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Accountability a Possibility?

by H. T. Maclin

A number of bishops in the United Methodist Church uphold its scriptural and disciplinary position as it relates to homosexuality; they may in fact represent a majority in the council. Is it likely, however, that they would hold their episcopal colleagues who support a contrary view accountable? Every bishop who has released a statement of support for the Discipline thus far has seemed to apply it to his own area as if it were an affiliated or an autonomous unit of the church. No one among them appears to be taking any responsibility as a general superintendent for the church at large.

Every General Conference since 1972 has reaffirmed the Discipline of the church regarding homosexuality. All active bishops at that time and those elected since then have known without question the position of the church as affirmed by the Scripture, upheld by the Discipline and supported by the Social Principles on this subject. With their hands on the Bible at their consecration, bishops promised to uphold this order, yet some of them have voiced their non-support for such order, allowing clergy in their areas who have violated it to remain at their appointments without charge.

In the twenty-eight years which have followed the 1972 General Conference, no one, not one, among the bishops supporting the position of the church has censured his or her episcopal colleagues who have elected to ignore it, much less filed charges against them. Even if the bishops report they are agreed that the Discipline is clear in stating our church's position on homosexuality or that they voice their commitment to upholding it, they continue to disregard this position with impunity. Since the Council met last month, for example, no bishop has charged any minister in his or her annual conference for admitting to having performed a gay, lesbian or bisexual ceremony even though a number of clergy have openly stated they do and have regularly done so, some for the last 20 to 30 years and will continue to do so. Surely these actions could not occur for such a lengthy period of time without the area bishop's awareness if not the outright endorsement of an action which is in direct violation of the Discipline. If bishops refuse to charge appointed clergy, can we realistically expect them to deal effectively with their own kind? What do they mean by stating they are "in covenant with one another" to uphold theological, ethical and polity matters including the statement on homosexuality and the prohibition of ceremonies celebrating homosexual unions?

Since clergy and laity who support the rule of the Discipline form a majority presence in the UMC as witnessed by vote after vote in the General Conference over the last 28 years, why does the postmodernist minority pay littleor no attention to the will of the majority? Is there is a lesser willingness or boldness on the part of those upholding the Discipline to stand up for what the General Conference has approved? Why are the majority of the laity of the UMC, unlike the comparatively activist few, seemingly so unacquainted with these issues - even though a majority of the evangelically inclined pastors of these congregations are very much aware of them?

Many pastors have agonized in their spirits over this dilemma, perhaps sharing their deep concerns with a much trusted fellow minister or in a conference-related group. But many have remained silent or very nearly so in their local church for fear of upsetting their members and possibly losing some of their best ones if they learned too much. To maintain their stability in a precarious situation they have purposefully focused their efforts on preaching the Word of God in their own congregation and encouraging support for viable local and international mission efforts that fulfil the Scriptural mandate. Some pastors are also concerned they might be viewed by their DS and/or bishop as dissenters and be branded as trouble makers even in conferences that are basically supportive of the disciplinary mandate. Other evangelical pastors have simply backed away from challenging the system, feeling that there was no one else around to stand with them or back them up if they did - so why upset their church members with these issues and place themselves in what they perceived to be a lose-lose situation? Some, of course, reached their level of maximum tolerance, turned in their ministerial orders and left the denomination.

Occasionally I have met with groups of pastors, especially younger ones with average size congregations, who were ready publicly to confront the system but for one question: did I know of even two or three "tall steeple" pastors anywhere in the connection who would jointly (not as isolated congregations) issue a ringing call to embargo the payment of funds to World Service until they could in Christian conscience pay them again? I have had to say each time that, regretfully, no, I did not know any who would do that. Even now, while a few large churches have taken a bold stand and unilaterally done exactly this, there has still not been that mutual support, in so far as I know, with a unified call for others to join them in this effort - not even in view of the apostasy we currently face in the church.

In contrast to the largely unorganized traditional wing of the church, the highly orchestrated and politically active supporters of "new revelations" have captured power far out of proportion to their numbers and now virtually control the official boards and agencies of the church. They have done this by effective communication in their ranks, mutual support, a keen focus on their specific goals, namely acceptance of and support for a life style contrary to both the Discipline and the Scripture and, most important, a dedication and willingness on their part to push and promote their agenda regardless of the cost.

The best and possibly only symbol that will be now be understood by the powers that be from the bottom to the top of this pyramid is the one with the dollar sign. When the well runs dry, when the fuel is shut off at the source in significant amounts and they are forced to spend down their financial cache, then and possibly only then, will there be a willingness to at least listen. Even without such an embargo, why should the local church be called upon, indeed expected, to continue to fund general agencies who have accumulated financial reserves of hundreds of millions of dollars and expect still more support?

Not only is it tragic, however, that many lay people have been kept in the dark for so long, resulting in little knowledge about what is happening in the church, an even greater tragedy is that many don't want to know. Why not? It is simply too painful for them to hear it, especially for those of the "silent generation" whose parents and possibly their grandparents were dedicated members of the Methodist Church even from the last century and now they have carried on as followers of Christ for a large part of this century. Even the thought that anything of such a magnitude could possibly be wrong in the church is almost too much to bear, so they are inclined to turn a deaf ear to information revealing how far afield the UMC has drifted from a Christ-centered, biblically oriented ministry.

Can we really believe after all these years that the bishops are the key to our dilemma? Even though they have now formulated their statements and issued their press releases, will it now be business as usual as in the past? Will they now hold themselves accountable to the church or must the church, clergy and laity together, confront them wherever such cardinal principles and order of the church are so willfully violated and, if necessary, bring charges against the very ones who by their vows have covenanted to uphold its doctrinal and ethical standards?

H. T. Maclin, President Emeritus
The Mission Society for United Methodists

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