Sacramental authority of deacon in absence of an elder

Sacramental Authority of the Deacon in the Absence of an Elder

Episcopal response to the Resolution approved at the Florida Annual Conference
on June 15, 2003.

The Florida Conference approved a resolution that asked me, as resident bishop, to "issue a statement that would more clearly explain the circumstances under which [I] would be led to grant authority to deacons to administer the sacraments in the absence of an elder, so that our pastors-in-charge and district superintendents might be able to more effectively identify the opportunities that are afforded by paragraph 328 (Book of Discipline) to extend the mission and ministry of the church."


At present, deacons in The United Methodist Church are not ordained to the sacraments.  The resolution approved at the Florida Annual Conference on June 15, 2013 expresses hope for the revision of this practice at a future General Conference. The 2012 Book of Discipline does make allowance for the bishop to grant that a deacon may administer the sacraments in extraordinary circumstances---namely, "in the absence of an elder, [and] within a deacon's primary appointment" (BOD, 328).  The resolution asks for clarification about "circumstances" in which the resident bishop would grant sacramental authority.

I could imagine granting this permission, in my service as a bishop, for the purpose of extending the mission and ministry of the church.  In the Wesleyan tradition, order always lives in tension with mission.  I am not closed, intellectually, theologically or spiritually, to this possibility, and expect to grant this extraordinary authority to a deacon in the near future.  At the same time, deacon and elder are distinctive orders and this differentiation blesses the church and its mission.

The primary symbol for the deacon is the towel and basin, an outward and visible sign of servant leadership. The primary symbol for the elder is the bread and the cup, an outward and visible sign of the sustaining and real presence of Christ. The presence and differentiation of these symbols are clear and unmistakable in both the ordination questions, in the Service of Ordination and the Book of Discipline.  

The powerful sign of service or diakonia—towel and basin--is so radical, so Christological, so essential, and so missional that it merits defining the work of a deacon. The added language of the calling of the deacon to "ministries of compassion and justice" in the 2012 Book of Discipline and in the Ordinal, to which I served as a consultant, gives further definition to this servant leadership.  In both the Service of Ordination and the Book of Discipline the order is clearly defined, and this is a gift to us.

I am drawn to the language of the Great Thanksgiving, and sense that these words capture the distinctiveness of the orders.  The presiding minister asks God, in the epiclesis, to pour out the Holy Spirit, and then prays:

Make them [these elements] be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

This first petition--make [these elements] be for us the body and blood of Christ--describes the work of an elder. The second phrase--that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood--is the calling of the deacon.

It is noteworthy that the phrase "in the world" occurs five times in the first three sentences of paragraph 328 (The Ministry of a Deacon). The primary context for the ministry of a deacon, according to the Book of Discipline, is thus "in the world."  As a relatively recent permanent order in the church (1996), my hope is that the diaconate now understood will not gain its identity, which is relatively new in the life of the church, by becoming fused to the functioning of the elder. The resolution assumes such a blurring of functions.


Before reflecting on the extraordinary circumstances in which a deacon could be granted sacramental authority, it is appropriate to clarify the importance of sacramental ministry (means of grace) in our ordinary experience.  In his sermon on the "Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity," John Wesley identified three obstacles that prevented men and women from becoming more deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ in the early Methodist movement:  an inadequate understanding of doctrine, defined as the core convictions of the faith; a lack of discipline, which included participation in the means of grace; and an unwillingness to practice self-denial.  I note this simply because the primary way a deacon participates in sacramental provision, and it is important,  is by “assisting the elder”  in making God’s grace available to those who are within the worshipping community, as an essential mark of “forming and nurturing disciples” (BOD, 328).  

 The strength of the resolution lies in the connection between sacramental ministry and God's mission in the world, and this is my interpretation of the relevant sentence in paragraph 328 regarding extraordinary sacramental authority.  A bishop is called to "exercise supervision and support of the Church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" (BOD, 403).   The tension of ordering the church's set-apart ministry and supporting the church's mission lies at the heart of the resolution's request. So I will seek to respond clearly.

Sacramental authority "in the absence of an elder'' refers to contexts where an elder is not assigned, nor a part of a worshipping community. Where elders and deacons are appointed by the cabinet and collaborate on staffs in ministry contexts, the elder is granted sacramental authority.  Where the elder is not present in a given ministry context or situation, the elder may consecrate the elements to be distributed by the deacon.  In This Holy Mystery, the following practice is affirmed: “Deacons are designated to serve as links between the church and the world.  Their ministry appropriately includes taking the consecrated elements from their congregations and serving them in their places of ministry.”  This assumes, first, that an elder has consecrated the elements, and second, that the deacon’s context of ministry extends the grace of God to persons beyond the local church.  These are ministry contexts that are "in the world," interpreted as beyond a local church, and deacons are called to connect the church to persons in these contexts (BOD, 328).  This is the fundamental gift and calling of a deacon.

In these contexts, and “in the absence of an elder," "within a deacon's primary appointment,"  and "for the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the church," and “upon the request of the pastor-in-charge or district superintendent,"  I will grant extraordinary sacramental authority, I believe in so doing I will be maintaining the Discipline and supporting the mission of our church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (BOD, 120).


I cannot conclude this response without expressing gratitude to God for the gift of grace, through Jesus Christ.  I give thanks for the outward and visible signs of this grace in our lives, and for communities that feed the multitudes in our own time.   And I ask that the Holy Spirit would descend upon us--whether we are offering or receiving the bread and the cup, rejoicing in abundance or kneeling in confession, sharing the bread of justice with the poor or resisting temptation alongside the addicted--to make us “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes again and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”

Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.
Resident Bishop, Florida Area
The United Methodist Church
July 31, 2013

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