Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2014/2015

"The Lord Jesus Christ Will Return."
Used by permission. CC BY-SA 2.0. 

The Need

We all know there is much competition for attention between Advent and Christmas Season (Advent 1 through Epiphany, January 6), and the wider culture's "Christmastime" (November through December 25).

The result of this competition? "Christmastime" generally  wins, and the primary focus of Advent on the second coming of Christ as fulfillment of all promised in his first coming, which we celebrate during Christmas Season, is lost.

That's a major loss. Advent is the one time of the church year specifically dedicated to this focus. While we rehearse and remember the second coming, new creation, and the fulfillment of all things every time we pray the Great Thanksgiving and celebration Holy Communion, Advent was developed from the beginnings to be the season where focus our worship and teaching around this explicitly. The Church Year starts with Advent precisely so we can "begin with the end in mind."

I've used the picture above in this kind of article for several years now because it still speaks so eloquently. Look at it closely. No one is paying attention to this man's sign except the photographer. Everyone else is walking by, as if the sign means nothing. The sign is there, yes. But it makes no difference in people's lives, except maybe for this man.

Of course, "Christmastime" causes us to lose more than just Advent. In effect, we often lose Christmas Season, too. These twelve days (December 25-January 6) were designed as a time of celebration and intensive contemplation of what the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ began to set loose in the world. Christmastime essentially ends with the babe in the manger and the comforting illusion that all is now well with the world. Christmas Season begins with the birth of Jesus and gives us two full weeks to encounter the extraordinary love, threats, dangers and opportunities God's Incarnation set off then and still sets off today. 

The contrast could not be more stark.  Silencing the cries of baby Jesus is the mission of Christmastime, because his cries would break the illusion that all is well if we have played our role as "seasonal consumers" aright. But the readings of Christmas Season do not let us do that. We hear poignantly of the martyrdom of Stephen on December 26 and the wailing of Rachel renewed in the "slaughter of the innocents" on December 28. The stories of terrified then joyous shepherds in Luke, of wandering Iraqi astrologers in Matthew, and of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in John provide at best a "strange comfort."

Christmastime lulls. Christmas Season awakens. 

Christmastime offers a nostalgia- and consumerism-driven Lethean escape from this world. Christmas Season drives us directly into this world's deepest sufferings and most profound hope.

The powers of this world love Christmastime, because it gets them off the hook!  Christmas Season reveals the lengths to which the powers of this world will go to avoid, obstruct or halt the coming of God's kingdom.  

For the Church to keep Advent and Christmas Season need not call us to stand back from or in harsh judgment on what the surrounding culture has created (with our cooperation!) in Christmastime. Feelings of peace and comfort, the joy of giving and receiving, warmth in the midst of winter-- these are all fine things. We can still enjoy them with family, friends and siblings in Christ.

But actually keeping these seasons in worship and in the life of the congregation calls and equips us for something far more, and far richer, than what “Christmastime” offers.  A full celebration of Advent, four to seven weeks, followed by a full celebration of Christmas Season enables us to see what the wider culture often keeps invisible, to feel with a depth Christmastime may anesthetize, and to love with the fierce determination of “God with us, every one.”

Three Ways Forward: Modest, Restorationist, and Radical

A Modest Way

In our article, A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace, Safiyah Fosua, Dean McIntyre and I suggested starting the singing of Advent music two weeks early, and Christmas music beginning with what is now the third Sunday in Advent. This would give four full weeks of Advent focus, at least musically, plus up to four full weeks for Christmas (counting Epiphany Day or Sunday), giving each some significant time and focus. This wouldn't require changing lectionary readings at all. 

A Restorationist Way

A similar approach is offered by The Advent Project. Developed by Rev. Dr. Bill Petersen, Episcopal priest and liturgical scholar, together with a seminar of other scholars and practitioners in the North American Academy of Liturgy, The Advent Project also suggests changing the liturgical calendar, but not the lectionary at all. Petersen and company note that Advent used to be a season of seven Sundays until Pope Gregory VI shortened it to four in the eleventh century.

While Pope Gregory VI shortened the celebration, he actually didn't change the lectionaries. This meant that the readings appropriate for a seven-week celebration of Advent were still being read for seven weeks, starting with the first Sunday after All Saints Day (November 1). The current lectionaries Western Christians now use, both Roman Catholic and Revised Common Lectionaries, have preserved that pattern as well. So the Advent Project's proposal, already tried in a number of Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist congregations, aligns our celebration of Advent with the lectionaries we already have. Nothing else changes. Just the starting date for Advent, and, perhaps, as the project notes, the number of candles that might in included in an Advent wreath (seven plus a central candle, rather than four).

The Advent Project website has not only rationale, but also a rich set of resources including suggested prayers and "O Antiphons" (related to verses for "O Come, O Come Emmanuel") for each Sunday to help congregations who want to try it get started with solid support.

