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The Discipline is the connecting link: why we can’t settle for ‘local options’

Posted by Charles Harrell on

By Rev. Charles Harrell

Stained glass cross

 (A response to Tom Starnes’ “UM’s ask: what is doctrine, what is law, and what is right?”  The case before the Judicial Council mentioned in both their essays, was decided in October. See the story.)

Thanks to Tom Starnes for his thoughtful and clearly heartfelt piece on the current state of division in the UMC, in the context of the Judicial Council’s review of briefs from the Cal-Pac and Denmark annual conferences Tom’s two (quite similar) amicus briefs are tightly-reasoned and excellent, even (if I may say so) brilliant. My response here is to his commentary

There are two places where I am in total agreement with Tom. One: the desirability of staying together as a United Methodist Church. I am also saddened by the departure of congregations which have decided that their faithfulness lies outside the connection. Yet I would qualify my own declaration in favor of staying together, since I believe unity to be both real and desirable only if we can remain united with integrity, and with a serious probability being a healthy body.

Two: I agree with Tom that the First and Second Restrictive Rules prohibit even General Conference from making changes to our doctrine, except through a deliberately long and laborious process. (UM Constitution, Division Two, Section III, Articles I & II, ¶¶17-18 in BoD 2016; also Division Five, Article I, ¶59.) Not even a “typical” supermajority is sufficient: we could even say it requires a “super-dupermajority”. Such is the sound wisdom of those before us.

Beyond those points of agreement, though – substantive as they are – there are a few places where I respectfully demur from Tom’s analysis and his recommendations, which I think wouldn’t serve the church well.

Between “doctrine” and “law” there is also a middle term that is very important in this conversation: discipline. In everyday use, “discipline” means either behavioral control of self or others (such as a diet); or a force, often unpleasant, imposed from outside (like a traffic summons). But theologically, it’s much richer than either: it’s the linking piece between what we believe and how we govern our life as a church. A little like the drive shaft on a car, it’s what transforms orthodoxy (what we believe) into orthopraxis (how we live that out).  It’s the connective tissue between the skeleton of our faith (doctrine) and its visible “skin” in the outer world (witness, including church law).  Our church law does lots of duties; one of the important ones is to give definition to how we bring to life this matter of discipline.

Our applied position on human sexuality is not so much a matter of doctrine, as of discipline. It grows out of our consensus understanding of the role and authority of Scripture, which in turn is a matter of doctrine. (A clue to this is the appearance of the word “practice” in ¶304.3.)  This doesn’t make the stance unimportant (love it or hate it); but it does mean that it’s an application of something covered by the Restrictive Rule, not the object of that Rule itself. There are many areas of discipline which are settled and very important (and currently un-controversial) guides in the life of our church, even though our perspectives on them have changed historically. These include our opposition to racial and gender discrimination (both chargeable offenses: ¶2702.1k); and our understanding of ordination and the orders of deacon and elder.  This last has changed over the course of many of our careers. Still other areas exist that we don’t typically even think about very much but are just assumed, which are also disciplinary rather than doctrinal (but where we disagree with other Christian bodies); for instance, whether clergy may marry and how many times. The discernment between doctrine and discipline is very important here.

Tom also emphasizes that the General Conference (through the Book of Discipline) entrusts the annual conferences with the responsibility for determining the suitability of candidates for ministry. This is true up to a point, but not absolutely so.  General Conference has set standards of qualification in terms of education and character, the ability to articulate the faith (through the historical and examination questions given to candidates) and procedures which are to be followed in the credentialing process. (These are to be found in ¶¶304 & 310, for starters.) Annual conference bodies such as the Board of Ordained Ministry can deviate to some degree from these, but only for the purpose of enacting additional standards, not setting aside those mandated by General Conference in our Book of Discipline.

Aside from the way in which this area of discipline gives definition to our doctrine of ministry, there are practical reasons for maintaining denomination-wide standards. One of the most important: we are indeed a global church. Whether across the country or around the world, what does it mean to be a United Methodist? To be UM clergy? In a sense, this is “branding”.  But it also speaks more deeply to having a consistent understanding of the role, purpose, and quality of life in ordained service.

There is a second reason for not just relying on the decisions of more local bodies. John Adams, writing as “Novanglus” in 1774, described the American ideal as being “a nation of laws, not of men”.  We would put the language differently, and inclusively. Nor was crusty Adams the most popular of the Founders. Yet the principle that all stand equally before the law and are not subject to the whims of tyrants or otherwise powerful people is a sacred ideal in American life, even though it has been, and still is, a struggle to realize it in fact. As in the civil sphere we are governed by statute, and not just the will of those individuals in positions of power, so also we are under the law (or “covenant”, we say) codified in the Discipline and Judicial Council rulings of the church.

