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UM University Teacher: Unfaithful Bishops Should Be The Only Unaccountable Office In Methodist Church

JCD 1032: Polity Repercussions and Tug-of-War for Authority
by Darryl W. Stephens
(Darryl Stephens is a Ph.D. Candidate at Emory University currently teaching: Polity of The United Methodist Church.)
November 13, 2005

We have seen historically what happens when a social issue becomes a litmus test for Methodist membership. Wesley’s General Rule against slavery was fine until congregations and pastors began to exercise their own discernment—usually according to regional custom, which eventually led to a denominational schism. Methodists were once required to sign a pledge card every year stating that they would abstain from alcohol as a condition of continued membership. Divorcees were once ostracized from the church and barred from clergy membership, leading to emotional church trials not unlike that of Beth Stroud. Segregation nearly halted the denominational reunion in 1939 were it not for the jurisdictional compromise, a moral knot that took 30 years to untangle. Now, United Methodists are using sexuality as a litmus test for membership. The ramifications of 1032 extend far beyond homosexuality, however. In the aftermath of 1032, we are facing a vacuum of accountability and a tug-of-war for authority in the UMC. In my mind, as a faithful and obedient pastor, it is impossible to uphold JCD 1032 and at the same time be loyal to the Discipline. Yet my remarks begin from the perspective, “Given 1032, now what?”

To whom are pastors accountable? Through decision 1032, Judicial Council radically altered the locus of power within The United Methodist Church. Each pastor-in-charge is now “solely responsible for making the determination of a person’s readiness to receive the vows of membership” into the UMC. No longer is the pastor fully accountable to the bishop or clergy covenant, according to the Order of Deacons or Order of Elders. 1032 creates a precedent with the potential to fracture the connection along numerous “jurisdictions of conscience”— and I use the term pejoratively, alluding to the moral compromise leading to the formation of racially segregated jurisdictions in Methodism. We might also call them “domains of discrimination”.

Discrimination may be based on interpretation of sinful behavior. It is important to note that 1032 does not easily translate into discrimination by race and other forms of “status”, which are constitutionally prohibited as criteria for discrimination (4). A pastor who considers homosexual behavior inherently sinful, however, can hang a sign on the church door, “Gays need not apply”. Likewise, a pastor who notes that “war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ” (103, COF Art. XVI; cf. 165C) is authorized to exclude all military personnel from his/her local church. Another may choose to bar those persons committing conscientious civil disobedience, noting that “it is the duty of all Christians…to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country” (103, p. 66). Others may refuse to accept divorced persons into membership. Still other pastors might justifiably stipulate that buying lottery tickets is incompatible with membership in their congregation (163G). Another might revive the strict Methodist rules concerning dress, refusing entry to all who adorn themselves with costly apparel. Whether based on sexual orientation, economic habits, personal appearance, support of a military, or any of a number of issues, we now have no consistent standards for membership across the connection. The possible repercussions are deafening.

Judicial Council’s declaration that the Discipline implicitly gives sole discretion to the pastor for determining who is eligible for membership is radically different from historical and current patterns in Methodism. Historically, John Wesley established a precedent for both inclusion and discrimination. Wesley invited all into Our United Societies, with one requirement—“a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” (103, p. 72). This was a widely inclusive entryway to Methodism. Yet those who could not uphold the General Rules, i.e. evidence their desire for salvation, were cast out of the Society. Behaviors such as drunkenness, slaveholding, and “the putting on of gold and costly apparel” were sufficient evidence of an unrepentant life so as to be the cause for expulsion from Methodism. This history includes several significant differences with the present situation. First, few United Methodists in the U.S. would survive the membership standards of the General Rules. Most of us would be thrown out! Second, Wesley’s Methodism agreed upon the rules. The rules were generally applicable and consistent across the connection. It was not up to the discretion of a pastor to decide the criteria. In fact, the rules were autocratically decided by Wesley himself. When the rule about slaveholding became a matter of regional discernment, Methodism splintered. Third, Wesley was not determining church membership. Methodism was a renewal movement within the Church of England. Our situation is much different.

