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What the #UMC Episcopacy Should Look Like

13th century Bishop's crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

13th century Bishop’s crozier, representing the Annunciation. Public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a great deal chatter recently about episcopal elections in the UMC.  As usually happens, there has been a mix of joy and tears, of relief and weeping (and gnashing of teeth).  But regardless of whether you are celebrating or grieving the newest crop of bishops, there is an ancient and apostolic standard for bishops and their relationship to the rest of the church.  Consider the following nuggets culled from Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch less than a century after Christ.  Ignatius, in a letter to the Magnesians, offers wisdom to the church through the ages in the following guidance:

1) Follow the lead of the bishop
It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing they are not steadfastly gathered together according to the commandment.

2) Bishops and presbyters (elders/priests) should be united, and thus can they be trusted because there is one prayer/mind/hope/love/joy/etc.

As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.

3) Doctrine unites God’s people, along with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to Christ and the apostles
Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.
The office of Bishop, therefore, is not merely earthly and bureaucratic, but spiritual and apostolic.  Historically, the episcopacy has been the locus of unity in the church, both because of the apostolic role in ordaining and overseeing (episkopos means ‘overseer’) other clergy, and because of the teaching office that is concomitant with that calling.  It is supposed to go something like this:
  • The bishop is united to Christ and the apostles, and with other bishops
  • The presbyters and deacons are united to the bishop
  • The whole church, led and equipped by the three-fold ministerial office, is united in the doctrine of Christ and the apostles, upheld by Word and sacrament, reaching out in mission, service, charity, and justice

Any distortion of this order can cause chaos within the whole. An individualist or apostate bishop, rebellious presbyters, or a separation between the pulpit and pew can cause a break (schism) in the church.

The United Methodist Church is a Protestant denomination that, in truth, would prefer to not have bishops. We consecrate bishops as part of our Anglican heritage, but our American, egalitarian, democratic, and evangelical leanings mitigate against the classic understanding of the episcopal office. Thus our bishops are little more than bureaucratic presiders, dutifully moving about chess pieces but unable to really change the game. One wonders why prominent pastors would even seek episcopal office, since a megachurch pastor or influential author often has more raw influence than the typical United Methodist bishop.

If you want to know just how despised the office of Bishop is in the UMC, consider a vote taken in 2012. In a General Conference famous for frustration, otherwise bitterly divided conservatives and progressives seemed, for once, to agree (and thus voted down) a set-apart President of the Council of Bishops to provide oversight and voice to the Executive branch of our church.  Having personally observed a very capable and gifted bishop serve as both the President of the COB and the leader of a very large Episcopal Area, I am not exaggerating when I say we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing a practice that is a) inhumane, in that asks an individual to fill two almost impossible tasks simultaneously and b) foolish, in that it is virtually guaranteed to render whatever poor person gets talked into that role those roles ineffective.

not how any of this worksI am doubtful anyone who was elected last week will be able do much to reverse the tide toward schism; some will likely propel us faster toward that end. This is, at least in part, simply due to a flaw of our polity: bishops, by design, just can’t do very much – and, in an increasing number of cases, they aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of what their office demands.

Looking back at the 2nd century vision for church leadership bequeathed to us from Ignatius (and before him, from the Bible and the Tradition), I see very little I recognize in the UMC at present. In a very real way, the episcopal office is a holdover from our Anglican heritage whose authority is not desired by the right or the left. I truly wonder, in a split, if the evangelical and progressive branches would maintain bishops. The most progressive denominations (such as the United Church of Christ) and most conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) resort to congregational autonomy with little oversight. Culturally, in the midst of what Jeffrey Stout has called “the flight from authority,” hierarchy is a dirty word and bishops feel a bit like the ecclesial equivalent of posts to which one ties their horse.

