Questions Regarding The Reserved Sacrament
And the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
On October 25, 2008, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued Decision No. 1109 which declared that the 2008 General Conference violated Restrictive Rule 1 in establishing a doctrine of "Reserved Sacrament" in contradiction to their understanding of Article XVIII of the Doctrinal Standards. As a result, the Council voided ¶1117.9 of the 2008 Book of Discipline, which would have authorized the carrying of pre-consecrated elements to Churches and other settings by lay people and their reception in worship services where ordained clergy are not present.
It is my opinion that the Judicial Council's interpretation of Article XVIII is erroneous and that the proposed so-called doctrine of "Reserved Sacrament" is neither "new" nor in contradiction to the spirit and intent of Article XVIII as understood and interpreted through the pertinent wording of Article XVI and the historical context in which the Articles of Religion were originally established. Indeed, as I will show, neither Article XVIII nor Article XVI applies to the subject at hand; rather, these Articles are addressing something totally different from what ¶1117.9 would have authorized.
The Judicial Council protests that they were not attempting to arbitrate a theological debate, nor making a theological ruling, but in point of fact this is precisely what they have done in Decision No. 1109.
What is the "explicit stipulation" in Article XVIII? They cite the phrasing "reserved" and "carried about" as being pertinent here, but are these words, and the "stipulation" they convey, actually relevant to the General Conference's intent in passing ¶ 1117.9? What do those words mean, and what did they reference in their original context when they were written into Article XXVIII of the original Anglican 39 Articles?
"The Council cannot overlook the fact that ¶ 1117.9 creates a fundamental shift in the way that the Church talks about the elements of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Certainly, it is a shift from the explicit stipulation in Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion that the Sacrament is not “reserved” or “carried about.” (Decision 1109)
Article XVIII deals with our understanding of the Lord's Supper; Wesley adopted it directly and without adjustment from the Church of England's Article XXVIII. It was originally written during the Reformation, in the midst of the heated theological battles between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The part of the Article in question reads as follows:
"The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshiped."
At first glance this does, indeed, appear to prohibit the practice of consecrating elements for use beyond the immediate context of a Eucharistic service. Or does it? What does it mean to "reserve" sacramental elements, to have them "carried about," or "lifted up" or "worshiped?" What historic practices are being referenced and prohibited here? The Judicial Council concluded that they reference the setting aside of consecrated communion elements so that they might be used, later, to commune shut-ins, those in hospitals and nursing homes, local family Communions, and other spatially and temporally remote Eucharistic celebrations. However, their conclusion fails to take into account the historical context from which this Article comes, the reasons for its being drafted, and the light which is shed upon this by comparison with the wording found in Article XVI.
Relative to this matter, Article XVI (which Wesley copied directly from Anglican Article XXV) states:
"The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about; but that we should duly use them."
At first glance, this looks as problematic as does Article XVIII for the concept of reserving sacramental elements for use outside the immediate context of the local church -- if they are not to be "carried about," then how can they be set aside in order to be taken elsewhere for the communing of people not present at the consecrating worship service? However, upon closer inspection I am convinced that this Article, as well as Article XVIII, simply do not apply to the intent and purpose of the General Conference in passing ¶ 1117.9, and certainly not to the taking of communion outside of the eucharistic service to those who are not present in the service.
What was being addressed in the referenced portions of both Articles -- in the "reserved" and "carried about" phrasing which the Judicial Council believed to be pertinent to the matter -- was the medieval Roman Catholic practice of consecrating communion hosts (wafers) for the sole purpose of placing them in a monstrances and parading them around the church and/or the community so that they might be worshipped by the faithful. During this period, Communion wafers were routinely being consecrated as if they were good luck charms; they were being used to bless places, buildings, conveyances, events, animals, and people; they were being consecrated in order to be set aside, placed on display, and worshiped by the faithful. This is the "reserving" and "carrying about" that the Articles speak to, however this is not what the General Conference was attempting to establish in ¶ 1117.9.
¶ 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, reads:
"Encourage ordained elders to train laity to distribute the non-perishable consecrated Communion elements to the sick or homebound and to other appropriate persons as approved by the pastor. Every family is encouraged to have at least one consecrated Communion distribution in each family annually. This distribution also may apply to laypersons who have been assigned pastoral roles in a church or in more than one church by the district superintendent."
Clearly, nowhere in the above cited legislation is the General Conference attempting to establish a doctrine of "Reserved Sacrament" which would be in any way congruent with the practices which Articles XVIII and XVI address. No where is it stated that the elements would be consecrated for the express purpose of carrying them about in a monstrance, lifting them up, or setting them aside for the worship of the faithful. No, ¶ 1117.9 clearly articulates that the elements be consecrated for the purpose of communing the sick and homebound and "other appropriate persons as approved by the pastor." That these elements should be "non-perishable" highlights that it would be permissible for them to be held for longer than a day or two, thus making it possible that they be distributed far and wide so that more people might partake of them. And, it is encouraged that such pre-consecrated elements be taken into the home where families can partake of the sacrament, together, and that this should happen at least once a year. None of this constitutes the setting aside of consecrated communion elements for purposes other than their "due use." In other words, they are not being consecrated so-as to serve as objects of worship by means of elevation and being paraded around in a monstrance. Quite the contrary, it involves the consecration of elements for the expressed purpose of enabling a wider and more extensive reception of the Sacrament, even in places and at times where ordained clergy are unavailable to preside at the Table of the Lord.
Given the way in which the Judicial Council has interpreted the words "reserved" and "carried about," and the "stipulation" which they believe these words convey, one must further conclude that any reception of the sacrament outside of a close spatial and temporal proximity to the communion service itself would constitute a violation of Articles XVIII and XVI. For instance, if one were to follow the way in which the Judicial Council has applied the term "carried about," it could be reasonably argued that any time the consecrated elements are transported to a nursing home or to a shut-in's home, that transporting of the elements would constitute them being "carried about." So, while the Judicial Council stopped short of voiding ¶ 1117.9 as it was found in the 2004 Book of Discipline, the weight of their argument against ¶ 1117.9 in the 2008 Book of Discipline would have the same effect. Otherwise, their argument fails.
In short, what the cited Articles of Religion prohibit is the consecration of Eucharistic elements for purposes other than their reception as the sacrament: consecrating them for the purpose of placing them on display for the worship of the faithful is the context, not the setting aside of consecrated elements for use by those not present at the service where they are consecrated.
© 2009 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.