Tribute: Remembering Gayle C. Felton

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Editor’s note: The Rev.Gayle C. Felton died Jan. 25 at her home in Rougemont, N.C., at age 71. Through her writings and teaching, Felton, a scholar and ordained elder, played a key role in articulating the United Methodist understanding of baptism and Holy Communion. Here’s a colleague’s fond remembrance of her.

Gayle C. Felton trained as a church historian. She also was a practical theologian, one who could take the long and wide view and make complicated, thorny issues accessible to the rank-and-file of the church, doing so with grace and humor.

I first met Gayle in 1994, as a new member of the Baptism Study Committee. The committee had reported its statement to General Conference 1992. General Conference, the denomination's top legislative assembly, received it and charged the committee to keep working. The committee came back to the 1996 General Conference with a revision. There were significant rifts in the committee over the place of the divine initiative in the sacrament and the human response. I watched Gayle take all this in with a mix of gracious understanding and occasional bemusement. She never attacked one position or another, knowing there were ways to hold both in creative tension without rejecting our catholic and evangelical roots.

As a good historian, she had perspective. The committee asked her to draft the work and to bring it back to each meeting for our review and revisions. Since she was the writer, she took many notes and listened intently. In the end, her digest and statements won acceptance in the committee and adoption of “By Water and the Spirit” as an official teaching statement on baptism for The United Methodist Church.

Creating interpretive and educational resources

I served as the United Methodist Board of Discipleship’s director of worship resources from 1993 to 2005 and worked closely with Gayle. I had come to trust her wisdom and teaching skills, so with approval of the general secretary, I asked her to create interpretive and educational resources to help the church engage with “By Water and the Spirit.” She responded with a six-session study edition titled “By Water and the Spirit: Making Connections for Identity & Ministry.”

Gayle also helped craft legislation on membership in light of the theological understandings of “By Water and the Spirit.” Again in 1996, our new United Methodist commitment to both catholic and evangelical frameworks made for tensions that had to be worked out in the Book of Discipline. Gayle’s work was key to the Baptism Committee bringing legislation to General Conference, anticipating adoption of “By Water and the Spirit.” Some delegates adamantly opposed infants and children being members of the church. Gayle shuttled in and out of legislative committees answering questions and interpreting the proposed legislation. The resulting adoption of the legislation points to her skills in winning reconciliation and acceptance of some starkly new wording concerning membership.

The 2000 General Conference mandated that the Board of Discipleship, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry and the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns conduct a study of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Among those selecting the committee to do that work, there was a clear sense that Gayle should serve. Knowing her talent for listening and writing and her capacity to reconcile divergent points of view, the committee asked her to bring drafts of components of the paper to each meeting and to write the final paper. The committee asked Gayle to present the paper to General Conference 2004 and to answer questions as she had so ably done in 1996 when the baptism document was presented. Not surprisingly, “This Holy Mystery” was adopted by General Conference 2004.

“Giftedness and grace”

Both the baptism and communion study committees were convinced that there needed to be strategies to ensure that the documents not be relegated to the shelf. Gayle rose to the challenge, and, working under contract for the Board of Discipleship, traveled, spoke, wrote, taught and represented the new sacramental teaching of the church. Her giftedness and grace put official teaching statements into the thinking of The United Methodist Church and offered the wider church clarity about our sacramental understandings and practices that aided ecumenical bilateral conversations.

My other experience of working with Gayle was a follow up on “By Water and the Spirit.” Questions were coming in from western conferences, particularly the Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference, about whether formerly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wanted to join The United Methodist Church should have their “Mormon baptism” recognized. Gayle and I organized a consultation in Salt Lake City. She and one of the Latter-day Saints’ “70” leaders were primary presenters. The work of the consultation led to a statement titled “Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” by E. Brian and Jennifer L. Hare-Diggs and edited by Gayle. She wrote the accompanying study guide. The paper was received by General Conference 2000.

Gayle had strong academic credentials and she devoted that knowledge not so much for a career track in the academy as for facilitating education and formation of the laity and clergy for the work of ministry. She was a teacher who loved teaching. She taught regularly in lay pastors’ schools. When she would share her teaching intentions for the coming summers, I could tell she was looking forward with relish.

As the church says “Absent from us; present with the Lord.” We can give thanks that Gayle Carlton Felton was one of us and for us: an illuminator of sticky wickets, writer, teacher, witness and reconciler, both gracious and courageous.

*Benedict is a retired elder in the California Pacific Annual Conference and he served for twelve years as director of worship resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. He was a Discipleship staff member on both the Baptism and Communion Study Committees. He serves as abbot of the Order of Saint Luke and lives in Hawaii. 

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