The Advent Project proposal also seems also be to gaining some wider ecumenical traction. This year, United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Canada, Presbyterian Church USA, Anglican Church of Canada, and several other denominations will continue to raise awareness of this possibility through their websites. The Consultation on Common Texts (developers of the Revised Common Lectionary) hosted an ecumenical forum on the topic at our meeting in New York in March, 2012. 

A primary plus of The Advent Project proposal to me and to worship staff in other denominations lies in it being an actual restoration of an earlier Christian practice.

A Radical Way

Many of us recognize that while these proposals would restore a longer time of

The Peace Tower at Christmas. Ottawa, Canada.
Used by permission under a
Creative Commons License
Advent celebration, it may not yet directly address what for nearly all of us remains a serious truncation of Christmas Season. Our congregations seem to spend all their energy on Christmas Eve, few keep Christmas Day itself, and as for the rest-- it's one or two "low Sundays" at best until folks get back from various "Christmas vacation" schedules. While the church year calls for high celebration and deep contemplation together, we are most often more scattered and less focused on worship than at any other time of the year.

That is why I have offered a third, much more radical approach. So for several years now, I have offered an approach that rearranges the lectionary readings to produce for  a four-week Advent and a four-week Christmastide.

Here's how it works. Start Advent two weeks early, and celebrate it for four weeks, ending with Advent 2 on the current calendar. There are no changes in the lectionary so far. You just back up and use the previous last two weeks of Year A as Advent readings.

Then, on what would have been the Third Sunday of Advent, start celebrating Christmas Season by using the readings for the Day of Epiphany. For what had been Advent 4, use the readings for the Sunday after Christmas. For Christmas Day and Eve, flip the established readings-- so the Incarnation is front and center on what is likely to be the most widely attended service. Then, for the next two Sundays, use the readings for Advent 3 and 4 as further reflection on the implications of the Incarnation and as lead-ins to Baptism of the Lord Sunday (first Sunday after January 6).

Here's a proposed set of readings for Advent and Christmas Season 2014/2015 based on this plan:

Advent 1
: November 16

Advent 2: November 23 (Christ the King)

Advent 3: November 30  

Advent 4: December 7

Christmastide 1: December 14

Christmastide 2: December 21

Christmas Eve: December 24

Christmas Day: December 25

Christmastide 3: December 28

Christmastide 4: January4

This way, even if the people in your congregation are scattered after Christmas Eve, you will still have given two full Sundays while more people are around to the established Christmas Season Sunday readings, not to mention Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself, and you will have a different of readings to explore for the Sundays after Christmas.

I acknowledge this proposal is also problematic.  It seriously messes with the calendar and the order of the lectionary we have and share with many other Christians worldwide. It widely separates Epiphany from Baptism of the Lord, while the two had originated as celebrations kept on the same day. It may represent too much of a concession to the pressures of US culture. And because it is such a radical change, it may also be very unwelcome, despite the fact it may address our theological, liturgical and cultural needs for giving serious attention to both seasons.

How Will You Respond?

The time has come, clearly come, to celebrate both Advent and Christmas as fully as possible in the lives and worship of the Christians called United Methodists.  So let me suggest you prayerfully consider how you will do something to ensure your congregations have a richer celebration this year than last of Advent and Christmas. 

Pick one of these proposals, and give it a serious try. Or try something else, such as a full regular celebration of Advent and Christmas Season using the calendar and readings we already have, celebrating Advent for a full four weeks beginning November 30, 2014, and then a full Christmas Season (12 days) beginning December 24 after sunset-- finding some way to keep the energy of Christmas going well after Christmas Eve and its focus well beyond the babe in the manger.

We have a powerful message to proclaim, celebrate and contemplate as fully as we can at this time of the year. Resolve to do what it takes to make that happen where you are.

And know you have the full support of the worship office at your General Board of Discipleship and our counterparts in many other denominations as you do!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The UMC Version of the RCL: How It Differs from the "Standard" RCL, and Why

The UMC version? You mean The United Methodist Church does not follow the Revised
Cover of 20th Anniversary Annotated
Edition of The Revised Common Lectionary
Produced by The Consultation on Common Texts
Common Lectionary exactly?

That's right.

Of course most other denominations adapt the lectionary a bit for their own use as well.  It was made to be adaptable!

But United Methodists may have adapted the RCL the most.

And that is in part because we were its first official adopters when we approved the 1992 Book of Worship at General Conference during the spring of that year.

3 Major Variances, and Why We Vary

Two of our three areas of variance are about timing.