To leave the implementation of standards around critical issues of any kind absolutely to the interpretation or ideas of a few in leadership, is to change us from a covenantal connection, to a connection of whoever holds the levers of power at a given time. Some may be confident that, were that to happen, their view would prevail either in our conference or across the church as a whole. It might.  But, as in secular politics, times change and majorities shift, not always as we might wish.  Nor is sexuality the only or last issue that will be critical – and contentious -- in the life of the church. The “lines” and alliances, which array themselves so clearly at the moment, may look very different on other issues.  It is better for us to counsel together as a whole body on such important standards, than to leave them to the few and powerful or a localized patchwork. “Trust the clergy”, the gist of Tom’s final argument, is not a sufficient strategy.

Tom’s suggestions also take us in the wrong direction in another way. A sectional patchwork of standards is not the Methodist ethos. We don’t do this on other significant issues; for example, we don’t allow conferences to selectively “opt out” of racial inclusion or women’s ordination (as some other Christian bodies have).  Nor should we.  Second, we’ve been down the road of sectionalism before, in the years surrounding the schism over slavery before the Civil War. The decision in 1844 to “settle” the fraught issue of human bondage with different standards in different places didn’t work then, and represented an sellout of one of the truest and earliest standards of Wesleyan heritage: abolition. The road back to ostensible reunion in 1939 (“ostensible” because the creation of the Central Jurisdiction really was a new kind of schism), and then to ending open segregation, was long and painful. We haven’t reached perfection yet, as our current conversations on race attest. But the historic complicity of Methodism in systemic racism has made the task harder and more bitter. Let’s not make the different-standards mistake again.

Yet still we have not come to the heart of the matter. The crux of the problem is that we have two competing, and so far irreconcilable, understandings of what is right and wrong, and why: two competing ontologies of virtue. One side (“traditionalists”) believes that certain expressions of sexuality are incorrect and sinful (and therefore harmful); the other (“liberal / progressives”) believes that the “traditional” teachings are incorrect and harmful (some would add, sinful).  Given these views, what virtue could there possibly be in a system in which some go one way, some another, with the sanction (read: connivance) of the whole?  After all (and I use the labels just for convenience), if the “traditionist” or “rightist” view is wrong and does real harm, how could it possibly be ethical to do other than to correct, challenge, and resist, until all the systemic injustice is eradicated from the system – and then to stand guard so that it never returns?  And if the “liberal / progressive” or “leftist” view is wrong, and appears to “baptize” sin, betraying the commission of the church to proclaim the Gospel including Scriptural holiness and healing, how can such a half-way step be in any way faithful?  Either way, it is to sanction moral injury as the price of buying quiet – or buying time in the hope of a complete victory -- making both the framers and practitioners of such a policy complicit in terrible injustice. Both the “left” and the “right” must see that the “local option” is a Faustian bargain.  It would make us latter-day Esaus, trading the vast birthright of faith and social holiness for a measly pottage that cannot long satisfy anyone.

Sometimes in a family, divisions within a household become so toxic that, much as family members love one another and would like to stay together, they cannot do so and remain healthy and safe. It appears to me, sadly, that we may be rapidly approaching that point as United Methodists, especially when I see what appears to be a de facto schism within, and sense the deep bitterness and divides, including over sexuality. I hope also that we will be able to avert an open break, that we can engage, and with more real grace than we’ve mustered so far. Regardless, the “local option” of which Tom writes is not the way of avoiding a breach, let alone solving it; it merely transfers the pain and sets a bad precedent for resolving other issues as a connection.

Not long ago, I was on a day-long excursion with family in British Columbia that included a visit to a lovely waterfall. Set deep among the ferns and old-growth timber of a northern rainforest, a narrow but mighty cataract plunges 100 feet to its basin below, over eons cutting deep channels in the ledge of rock at its top. Standing on the metal suspension footway that affords an elevated look at the falls from a safe remove, we noticed far below a stout tree trunk which bridged the basin at its outlet, appearing to offer an alternate crossing for the steam. The “bridge” looked too well-positioned to be accidental; yet we could see from where we stood that anyone attempting to use it as a crossing point would end up facing a sheer and slippery rock wall over the turbulent water.  Was it possible to cross there?  Yes. But then there was no place to go.

The conference-specific or “local option” is, I suggest, like that log crossing. It appears, seductively, to offer a way over the angry and chaotic waters we need to cross. Yet it leads nowhere but to a blind wall from which we must retreat again into our deeper moral commitments, back over the same waters ... or fall from the slippery perch into tortured waters of false choices and short-term “solutions” from which we have had to extract ourselves before.

I am grateful to my brother Tom for his writings and what they show of his heart. Like him, I love Jesus and the Church through which we proclaim Christ as Lord, as well as the genius of Methodism.  Thus, respectfully, I hope that we will resist the temptation to take the way that he suggests, and continue to seek the heart of the Lord of the Church for that yet-unseen way that is the true “way forward”.

 The Rev. Charles L. Harrell is a retired pastor in Solomons, Md.