By Linda Green

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has approved guidelines for interpreting the circumstances for allowing deacons to administer Holy Communion and perform baptisms.

The new sacramental authority for deacons, granted by the denomination's top legislative body at the 2008 General Conference, becomes effective in January.

According to the bishops, the new sentence in Paragraph 328 that describes the ministry of the deacon in the United Methodist Book of Discipline - "does not fundamentally change the sacramental privileges of the order of deacons." That sentence reads: "For the sake of extending the mission and ministry of the church, a pastor-in-charge or district superintendent may request that the Bishop grant local sacramental authority to the deacon to administer the sacraments in the absence of an elder, within a deacon's primary appointment."

Meeting Nov. 2-7 at historic Epworth By the Sea, in Georgia, the bishops said the new language is an attempt to describe the extraordinary missional reasons that justify exceptions to general church practice. However, in all cases, the Discipline gives the bishop final discretionary authority to decide under which circumstances to grant local sacramental authority to a deacon, they noted.

Deacons are called by God to a lifetime of servant leadership and to lead the church in relating the gathered life of Christians to their ministries in the world, interrelating worship in the gathered community with service to God in the world, said the delegates to the 2008 General Conference. Deacons give leadership in the church's life, teach and proclaim the word, contribute in worship and assist the elders in administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.

According to the bishops, "local sacramental authority" refers to the primary field of service of the deacon, meaning the immediate community of faith for a congregational appointment or the primary service setting and community for deacons serving beyond a local church.

While the guidelines are the bishops' attempt to find common ground in implementing and interpreting Paragraph 328, the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the new sentence in the Discipline "alters significantly the nature and purpose of the order of the permanent deacon as enacted by the 1996 General Conference."

The new guidelines adopted by the bishops states that, "The church provides for administration of the sacraments through the ordinary sacramental authority invested in ordained elders, licensed provisional clergy and licensed local pastors, and the new language gives guidance for the extraordinary circumstances that require the provision of the sacraments by Deacons."

While the guidelines are to assist residential bishops in interpreting and implementing "local sacramental authority," Del Pino urges the council "to take a strong minimalist approach to implementing this truly extraordinary innovation that has been introduced into our church order."

Linda Green serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.