You may have noticed that the Psalter in our hymnal and some of the Psalm recommendations in our Book of Worship lectionary for each Sunday do not exactly match the Psalms or the verses recommended in the "full version" of the RCL presented on such sites as the Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary site, or Textweek. This is because General Conference had just approved The United Methodist Hymnal in 1988, published beginning in 1989. The version of the Psalter in that hymnal was based on the readings of The Common Lectionary, the 1983 predecessor to The Revised Common Lectionary. No one thought it wise to alter the still relatively new hymnal by re-doing the entire Psalter for something like a 1989 UMH version 2.0. So, instead, our version of the Psalter remains largely based on the Common Lectionary version, though we made the RCL reading an option when the entire Psalm in the RCL is different than what appears in the Common Lectionary and our hymnal.

The Late Draft Factor
You may also have noticed a few occasions when the verses selected, and sometimes even a whole pericope, are different than what appears in the "standard" version. That is because what we actually approved in the Book of Worship was a late but not final draft of the RCL.

Why did we approve a draft of a resource that would appear in full in 1992 you may ask?

That has to do with the timing of preparing legislation for General Conference. All legislation intended to come before General Conference must be in its final form during the late summer (typically by August) the year prior to the General Conference. This is so the legislation can be properly printed, translated and distributed to the delegates to General Conference by the end of that year so they have ample time to consider the thousands of pages of legislation that will be before them come April. This meant the Book of Worship had to be in a form, ready for press, a full eight months before General Conference. And that meant, from a publication standpoint, it actually had to be assembled at least a year ahead of time.

We wanted to be sure to include the RCL in our new Book of Worship, and not have to wait another four years to adopt it separately from the initial publication. So that meant that what was brought for approval to General Conference was a 1991 draft of the RCL.

Just One Track
Finally, you will notice that during the Season after Pentecost, the "standard" lectionary sites provide two sets of readings for each Sunday, while we provide just one.

The RCL includes both a semi-continuous and a complementary track for these Sundays. In the semi-continuous track, readings are selected from the Old Testament, Epistles and Gospels to allow for semi-continuous and unrelated readings in each throughout this season. This allows each, and particularly the Old Testament, to be heard and explored  in its own integrity.

The Common Lectionary (1983) had provided only a semi-continuous track. One of the major pieces of feedback The Consultation on Common Texts got from some denominations (notably Lutherans and Anglicans) was the need also to include the more traditional "typological" approach to Old Testament, where the Old Testament lesson would be chosen to foreshadow or reflect or otherwise help illumine the Gospel reading. A significant part of the work in creating the Revised Common Lectionary went into developing this complementary track as an option for those churches who indicated they needed it.

United Methodists, however, chose to include only the semi-continuous track. Part of this was for theological reasons. The developers of the Book of Worship generally preferred the option of letting the OT, Epistle and Gospel each speak on their own terms during this season of the  year. Part of it was also practical. To include the complementary track would have required many more pages in the lectionary section alone, pages which would end up being subtracted from those which could otherwise be available for other kinds of resources. The developers proposed, and General Conference approved, just the semi-continuous track for the Season after Pentecost.

So, there you have it, The United Methodist Version of the Revised Common Lectionary: Part Common Lectionary Psalter, part late-draft, and all semi-continuous for the Season after Pentecost.

And, we did it first!

Hooray for The RCL/UMC Version!

By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources, GBOD

Chair, The Consultation on Common Texts

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Whatever Happened to Kingdomtide?

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Chances are if you are in the US, were born after 1960, and are not a United Methodist you may never have run across this designation.

In fact, chances are if you are a United Methodist who has heard of Kingdomtide and may still occasionally see the designation in United Methodist  program calendars and some other resources, you may not really know what it is— or, rather,  was-- even if you are one of our ordained clergy!


Kingdomtide was created in the late 1930s by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, predecessor of the National Council of Churches. It was one of a number of efforts sponsored by the Federal Council intended to foster greater unity among Protestant Christian denominations in the US. World Communion Sunday is another example.

At that point in history, most US Protestant denominations were generating their own lectionaries, each a sort of combination of historical lectionaries from their own traditions and denomination-specific programmatic days. These lectionaries were of course in agreement about dates like Easter, Christmas, and the beginning of Advent, but the readings and themes for the Sundays were literally all over the map. This was especially the case for the Sundays between Trinity (if they even celebrated Trinity) and the First Sunday of Advent.

So the Council’s thinking behind creating and promoting Kingdomtide was to establish a common topic, if not actually a common lectionary, for at least some of the Sundays after Pentecost by encouraging all Protestant Churches in the US to focus their denominational lectionaries and worship and preaching resources on the common theme of the Kingdom of God.

