As usual, I will attempt to make my argument from several angles, often in a nonlinear fashion. My premise is this:
I will present evidence for this now.
Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.- John Wesley
We speak of the need to empower laity through the local church (and not in the least because the UMC is about to face a clergy crunch). There is room for laity voting at Annual Conferences as well as General Conferences. We have laity on boards, commissions, and leading the way in many areas. The United Methodist Church has attempted to move away from clergy-driven congregations and in many ways, publicly, attempt to embrace the laity-driven model of Wesley:
One of the components Wesley focuses upon is the prominent place of lay leadership within Methodism. He makes it clear that the revival is not a clergy-driven enterprise. As Wesley tells it, Methodism has many roles for laity that allow them to serve in active ministry. He describes the roles of Lay Preachers and Stewards. He documents the contributions of Class Leaders and Visitors of the Sick. Each of these “offices” has a set of responsibilities attached to it. Each of them is also empowered to do ministry—shepherding the members of the local Methodist societies in ways designed to care for them, nurture their discipleship, and push them forward in mission.
As Kevin Watson notes, the expansion of Methodism in the United States is substantial in the years following the arrival of Francis Asbury. He has commented further on the need and way to empower laity.
But, what is “laity?” In a real sense, it is the entire people of God, i.e., the Church. While there is a difference between clergy and laity, we have to ask ourselves what that difference is, especially in Protestantism.
Martin Luther wrote:
“Every Christian man is a priest, and every Christian woman is a priestess, whether they be young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, scholar or illiterate. All Christians are, properly speaking, members of the ecclesiastical order, and there is no difference between them except as they hold different offices.”
To suggest that a lay bishop (my term) is simply a Protestant allowance would be misleading. Indeed, until 1917, Rome had Lay Cardinals. We can also mention the lay abbots of the West, but many times these titles were bought. This practice of simony is, perhaps, in of itself only sacrilegious when titles are traded rather than appointed with due course of the Spirit. This is not to say that lay episcopacy is condemned, only that the purchase of titles is. In Anglo-Saxon realms, Kings were considered “lay bishops” because they were “quasi-sacerdotal.” We have a tie (the strength of it is debatable) between Tradition and our present need.
What of Wesley? In The United Methodist Church, John Wesley’s sermons are doctrinal standards. Thus, I turn to Sermon 38.
“But what, if he be only a layman, who casts out devils! Ought I not to forbid him then?”
Is the fact allowed? Is there reasonable proof that this man has or does cast out devils? If there is, forbid him not; no, not at the peril of your soul. Shall not God work by whom he will work? No man can do these works unless God is with him; unless God hath sent him for this very thing. But if God hath sent him, will you call him back? Will you forbid him to go?
This brings us to our shores. In 1771, John Wesley asked for volunteers to go to the colonies to minister to the American Methodists. Four went. One of them was Francis Asbury. Absury, by all accounts, was never properly ordained. Yet, he became a bishop and is recognized as such. How? He was first sent out as a lay preacher by John Wesley. Years later, at the Christmas Conference, the same conference Bishop Coke was ordained as bishop (Wesley’s preference as only as a Superintendent) he in turn ordained Asbury first as a deacon, then as an elder, and then as (Superintendent) Bishop. What did Asbury do once he, elevated from that of a preaching laity?
From a link above (and Mark Noll):
“When Asbury came to America in 1771,” observed Mark Noll, “four Methodist ministers were caring for about 300 laypeople. When he died in 1816, there were 2,000 ministers and more than 200,000 Methodists in the States, and several thousand more in Canada.”
He brought the hammer down and that hammer was a revival.
We are always searching for revival in The United Methodist Church, perhaps because “revival” is in our DNA. If this is truly the case, then there must be a way for the laity to be elevated to the level of a bishop. We already have laity with the ability to preach, pastor, and the such. As we seem to believe we can recognize God’s call via elections, then perhaps we can put this to a vote. Twice.
Note, that the role of bishop in American Methodism has changed over time. Yes, we have a certain system now but since we vote on that system it is not prevented from changing.
The first will be be to change the Book of Discipline. The second will be, if ever the time should arise, vote for a lay bishop.
I want to circulate this openly to see what others think. Then, if I think it is plausible, I will write legislation and publish it on this link.
What I’d like help on is this:
- Why not? Why would a lay bishop (promoting a laity to a bishop) be hazardous to the health of The United Methodist Church?
- Are their theological concerns here?
- What are the pluses (which may be used in the Whereas statements)
- Would their be any educational requirements?