actively "nurture one another in the Christian faith and life, and include these persons now before you in your care." It would certainly be an intense form of "surround{ing] them with a community of love and forgiveness" in which persons "pray for them that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life."

There needn't be any "program" for such groups. They could meet informally, once per week for an hour or so, and simply ask themselves the questions of the baptismal covenant, report progress made and support needed, then pray for each other's continued growth in sanctifying grace. Given the number and scope of the questions, they might be divided up, three or four per week, so that in the course of the month all 13 would be covered. 

Since these already are our baptismal vows and the ground of our discipleship, no special permission would be needed simply to start such groups with a few others who are willing to give this process a try for a few months, and see what happens. It would also be good to have the support of the pastor, and nice (but not mandatory) for the pastor to attend if not lead one such group and help in organizing others so such a growth group is not perceived by the pastor or other church leaders as a threat, but as a "voluntary society" of folks who are committing to help each other grow in holiness of heart and life, using the baptismal covenant as their guide.

Where Can You Start?

These are three discreet but inter-related paths you, the congregation, and the larger systems of The United Methodist Church could pursue to help solidify not only the understanding and practice of the sacrament of baptism, but its intimate connection with lifelong discipleship and so the mission of our Church.

You don't have to pursue all of them at the same time. You don't even have to pursue all of them yourself at all. Indeed, you may have a path I haven't mentioned that would better suit your context and the gifts and calling the Spirit has given or will give you.

But I'd like for you to consider which one (or ones) of these (or others) you could begin to pursue now, starting today.

We don't get to any larger goal, nor does any organization successfully close its "last mile gaps" without starting where it is and taking the next step, and then the next, and then the next until the gaps are closed.

So where can you start?

And what step on this journey will you take, starting today... so more and more of us will be part of the fulfillment of our mission:

To make disciples of Jesus Christ, living and dying baptismally for the transformation of the world.


Friday, March 7, 2014

United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 2

by Taylor Burton-Edwards

In Part I of this study, we looked at how much of our official baptismal ritual United Methodist congregations say they are using on a regular basis.

Here, in Part 2, we look at how the baptismal vows are being intentionally taught and lived into in our congregations.

Question 2:

How does your congregation actively teach and intentionally support persons to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant? (See the 2012 Book of Discipline, paragraph 217, p 153, for a complete listing of the baptismal/membership vows).   Please check all that apply.

Answer Options
Response Percent
Response Count
1. We actively teach the vows in confirmation and membership classes.
2. We regularly talk about the vows as part of worship.
3. We create additional opportunities each year to discuss the vows through Sunday School or other educational settings.
4. We have discipleship groups whose participants intentionally seek to support each other and hold each other accountable to live out these vows.
5. We do not intentionally teach these vows, other than using them in services of baptism or receiving members.
6. We do not use these vows.
Other (please specify)

The vast majority of respondents indicated they teach the vows in membership and confirmation classes (71.2%), and a majority (54.2%) indicated they regularly talk about the vows as part of worship.  Roughly 25% of the respondents indicated they offer one or more opportunities for discussion of the vows outside of a direct connection with the ritual of baptism itself, and another 15.2% indicated they do not intentionally teach the vows at all apart from the services themselves.  17.2% indicated they have small groups that help people live these vows accountably.

Once again, we may be heartened at such a high rate of teaching the vows either regularly in worship (54.2%) or as part of membership preparation classes (71.2%). Even more encouraging may be the rate of small groups that focus on helping persons live these vows (17.2%). This significantly exceeds the percentage of known accountable discipleship groups (4.5%) based on the latest GCFA reporting (2011).

Reading the comments under “Other,” however, may lead to a somewhat more chastened conclusion. It appears from a number of the comments that baptismal vows are often understood to include only “prayers, presence, service, gifts and witness” (i.e., the local church vows), rather than the entirety of the baptismal covenant. Further, the times when congregations discuss the baptismal vows in worship appear to be almost exclusively when services of the baptismal covenant (baptism, confirmation, reception into membership, reaffirmation) are offered. In other words, the teaching about the vows is directed primarily to the ritual itself and less frequently (if at all) to connections to daily discipleship on an ongoing basis.