The initial proposal came from the Presbyterians. It was approved by the Council and published in the Council’s book on the church year released in 1937. That proposal designated all Sundays between Trinity and Advent 1 as Kingdomtide. The 1940 edition reflected a revision of the proposal in light of the practice of the newly created Methodist Church (1939).  Now Kingdomtide would be promoted only from the first Sunday in September through the end of the liturgical year. (This was before Protestants adopted Christ the King as the last Sunday of the year).


Kingdomtide did generate significant attention and resourcing during its first two decades, though it did not catch on evenly everywhere. Methodists and Presbyterians continued to be the primary promoters into the 1960s through their own denominational lectionaries and programming.

With Vatican II and the strength it infused into Protestant ecumenical efforts, US Protestants began abandoning exclusive denominational lectionaries and calendars and seeking to develop a common lectionary and a common Christian calendar all could use and recognize. The Consultation on Common Texts (CCT), beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, became the primary channel for this work. Gathering scholars and worship officers from many Protestant and Catholic denominations in the US and Canada, CCT developed and released the Common Lectionary in 1983 for trial use and feedback. Based on two full cycles of use and ongoing feedback through the third cycle, CCT released the Revised Common Lectionary and a common Christian calendar in 1992. As of now, 22 years after its release, most major mainline Protestant denominations in the US and Canada, and a constantly increasing number worldwide, either endorse, require, or officially commend (as does The UMC) the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar for use by their churches.

The creation of Kingdomtide thus turned out to be a small but important way station on the road by which US Protestants moved from denominationally distinct lectionaries and calendars to a common lectionary and calendar. It answered a valuable purpose in trying to coordinate worship emphases across denominations for several decades. That purpose has now been far more fully realized through the RCL and its calendar.  The initial need for Kingdomtide no longer exists.

United Methodists  are the only Christian denomination in the US to have retained Kingdomtide in any form after the release of the Common and Revised Common Lectionaries and their calendars. And we have retained it in title only, no longer providing any sort of denominational resourcing to underwrite its use, as, in fact, none is any longer needed. The RCL gospel readings include the significant portions of the teaching of Jesus on the nature and work of the Kingdom of God both during the Season after Pentecost and throughout the year. The raw material for a focus on the Kingdom of God is thus already present, already widely used by Christians across North America and worldwide, and no longer limited to one season of the year.

Whatever happened to Kingdomtide? Its initial purposes have been accomplished in ways its creators could not have envisioned, and we are all the richer for it. Insisting on continuing to keep in now may be a bit akin to insisting we use the King James Bible in worship. Like the King James Bible, Kingdomtide played a valuable purpose in creating a powerful common focus among Christians of many Protestant traditions in the US and even worldwide for a time through US global outreach. We can be grateful for that. But also like the KJV, we can recognize that further developments mean we no longer have a particular need to designate these Sundays after Pentecost as Kingdomtide.

Kingdomtide’s time is fulfilled. A common lectionary and a globally shared common calendar have been in hand for several decades now. Let us rejoice in this good news, content to say thanks for what and where Kingdomtide has brought us—and move on!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 4: Calling and the Need for Ordination

Or, Two Questions The United Methodist Church May Need to Quit Asking

1. Describe YOUR "call to ministry."
 The Bible comes replete with "calling" stories. God calls Abram to "go to a land I will show you." God calls Samuel to anoint a successor for Saul. God calls many prophets to declare "the Word of the Lord," most typically (though not exclusively) to or against the kings and religious establishment of Israel and/or Judah. Jesus calls disciples to follow him. The Spirit calls Peter to "take up and eat" and then sends him to Cornelius. Jesus calls Paul to be cured of his blindness through the hands and prayers of a Syrian Christian named Ananias. The Spirit sometimes calls, sometimes prevents Paul from going to certain places to continue his apostleship.

There are all kinds of callings expressed in the biblical record. Not one time, ever, do we have a record in the Bible of God calling an individual to become a deacon or an elder. Not once. Ever.

The closest we may get to that may-- may-- be two similar but not identical stories of Jesus' interaction with Peter. In Matthew 16, Jesus tells Peter, on the basis of his confession (it seems), that Jesus will "build his church" on "this rock." In John 21, we see Jesus telling Peter to "feed my sheep." Both of these stories would seem to explain why Peter functioned as a leader among the apostles, though as Luke tells the story of early Christianity in Acts, it was actually James (brother of Jesus) and not Peter who seems actually to have had "supreme executive power" in "Mother Church" in Jerusalem. Peter, after all, is just one witness among several (including Paul) at the "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15). It's James who announces (with no apparent dissent) how he has decided the scriptures apply to Gentiles in Christian communities. James is clearly the "bishop" or "high priest" of the faith at this point. But we have no record of James's "calling" by Jesus or anyone else recorded anywhere in the Bible.  

To summarize: The Bible nowhere says individuals are called by God to become deacons, elders or even bishops.

I'm trying to think of any examples of this sort of thing in other early Christian documents. Maybe there are some. I don't know of any.

