Thoughts on Descending Overture 21-D

One of the byproducts of Presbyterianism is that if you find yourself in a minority position on a constitutional amendment you have the distinct unpleasantness of being on the losing side of a vote three times in a single year. But three votes is three votes, not two votes, so though I have already been on the minority side on two votes on Descending Overture 21-D, it is not bad churchmanship to again make the case to decline its ratification. Presbyterian decision making is about process and persuasion, after all.

This proposed amendment to the EPC’s Book of Government would strike the line “The Presbytery may authorize the Chaplain to administer the sacraments in that role” from 9-5.E on the Teaching Elder as Chaplain. Two arguments have been brought forward to justify the edit, and I think they are both wanting. The first is that Chaplains as Teaching Elders are already authorized to administer the sacraments, and therefore should not require additional Presbytery approval. The second is that a number of Chaplains change ministerial setting frequently, and it is unrealistic and inconvenient to request Presbytery approval for each new setting.

For the Reformed, the proper administration of the sacraments depends not only on the manner of the administration and proper authorization (i.e. ordination) for administration, but the setting of administration. The sacraments are signs and seals given to the local, visible church. The administration of the sacraments is to be normally done in the context of the local church, and should always be overseen by the visible church in its courts.

All Teaching Elders are authorized by virtue of our ordination to administer the sacraments. We are not authorized to individually determine the appropriate setting of that administration. Pastors as Teaching Elders are regulated by our Confession and Catechisms, as well as our Book of Order, which includes parameters for the place and time of the administration of the sacraments. Pastors cannot administer the Lord’s Supper privately, Session authorization is required to schedule administering the Lord’s Supper, the congregation should normally be informed a week in advance before the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and Session authorization is normally required to schedule a baptism. Other EPC Pastors, may administer the sacraments in a local EPC church, but only with the approval of the Session and perhaps the Presbytery, circumstance depending.

The courts of the church exercise oversight over the place and manner of sacramental administration, which is conducted by Teaching Elders. The question for Chaplains is not whether they as individual Teaching Elders may administer the sacrament, but in what setting and under oversight of which court it shall be done.

The other roles to which Teaching Elders may be called have their sacramental practices regulated, whether or not this amendment passes. “The Presbytery may authorize the Teaching Elder to administer the sacraments in that role [of Evangelist]” and the powers given to the Evangelist by the Presbytery must be specified in writing (BoG 9-C.1,4). The question is not whether the Teaching Elder as Evangelist has the individual authorization to administer the sacraments, but whether the setting in which they are ministering has been approved by an overseeing court. With no Session, the Evangelist must defer to the Presbytery. This is currently the case with Chaplains. Teaching Elders called to the role of Teachers are assumed to normally (but not always) have a sacramental setting in their calling (BoG 9-5.B) and Teaching Elders as Administrators are to seek opportunities to administer the sacraments (BoG 9-5.D) since administrative settings in the courts or agencies of the church are not sacramental. All Teaching Elders have individual authority to administer the sacraments, but not all settings of ministry to which they are called are sacramental.

Deleting this line for the Chaplain is intended to endorse sacramental administration for every Chaplain’s terms of call. This is fundamentally anticonnectional, in that the Chaplain becomes the sole Teaching Elder in the EPC without direct oversight by a council of the church in their sacramental ministry. The inconvenience of asking a Presbytery’s authorization to administer the sacraments is small compared to the importance of God’s ordinances. Now, I am not convinced that this is inconvenient. First, the internet makes it easy to touch base with a Presbytery or its committees frequently to adjust terms of call as needed. Second, the Presbytery is currently granted the discretion for determining whether the authorization should be for a very specific setting (e.g. a Chaplain’s work on a particular military base) or broadly for the call (e.g. authorizing a military Chaplain to administer the sacraments in their overarching military setting and capacity). Adopting the amendment hampers the Presbytery’s discretion. Now every Chaplain, regardless of whether they are serving at a hospital, in the military, a police department, a Christian camp, a college campus, or whatever, is understood to be free to administer the sacraments in their setting. Not all chaplaincy settings are created equal, and a Presbytery might judge that it is appropriate to administer the sacraments in one but not another. That ecclesial exercise in judgement is now imperiled.

Deleting this line creates confusion, not clarity. If I as a Pastor plan on administering the sacraments, I consult the Book of Worship for guidance and instructions. BoW 3-2.E on time and place of baptism assumes a church, congregation, Ruling Elders, and a Session. The same goes for BoW 3-3.G-F on the Lord’s Supper. It is impossible to read BoW 3 on the time and place of sacramental administration and see anything other than the normative setting of the local church. The current version of BoG 9-5.E allowing Presbyteries to authorize Chaplains to administer the sacraments grants the Presbytery flexibility and guidance for Chaplains in the setting and form of administration, much as with Evangelists and Teachers. Currently, Presbyteries have missional flexibility to authorize sacramental administration outside the regular, congregational guidance in the Book of Worship. Deleting this line from BoG 9-5.E does not ipso facto authorize Chaplains to now administer the sacraments in their call regardless of setting, but removes the exception to the rule. In other words, without this line allowing a Presbytery to grant special and specific authorization to Chaplains, there is no mechanism in the Book of Order for Chaplains to administer the sacraments. They would have to follow our constitution, which otherwise only allows sacramental administration in the context of the local church.

My fear is that passing this amendment will further sacramental and constitutional downgrade in the EPC. The intent to decouple the sacraments from the oversight of the courts of the church not good. De facto authorizing sacramental administration for any chaplaincy is not good because not all chaplain settings should include sacramental administration. With the exception to the rule deleted, Chaplains will have to disregard the nature of our constitution in order to pursue sacramental administration in their calls. Anytime a constitution is sidelined its authority and respectability is reduced; that is what will happen here, as individual imagination and innovation are used to guide the Chaplain’s administration of the sacraments, not the standards of the church.

As a biographical aside, I began my pastoral ministry in the Chaplain Corps. for the National Guard. This is not a theoretical discussion for me, but something with which I am personally acquainted.