Bishops Adopt Guidelines for Granting Deacons Sacramental Authority

November 14, 2008

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has approved guidelines for interpreting the circumstances for allowing deacons to administer Holy Communion and perform baptisms.
The new sacramental authority for deacons—granted by the denomination’s top legislative body at the 2008 General Conference—becomes effective in January.
According to the bishops, the new sentence in Paragraph 328 that describes the ministry of the deacon in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, "does not fundamentally change the sacramental privileges of the order of deacons." That sentence reads: "For the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the church, a pastor-in-charge or district superintendent may request that the Bishop grant local sacramental authority to the deacon to administer the sacraments in the absence of an elder, within a deacon’s primary appointment."
Meeting Nov. 2-7 at historic Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island, Georgia, the bishops said the new language is an attempt to describe the extraordinary missional reasons that justify exceptions to general church practice. However, in all cases, the Discipline gives the bishop final discretionary authority to decide under which circumstances to grant local sacramental authority to a deacon, they noted.
Deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership and to lead the church in relating the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world, interrelating worship in the gathered community with service to God in the world, said the delegates to the 2008 General Conference. Deacons give leadership in the church's life, teach and proclaim the word, contribute in worship and assist the elders in administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.
According to the bishops, "local sacramental authority" refers to the primary field of service of the deacon, meaning the immediate community of faith for a congregational appointment or the primary service setting and community for deacons serving beyond a local church.
While the guidelines are the bishops' attempt to find common ground in implementing and interpreting Paragraph 328, the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry (shown at right), said the new sentence in the Discipline "alters significantly the nature and purpose of the order of the permanent deacon as enacted by the 1996 General Conference."
Shift in 1996
The ordering of ministry underwent a major shift in 1996 when that General Conference created two distinct clergy orders—deacons and elders. Previously, ordination to the order of deacon was a preparatory step to ordination as an elder. According to Del Pino, the 1996 creation of the order of deacon "was crystal clear that the order was to engage in radical forms of service and not replicate duties of the pastoral office."
The new guidelines adopted by the bishops states, "The church provides for administration of the sacraments through the ordinary sacramental authority invested in ordained elders, licensed provisional clergy, and licensed local pastors, and the new language gives guidance for the extraordinary circumstances that require the provision of the sacraments by Deacons."
Absence of an elder refers to the unavailability of an elder in the congregation or community and is "not for the convenience of church staffs or to fill gaps during vacation, but to assist in the extraordinary circumstance where no elder can be present," they said.
While the guidelines are to assist residential bishops in interpreting and implementing "local sacramental authority," Del Pino urges the council "to take a strong minimalist approach to implementing this truly extra-ordinary innovation that has been introduced into our church order."
The additional sentence, he said, "upstages and presupposes" the outcome of the work of a 28-member Commission to Study Ministry that is examining the theological, ecclesial, and practical groundings of the church's system of lay, licensed, and ordained ministry.
The commission is to present the 2012 General Conference with legislation that addresses the ordering of ministry, the separation of ordination and conference membership, and the streamlining of the ordained ministry candidacy process.
Del Pino said he fears that no amount of common ground the bishops develop for implementing the provision extending sacramental authority will compensate for having initiated this church-defining practice before the study commission completes its work.
He also is concerned the guidelines will introduce unnecessarily complications into existing ecumenical relationships and initiate a practice that, if found to be inappropriate by the next General Conference, will not easily be reversed.
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.