In a recent vote (26-10 with one abstention), the Connectional Table of our UMC made rather plain that it is prepared to give up on our connectional and covenantal system entirely in order to satisfy the clamoring by a minority of United Methodists for gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay persons. Never mind that the Connectional Table does not in any way speak for our UMC, and whatever pronouncements they make have no juridical force whatsoever. Never mind that going in this very direction on marriage and ordination has led to further membership decline and lots of law suits in the UCC, the Episcopal Church, and various other denominations. Never mind that the real growing part of our church, namely the African part (now about 40% of our church), are almost to a man, woman and child adamantly opposed to moves in this sort of direction. While I was in no way surprised by this vote, what did cause a shock was the willingness to give up on the connectional system in order to achieve a dubious goal.
What do I mean by this? Here is the essence of the matter—- the proposal of the Connectional Table would “allow United Methodist pastors the freedom to preside at same-sex weddings, and it would give annual conferences the right to ordain openly gay candidates for ministry.” In other words, if we do this we are prepared to violate the very nature of connectionalism in two ways: 1) both in terms of turning over the decision making power to the individual clergy member when it comes to who can and can’t be married in the church. The clergy get to decide this on their own, and are not held to any Biblical, Disciplinary, or covenantal standards on the matter that would bind us all. And supposedly this is because of the right of individual conscience, the right to choose wrongly, trumps Biblical and Disciplinary authority, never mind the authority of the teaching of John Wesley on such matters; 2) by allowing conferences to decide the issue of whether or not to ordain openly gay persons, we no longer accept that there are church wide standards for such matters that the bishops of the church should enforce in all the conferences. In short, we are giving up being Methodists with an episcopal polity in these matters and are becoming Congregationalists or even Baptists in various respects. If this proposal sounds familiar it is, because Adam Hamilton made a very similar and equally flawed proposal earlier.
Imagine for a minute however that our church decided to allow individual pastors to decide authoritatively which holy book could be preached from in the pulpit. Imagine that one of them picked the Koran, and offered up a message based on Sura 43 from the Koran, or say from the Book of Mormon. Imagine that the bishops could do nothing about this because it was a matter of ‘the right of individual conscience’. I can come up with a dozen similar scenarios equally problematic. Imagine instead that an annual conference decided that it would not ordain women clergy, and their bishop could do nothing about it since the conference voted that way. All this sort of proposal does is kick the can down the road and place the onus on clergy and conferences to make decisions that in an episcopal polity should not be up to them to determine in any definitive way. Frankly, we don’t need less episcopal authority in our church, we need more!
I’m afraid that the historical Jesus himself would be quite ashamed of the Connectional Table for this short-sighted and unBiblical piece of guidance in preparation for the General Conference. What is equally problematic is that a pronouncement like this a year before General Conference can only prejudice the tone and character of the discussion going forward and especially in Portland a year from now. I would remind us all that currently only the General Conference speaks for all of us, and only its decisions are binding on the whole church. If we were in fact to enact this very recommendation, it would cease to be true that only the General Conference, and only once every four years, can speak for us in important matters such as marriage or ordination. Farewell not only connectionalism, but farewell as well to both the Biblical standards of marriage and for ordination (‘an elder must be the husband of one wife’– see the Pastorals), and farewell to what John Wesley himself said on these matters in his little treatise ‘Thoughts on Celibacy’.