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

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

"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.

Nor 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 a "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 of 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 our Triune God offers and promises for the life, witness, and ministry of the whole body of Christ carried, driven and inspired by the ever-flowing, ever-moving Spirit.

Part 1: Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology

Part 2: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit

Part 4: Calling and the Need for Ordination