James C. Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte is one of our church’s most effective and thoughtful pastors. Now James is the Western North Carolina Conference’s endorsed candidate for election as Bishop. James recently published a blog in which he noted one of the most frequent questions put to him was “will you, as bishop, enforce The Book of Discipline?
Of course, everybody in the UMC knows that the question is really will you enforce the few paragraphs in the Discipline that refer to sexual orientation?
I was reminded that this was a frequently asked question of me before I finally blew my stack and said, “That’s insulting. As a bishop I would promise to administer the rules of my church. It’s like asking, ‘As a bishop, will you promise not to commit adultery?’ Besides, of all the stuff in The Discipline about mission, evangelism, pastoral effectiveness, why are these the most important paragraphs to ‘enforce.’”
In his thoughtful response to this less than thoughtful question, James said:
Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one. Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation. Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in. The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
I wish we wouldn’t speak in code. Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced. But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all. Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive. Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
But Jesus established a different kind of community that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation. If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation. Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order? Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular. Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better? Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?….
Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld? If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance. Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry. But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace…. Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking: we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience. Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent. But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent. They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who’s been marginalized. We don’t suffer from an excess of courage in ministry – so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God’s hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?
Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t. I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover. It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world. As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus. But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
.…let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture. Who is the author of this book? Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of that vote, becomes the Discipline.
….after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers. We are the Body, with different members. We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way….
And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself? The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation… They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced. It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational. Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments. Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all…. Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world. The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.
Thanks James. The UMC is blessed that you have been willing to offer yourself for leadership in our church.