Next, that nearly 30% (28.8%) of our congregations do not teach these vows in connection with membership classes or confirmation is a bit alarming, since the heart of the rituals of confirmation and reception into professing membership involve persons taking these very vows for themselves (¶ 217 and 225). One wonders what these congregations are teaching instead. Some of the comments indicate using resources from other denominations, believing ours are either “too institutional” or “too negative” (focused on sin) to be taught or understood well. I cannot tell from the data as we have it how many of these are also represented in the 15% who say they do not teach these vows in any way, but only use them in the ritual itself.

Further, I would like to believe we have as many as 17% of our congregations who have formed small groups whose purpose is to help people live out the vows of the baptismal covenant accountably.  However, I find myself very skeptical. First, it far exceeds the known percentage of covenant discipleship or other accountable discipleship groups in the Form 2 statistics reported annually by all local congregations and collated by GCFA (4.5% based on 2011 data, 4.05% in 2010). Second, where the comments address having such small groups, they either speak of
hoping to start such groups or of having small groups in general that are not
focused on the baptismal vows.  One might have thought, with a reported rate of baptismally accountable small groups this high, there would be at least someone describing in the comments how such groups are working in their congregations. No one did.

What the data overall, reveal, then, is a virtual segregation of the teaching of baptismal vows from the “regular” worship and teaching life of the congregation. Intentional teaching is generally limited to preparing persons or congregations for the ritual of baptism or other services of the baptismal covenant.  And in nearly 30% of our congregations, there is no intentional teaching of our vows even to persons preparing to take them for themselves.

The result is pastors and congregations whose intentional teaching of the vows of the baptismal covenant, which is to say the vows of discipleship to Jesus Christ, are limited to perhaps the minimal understanding necessary for persons and congregations to believe they can say “yes” to the questions in the ritual with some integrity. It would appear relatively little is being intentionally and regularly done to ensure persons are actually growing in their capacity to live these vows faithfully in daily life.

Looking for Best Practices of Teaching the Vows

To test what was being done intentionally to teach these vows, I included an optional third question in the survey.
Question 3: If you are willing to be contacted for further information about how you are intentionally teaching and supporting persons in living these vows, please select the Central Conference or Jurisdiction where you serve, then add your name or email address in the text box below. Thank you!

The purpose of this question was to make it possible to follow up with persons who claim to be intentionally teaching and supporting persons to live the baptismal covenant. Of these who indicated a willingness to be contacted, I selected a random sample of 10%, totaling 22. I then contacted each of these persons by email and asked for more specific information about how they were teaching and helping persons live these vows apart from preparation for or celebration of services of the baptismal covenant.  I provided a two week window for response.

I received a total of 3 responses. One person did not understand the question. Attempts to clarify the question resulted in no further replies. Another indicated offering a sermon series on the sacraments once during Lent some years ago, but then on further reflection remembered the series only
covered Holy Communion. A third indicated his congregation simply did “normal stuff,” and nothing intentionally focused on teaching the baptismal vows apart from membership classes.

The number of the responses received is too small to draw definitive conclusions. However, the lack of response in general (19/22) and the lack of relevant information from those who did respond (3/22) may be corroboration of the
the finding above that most of our clergy offer little or nothing to teach or assist persons to know how to live out the baptismal vows apart from some ability to say yes to the questions of the baptismal covenant when asked in the ritual.
Overall Conclusion
I believe The United Methodist Church is serious about our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our Discipline indicates our baptismal covenant provides the basis of evaluation for such discipleship. 

We have some foundations to build on. The work begun in the revision of our baptismal ritual in 1980 and the establishment of our teaching about the nature and practice of baptism in 1996 is bearing some fruit, at least in terms of the use of the ritual itself. It would appear the majority of our US congregations may use our established ritual and teach something about our baptismal vows in connection with preparing them or the congregation to celebrate services of the baptismal covenant. 