I also don't know of many in the later life of the church in the West, well past the Reformation and into the 19th century at least, with the exception of some of the more "entrepreneurial" congregationalist movements and then polities that began to spring up  in England beginning in the early 17th century. Even there, among early Baptists well into the early 19th century in America, there was neither an expectation nor a demand for a "call story." Rather, the questions were more about whether the community saw signs the candidate was willing and ready to do the work and undertake the way of life, and the more typical "call experience" was of a young man being asked by the pastor or other leaders in the congregation to consider the possibility of becoming a pastor or deacon.

Instead of people "feeling a call" to "the ministry" (meaning, in our common parlance, some form of ordained ministry, either deacon or elder), the Bible in fact describes two other processes that led people to become deacons or elders.

One was appointment. In Acts 6, the leaders among the apostles in Jerusalem tell the leaders among the Hellenistic Jewish Christians to pick some folks they believe would serve well in the role we now call deacon. The apostles lay out a very brief list of qualifications. Not one of those qualifications was "able to articulate a sense or experience of call from God to this ministry." Rather they were "being full of the Spirit and of wisdom." The apostles told them to pick seven from among them they thought fit the description of the work to be done, and the apostles would appoint them, with prayer and laying on of hands. So it was done.

The other was eager willingness and desire-- not calling, but, we might say, real interest and passion! I Timothy, a letter which lays out later and more specific qualifications and descriptions of the role of deacon, elder, and overseer (bishop), puts it this way. "If one is eagerly willing [to do the work of] oversight, one desires a good thing" (I Timothy 3:1). Interest and passion alone are not sufficient warrant for Timothy to pray over and lay hands on someone. But they're in the mix of qualifiers, among others.

Still, nowhere in the Bible or early Christianity is the decision to ordain about responding to the claim of an individual that "I have been called by God to be a deacon/elder/bishop," and then requiring that person to offer some sort of narrative to justify why they believe they are so "called." The prerogative to ordain remained fundamentally appointive in character. The individual doesn't create a self-narrative that says "God's called me and here's my proof of that." Rather, in the case I Timothy describes, it becomes clear that someone is eager to do the work and live the life entailed in one of the ordained offices, and if the other qualifications check out, and Timothy (or the established ordaining authority) believes the person is ready for this, prayer is offered and hands are laid.

I don't know where the expectation of a specific "call to X ordained ministry narrative" came from. (Do I have one? Yes! I'm a product of this culture!) I surely don't claim to know why we seem fixated on it now, when it has no biblical or early Christian support, indeed, any Christian support I can see except in individualistic cultures and primarily congregationalist polities in the past couple of centuries or so.

So no scripture, very little tradition.

Or perhaps just enough tradition-- which is to say we've gotten used to thinking of it this way long enough that it seems reasonable to us that candidates for ordination must be able to articulate a particular calling from God to the specific office (deacon or elder) before we will lay hands on them.

Not exactly a compelling argument to continue the practice.

So, a better question, perhaps?

How about, "Tell us about your willingness and passion for this work and this way of life?"

2. Why do YOU need to be ordained?

Let me begin by saying there may be some legitimate reasons for asking this question. If persons do have some compulsion driving them to pursue the work and the way of life of one of the ordained ministries, which is to say they're coming into it because some psychological or spiritual instability tells them they have to do this to be validated in some way, I think anyone charged with preparing or examining candidates for ordination would want to know that-- and help them find another path of life and healing. We don't need more clergy with Messiah complexes or guilt complexes.

But that's something we can actually learn without asking that particular question, right? This is part of why we do psychological testing. It's also why we have supervised ministry built into seminary and course of study curricula, as well as in the process of provisional membership. All of these are designed to alert candidates and boards alike to unhealthy patterns, to make some efforts at remediation where possible, and discern where remediation may not be sufficiently effective (or even possible) for us to consider entrusting this person to be able to engage the work and live the way of life of a deacon or elder among us.

Given that these other processes are in place, why would we feel the need to ask this question at all?

Perhaps because our own thinking about ordination is not as fully aligned with our biblical pneumatological ontology (and ecclesiology!) as perhaps it should be?

Let me be a bit bolder and suggest, for the most part, it's simply the wrong question to ask.

Based on scripture and tradition, and the best of Methodist ecclesiologies, it's never the candidate's need to be ordained that warrants ordination. It's the church's need for people who will carry out the work and live the way of life of deacon or elder among us that leads the church to ordain. Regardless of the depth of their skillsets, only with the Spirit poured out on them, which is what ordination is at its ritual heart, will they ultimately be able to do that work and live that way well. 

