What are we vowing to uphold?
Note: I wrote this post a long time ago and have kept it in the queue. For whatever reason, perhaps the movement of the Spirit, I felt the urge to post it today.
The United Methodist Church has been in the news quite a bit over the last few years. The Frank Schaefer trial, the decision of over 30 United Methodist pastors and a bishop to officiate same-sex weddings has caused a buzz that has been fed by nearly every major U.S. news outlet. And, a portion of the church represented by Good News has released a statement calling the current state of The United Methodist Church ‘untenable.” There has been some pretty nasty commentary from clergy colleagues and “concerned” lay people who believe that the strife will ultimately lead to
a schism the divorce of faithful Christians (on both “sides” of the issue) from The United Methodist Church. There has been a lot of comments about clergy breaking their covenant to uphold the church’s book of polity. You can find a discussion of “competing covenants” on Rev. Jeremy Smith’s blog, Hacking Christianity. But, here’s the question that keeps running through my thoughts and prayers. It is the question that, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I can’t help but ask: what does it mean to follow a book of polity that changes every four years?
What does it mean to uphold, in its entirety, something that is in quadrennial flux?
What does it mean to uphold a book that has and will continue to change, sometimes drastically, over a clergy person’s career? Consider those clergy who will go through 8, 9, 10 different Books of Discipline? Ordained at 29 years old, I could, assuming I don’t burn out, be bound to 10 different books of discipline. How do we as clergy uphold ecclesial viewpoints that have changed since our ordination? What happens when we–doing our best to follow the Spirit’s leading in our lives and in the lives of the people we serve–no longer agree with a book we’ve vowed to uphold? Should we leave even if God has called us to “this place for a time such as this?” As a clergy person who has yet to live through a quadrennial covenant change (less than a year to go!), these questions run through my head.
The Episcopal address of the 1940 Book of Discipline suggests that the Book of Discipline should not be viewed as a Law Book but as a witness to the ways in which we as the Church have discerned the work of the Holy Spirit. It states:
We have, therefore, expected that the DISCIPLINE would be administered, not merely as a legal document, but as a revelation of the Holy Spirit working in and through our people. We reverently insist that a fundamental aim of Methodism is to make her organization an instrument for the development of spiritual life. We do not regard the machinery as sacred in itself; but we do regard as very sacred the souls for whom the Church lives and works. We do now express the faith and hope that the prayerful observance of the spiritual intent of the DISCIPLINE may be to the people called Methodists a veritable means of grace.
This is, I think, a refreshing way of thinking about the Discipline. Rather than a document that creates the limits and boundaries of our denomination, the Book of Discipline should be viewed as a witness to how far we’ve come (or not) in understanding the advent of God’s Reign among us and how far (or not) we have to go before God’s vision of a reconciled and restored Creation is achieved. The Discipline is a witness to the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us.
Perhaps, instead of disrespectfully disagreeing and threatening
schism divorce, we can find a way to better understand our evolving covenant (The Discipline) as a means of grace that helps us understand and experience the great love of God found in Jesus Christ. It’s my on-going prayer that we might rethink The Discipline so that it becomes less of a rule book and more of a witness to the difference Christ has made in the life of his followers who are living their lives in connection as The United Methodist Church.