However, a substantial minority materially alters our ritual in ways that may misrepresent our understandings of the roles of laity, deacon, elder and pastor in the sacrament. And it appears few of our congregations or clergy intentionally teach the vows of the baptismal covenant as norms for ongoing, accountable Christian discipleship.

It is time to lead more of our congregations and other ministries to take the next steps toward fulfilling our mission. 

Part 3 of this series will offer some suggestions about what those next steps might be.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Study Paper: United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 1

by Taylor Burton-Edwards, Director of Worship Resources, GBOD

Background: Baptism and Our Mission

Three developments in the past 25 years have profoundly reshaped United Methodist baptismal theology and refocused The United Methodist Church around the sacrament of baptism.

First, the 1988 General Conference adopted The United Methodist Hymnal (published 1989) as the official ritual of The United Methodist Church. The new hymnal included three versions of a significantly revised baptismal ritual (Baptismal Covenants I, II, and IV). This revised ritual was far more grounded in early Christian, ecumenical and Wesleyan precedents than its antecedents had been.

Then, in 1992, General Conference commissioned the creation of an official doctrinal statement on our theology and practice of baptism. The result was "By Water and the Spirit," originally adopted in 1996, and subsequently reaffirmed in 2004 and 2012. The 2004 General Conference adopted legislation that put the recommendations of BWAS about membership, including the use of the vows in Baptismal Covenant I, II and IV (and not III) into practice, thereby, in effect, rendering Baptismal Covenant III obsolete. The 2008 General Conference further adapted two of the vows (United Methodist Church and local congregation), leading to the current authorized form of our baptismal ritual.

Finally, concurrent with but parallel to the development of By Water and the Spirit, General Conference adopted a denominational mission statement in 1996: "To make disciples of Jesus Christ." In 2008, General Conference added "for the transformation of the world."

Though the development of the mission statement focused on discipleship was parallel to the development of our baptismal ritual and theology, these two developments also deeply influenced each other. Those working on the baptismal ritual and statement understood and taught that the baptismal vows (all of them, not just prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness) were more than a statement admitting persons to church membership. As in early Christianity as early Methodism, they saw these vows as the foundation of a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Taken together, these larger movements working in parallel have led our Church to the place be able to link baptism and the baptismal vows directly to our stated mission.

But that's only if we use the baptismal vows that way. That's only if we actively teach them as the basis for discipleship, not simply as words to be used in a ritual. And that's only if we actually use our ritual as provided in the first place.

The Study

As part of my work in support of the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission, I conducted a brief study to determine the degree of use of the baptismal ritual and the ways the vows are actively taught as the basis for Christian discipleship beyond their use in the ritual itself.

I created a brief survey on SurveyMonkey, distributed a link to all District Superintendents in the connection, as well as via multiple UM related Facebook groups, and encouraged all pastors in the connection to complete the survey.

The survey included two required questions and an optional question to make further follow-up possible.

Data was collected over a two week period, from September 6-22.

In total, 546 persons completed the survey within this timeframe, representing the five US jurisdictions relatively equally (a low of 15.5% from the Western Jurisdiction to a high of 23.7 for the South Central Jurisdiction).  One person each responded from three of the Central Conferences (Central and Southern Europe, Congo, West Africa).  No one responded from the Africa, Germany, Northern Europe, or Philippines Central Conferences.

Additionally, I contacted a random 10% sample of those who identified a willingness to be contacted to detail any specific teaching they offered beyond preparation of candidates for baptism or presiding at the services of the baptismal covenant in worship.


Question 1: (forced choice, “other” to allow comments)

How does your congregation use the official United Methodist baptismal ritual provided in The United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Book of Worship, or the General Board of Discipleship website?

