April 30th, 2012

how long

Methodist shoptalk

I have heard it said that when the Methodist Episcopal Church -- ancestor of The UMC -- was organized in 1784, they modeled their governing structure on the American constitution; the problem was, the constitution then in effect was the Articles of Confederation, which is why we have such a strong legislative branch (General Conference) and such a weak executive (the bishops). This is twaddle. A Methodist bishop was, and is, possessed of more executive power than any other similar officer in any other Christian church. It's just that back in 1784, we only had one bishop and one conference. (Well, two bishops, if you're counting Coke.)

Within that Conference, Bishop Asbury was supreme in his executive authority. Even after we found distances too much to have only one conference, the bishop(s) would itinerate among them, which tended to keep the number of bishops low and their personal clout very high. What changed was the not the power of the bishops, but their desire to have their cake and eat it, too. Even as pastors got tired of riding circuit among multiple congregations, so bishops wanted to have to preside over only one annual conference each. When North and South Indiana merged to form the Indiana Annual Conference, our bishop finally got to have a "station" appointment instead of a "two-point charge." As far as I can make out, that's the only improvement anyone can boast of having achieved in the whole muddle of the last five years.

In addition to the expansion in the number of conferences, the creation of General Agencies has given us a perpetual bureaucracy with a) interests which are capable of differentiating themselves from that of the church at large, i.e., the people in the pews, and b) thirteen General Secretaries, each of which wants the independence and power of a bishop over his or her little fiefdom. The whole kerfuffle over restructuring we've been going through has been an attempt to increase the power of our already powerful bishops and reduce the power of General Secretaries. Those of us who toil in the hinterlands like the latter idea, but think the former a dangerous thing.
hound of heaven

Clergy talk

Spent most of the day doing clergy interviews: candidates and local pastors. It's been a blessing to talk with people starting out on the ministry trail, as well as with some more experienced pastors of our smaller churches. Thanks to Curt and Kevin, fellow elders, who formed the interview panel with me. Good times, many praises.
saxon cross

More clergy talk

Many of our small churches are served by persons who have no clergy standing in themselves, i.e., they are not ordained. They are Licensed Local Pastors or even just Supply Pastors. Their sacramental rights are restricted or non-existent. This is in contrast to an elder such as myself, who can, so long as I don't get in anybody else's way, exercise my ministry to baptize and celebrate the eucharist anywhere in the world, for anybody that is eligible.

We Methodists have long wrestled with this problem. The first attempt to deal with it by changing the Discipline was in 1976. But no matter what we have done, we have had difficulties coming up with a rational, theological, proper approach to sacramental ministry, since not all UM pastors are ordained. I raised a few eyebrows in our interviews today when I mentioned that the First Council of Nicea in 325 -- the first Church-wide gathering in history -- wrestled with this very same problem. It was the problem of the "country-bishops," the chorepiskopoi. Or, as we would call them, the pastors who are not "Elders in Full Connection."

The country-bishops were a class of pastors left behind by the division between bishop and pastor as the Church developed. In the beginning, "bishop/pastor" was the head elder in the local church. He was assisted by the other elders. Eventually, larger towns' congregations grew to the point where multiple parishes had to be developed to accommodate the number of Christians available and the distances between their homes. The "bishop/pastor" was the head of all of them; this is why, in Roman Catholic parlance, a "local Church" = "diocese." But the "bishop-pastor" was not able to effectively look after so many sub-groups and their various sacramental needs, so the "bishop/pastor" became simply a bishop, with presbyters (elders or priests) the pastors of the various congregations that made up what was now called a diocese (a Roman administration term).

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, numbers didn't grow like they did in the big city. The local church in that desert oasis town started out with a "bishop/pastor," but he never had much of a crew of elders to assist him; they weren't needed. And there weren't going to be any satellite congregations to grow into full-fledged parish churches. The isolated village's "bishop/pastor" wasn't going to be able to grow into a supervisory position like the diocesan bishops who were emerging around the empire. He remained a pastor, but he had the dignity of a bishop. He was a one-man band, you might say: a one-man diocese. Without other elders to assist him, he couldn't even get ordained without asking a bishop in another locale to assist.

And so "country-bishop" came to mean "unordained pastor," and figuring out how to get the sacraments to his parishioners -- and how to pigeon-hole his ministry in the newly emergent triad of deacon-presbyter-bishop -- became an on-going problem, which I Nicea attempted to address. Chorepiskopoi continued to be employed throughout the Church for several hundred years before the status died out among other minor orders.

By the way, Elizabeth I faced the same problem when the Puritans began agitating for a learned clergy. There were thousands of parish churches across England, many of which could not provide enough of a living to retain the services of a fully qualified priest. Figuring out how to staff these tiny churches -- or to get the sacraments to other churches whose salaries went to non-resident clergy -- was an ongoing problem in the Church of England.

And then came the Methodists. They kept a high view of clergy, while yet encouraging lay preaching and lay spiritual supervision. Sacramental and pastoral issues have been lively and difficult issues since the beginnings of the Methodist movement. But our present wrangles do not represent a new problem. The Church of Jesus Christ has been wrestling with this problem for over eighteen hundred years, in one form or another.

Maybe if our leaders actually paid attention to their required Church History classes in seminary, they might look at the situation with fresh eyes. Maybe we could make our clergy system more rational and less ad hoc if we realized that the problem didn't just materialize when we hit the American frontier.