I suppose I’m just sad. Not sad at the particular outcomes at Jurisdictional Conference(s), nor at the state of the church, though it is imperiled. Rather, I am struck by just how much distance there is between what the Church Mothers and Fathers called a bishop, and what United Methodists mean by that term.  And that is a deeper issue than anything that’s gone on in the last week or the last few years.

All that leaves me with a question: do we have the form of religion without the power?

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Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us [Book Review]

holy communion book

I am not interested in any church renewal that is not sacramental – which is to say – is not Christian in any kind of historically or liturgically identifiable sense.  Anyone can draw a crowd, but happily God loves us too much to leave us with only marketing tricks and technocratic delights.  Instead, God has called His Church to glorify him through prayer, service, song, witness, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments.  Chief among the sacraments, the most potent of the means of grace, is the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  United Methodist pastor and professor Kenneth Loyer has just written a book on this sacred meal that explains not just its importance as a rite of the church, but the critical role it can play in the vitality of the local congregation.

Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us is part of the new Belief Matters series by Abingdon, edited by retired UM Bishop and Duke Divinity School professor Will Willimon.  Willimon wrote the first volume on the Incarnation, and my Western NC Conference colleague Jason Byassee has written the next entry on the Trinity (which I am told is excellent).  This series “takes as its task the joyful celebration of the wonder of Christian believing.” (xi)  It seeks to make doctrine accessible and interesting to both laity and clergy alike, a much needed task today.

Loyer organizes his book in terms of the Communion’s own structure and ethos.  Thus, he begins with a discussion of thanksgiving, which is what what most of the Eucharistic liturgy actually is – an epic prayer normally called The Great Thanksgiving in Western practice.  Much of this chapter is a kind of commentary on the whole of the liturgy itself, which is a highlight of the book.  The next chapter focuses on the practice of active remembering; the liturgy re-members us (literally, puts us back together) as the Body of Christ remembers all that God has done in Jesus Christ to effect our salvation.  Drawing on John Wesley’s own Eucharistic piety, Loyer reflects, “we neglect this gift of God’s grace at our own peril.” (44)

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After thanksgiving and remembering, the author turns to celebration.  Communion does not merely invite us to recall what God has done, but to celebrate the risen Christ’s continued, transforming presence with us now.  The story in this chapter of Mandela receiving communion with one of his prison guards is worth the price of admission.  In the final chapter, we explore the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist.  At the Lord’s Supper, we not only remember what Jesus has done and celebrate his continued grace through the Holy Spirit now, we also look forward.  Communion is thus a Kingdom meal that gives us a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet that Isaiah foretold so well. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,” a feast which we anticipate every time we gather around Christ’s table today. (Is. 25:6)

Interspersed throughout is Loyer’s own pastoral experience.  Specifically, he connects the initiation of a mid-week Communion service to a revitalization in ministry for his congregation, Otterbein UMC in Pennsylvania.  “God has used this feast of our faith,” Rev. Dr. Loyer notes, “to nourish us in Christ and to generate an increased desire for God that has spread throughout the life of the congregation.” (63)  While the author does not emphasize this and I do not find it the most interesting claim he makes, it’s worth noting that under Loyer’s leadership his church has grown from 90 in attendance to 170.  At a time when many of our small churches are stagnant or are in decline, this a feat worth attending. Of course, it should be no surprise that spiritual and missional renewal and the Eucharist are heavily linked.  The Walk to Emmaus and similar communities have attested to this reality for decades.

To sum up: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Holy Communion, spiritual renewal, or church vitality.  Loyer’s offering is highly readable yet still substantive.  Indeed, there is plenty of meat on the bones here even for those well-read in liturgical theology and worship or church growth more broadly.  Moreover, each chapter contains a series of reflection questions and a prayer, making it ideal for small groups and Sunday School classes. I highly recommend this new resource for both, as well as church-wide study.

There is no renewal in the church worth having unless the sacramental life is at its center.  Ken Loyer’s book both makes this case and helps us imagine what it might look like in practice.

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