Currently, it is important to note that United Methodists around the world do in fact practice differing standards for inclusion. In the Africa Central Conference of the UMC, divorced persons may only be admitted into membership of the church after the pastor has ascertained that the divorce was for a legitimate reason and that the person is truly repentant. This is much stricter than the usual and stated practice in the United States, and echoes teachings found in U.S. Disciplines a generation ago. On the other hand, “If a polygamous man is converted and accepts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, he shall be instructed by the class leader or by the pastor about the meaning of his faith in God and must follow these teachings in a new member class with his wife or wives”. These regional differences are legitimized by cultural mores and Disciplinary mandate: Central Conferences are explicitly given the “power to make such changes and adaptations of the Book of Discipline as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require” (543.7). In contrast to this situation, Judicial Council’s decision 1032 is based on an interpretation of implicit power. JCD 1032 does have one similarity with the freedom given Central Conferences in the UMC: it legislates membership practices based upon a cultural difference. Namely, the U.S. is a culture that reveres individualism. 1032 inaugurates a radically individualistic form of polity at odds with our Methodist tradition of connectionalism but fully consonant with American culture.

Other current exclusionary practices in the UMC have been more subtle (i.e., not legislated). Until 1032, discrimination in the UMC was exercised through social pressures rather than mandates. Discrimination about who could join a congregation was usually exercised in an informal way, through congregational patterns of inhospitality and disapprobation. Even as our constitution states that “all persons…shall be eligible to…become professing members in any local church in the connection” (4), we still suffer from the parochialism H. Richard Niebuhr diagnosed so clearly 75 years ago as “the social sources of denominationalism”. Most congregations are welcoming of certain types of persons and not others, depending on social norms of acceptable behavior, appearance, and attitude. We know which United Methodist congregations in town are welcoming of gay and lesbian persons and which are not, which are intentionally racially homogeneous and which are welcoming of persons of different races and ethnicities, which are economically diverse and which are stratified, which have a dress code and which are come-as-you-are, which are generationally diverse and which are not. With 1032, differences in theological opinion and social mores are now upheld as valid criteria of discrimination among potential members of local UM congregations.

1032 validates and legitimizes these social patterns of exclusion into “jurisdictions of conscience”. Following Johnson’s example, each United Methodist pastor may now advertise his/her pet standard of morality as one would market a brand. Passers-by will be able to identify each United Methodist congregation by the type persons excluded from its jurisdiction. Pointing to Rev. Johnson’s church, they will say, ‘Those are the United Methodists who reject homosexuals’. Pointing to another congregation, they will say, ‘Those are the United Methodists who reject military personnel’. To another, they will say, ‘Those are the United Methodists who reject gamblers’. Every professing members of the UMC is subject to immediate review of his/her fittingness for membership according to the standards established by the current pastor-in-charge. This will be enforced through current congregational accountability structures in the Discipline (221, 228.2.b.1, 256.1.b; cf. 1118.2). This will come to a head in June. Itinerant pastors will then carry their brand of Methodism to a different congregation. Who will decide the brand—the pastor or the congregation? In practice, this will lead to the demise of open itineracy, a practice already stretched to the breaking point. Congregations may be forced to ally themselves into networks along brand loyalties so as to attract pastors whose moral rules for membership are consistent with established congregational social mores. In practice, pastors might itinerate within numerous, overlapping congregational networks, each a “jurisdiction of conscience” regarding a particular issue.

This sectarian congregationalism is neither a connection nor a church. It seems JCD1032 would have every UM pastor be his/her own little autocratic Wesley, effectively dis-connecting the movement into thousands of independent societies based on a culture of radical individualism. If we are in fact a connectional church today, we need to reclaim that identity by requesting a reconsideration and reversal of 1032.

* * *

The COB response to 1032 is indicative of a tug-of-war for authority in the UMC. The Council of Bishops is responsible for “the general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church” (47). JC is the final authority in church law. The Council of Bishops, by unanimous vote, issued a pastoral letter in response to JCD 1032, voicing a competing interpretation of Rev. Johnson’s case. In this letter, the bishops assert, “While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier”. Additionally, they contradict the Judicial Council by affirming “our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership.” Pastors are now being asked to discern between competing authorities asserting competing interpretations of church law. On the one side, a handful of judicial council members prevailing in a disputed decision. On the other side, all 69 active bishops. Given the dictates of 1032, that the pastor’s conscience shall be his/her guide, the COB letter says, in effect, ‘we cannot change the law, but let us sway your conscience!’ Now it is impossible for Rev. Johnson to be loyal both to the law (which states that his conscience shall be his guide, according to JCD 1032) and to the COB (who state that pastors are accountable to their bishop in matters of membership)—unless he has a change of conscience. May God be with us all!

United Methodist Church (U.S.). The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2004. Nashville, Tenn.: United Methodist Pub. House, 2004.

United Methodist Church (U.S.), and United Methodist Church (U.S.). Africa Central Conference. Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision. Le Livre De Discipline De L'eglise Methodiste Unie, 1988: Edition De La Conférence Centrale De L'afrique, 1990. 1990 ed. Nashville, Tenn.: United Methodist Pub. House, 1990.

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