Answer Options
Response Percent
Response Count
We use it as provided.
We use the vows and "creed" as provided, but adapt or omit other parts.
We use it as a guide, but do not use much of it verbatim.
We do not use it.
Other (please specify)

The majority of respondents (58.1%) indicated they use the baptismal ritual as provided.  A strong minority (38.5%) indicate they use only parts of the ritual, or use it only as a guide without using its vows or other element verbatim. Among those responding “other,” 22 indicated they did not use the vows or creed as provided at all.  

How do we interpret a “compliance rate” of roughly 60% and a “variance” rate of a little over 40%?

On the one hand, we might be encouraged with a rate of compliance as high as nearly 60%. 25 years of approved use is not a long time.
It was the early to mid-1990s before the majority of United Methodist congregations had purchased the “new hymnal” either in print or floppy/CD format.  Since we had not “settled” our baptismal theology until 1996. (“By Water and the Spirit”), it would have been much easier and probably most common for congregations to use whatever appeared in the hymnals they already owned, whether (former) Methodist or EUB. With all of these considerations in mind, we might say our current ritual, which differs profoundly in many respects from its immediate predecessors, has been in “wide distribution” for at most 18 years. 

At the same time, many United Methodists perceive our official ritual to function more as an important guide than as a canonical text authorized for use by General Conference (contra ¶16 and Article XXII of the Articles of Religion). The prevalence and strength of this view may help account for the fairly large percentage of congregations in this sample (41.9%) indicating they do not use the baptismal ritual in the form provided.  Since there is a perception that use of our ritual may be more or less optional, a nearly 60% compliance rate at this point may be a positive sign, indeed.

On the other hand, when we look at the 41.9% who make significant adaptations to the established ritual, or treat it as a guide, or do not use it at all, we may need to begin to ask ourselves what their adaptations and their rationale for adaptations mean. This was the point of allowing comments under the selection “Other” in this question.

In examining these comments, two significant trends come to the fore.  About a third of the respondents indicate they use only the vows, creed, congregational response and the words at baptism, in one form or another (not necessarily verbatim). Most of these specifically say they omit the creed entirely, which has the effect of removing any Trinitarian affirmation by the congregation, or indeed, much if any congregational participation at all. It also means a critical part of our Discipline-mandated vows (paragraph 217) are not being affirmed.  An implication of this form of truncation of our baptismal rite may be that baptism is seen primarily as “the work of the elder/pastor, the people consenting.”

This stands at variance with the understanding of the role of the elder/pastor and of the laity provided in the Ordinal, “
By Water and the Spirit” and the Book of Discipline. All three of these speak of the elder’s role as “administrator” of the sacrament of baptism. Administration does not mean “doing the entire rite.” Rather it means making sure all things related to the rite, including preparation of candidates and sponsors, are properly cared for.

In our ritual, the elder/pastor asks the questions, leads the thanksgiving over the water, and baptizes. However, our ritual also provides for a  robust congregational participation throughout the entire rite, from presentation of candidates, to affirming the creed together, to participating in unison at several points during the thanksgiving over the water, to having representatives present for the laying on of hands after baptism, not to mention congregational affirmations and acts of welcoming the newly baptized or professing members. As with the Great Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving over the water is the prayer of the
whole gathered community led (not simply performed) by its authorized presider.

I would add this additional caution. Given the relatively high rate of truncating our ritual, and the specific ways it is truncated to reduce the role of the congregation, it may well be the case that even those who do
not truncate our ritual may bring to it a similar understanding of the role of the pastor/elder as “confecter of the sacrament” while the people “consent” rather than the “work of the Triune God and of the people” which the elder/pastor administers.

Part 2 of this study will look at how and to what degree United Methodist congregations and clergy are intentionally teaching persons to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant as the basis of Christian discipleship.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wesley on Lent: "At Present Answering No Valuable End"

Cover of The Sunday Service,
ed. James White.
Today millions of Christians around the world have begun a season marked by a more intense time of fasting, prayer, searching the scriptures, participating in public worship, and personal and group reflection, confession of sin, and penitence.