More than this, it's the wrong question because it seems to presume ordination is a sort of "commodity" or "honor" bestowed. In short, it operates on a Greek ontology, one that treats ordination as a "thing" or a "credential" the ordained have and can claim for themselves, rather than upon the action of the Holy Spirit flowing through the church and through the ones so prayed over for the sake of the life of the church and the salvation of the world.

So let me suggest one good answer to the question for those candidates who hear this question-- one better grounded in our biblical and pneumatological ontology.

Why do you need to be ordained?

Because unless you as the church pray for me that the Spirit is poured out upon my life for the work and way of life of a deacon or elder, I see no way that I can hope to fulfill this role or live this way among you. But if you pray for me for the Spirit to do that, because we are the church, we believe the Spirit will say Yes.  And then, together, we'll see how we can all help each other lead where the Spirit leads and flow where the Spirit flows through this work and way of life I have submitted to undertake and you and the Spirit will have set me to.

It's not that the candidate needs to be ordained because of something in or missing in the candidate. It's that the church needs people who can do this work and live in these ways, and that won't happen unless the Spirit is set loose upon them and keeps working in, through and despite them.

It's not that the candidate feels a need to "be ordained" and so needs to prove herself or himself trustworthy to obtain that status.

It's that the church knows its need to ordain candidates it will entrust with its own life to the ongoing outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  

So, a better question?

Perhaps something like, "As you look at the work and way of life of a deacon/elder, in your experiences in ministry so far, from what you've seen and heard from others who seek to do and live it, and as it is described in the questions and vows of the Ordinal and the legislation in the Book of Discipline, where do you anticipate you will be leaning most of the outpouring of the Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/elder among us?"

Next: The Interflowing Roles of People, Deacon, and Elder

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 3: Ordination and Sacramental Authority

"Pour upon (Name) the Holy Spirit for the office and work/ministry of a deacon/elder/bishop in Christ's holy church."

While we may have come to a greater level of comfort acknowledging God's decisive "Yes" to our prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon water at baptism and upon bread and wine (and us who pray!) at Holy Communion, many United Methodists I encounter remain quite hesitant to claim the Holy Spirit does anything decisive at ordination.

Part of our United Methodist hesitancy may have to do with the somewhat vague language of the prayer at ordination itself. We may not be quite sure just what we are praying for the Spirit to do. On the one hand we are not quite saying, "Give this person now the gifts they need to fulfill the work of Y office," as if prior to this prayer, this person had no such gifts or were somehow unable to use them. The candidate for ordination or consecration would never have gotten to this place without having shown, over a period of time, and in a multiplicity of ways, that s/he indeed has and can use such gifts. On the other hand, neither do we say, "Make this person become a deacon/elder/bishop," nor "Give this person an indelible mark of deaconship/eldership/episcopacy." Such "branding" or "transmogrification" of the spirit of the candidate reflects the very sort of Greek ontology against which we rightly raise objection.

So if the Spirit isn't giving gifts, and the Spirit isn't marking or changing the character of the candidate for ordination, what is the Spirit doing?

Precisely what we ask: "Pour out your Holy Spirit for the office and work/ministry of a (deacon/elder/bishop) in Christ's holy church." Start that outpouring now on this person now and for a lifetime of work and ministry in this specific set of roles (deacon, elder or bishop). We're going to be trusting these persons to live out the baptismal covenant among us using the ordination vows as their rule of life and service for the rest of their lives, often even beyond the time they may be required to retire by our polity. So Holy Spirit, target these people now and be poured out upon them-- and keep flowing through them-- so they may keep living out the baptismal covenant among us as they have here vowed. 

Ordination thus marks a very real new chapter in the life of those who are ordained. The Spirit here begins an outpouring for a form of living out the baptismal covenant among us for the rest of that person's days. This is thus both a pneumatological and an ontological event. It is pneumatological because the Holy Spirit really is doing something here. And it is ontological in the concrete biblical understanding of being as "living being" in all its motion, flow and contingency. Those ordained or conscrated are here being ushered into the very contingent, living, flowing forms of life and ministry described and seeking to be embodied in the orders or ministry to which they are ordained or consecrated.

Wait: Ordination Vows as a Specific Way of Fulfilling Baptismal Vows?

Yes. Exactly that. Ordination does not place the ordained "above" or "better than" the rest of the body of Christ in any way. Rather, through the vows of ordination, candidates bind themselves to live out the baptismal covenant among us and in connection with each other in the particular ways we as church have discerned we need them to do-- as members of an order of deacons or order of elders or as bishops working together with each other and those among whom they are appointed to serve.

So the ordination vows function much as a Rule does in a monastic order. They specify how these particular people, in their particular order (deacon, elder, or Council and colleges of bishops) are intended work together and with those among whom they are appointed so that all of us, lay or ordained, young or old, or whatever spectrum you may wish to specify, are able to live out the baptismal covenant to the fullest, and thus fulfill our mission as The United Methodist Church.

