Using Our Rites and Resources

The worship resources provided in The United Methodist Book of Worship, and the worship books of most other Christian denominations, generally sort into two rough categories: pastoral rites and ecclesial rites.

Pastoral rites are designed primarily for pastoral care of individual parishioners, especially in moments that mark significant personal transitions or challenges. While General Conference may provide resources for such rites, exactly how they may be used in a given pastoral encounter depends on the pastor’s and the parishioner’s mutual understanding of that particular encounter. Examples of pastoral rites include acts of naming at the birth of a child, a quinceañera, the celebration of an engagement to be married, rites of healing offered in homes or health care settings, and ministry with the dying to commend them to God.

Ecclesial rites are primarily for the entire community gathered into one body, at one place, and at the same time. These rites help the congregation express their praise, offer their intercessions for the church and the world, and hear and respond to the witness of God’s Word contained in the scriptures. The General Services (Word and Table, Baptism, Marriage, The Service of Death and Resurrection) are examples of ecclesial rites. So are the rites of ordination and commissioning. In these liturgies, some adaptation may be permitted for specific circumstances, yet expectation persists that their texts and rubrics are used as provided or in ways that are fully compatible with those words provided. This expectation persists because these worship experiences unite the whole Church in these actions, which are the most crucial and foundational moments of our ecclesial life together.

Stephen Long observes that when we watch a livestreamed service from a variety of places, or even when we use a virtual meeting platform and so we can in some sense “see each other’s face,” we are not quite able to do what we do when we are physically gathered as one in worship. We are a collection of individuals doing something individually in different places, and not at quite the same time. Unison praying or confession of faith or of sin is impossible, and singing becomes cacophony. We are alone together, not together together.

In these ways the online setting itself calls for rites that are more individual, more like pastoral or even private devotional rites. The online setting tends to preclude or make impossible the irreducibly corporate and physical character of rites for the gathered community, the ecclesial rites, including the sacraments, marriage, ordination, and the Christian funeral.

The distinctions between pastoral rites and ecclesial rites have to do with their intended “audience,” the chief participants, who has ritual leadership, and what kind or level of authority stands behind the particular rite in question.

In pastoral rites, the chief participants are typically the limited number of people who are most directly affected by the situation, which calls for the use of that rite. In all rites that involve prayer, God is the ultimate audience, so there is a much greater sense in pastoral rites in which the “audience” is the chief participant(s), with other “onlookers” present by special invitation. The kind of ritual leadership needed tends to be more private and intimate as opposed to public. And the authority for how that particular rite will be performed in that particular instance is the pastor or other clergy (or in some instances, designated laypersons providing leadership).

In ecclesial rites the chief participants are intended to be a wider swath of the body of Christ who have gathered to offer themselves together to God in intercession, or in the case of the Eucharist or Lord’s Day, worship more broadly, in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The intended audience of an ecclesial rite is our Triune God, and not so much the gathered body. The nature of ritual leadership is thus much more public, as it tends to require leading a diverse gathering of people whose reasons for gathering may be equally diverse in unified ritual action as one body toward God. With ecclesial rites, Christian denominations establish at least the groundrules and sometimes more specific texts and actions that must be invariably included, and in what order.

This distinction between pastoral rites and ecclesial rites is an important one to consider when determining whether they can or should be attempted either on a screen or through in-person gatherings. In general, it might be said that pastoral rites may be more easily adapted to mediation by virtual means, just as they may be more easily adapted to the various, specific circumstances in which pastoral ministry with individuals may take place. Ecclesial rites, precisely because they both need and seek to bring an ordering to the life of the whole gathered community, both in particular places and across an entire denomination or communion, are thus far less adaptable to virtual mediation.

In The United Methodist Church, establishing the official ritual of the denomination is given explicitly and solely to the General Conference, its “ecclesial body” par excellence, and that is grounded in the constitution of the denomination (2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 16.6). In that sense, one could almost say all ritual of the Church is comprised of ecclesial rites. However, closer examination of the process of ritual approval and of the nature of what is provided in the rites themselves gives a more nuanced view.

How Our Rites Were Developed

United Methodists experienced ritual renewal most profoundly in the years 1972-1992, as it was developing a new hymnal and a new book of worship to bring together into single volumes the rich hymnody and ritual traditions of its predecessor denominations, The Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church. From 1972-1980, explicit General Conference authorization was given for “trial use” of what would be known as the General Services (Word and Table, Baptism, Marriage, Death and Resurrection). These four General Services (with several version for some of them) were all approved in a final form by General Conference as The General Services of The United Methodist Church in 1984. These services in this form would later be included in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and with additional supportive materials in The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992). Meanwhile, a variety of other rites were released in supplementary volumes without explicit authorization, but simply as resources, including resources for the daily office, varieties of additional resources for weddings and ministry around the time of death, services of healing, occasional services, prayers for various parts of worship and various occasions in life, and services for congregations and buildings. While final versions of these additional rites were also included in the 1992 Book of Worship, the process of their development and the lack of a separate “pre-approval” within the General Services pointed to the essential status as pastoral rites for the majority of these pieces. 

The Eucharist of the gathered body, baptism, the marriage rites, and the services of death and resurrection are core ecclesial rites, and all of them presuppose the physical gathering of the whole body of Christ at a place of public gathering. Services of healing, a rite of Thanksgiving for a newborn, and ministry with the dying commending them to God as they prepare to die are far more often pastoral services, conducted with very few persons present, except those specially invited, often in the intimate environment of a home or hospital, and typically offered as a means of pastoral celebration or comfort with and for that very limited group of people at that time.

Our Rites, Now

As we apply the wisdom guiding pastoral rites to whether they may reasonably be adapted for online use, we recognize like many generations before that pastoral rites typically are appropriately adaptable for online use when it is impossible for the pastor to be physically present and where no other person who could offer such rites in person (such as a hospital chaplain) can be present.

Healing, Death, and Funeral Rites. In the coronavirus pandemic, either a rite of healing or Ministry with the Dying (BOW 166-167), as a pastoral rite, could be deeply streamlined to include only the prayer for healing or a prayer of commendation, and if the pastor and no chaplain is present, perhaps a health-care worker or family member who can be present could hold a phone or tablet through which the pastor could offer this prayer remotely. If crowdsizing guidelines make a funeral impossible for a gathered community, adapting the rites from A Family Hour or Wake (BOW 168-169) could be held via Zoom or other technologies, and an actual funeral (service of death and resurrection, ecclesial rite) scheduled for when the body of Christ can safely gather physically again.

Marriage, Baptism, and Eucharist Rites. Similarly, for marriage situations, the couple could complete the legal aspects of the marriage with any justice officer available, then hold a full-church ceremony as a blessing of a civil marriage when the whole of the church and others who might be invited can attend. And just as a full celebration of a marriage or of a service of death and resurrection would await the ability of the full assembly to gather, so would the celebration of a baptism (though, in a life and death emergency, any person, lay or clergy, may baptize) or the Eucharist can await the time when all or as many as possible could be physically present.

For an approach to this topic written for more general audiences, see What We Can and Cannot Do through the Internet.

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