Friday, July 26, 2013

Open Thoughts on "Lay Deacons" and the Like

One of the issues that looks to be a matter of some discontent and concern for the next three years will be the question of Lay Deacons.  Resolution 4-06a was passed overwhelmingly - and directs the President to meet with a committee to figure out how to handle this situation.

Here is the background.  For several decades a few districts, mainly on the west coast, have had the practice of creating "lay deacons" who are authorized by the District President to, under his authority and supervision, engage in Word and Sacrament ministry (i.e. preach and consecrate Holy Communion) even though they have not had any formal training recognized by the Synod.  In addition, in 1989, Synod authorized districts to have various "Lay Ministry" programs where folks who had not gone through Sem could be authorized to preach and consecrate.

This has lead to much consternation for more conservative folks.  First, there are those who contend that this violates the 14th article of the Augsburg Confession which says that we do not allow anyone to publicly preach or administer the Sacrament without a regular call (rite vocatus).  By not being ordained, the contention is that people exercising these offices are violating AC XIV.  Second, there are additional practical concern in the fact that you have folks who aren't as thoroughly trained, drastically underpaid, and often isolated (while there is direct supervision, most lay deacons or lay ministers operate quite some distance away from their licensing District President in isolated communities).

The practice has also been vehemently defended by others as a practical and necessary way to provide preaching and the sacrament to people in areas that simply cannot support or afford a pastor.

Also of note is that 6 years ago the Synod created the SMP - Specific Ministry Pastor - which is a program that is run by the Seminaries with the purpose of training men who are called and ordained to work is a "specific" context (i.e. isolated communities, ethnic communities).  This program was designed to see that folks are cared for, but yet making sure that the men serving these congregations are ordained and receive at least some Seminary training.  This program also had some additional changes in oversight due to complaints that some in the program were not in "specific" settings (i.e. large congregations were using the program to establish cheap assistant pastors), and then there are also some complaints about the lower level of education.

With all this in mind, here are my thoughts.

1.  Terminology - The biggest problem with this whole issue is one of terminology.  There is not and cannot be such a thing as a "lay deacon".  If you are made a deacon and given an office and duty to preach and administer the sacrament, you are no longer "lay".  You are no longer simply one of the people (which is what "laos" - laity - means), but you are there among them to serve them.  To say "lay deacon" is as nonsensical as saying "civilian deputy".  If the Sheriff deputizes you, you aren't a fully trained police officer, but you certainly aren't a civilian anymore. 

Unfortunately, the word "lay" has been used to denote not one who is to hear (consider the table of duties - what hearers owe their pastors and what pastors owe their hearers), but rather one who is not seminary trained.  That is more of a social understanding of lay... not a church understanding of lay.

2.  A Regular Call - The second problem I have is with how many understand AC XIV.  Many will say that this means that one must be trained synodically, certified synodically, called, and ordained.  Period.  In response, I will say that this had been (and note the tense) the normal understanding of this in the Missouri Synod.  However, I will note that the main thrust of AC XIV notes that when it comes to clergy that our clergy are placed following "the rules" - that is, that no pastor is a pastor simply because they stood up and said, "I'm preaching now" - as is the custom amongst some of the radical reformed.  Even with the lay deacon and lay minister programs, there is oversight and the placement of a man into an office rather than the man assuming the office of his own accord. 

3.  A Tiered Clergy - While it has not been the custom in the Missouri Synod, the Church has often had various tiers of clergy.  Even today in Rome a bishop has different powers and authorities than a priest than a deacon.  This has also been the set up in some Lutheran Churches throughout the world.  There is nothing fundamentally wrong with establishing different levels and offices for the sake of good order.  We acknowledge that this is a matter "de juro humano" - according to man's law, not divine law. 

Thus, my simple solution is this.  We ought establish a tiered clergy.

Of course, I would contend that to a certain extent we already do -- for wherever there is a Head Pastor and an Assistant Pastor, you have tiers... one that is recognizable as the Bishop (Head Pastor who has his own altar and exercises all authority on his own accord and by virtue of his own call) and Priest/Presbyter (Assistant Pastor, who only can preach or administer when instructed and allowed by the head). 

Yes, folks - our typical parish pastors aren't "priests" - they are bishops.  I am the Bishop of Lahoma.  I preach and administer the sacraments there not with the District President's permission (so he is not a "bishop" in that sense), but by virtue of my own call.  Indeed, I perform confirmations - something accorded to bishops.  I am in all effect the Lutheran Bishop of Lahoma.

So, let us have actual "deacons".  Let us have clergy who act only in accordance with the direct oversight of a bishop.  Let us ordain them as such, and even let us have them authorized to consecrate the Supper (I am thoroughly in agreement with Ignatius of Antioch here - the safe Eucharist is the one done by the Bishop or by the one whom the bishop designates).  Let these deacons be like permanent Vicars who are designated to preach and administer the sacrament, but only under direct supervision (and continued training) of a parish pastor nearby.  Moreover, a deacon is only elligble to be a deacon until they head to the Seminary and are ordained as pastors... which is sort of the agreement we have with SMP.

Nothing wrong with tiers. 

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