The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?

The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!

The Journey of a Connectional People

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Well, one more day of the Worldwide UMC Study Commitee. I’m looking forward to driving home tomorrow. It’s been a good meeting. The right issues have been raised about what’s contextual around the Connection and what’s universal and holds us together. There seems to be consensus that we will retain our unity and not slip into an Anglican-style confederation that abrogates our connectional polity. The discourse has been an example of holy conferencing. We have heard from divergent segments of the church from traditional and progressive caucus groups, general agency representatives, and persons from the Central Conferences. I sincerely hope that the US will not fragment into one or more regional conferences. I promise to help craft the best legislation possible while retaining my commitment to our distinctive polity. This isn’t about human sexuality. This is about our structure expediting effective ministry. Form should follow function. The question must be answered as to what we value: special interests or the common good. The local church and the annual conferences are the locus of primary disciple-making. Whatever we do must support and empower laity and clergy on the local level. There is much to process from what I’ve heard. It is humbling to be part of this group. Each person plays a vital part. I, for one, promise to keep localism as a core value without allowing regionalism to trump our identity as a movement of God. We will meet in Manila in the Spring and Africa later in the summer. It will be good to hear from the people in the places where the church is growing.

Human Self-headeness or Christ as the Head

I have been at two back-to-back General UMC meetings: The Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. The Connectional Table coordinates the mission and ministry of the denomination and decides budgets. The WWNC is studying how we can be a worldwide church allowing autonomy in certain ways in diverse areas of the UMC while defining boundaries of non-negotiables that hold true for the entire denomination. Tomorrow and Tuesday we will hear from divergent and opposing groups on the issues. The defining issue that seems to be driving a desire for the US branch of the UMC to form its own regional conference or conferences is the practice of homosexuality. I think we should spend more time listening to the voices of those outside the US. By listening to US groups we perpetuate the reality voiced by overseas UM’s that we are a US-centric church that is structured to enable a codependency model and neo-colonialism. I think it is a matter of spiritual warfare for the heart and soul of the UMC, and I don’t think this hot-button issue should be the primary force for dismantling our time-tested ecclesiology. Our polity is one that does and should embrace diversity, but not at the expense of connectionalism. It is a work in progress. I embrace process theology that is dynamic and not static, but though theology should have local variation, doctrine should be off-limits. The first and second Restrictive Rules in the UMC Constitution protect our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Our difficult task is to discern what is doctrine and what is theology. So… pray for us to have wisdom and truth-telling in love as we work on this task.

Of more importance than any of this is whether or not we witness to people of Jesus’ power to save and transform. Our only hope as a church is to share Jesus. All the tinkering and special-interest maneuvering is irrelevant if we don’t share Jesus with hurting people. What the world needs is Jesus. You can’t legislate the Gospel, you have to share it. May it be so! We can promote regional self-headeness (autonomy), but not if it replaces Christ as Head of the Church with Humans.