United Methodists are among these millions.

But it was not always so for Methodists, at least not in America.

John Wesley, who gave American Methodists their first prayer book and ritual, chose to leave Lent out of the book.

He didn't alter the readings for the season from the Book of Common Prayer. He didn't even alter the prayers (collects) intended for each Sunday. But he did change what the Sundays were called. The First Sunday in Lent was called "The Eleventh Sunday after Christmas." "Sundays after Christmas" continued until what his fellow Anglicans then and most of us now would now call the fifth Sunday in Lent, followed by the "Sunday next before Easter," Good Friday, and then Easter Day. Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were deleted as well.

An obvious question is, "Why?"

John Wesley never gave a complete explanation for all of his editorial changes of the Book of Common Prayer. But in his introduction to the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, he did give a general explanation that may apply. "Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end."

We are left to conjecture what valuable end Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought not to answer.

So let me try.

Keep in mind the core practices of early Methodists.

The third General Rule called all Methodist both to practice and commend others to practice "abstinence or fasting" on a regular, ongoing basis.

Those Methodists who were part of "bands" were meeting to confess their sins to each and pray for one other every week, week in and week out.

Love feasts, full of testimonies of the love of God shed abroad in the hearts of people and changing their lives, were a regular staple of the Society meetings year round.

Formation in living out the vow of baptism was happening every week in the "trial bands" and class meetings in which all Methodists (or aspiring Methodists) were expected to participate. And special watch nights and covenant renewal ceremonies throughout the year gathered hundreds of Methodists in a time of intense prayer, self-examination and re-dedication to live out the baptismal covenant.

In short, nearly everything that Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought to do or promote was in fact being accomplished by other means by Methodists on a much more regular and frequent basis, not as a bracketed off "special time" of 40 or so days in the year, but deeply woven into the fabric of their lives throughout the whole year.

So why would Lent-- or Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday-- be needed at all, when what these times were supposed to promote was being accomplished better and more frequently by other means already in active use by Methodists at the time?

And if Wesley thought they "at present" answered "no valuable end," why would we return to them now?

Perhaps the key phrase is "at present."

And perhaps we might first apply that key phrase back to the earliest Methodists. Most of them had been Anglican, after all. So in point of fact, until 1784, most Methodists never had to rely solely on their own systems for accomplishing what Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were designed to do. Their own third General Rule also required them to attend public worship, and for most of them that was in Anglican parishes, where Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were also celebrated, year after year.

So perhaps John Wesley over-estimated the value and staying power of the Methodist practices apart from the mutual reinforcement they may have received because most early Methodists were also keeping Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday with their fellow Anglicans. Perhaps the Methodist baby still needed a bit more of that Anglican ritual bath water to stay on the path toward entire holiness.

At present, there are no Methodist Societies in the US. Class meetings hardly exist at all, or are confused with bands, and so the very idea of class meetings when presented that way tends to scare people off. Few of the class meetings (so called) that do exist actually continue in the practices of the early Methodist class meetings. (Most "small groups" are not class meetings!). Love Feasts now are typically an antiquarian exercise, or a strange replacement for Holy Communion, not something the local Methodist society (which no longer exists) needs to do from time to time to give expression to the testimonies of transforming love. And a Covenant Renewal service has hardly a chance to accomplish much more than stir up religious fervor for an evening without a community such as a class meeting or the society that actively helps people take that stirred up fervor and channel it into ongoing change.

At present, then, we live in a United Methodist context generally devoid of the complementary practices that accomplished everything Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were created for. 

So at present, perhaps we United Methodists may find ourselves actually needing Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday again so the valuable ends they were created for have some way of taking root in our lives.

And perhaps, at present, we may also become more diligent about developing such complementary practices, as did our early Methodist forebears, that, if not making Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday answer "no valuable end," will at least similarly and more richly extend the valuable ends of these days and seasons into daily discipleship and growth in holiness of heart and life.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Ash Wednesday, 2014