The introduction of holy orders into the American Methodist movement grafted a new set of understandings onto an existing institution, with sometimes jarring effect. The Methodist Societies had been run by the laity. Traveling preachers had to be approved by the Conference, but anybody within the movement could preach. There were no sacraments. The only hierarch was Francis Asbury, acting as John Wesley’s deputy. His task was to appoint the preachers to their stations or circuits, and to travel and preach himself.
Once the Methodist Episcopal Church was set up, the first new feature was obviously, bishops. What was a Methodist bishop? Well, he wasn’t a C of E bishop. He didn’t have a diocese; rather, he was to travel the whole connection. Methodist bishops did not form a General Staff in the capital or command garrisons; they were field commanders who lived with their troops, and Methodism was an army on the march.
The bishops had the unfettered right to appoint preachers, as Wesley had enjoyed. They presided over the Conference(s), as Wesley had. They traveled the connection (as Wesley had). They had immense organizational clout, as Wesley had. The point to be made is, Methodist bishops were not understood to be occupying St. Peter’s chair; they were occupying John Wesley’s chair. Peter and his medieval successors could only dream of the powers Asbury and his successors enjoyed.
Methodist bishops, unlike other bishops within the tradition, were not considered a third order of ministry, nor even – as ministers – of a higher rank. Methodist bishops were elders consecrated (not ordained) to a special service of leadership. The power to ordain was granted to them, but only at the direction of the other elders.
The basic order of ministry in Methodism was (and is) the elder. The right to celebrate the sacraments is committed to them without reserve. The elders admitted new preachers to the clergy. The elders supervised their training. The elders held each other accountable for their teaching and practice, as Methodists always had. Elders were given certain supervisory responsibilities by the bishop to be in leadership of other preachers (the presiding elder, ancestor of the district superintendent). The elders were to administer church law as well as preach. Once admitted to the order of elder – once elected to full membership in the conference – one’s orders are permanent, and one’s membership in the conference is, too. The presbyterate isn’t just a job, it’s a life calling. Why did they have all this attached to their office? Because such was the office and example of John Wesley as an Anglican priest.
The MEC inherited the order of deacon, keeping it as a junior member in the hierarchy (as in Anglicanism). They associated it with probationary membership in the conference. So, one usually started out as a Lay Exhorter in the local church. After a while, one might be given a station or circuit to preach in under a presiding elder (the beginning of what we today call LLPs). As one progressed in the Course of Study, one eventually would be ordained a deacon and admitted to probationary membership. At this point, some sacramental powers attached to the candidate (for instance, baptism), but celebrating communion was reserved to the elder, except where the deacon was acting as a pastor under an elder. Upon completing the COS, one was examined by the Board of Ministry (all elders) and elected to full membership and ordained an elder.
On the American frontier, there were other ecclesiologies on offer. Baptists worked in many of the same areas as Methodists. And, following the outbreak of the Second Great Awakening, the Restorationists (Stone/Campbellites and others) spread rapidly. The Free Church denominations had elders and deacons, but these were lay offices within the congregation. They ordained ministers, too, but “minister” was a thing separate from elder and deacon. They had no bishops. Furthermore, in some of these theologies, the necessity to obey the Word of God meant that nobody had to give permission to organize a new congregation, or call and set apart the clergy for it, or to baptize, or anything. If a body of believers lacked somebody qualified to do something demanded by the Word of God, then that body of believers was empowered to qualify whoever and whatever it thought was pleasing to God. This was a far cry from the Presbyterians and Lutherans, who lagged in frontier expansion because they required formally educated clergy and solid institutional support. Methodists were in the middle: they were as free in some ways as the Baptists and Church of Christ, but fussier about proper authority to act in others.
Over the generations, the various traditions have rubbed off on each other. The Methodists were less doctrinaire about things, and they have probably acquired more members who think like Baptists and Restorationists than those churches have acquired members who think like Methodists. And Methodists have not done a good job of explaining why we do what we do, or what we mean by it. Elite Methodism fell in love with modernism and didn’t care about our tradition; the smaller churches pastored by Local Pastors (unordained preachers who lacked the right to celebrate the sacraments), doubled down on their revivalism and played to their strengths. The elites took the evangelicals for granted; the evangelicals resented the elites. But neither group had a firm grasp on Methodist doctrine and practice as regards ordination and sacraments.
The absorption of the EUB Church in 1968 was predicated on the understanding that the Evangelical Association and United Brethren were originally "Dutch (German-speaking) Methodists" and our theologies and practices were equivalent. Much of that was true, though there was a great difference in church culture between the two bodies. The EUB had also gone deeper into the holiness movement than the main branches of Methodism had. Bishops had term limits. There were infant dedications that sometimes looked an awful lot like baptism, and a trend for baptism upon profession of faith that was rarer in the Methodist Church, which had begun to emphasize confirmation classes.
Beginning in the 1970s, the then, United Methodist Church, was much affected by the liturgical renewal coursing through many denominations. Many UM churches and clergy became more formal. Frequency of communion increased. More attention to baptismal and confirmation practice was paid. New liturgies following ancient models were issued and much used. Rules on celebrating baptism and communion were created. Rebaptism – a long-held abuse, frequently done on the sly – was made a chargeable offense.
At the same time, the scandal of having many congregations that almost never had someone to baptize or serve communion was being addressed. The 1976 BOD was the first that allowed certain local pastors (I was one, serving my student pastorate while in seminary) to offer the sacraments under the supervision of our DS’s. Over time, the status of LLP rose. Conference membership was accorded to them, and those who completed the COS could vote for General Conference delegates. Still, the status of a permanent, licensed group of ministers alongside a permanent, ordained group of ministers has never been explained. Previously, we all understood the difference to be one of membership and sacramental authority; now, we had only the issues related to employment. Elders got the big churches and had all the privileges because they held the union card.
Meanwhile, we tried various ways to recognize other persons pursuing church professions other than the pastorate and the professorate. We had deaconesses for a long while, who were women dedicated to charitable work. (I knew one of the last deaconesses, Nola Yoder, who founded the nursing home, Glenburn Rest Haven.) We later called these people pursuing the administration of good works and the doing of youth ministry and church music, "diaconal ministers," to distinguish them from deacons. But in 1996, a new BOD established an entirely separate order of deacon (with full membership) and eliminated deacon as a step toward the presbyterate. At the same time, we now “commissioned” candidates as “provisional elders” upon completion of seminary. So now, we had Supply pastors, LLPs, provisional elders, deacons in full connection, and elders all jostling for status and employment. With the elimination of supply pastors (emergency fill-in types) we have now created the Certified Lay Minister – a non-clergy clergy category. We did this because we feared lawsuits if we employed people, even in this limited way, without some kind of screening, training, and credentials. But it has only added to the incoherence of our understanding of ministry.
This completes my review of the Methodist tradition in America. In the next installment, we’ll look at the sources (Scripture and early church practice) and critique what we have received.