Specifically, the church from its earliest centuries has discerned the need for some of the baptized to become "centers" or "hubs" or "flow stations" of the Spirit's work so that all of the Spirit's work through all of those baptized into Jesus Christ can be maximized. We have needed some to focus their lives, and the body's, on ministries embodying Christ and bearing witness to God's kingdom in the world. These are the deacons. We have needed others to focus their lives on ministries of calling and leading the community in worship and communal life. These we call elders. Finally, so the body of Christ could be unified and better coordinated across multiple cultures, regions, and nations, and not entirely atomized into local expressions, we have needed still others to give their lives, at least for a time, to ministries of organizing and supervising the life and multiple ministries of Christian communities across regions. These are bishops.

All of these are ministries, which is to say, all of these are grounded in a posture of serving, not being served. And that means the persons who take on these roles are never the "primary ministers" of the church. That role is uniquely the role of the laity, the whole people of the whole body. The role of the ordained or consecrated is to support the laity and each other in these three critical areas as together all of us, laity with clergy, seek to live out the fulness of our common baptismal covenant.

For more on how ordination vows are specifications of baptismal vows, see this chart and this PowerPoint presentation.

From "Sacramental Authority" to "Administering the Sacraments"

Let me put this plainly. The Ordinal of The United Methodist Church, true to our biblical ontology and understanding of the Spirit's work in the world, in baptism, in Holy Communion and in ordination, nowhere posits the ordination of elders somehow transmits to these persons some sort of "substance" (Greek!) that brings with it what is often commonly referred to as "sacramental authority." Nowhere. Not once. Ever.

Notions of "sacramental authority" as some "property" somehow "adhering to" or becoming "constituent in" the elder (as opposed, for example, to the deacon or to laity) might work in theologies built on Greek substantialist notions, or in contexts where, whether sociologically, or theologically, or both, those ordained as presbyters are regarded as "magic people" who by virtue of this transfer of this "power" in ordination are enabled to say "magic words" or perform certain "magical gestures" to make magic, or to turn certain ordinary things (like water, or bread or wine) or people (like those being ordained or consecrated) into "magic things" or "magic people."

But they have no place among the people called Methodists. Nor should they.

No do they, anywhere, in our Ordinal. Nor our sacramental theology. Nor our understanding of the nature of ordination. Nor our understanding of the nature of the church.  Nor our pneumatology. And certainly not in our ontology-- if indeed our ontology is grounded in the Bible, and not in certain strains of Greek philosophy.

The ritual of ordination in The United Methodist Church, as in many other churches, involves two "manual acts" by the bishop-- not as magician, but as presider and leader of the whole assembly's prayer in these moments.

The first of these acts is the laying of hands on the head of the candidate for ordination or consecration. This is ordination proper, where the bishop leads us all in asking for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon these persons for the lifework they are about to pursue for a lifetime.

The second of these acts is the laying of hands on the hands of the candidate. Here the bishop says to the newly ordained person, in whom the Spirit (we all trust and pray!) is now flowing in a new way, "Name, take authority as an elder, to preach the Word of God, to administer the Holy Sacraments, and to order the life of the Church; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." To which the people all say, Amen!

The Spirit acts directly in and through the first manual act. In the second, the church says to the newly ordained, through the bishop whom the church has previously consecrated for such work of ordering and oversight, "We, the body of Christ in the power of the Triune God, now authorize you to live out what you have vowed in our midst. Live this way among us now and for the rest of your years of active service"

Note what the church here authorizes the newly ordained elder to do with regard to sacraments. The bishop does not say, "We hereby give you sacramental authority." No. The bishop says "Take authority as an elder... to administer the Holy Sacraments..." The language for this is exactly parallel to the authority the church through the bishop now also gives to the newly ordained to "preach the Word of God" and "to order the life of the Church." We do not speak of ordination somehow granting "preaching authority" or even "ordering authority." Yet, somehow, many of us (and sometimes even our Discipline) have come to speak of "sacramental authority" as something given to or inherent in the elder by virtue of ordination.

Let me go one step further to say that to change what the ritual actually says "Take authority... to administer the sacraments" into something like "You as an ordained elder now have sacramental authority" is not only not in our Ordinal. It is deeply inconsistent with our biblical ontology and the pneumatology that underlies our theology, ecclesiology and understandings of sacraments and ordination. More than this, it smacks of a form of "presbyter-centric clericalism" that strikes at the heart of our baptismal theology-- and even what it means to be a Methodist Christian.

I suggest this because in the circles in The United Methodist Church where I have been blessed to travel, when I hear us talking about "sacramental authority," it almost always partakes of a rhetoric of rights and privileges unique to elders. Elders have sacramental authority, but deacons (with some case by case exceptions) do not. Local pastors have sacramental authority, but only within the bounds of the congregations or extension ministries to which they are appointed. The elder alone has "full" sacramental authority. Deacons may have "it" (that special, magical "it") contingently, if at all. And the laity have it not at all.

