The peculiar genius of John Wesley lay in two, related, ideas. First and foremost, he taught that we are not Christians in isolation; only in a community of shared accountability can the Christian life be lived with both faith and integrity. Pursuant to that stated desire was the insistence on occasional meetings that Wesley referred to as Holy Conferencing. While the specifics may have changed and even become institutionalized, the principle is still alive. From the local church conference each year through the quadrennial General Conference, currently under way in Tampa, FL, we people called Methodists gather to work together to discern the Spirit's call in our collective lives. It's clunky, filled with politics either bad or horrible, and occasionally devoted to trivia, but it's a system worth preserving.
Or so I thought.
Heading in to this year's General Conference, the emphasis was obviously going to be on the Call To Action report from the Connectional Table. While there is little disagreement over the need for flexibility and change in the denomination to meet changing circumstances, the hope, as always, was CtA would be a starting point for larger discussions regarding change within the denomination. In the meantime, other matters of no less import arose that, under different circumstances, should have prompted at least as much discussion.
Last year, the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court, upheld the right of local clergy under appointment to withhold membership in a local congregation to any individual. I've read the decision several times and I'm still scratching my head at how they arrived at it, given our history, our Discipline, and our laws.
There are eight states where same-sex marriage/civil unions are legal. In none of these eight states can a United Methodist pastor under appointment officiate without the threat of losing his or her orders. Even if the couple in question are members of the pastor's congregation. Apparently, some within the denomination, who favor local clergy discretion when it comes to keeping gays out, don't trust it enough to allow pastors to perform perfectly legal ceremonies at their discretion.
Instead of dealing with these matters, CtA and an alternative called Plan "B" died in a bitter, divisive committee fight on Saturday night. One part of the "reform", however, passed today. No longer will clergy in full connection be guaranteed an appointment. In essence, the United Methodist Church has as much as admitted that accountability - which begins from the moment an individual approaches a member of the clergy to discuss a possible call to ordained ministry - has failed. Furthermore, without any word whether this same kind of reckoning will be applied to members of the hierarchy - the District Superintendents and Bishops - I'm curious how that might work. If it is indeed the will of the General Conference that local pastors be held personally responsible for various performance metrics, why not extend that? Who, then, would be the first District Superintendent to go to his or her Bishop with a list of underperforming clergy? Wouldn't such be a blatant admission of managerial, administrative failure? As a practical matter, the whole issue is fraught; absent the whole idea of accountability, it is little more than window dressing, although as a declaration that we as a Church body no longer adhere to one of our core principles, it is still pretty disheartening.
Later on this morning's session, some changes were made to the wording of the preamble to the Book of Resolutions, declaring God's grace is available for all. Since the church, as a practical matter, ignores this, I have to wonder why such a vote is a success. As a friend on Facebook noted, that it only passed with 57% of the vote, that's a stunning statement that nearly half those sent to our denomination's highest legislating body do not accept the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace.
I'm struggling at the moment as to what all this portends. Part of me hopes the worst is over, although one should never underestimate the stupid at things like this. My prayers for the United Methodist Church at the moment are simple enough: That we survive our best efforts to act like the crew of the Titanic first building an iceberg, then steering straight for it.