This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination’s proposed ecclesiology document, “Wonder, Love and Praise.” These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is the first of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.
There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.
While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.
We will begin with the role of the laity. WLP, following the example of the WCC documents The Church: Towards a Common Vision and Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, explores issues related to the roles of those set aside for leadership within the church through ordination. Such an exploration is worthwhile, as ordained leadership is a significant aspect of the church. Yet WLP fails to give sufficient attention to an exploration of the theological understanding and significance of the laity within the church. The document could have drawn on other United Methodist theological resources such as By Water and the Spirit to discuss the common Christian calling that all members of the church enter into through their baptismal vows.
Overlooking the role of the laity is a significant miscalculation for several reasons. First, it seems a missed opportunity in terms of the document’s envisioned purpose. WLP is intended to serve as a teaching document for the church, similar to This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit. If the document is used as such, the primary audience who will engage it will be laity. It is important, therefore, that laity see themselves in the document. If they do not, the chances it will be adopted and used as a teaching document will significantly decrease.
Second, by overlooking the laity, WLP also overlooks a primary Methodist distinctive. Section III of WLP examines three aspects of The United Methodist Church’s distinctiveness within the church universal: the scope of grace, connectionalism, and theological reflection as a task of the whole church. While the wording of this last aspect of distinctiveness might seem to indicate some attention to the role of laity within theological reflection, the discussion here is about General Conference without any specific references to the laity. Moreover, while WLP asserts that theological reflection is a distinctive mark of Methodism, we felt that practically, not enough space was created for such reflection. Few would call General Conference a space for deep theological reflection.
Although the laity are not mentioned in this section or in the rest of the section on United Methodism’s distinctiveness, arguably a large role for laity in the church has been one of the most distinctive aspects of Methodism since its beginning as a movement led predominantly by lay preachers, lay class leaders, and lay stewards. Methodists have taken Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers and thoroughly applied it. In Britain, in America, and around the world, Methodism often spread through the initiative of laity. Laity have long held crucial leadership roles within the church, both on the local and general church levels. United Methodist governance structures are set up to reflect equal participation by clergy and laity. Thus, by omitting specific attention to the role of the laity, WLP overlooks what is one of the most important aspects of United Methodist distinctiveness and therefore one of its contributions to the church universal.
Third, a more thorough theological exploration of the role of the laity within the church would have served to better ground WLP’s discussion of the role of ordained clergy within the church. Since significant leadership roles are available to laity within The United Methodist Church, confusions frequently arise about what the distinctions between laity and clergy are. How are lay licensed local pastors and clergy elders different when they serve similar functional roles? How is a deacon who serves as a social worker different than a lay person who serves as a social worker? Such questions must be answer not only through a theology of the clergy, but a theology of the laity, or a theology of the whole people of God, as well.
By omitting such a theological discussion of the laity and their relation to the clergy, WLP inadvertently reinforces a tacit hierarchical understanding of The United Methodist Church, one with laity at the bottom. Too often, United Methodists view the church as a pyramid of prestige proceeding from laity to licensed local pastor to deacon to elder to bishop. Deconstructing such a view of the church requires a firm understanding of the common baptismal ministry that all Christians are called to, regardless of ordination status. Indeed, Methodists have always emphasized witnessing to Christ in the world in vocations of daily life and service through secular occupations. Such faithful living is a primary and not secondary aspect of what it means to be the church.