No Sign of Unity Based on Integrity

The Rev. Lambrecht

The Rev. Lambrecht

This past fall was a time of much activity in the realm of United Methodist officialdom. Within a three-week period, the Judicial Council, Council of Bishops, and Connectional Table all met. In its own way, each group’s actions contributed to a changing course for United Methodism.

Judicial Council decisions. The impact of a variety of Judicial Council decisions was to make accountability more difficult in the church. The thrust of its decisions was to allow more personal and local latitude, at the expense of attempts at denominational unity of policy and practice.

The decision on the Rev. Frank Schaefer appeal is the prime example of making accountability more difficult. Schaefer was convicted by a church trial in November 2013 of performing the same-sex wedding of his son. In the process, Schaefer proclaimed his new calling to be an advocate for LGBTQ persons and concerns, along with his inability to uphold parts of the Book of Discipline. In response, the trial court (jury) levied a penalty of a 30-day suspension to give him time to reconsider, to be followed by Schaefer’s surrendering his credentials of ordination if he could no longer uphold the Discipline.

Both the Northeastern Jurisdictional Appeals Committee and now the Judicial Council ruled that this penalty was unlawful by levying both a suspension and a “defrocking.” Furthermore, the Council ruled that the “defrocking” was based on possible future conduct, not as punishment for past conduct. On this important technicality, if you will, the Council made it impossible to revoke the credentials of someone who says they can no longer uphold the doctrinal and moral standards of our church. They would have to violate those standards in a concrete way, go through the extensive trial process, be found guilty, and only then removed from ministry.

At Good News, we hear stories all the time about pastors who teach and preach things that are contrary to our doctrinal and moral standards. But there is almost no way to hold these pastors accountable for their refusal to honor their ordination vows. This sets up a situation where the church basically rots from within, as the church’s doctrinal and moral standards are undermined by the very ones who are charged to uphold them.

Closely allied with this move toward less accountability is a decision that persons who have declared they can no longer uphold the Book of Discipline are still eligible to serve on annual conference boards and agencies. In the case of Eastern Pennsylvania, this affects the membership on the Board of Ordained Ministry, the very body that is charged with ensuring that incoming pastors satisfy the requirements of the Discipline and are willing to uphold it. So now, pastors who have declared they cannot uphold the Discipline are serving as some of the prime persons examining and approving new pastors. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house!

The Judicial Council even gave the green light to annual conferences who want to support clergy who disobey the church’s policies! Both the New England and Baltimore-Washington Annual Conferences passed resolutions supporting pastors who perform same-sex weddings. Although such resolutions would have the effect of encouraging disobedience, the Judicial Council ruled that they are allowed. (Ruling on another similar resolution was delayed to the spring meeting.)

Finally, there is the ongoing struggle to hold East African Bishop Daniel Wandabula accountable for the potential misuse of funds. Although thousands of dollars were given for the building of a church that was never completed, and although the General Council of Finance and Administration found that the East Africa Annual Conference did not have proper procedures in place to handle money (and has suspended all mission giving to the conference), the Council ruled that there was no recourse to hold the bishop accountable. The East Africa Central Conference College of Bishops “resolved” the complaint against Wandabula, and the Council declared the matter closed.

Taken together, these decisions accelerate an alarming trend of the denomination not being able to enforce its own policies. This trend contributes mightily to the polarization and disconnectedness in the church. It privileges individual preference over the right of the church to determine its own standards and expectations. The trend will increasingly lead to “everyone doing what is right in their own eyes.”

Council of Bishops. During the recent Council of Bishops meeting in Oklahoma City, Bishop Warner Brown was presented a bound copy of the “Integrity and Unity Statement” adopted by over 120 leading pastors and theologians and endorsed by 8,500 clergy and laity from across the connection. The statement called upon the bishops to work for the unity of the church by defending and promoting the United Methodist position that marriage is between one man and one woman, holding pastors accountable who are breaking church law by presiding over same-sex marriages, and censure bishops who are encouraging such disobedience by failing to pursue accountability through the complaint process.

As we go to press, one month after their meeting, the Council of Bishops has yet to respond directly to the statement or even officially acknowledge its existence or the concerns expressed by so many of their leading constituents. Instead, they issued a brief statement acknowledging the division and different perspectives on human sexuality in the church, calling on United Methodists to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and asking church members to pray for the bishops and for the church.

The failure to respond substantively to the concerns raised by “Integrity and Unity” betrays the paralysis of the Council of Bishops. As a group, they are so fractured that they cannot act. Individually, a few bishops have spoken out publicly in support of the church’s position, but more bishops are publicly calling for a change in our moral teachings. Several are doing all they can to avoid holding their pastors accountable for breaking the Discipline, and their colleagues are powerless to hold them accountable.