The language of sacramental authority "nouns" or "substantializes" as " thing" elders "have" what the ordinal itself frames as an infinitive verb depicting a key part of the work we need elders to undertake as part of their way of life among us: "to administer the Holy Sacraments." In this "substantialization" or "reification," "sacramental authority" has come thus not to signify the fulfillment of the role of administering the sacraments named in our Ordinal, but rather its radical truncation. Why? Because when we are speaking of "sacramental authority" what we are too often really talking about is the "right" or "special power" of certain "magic people" to say certain "magic words" over ordinary things to make them into magical things. The language of "sacramental authority" and the consequent specifications of who has "it" and who does not, and under what conditions even those who have "it" may exercise "it," moves us and all of our thinking into the stasis of fixed rules rather than the "nephesh hayah" dynamics (and blessed messiness!) of living, Spirit-breathing community. And so we move straight into the cul-de-sac Greek substantialist ontologies rather than remaining in the flow of our ever-living, ever-moving, ever-dynamic biblical ontology.

Perhaps it's past time to quit using the term "sacramental authority" at all-- even as a kind of shorthand.

Perhaps it's time to reclaim the fullness of what the Ordinal provides. "Take authority as an elder... to administer the Holy Sacraments."

As we have seen, the heart of the Ordinal's language resonates with the ever-living, ever-moving Spirit. To "take authority" in this deeply Spirit-embued context does not mean to assert authority as a right, but rather to trust the Spirit's ongoing outpouring on those ordained as elders to fulfill the way of life they have vowed to pursue among us for the sake of the whole church-- including the call to administer the sacraments.

To be sure, presiding and presiding well as the gathered body celebrates the Holy Sacraments are part of administering the sacraments. But the work of presiding is not a right, but a service to the body, a solemn and joyous responsibility the body entrusts principally to the elders the Church has ordained.

And to the degree administering involves presiding, the purpose of the presiding is not to be the presider. It is rather to ensure the purpose of presiding is achieved for the sake of the whole body. And that purpose is itself to ensure that the whole people are enabled to offer themselves in praise and thanksgiving to God as they offer their prayers and themselves to God  as fully as they possibly can.

Put another way, the purpose of the elder in presiding is about being a conduit of the Spirit's moving among the whole people so the Spirit may be poured out in and through the prayers and praises of the people, and, both upon and through the elements over which the people, led by their presider, seek the Spirit's outpouring.

Presiding thus matters much.

But presiding itself does not exhaust the calling of the elder to exercise the authority to administer the Holy Sacraments.

And that is because administering, at its core, is about caring for and being in service to the people so they can not only offer themselves and participate in the ritual as fully as they can, but also live out everything that flows into and from the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.

The calling and authority to administer the sacraments, then, is a calling to see that the people have everything the people need not only to pray, but to live as they have prayed.

Administering the sacrament of baptism means being a point person, initiator, driver, mover and team player-- not a solo performer by any stretch-- in the whole church's baptismal ministry of calling and discipling people in the way of Jesus both as they prepare for baptism and as they seek to fulfill the vows of the baptismal covenant the rest of their days.

And administering the sacrament of Holy Communion means being a point person, initiator, driver, mover and team player-- not solo player by any stretch-- in the whole church's ongoing Eucharistic ministry of offering themselves in praise and thanksgiving to God in union with Christ's offer for us and living in the world as those re-membered as the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

At ordination, the Holy Spirit initiates a lifelong flow in those being ordained as elder to initiate, preside, care for, tend to, partner with others in, but not necessarily do and certainly not control all that lives and moves and has its being in the living, moving environment in which the church's sacramental ministry always takes place.

So we see, even in this one element of the authority the church entrusts to the elder, the authority "to administer the Holy Sacraments," why we prepare candidate for ordination as elder as we do, and perhaps some glimpses into how we might need to start preparing them better or differently than we now do. For truly, in just this one area, "to administer the Holy Sacraments" we are asking of the elder a profound commitment to a life of service-- which is to say, to be one who tends the whole flock in its sacramental life, who makes possible and plausible the outpouring of the Spirit through these means of Spirit-flowing grace, rebirthing and raising us to walk in newness of life, and nourishing us, day by day, in this Spirit-moving, ever-growing, life in Trinity, with all creation, being made ever new.

All of that.

Far more than "sacramental authority" ever catches-- and far, far less than it offers and promises for the life, witness, and ministry of the body of Christ carried, driven and inspired by the ever-flowing, ever-moving Spirit.

Next: "Calling and the Need for Ordination"

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"