In December 1772, a year after his arrival in America, exercising his role as assistant, Francis Asbury convened a quarterly meeting. The quarterly meeting, later called the quarterly conference and now moved to an annual meeting called the Charge Conference, is the body in the Wesleyan system charged with oversight of a pastoral charge, either circuit or, as is more common today, station. The records for this first quarterly conference remain. Interestingly, this quarterly conference was held a year BEFORE Thomas Rankin would call the first general conference, a meeting of all the American Methodist circuit riders. Asbury seemed to be stepping into a leadership role which was not clearly his yet.
One of the tensions the conference dealt with was an issue that modern Methodism STILL deals with: the issue of sacramental authority. The question on the table: Would the inertias of Methodism’s spontaneous Pietist beginnings OR the imperatives of Wesleyan order prevail? In other words, should the Robert Strawbridge cohort — who were, after all, the planters of American Methodism — set policy, ordain themselves, and carry sacramental authority? Or should the Wesleyan principle of not separating, so zealously preached by Joseph Pilmore and others, prevail? You see, as an Anglican, Wesley and his English preachers believed at this point that sacramental authority came only with ordination. Ordination could only be conveyed by a presbyter, i.e., a bishop. Thus, to exercise sacramental authority as an unordained person, or to ordain someone outside the Anglican Church, was an act of separation from that Church. Remember, this was occurring BEFORE political separation came to be in the Revolutionary War. Wesley – and his assistant, Asbury — was not yet willing to allow that.
For now, Robert Strawbridge resolved to quit serving Communion, but the issue would not go completely away. Thus was established the importance of conferencing to deal with troublesome issues, a tradition that remains to this day.
Here is an interesting fact — All in actual attendance at that first quarterly conference, ten preachers and Thomas Webb, were British born. They had come to bring Wesleyan and British order just at the time that the colonies were deciding to throw off such order. The times, as they say, were a-changin’. John Wesley and American Methodism would be forced to revisit this issue of ordination and sacramental authority a few years down the road.
Incidentally, I mentioned that sacramental authority is still an issue in the modern United Methodist Church. Technically, only an elder can preside at Holy Communion or conduct baptisms. While deacons are considered clergy, they can only assist at the sacraments. However, a deacon serving in a setting where there are no elders available – say as a chaplain in a small country hospital – can apply to a bishop and be granted sacramental authority in that setting. A licensed local pastor, who is NOT clergy but laity, can exercise sacramental authority in the charge to which they are appointed. Technically, they do this under the authority of an elder. This practice developed from the fact that there didn’t used to be enough elders to go around to be appointed to all the small, country churches. These pulpits were and still are filled by laity who are licensed to preach. Methodism is nothing if not pragmatic. So you can see, that the issue of who has sacramental authority in the Methodist Church is still a live issue.
Next time, our old friend Phillip William Otterbein, will return to our story.
(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)