In this context, the discussion about term limits for bishops was very revealing. At the 2012 General Conference, a constitutional amendment to set term limits for bishops received 51 percent of the vote (although falling short of the needed 2/3 majority). In response, the bishops have set up a task force to study the proposals for term limits and supply bishops with information allowing them to enter into the conversation. At the meeting, it was announced that nearly every bishop who had given feedback to the report opposed term limits for bishops.

At this point, Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa from Zimbabwe asked the Council why they are so out of touch with their people? His point was that they could resolve the pressure toward term limits by dealing with the underlying dissatisfaction with the bishops that is prompting it.

Unfortunately, the Council of Bishops meeting gave no outward sign that it is moving toward greater agreement or accountability. As a fractured body, it is incapable of providing decisive leadership to the church on the very issues that threaten to divide the church.

Connectional Table. The Connectional Table, which is the equivalent of a church council for the whole denomination, met at the same time as the bishops did, so that they could share in some sessions together. The overall theme of the meeting could be summarized as “unity, unity, unity.” I was reminded of Jeremiah 6:14, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Our leaders cry “unity, unity,” when there is no unity, and they hope that by not addressing the divisions in the body, the causes for division will go away.

Meanwhile, the Connectional Table has done its share to foster disunity in the church. At its spring meeting, after only the first of three proposed “dialogues” on homosexuality, the CT voted to send legislation to General Conference to reverse the church’s position and allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Near the end of this fall’s meeting, there were some hints that they may be rethinking that decision. At the same time, the CT sponsored a second dialogue among bishops on the issue of homosexuality that was live-streamed on the Internet (no live audience was allowed in the room). At its peak, approximately 400 viewers were tuned in to view (out of a worldwide church of 12 million).

One of the primary agenda items at this CT meeting was to engage with the effort to restructure the church along the lines of the failed 2008 Worldwide Church amendments. This time around, the Committee on Central Conference Affairs is leading the effort, under the direction of Bishop Patrick Streiff from Central and Southern Europe. This group is working to identify which parts of the Book of Discipline should apply globally, and which parts should be adaptable to fit the needs of each central conference. The General Board of Church and Society is leading an effort to write a set of global Social Principles. The goal is to have all of this approved at the 2020 General Conference. Lurking in the background is the idea that then the U.S. could be made its own central conference in 2020 or 2024, which would give the U.S. the ability to adapt the Discipline, as well. Depending upon how they are structured, these proposals could smooth the way for a progressive agenda in the U.S. part of the church by making African, Philippine, and Eastern European voices irrelevant to us.

The CT also heard a report on the “Vital Congregations” initiative. Bishop Sally Dyck pointed out that the denomination has been working on different programs to produce vital congregations since 1988. The lack of effectiveness of these programs over the past 16 years is incomprehensible. Maybe we do not need a program for vital congregations, but a recovery of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of the original Wesleyan movement?

At any rate, the percentage of “highly vital” congregations went from 15 percent in 2010 to 34 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2013. It is hard to have confidence in these wildly swinging numbers. If churches are found to be vacillating from less vital one year, to highly vital the next, to less vital the next, I wonder if we are measuring the right characteristics. Church vitality would seem to be something that would change more gradually from year to year.

The Vital Congregations program is also emphasizing new church planting. In 2013, 145 new churches were planted in the U.S., about 100 under our goal of 250 per year. The bright spot was again in the overseas churches, where over 300 new churches were planted in less than 18 months. These efforts are important, but they are falling short of what is needed to turn our church around.

All in all, the actions of our leadership bodies this fall did not bode well for the recovery of unity based on integrity and biblical faithfulness. Good News continues to monitor the actions and proposals of our leaders and fight for the reform and renewal of The United Methodist Church.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

 

Comments

  1. How persistent and sneaky Satan is, leading them to separate the US out from the rest of the UMC so they won’t continue to be the anchor that keeps us from going off the ledge. If the UMC does split, would the liberals break off since the traditionalist and oversees church seem to be in the greatest agreement with each other and Scripture? Indeed here is the answer, “Maybe we do not need a program for vital congregations, but a recovery of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of the original Wesleyan movement?”
    Thank You Mr. Lambrecht and Good News!

  2. William T says:

    The only explanation of what has gone wrong with the leadership of the UMC: Satan.

  3. William T says:

    As this year’s Annual Conferences elect delegates to General Conference 2016, what’s going on behind the scenes? What kind of power plays are underway? Are our Annual Confetences aware of the ramifications of this upcoming General Conference? Are Good News, the Confessing Movement, and others at work to try to win back the church from the progessives who have essentially taken it over at the general church level?

  4. Great and well written article and comments. I don’t believe Mr. Wesley ever envisioned the UMC as it is today. This is the only church that I know of that will allow such defiance without accountability. I pray that God will touch the hearts of the people of this once great denomination and set it back on the scriptural solid rock foundation.

  5. Pudentiana says:

    I am so glad to see this very honest and poignant article published here. Now that we are so clearly aware of the impotence of our Council of Bishops and its lack of respect for the health of the UMC, perhaps we can make efforts to pressure each member to act upon the Word of God rather than their political agendas.

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